Adoptee reflects on Minnesota's new adoption policy, opening decades of family secrets

A woman smiles and holds open a book to a page that says, "It's law!"
Penelope Needham advocated for the passage of a law that will allow adoptees to access sealed birth records beginning in 2024. A team of volunteers who joined her in this effort gave her a book illustrating its history.
Courtesy of Penelope Needham

Lost in the hubbub over legalizing marijuana and a massive budget surplus at the Minnesota Capitol this year were nine lines of state statute remaking adoption policy. They were tucked into the state's massive 909-page health policy bill.

Those few sentences are now poised to unlock decades of potential family secrets held by the state — secrets that even many who held them have been battling for decades to reveal.

MPR News reporter Tim Nelson has been talking to some of the people affected by this change.

The law has been a long time coming for advocates like Penny Needham. She is an adoptee who has pushed to unlock birth records since the 1990s. Needham talked with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Now for a story you may have missed. Lost in all the hubbub over legalizing marijuana and a big budget surplus at the capitol this year were nine lines of state statute remaking adoption policy. They were tucked into the state's massive 909-page health policy bill. Those few sentences are now poised to unlock decades of potential family secrets held by the state, secrets that even many who have held them have been battling for decades to reveal. Tim Nelson has been talking to some of the folks affected by this change, and he has this story.

TIM NELSON: Mary Jo Lindeberg is 81, but she has never, ever stopped wondering, who is she, really? She was born in St. Paul just weeks after Pearl Harbor. She was adopted by an oral surgeon and his office nurse. They changed her name from Carol Louise to Mary Jo and raised her as their own.

MARY JO LINDEBERG: As a kid, I remember having the fantasy of, oh, I bet my real mom was probably a beauty star, and my father was probably a leader of industry. Well, we all know that's probably not the case.

TIM NELSON: It's a story common to many families, a secret birth, a new identity, and a new love for a child, but also often decades of speculation and separation. For children born in Minnesota, adoptees get a new birth certificate, and the details of their actual birth are sealed, their disclosure subject to a parental veto or secrecy clauses in decades-old adoption agreements. It's happened thousands of times a year in the past.

But the state's new health law will now let adoptees see where they actually came from, starting next July. The law will allow adults to access their original Minnesota birth certificates held by the State Department of Health with the names of their mothers and possibly fathers. The long-standing vetoes that blocked those records will be invalidated. Lindeberg is already looking forward to July, although she holds little hope for ever meeting her mother, who she thinks may have been born during World War I and has likely died.

MARY JO LINDEBERG: At 81 years of age, it would be nice to at least have a name.

TIM NELSON: And maybe someday even find someone who knew her and connect some of the tantalizing dots that DNA testing has already sketched into her ancestry online. Gregory Luce, a Minneapolis attorney who helped push through the change at the capitol, says Minnesota policy on birth records left out an essential element.

GREGORY LUCE: I think people are finally recognizing it's a human right to know who you are and where you came from. And making adoption secret in this way, making birth secret in this way, is an anachronism.

TIM NELSON: He says Minnesota will be the 15th state to open birth records, but not everyone welcomes the change. The push to open birth records in Minnesota goes back decades. And like so many bills last session, like marijuana legalization or driver's licenses for undocumented Minnesotans, its passage is the direct result of the DFL trifecta, driven by a generation of new legislators. Opponents, including Republican State Senator Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, say they fear the state is changing some deeply personal rules in the middle of the game.

WARREN LIMMER: There were promises made by government officials their identities would never be revealed unless they got word from the mother to do that.

TIM NELSON: And there's another factor, as well. Limmer said abortion opponents have long fought disclosing some birth records.

WARREN LIMMER: For the very reason that if a woman's identity can't be protected, some women would resort to an abortion.

TIM NELSON: It might actually reduce adoptions, opponents argued.

ERIN MERRIGAN: That statistically isn't correct.

TIM NELSON: Erin Merrigan of Minneapolis helps run a support group with the organization Concerned United Birthparents. She says times have changed, and the emotional toll of having a baby and never seeing the child ever again may actually be prompting more prospective birth mothers to terminate their pregnancies. Minnesota is now implementing an official contact preference form filled out by birth parents indicating unequivocally if they do or do not want a relationship with the adult who they once surrendered. The form has a large blank box at the bottom for a warning, well wishes, or even an address or phone number. It will be on file at the State Department of Health and available to adoptees, or if they've died, to their immediate survivors.

Merrigan thinks it could be a godsend for birth parents who want a second chance. She also doesn't believe there will be a sudden rush of strangers stalking down fearful parents decades later. She says adoptees usually aren't interested in adding rejection to long-standing uncertainties.

Pat Glisky, who lives near Alexandria, says she thinks the vast majority of birth parents, deep down, want to be found. That wasn't initially the case for her when she was pregnant in the mid 1960s. It was a scandal. She was 21, single, living and working in Minneapolis.

PAT GLISKY: It was unacceptable to be a single parent and to certainly not to be having a baby when you weren't married.

TIM NELSON: Abortion was illegal at the time. She moved to Texas and had her son in secret, surrendered him to a private adoption agency, returned to Minnesota, and kept that baby boy secret for 44 years, until a letter arrived in the mail.

PAT GLISKY: Actually, my best friend got a letter. And he was looking for me.

TIM NELSON: Glisky called him, and within weeks, they met at the Minneapolis airport. He now spends a week of every summer with his first mom.

PAT GLISKY: It's kind of surreal because this is a person you've thought about your whole life. And I really didn't think I'd ever meet him. And I didn't think I had the right to search because that was kind of the-- I thought, well, what I'd done, I didn't deserve that.

TIM NELSON: Luckily, for her that baby boy eventually thought she did. Tim Nelson, NPR News, Minneapolis.

CATHY WURZER: This law has been a long time in coming for advocates like Penny Needham. She's a person who was adopted. She's pushed to unlock birth records since the 1990s, and she's on the line. Hi, Penny. Welcome to the program.

PENNY NEEDHAM: Hi, Cathy. Nice to be here.

CATHY WURZER: You found your birth parents, I understand, back in the late 1980s. What did you do to track them down?

PENNY NEEDHAM: Well, I went back to the adoption agency. And the law had allowed connections if there was a mutual agreement between birth parents and adopted people who wanted to find each other. And I paid money. It was a lot. It was hundreds of dollars. And I waited for the service to begin.

And it took one phone call. My birth parents had married each other were still living in the same town. And so I got to meet them both at that point. And they said, well, you don't want your original birth certificate, do you? And I said, yes, I do. And so my birth parent, at that point, my mother filled out an affidavit of disclosure, and I got my birth certificate then.

CATHY WURZER: I know that not long after that happened, you were at the legislature pushing for adoption records to be unsealed. What was the spark for that?

PENNY NEEDHAM: Well, as a teacher-- I was born, adopted, and raised in Minnesota and was a K-12 teacher in Minnesota. And when I saw the need for people to join and find each other as adoptees and share stories and be supportive, the common thread was, well, we can't do reunions or we can't do things or we can't find out who we are without this one piece of paper. And it's being kept from us.

So I joined an adoption symposium. And there were people from the world of law and the world of adoption agencies and educators and therapists. And we decided, well, I think that the law needs to be changed. As a sitting Hennepin County judge told us, she could enforce the law, but we would have to change it.

So we went through and joined together and began lobbying. And I thought this was going to be easy as a former student council rep and a faculty advisor for student government. Just go tell your story. Well, it was much harder than that. And we had wonderful authors. And the bill would get through one committee, and then they didn't have time to hear it in another committee. It was not a huge issue. So we just kept coming back and coming back and coming back. And it took a long time.

CATHY WURZER: As you heard State Senator Warren Limmer mention in Tim Nelson's piece, he was wondering about the promises made to those who gave up children to adoption and worried about changing rules in midstream. What do you think about that?

PENNY NEEDHAM: Well, he was always the blockade in the Senate in the Judiciary Committee for using this as this story, which was about a "what about." He had a witness with no name. And it was unverified. And he couldn't prove where it came from. But it was a story he told over and over again. What about, what about, what about.

And it just began to be almost a myth that he was speaking for birth parents. And yet when I met with birth parents, they didn't have that feeling at all. They really wanted to know what happened to their child. And my birth mother was told that she could never find out what happened to her child, and she could not disrupt the adoption in any way. So the birth parents' voice was cut out.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting. Do you have advice for people who were adopted who will take this new law and embark on a search?

PENNY NEEDHAM: I would try to connect with other adoptees, join a support group, process your own questions, what you want to know. And there will be people who want to get this piece of paper. It's a very important piece of paper and the first official record of who we are and where we came from. And it's very helpful to be with other people and know what that means in your life, what questions would you like to ask. And--

CATHY WURZER: There's a lot, obviously, to think about. I can hear you're thinking through this. You did a lot of work on this. And I know it is not easy to shepherd something through the state legislature. So I'm sure that was quite a process for you. And in the end, obviously, you were successful. It was quite a story. Penny, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

PENNY NEEDHAM: You're welcome. Thanks, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Penny Needham leads support groups for other adoptees. And she, as I mentioned, worked for decades to unseal adoptee birth records in the state of Minnesota. More information, by the way, at

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