People who were adopted, birth parents react to change in Minnesota birth records policy

'It would be nice to at least have a name' says 81-year-old woman waiting to find out who her birth mother was

Six people stand and pose for a photo
Erin and Mike Merrigan, center, were college students at Saint Benedict and Saint John's when she got pregnant in 1981. They gave the boy to a social service agency for adoption, but eventually found his adoptive family and reunited with him. That son, Joe Haubenhofer and his wife, Mary, are seen here with his brother Conor, with his wife Alyssa, at left. The reunion has brought all five of Merrigan's children back together. Erin Merrigan has been an advocate for opening up Minnesota birth records to make it easier for adoptive children to find their birth parents.
Courtesy photo

Mary Jo Lindeberg is 81, but she has never, never 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.

And for most of a century, she’s carried unanswered questions.

“As a kid, I remembered having the fantasy of — oh, I bet my real mom was probably a beauty star and my father was probably a leader of industry,” she said. “Well, we all know that’s probably not the case.”

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She just doesn’t know.

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 to secrecy clauses in decades-old adoption agreements. It’s happened thousands of times a year in the past.

But a few lines tucked into the state’s massive 909-page health policy bill that passed last session, largely overlooked amid other significant legislation, are now poised to unlock decades of potential family secrets held by the state.

The new 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 their fathers. The longstanding vetoes that blocked those records will be invalidated. The vault door is about to swing open.

Lindeberg is counting the days until next July, although she holds little hope for actually ever meeting her mother, who she thinks may have been born during World War I and has likely died.

“At 81 years of age, it would be nice to at least have a name,” she said.

And maybe someday, even find someone who knew her birth mother 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, is himself adopted. Like many others, he started to wonder about his birth parents when he had children of his own. He tracked down details of his birth in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, and eventually found his mother, living in Florida, but gravely ill with cancer. She died only a few months later.

Luce said he understands the intent of the longstanding Minnesota policy on birth records, but said it left out an essential element.

“I think people are finally recognizing the 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 just an anachronism. It’s a human rights issue. It’s found its day, it’s found its advocates, and it is currently now a real movement.”

He says Minnesota will be the 15th state to open birth records and rising interest in genealogy is feeding the trend.

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 drivers 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 Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, say they fear the state is changing some deeply personal rules in the middle of the game.

“There were promises made by government officials that (birth parents’) identities would never be revealed unless they got word from the mother to do that,” he said. “We have to think about that promise that was made by government.”

And there’s another factor. Limmer said abortion opponents have long fought disclosing some birth records.

“For the very reason that if a woman’s identity can’t be protected, some women would resort to an abortion,” he said. “And quite honestly, that's a very serious prospect.”

It might actually reduce adoptions, opponents argued.

Others disagree.

Erin Merrigan of Minneapolis helps run a support group with the organization Concerned United Birthparents. She says times have changed — and that the emotional toll of having a baby and potentially never seeing the child again may actually be prompting more prospective birth parents to terminate their pregnancies.

She and her husband, Mike, had a son back in 1981, as they were finishing college at Saint Benedict and Saint John’s. They surrendered the baby and went on to marry and have four more children. They never forgot their first, but couldn't get past the privacy provisions they’d signed as young and unexpected parents.

They eventually enlisted what are known in the adoptive community as “search angels,” amateur sleuths who track down adopted children — through public records, word of mouth and sometimes even unauthorized releases from sympathetic staff at health or adoption agencies.

The Merrigans found their firstborn child 22 years ago and reunited all five of their offspring — even discovering that one of their so-called “raised children” had shared a middle school teacher with their oldest.

Merrigan said Minnesota is now implementing a much better option than hoping and hunting: 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, even an address or a phone number. It will be submitted to the state Department of Health, appended to original birth records, and available to adoptees or — if they’ve died — to their immediate survivors.

A person holds a health department form
Starting July 1, 2024, original birth records will be open to adoptees 18 or older who were born in Minnesota. The state Department of Health is now offering a form that will be appended to original birth records, where birth parents can indicate if they want to be contacted.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

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 adopted children usually aren’t interested in adding rejection to longstanding uncertainties. Advocates also say many adoptees have enough of a hunch about their birth parents that they could have readily tracked them down without an official record, because they were adopted by family, or adoption agreements have provided for eventual disclosure.

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.

“It wasn’t acceptable to be a single parent,” she recalled. “And certainly not to be having a baby when you weren't married.”

Abortion was illegal at the time. She moved to Texas, 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.

“Actually, my best friend got a letter. And he was looking for me, and could she help him,” she said.

The friend had a distinctive name, and by happenstance, the landlady at the apartment where Glisky stayed in Texas remembered that name.

The landlady also turned out to be the adoptive grandparent of Glisky’s baby. She passed along enough details from years back to start him down the trail. He doggedly followed the track, and within weeks flew from Texas to Minneapolis to meet Glisky. He now spends a week every summer with his first mom.

“It’s kind of surreal, because this is a person that you’ve thought about your whole life,” she said. “And I really didn’t think I’d ever meet him. And I didn’t think I had the right to search for him because that was kind of the....”

She paused, briefly.

“I thought what I’d done, I didn’t deserve that.”

Luckily for her, that baby boy eventually thought she did.