Legislation would open up adoption records

Family photos
Mary Mason was adopted as a young girl. She is pictured here as a child sitting on a horse, along with a photo of her father as a child. She was reunited with her father as an adult.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

Gretchen Traylor was adopted when she was a baby. She had a lung disease when she was a child, and when she was an adult she needed a lung transplant.

No information was available to her about her birth parents. It took years for her to find out whether her birth parents had similar lung problems. She also learned what medications she had to avoid because of a history of life threatening allergies.

Gretchen Traylor was adopted as a child and developed a lung disease. She needed to find her birth parents so she could find out medical information.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

Now Traylor wants other adopted people to be able to find out who their birth parents are, just like she did.

"Each person who is adopted has different reasons. For me, it was the need for medical information," said Traylor. "I discovered that I also had emotional needs, too, that I was not even aware of. And it has been a wonderful reunion for me, although that is not the goal of this bill. The goal of this bill is access to information."

Adoption used to be secretive, but that's changing.

In 1982, The Minnesota Department of Health began asking birth mothers to sign an affidavit making their wishes known. On the affidavit, the woman would indicate whether or not she wants her child to contact her once the child is an adult.

Ninety percent of women who've signed this document have opted for "yes," according to the department.

Adoption group
A group of adoptees met at the state Capitol recently to advocate for access to original birth certificates.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

The new bill would still honor this affidavit. But if the bill becomes law, it would create an exception -- the women who gave up their children before there was an affidavit won't have a choice about maintaining their privacy.

That worries Madonna King, president of Children's Home Society and Family Services, an adoption agency. She points out that 30 or 40 years ago, most adoption agencies told birth mothers that the birth and adoption were secret. Many birth mothers want to keep it that way, King says.

"The reason that people want it to be kept secret is they believed the promise of confidentiality, and they went forward. Probably we are talking about women that are in their 60s, 70s, 80s -- that's the group of women that we're really concerned about," she says.

Under the bill, older birth mothers who don't want contact from their adult children can sign an affidavit saying so. The affidavit could be filled out online or by mail.

Madonna King
Madonna King is the president and CEO of Children's Home Society and Family Services, an adoption agency.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

The problem is, if the bill passes, those older birth mothers may not know the law has changed and that they need to take action to protect their identities. Adoption agencies want the bill to include a provision for an ad campaign so that older birth moms will be informed.

But there are also many birth mothers who would like to be contacted.

An advocacy group called the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform wants this bill to pass, because they know a lot of birth mothers and adopted people who need to find each other, according to Mary Mason, one of the group's leaders.

"This is one of the greatest sources of pain in life, if you can imagine giving up a child and not knowing the outcome of that," said Mason. "In essence, what the secrecy has done is prevented this population from healing."

Mary Mason
Mary Mason is a leader of Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

One woman who gave up her baby for adoption developed a rare form of breast cancer when she got older. Sandy Sperazza decided she wanted to contact her daughter because her daughter might have inherited this form of cancer.

Sperazza and her daughter were reunited a few years ago. Her daughter had a preventive masectomy. Because of her experience, Sperazza wants to see Minnesota's adoption access laws opened up.

Back in her day, women were shamed when they became pregnant. No information about the adopted family was given to the birth mother. That was wrong, Sperazza says.

"We need to do what we can to correct that. And part of that correction is to offer healing and closure to birth parents," said Sperazza. "A birth parent would love to know that their child is alive and well. We've never known anything because the laws have stopped us. Give us the opportunity to heal, to have some closure to what has always been a very sad part of our life that we've hidden away."

The bill to open access to original birth certificates goes into hearings next week at the Capitol.