Author Makes Case that Adoptee Birth Records Shouldnt be Kept Secret
Susan Gilmore, Seattle Times
September 4, 2000
For decades, history has treated adoption as one of Americas
dirty little secrets, encased in shame. Unwed mothers producing
unwanted children. Infertile couples spending thousands to buy a
baby they couldnt create themselves. Adopted children feeling
they are somehow second choice.
Certainly these myths have been shattered. But while adoptions
dont have the stigma they once did, secrecy endures. Most
states still protect original birth records, and no one knows how
many children have been placed for adoption.
In a new book, Adam Pertman, a reporter for The Boston Globe and
an adoptive father of two, explores the history and breadth of adoption,
using real-life stories to reinforce his belief that adoption should
not be a dirty secret, that records must be open.
When we adopted I discovered a whole planet out there I knew
nothing about, said Pertman, who covers children and family
issues for the Globe. As a journalist I wondered how can people
have so many mistaken notions. It was an unexplored world . . .
Three years ago he convinced his newspaper it was a story worth
telling. That became an award-winning series that evolved into Adoption
Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America.
The book is scheduled for release in early October by Basic Books
Pertman, 47, will be in Seattle this week as the keynote speaker
at a conference sponsored by Bastard Nation, a radical, upstart
adoption-rights group that was formed in 1996 on the Internet and
fights for opening adoption records.
It was Bastard Nation that led the campaign in Oregon, where voters
in 1998 passed a law that opens original birth certificates to adoptees.
Despite court challenges, the law went into effect last May, making
Oregon the fourth state to open adoption records and the first to
do it through the voters.
The law was unsuccessfully challenged by six anonymous birth mothers
who said they were promised, when they relinquished their children,
that their names would never be revealed. They were promised
they could put it behind them and move on, said their attorney,
Frank Hunsaker of Portland. They shouldn't have to worry about
that knock on the door.
That may be true for mothers who gave up children years ago, said
Delores Teller, president of the Oregon Adoptive Rights organization
who, at age 16, relinquished a child to adoption. Today, she said,
95 percent of adoptions in Oregon are open, where there is contact
between the child and the birth parent.
Julie Dennis, legislative chairwoman of Bastard Nation, is heading
an organization called Washington State Open 2001, which hopes to
put an initiative similar to Oregons on the Washington ballot
next year. The Bastard Nation conference, scheduled to run Sept.
8-10 at the Aljoya Conference Center in Seattle, is being billed
as a training retreat, teaching members in other states
how to mobilize legislatures to push for open adoption records.
Pertman is not a member of Bastard Nation, but supports its mission
to open adoption records. No other adults in America are treated
in this way, he writes of the closed records, and singling
out adoptees marks them as lesser citizens entitled to fewer rights.
Laws preventing adoptees from seeing their own records have
to be repealed, laws regulating the role of money have to be written
and laws forcing people to do emotional calisthenics to accomplish
an adoption, or live with one, have to be rewritten. Pertman
is a strong supporter of open adoptions and said it saddens him
that he doesnt have more contact with the birth parents of
his son, Zack, 6, and daughter, Emmy, 3. He sends the birth parents
cards and letters but hears nothing back.
In his book, Pertman explores the complications of foreign adoptions,
the roadblocks faced by gay adoptions and the unscrupulous behavior
of some adoption agencies.
Using real-life stories, he also talks about the problems placing
special-needs children who languish in foster care, the high cost
of adoptions, the anguish faced by birth mothers who give up their
children and by infertile couples who realize they cant produce
a child, and the devastation faced by adoptive couples who arrive
at the hospital only to learn the mother has changed her mind.
Like the overwhelming majority of adults who decide to adopt
in America today, we did so because we were infertile, wrote
Pertman. I dont look forward to explaining this to our
kids, but theres no sugar-coating the bottom line: Adoption
was our second choice.
Pertman said it now costs from $20,000 to $35,000 for adoptions
outside the public system, regardless of whether a nonprofit agency
or an attorney is used. Pertman points out that there is no national
branch of government that keeps track of adoptions, so no one really
knows how many adoptees there are, although estimates are 5 million
to 6 million in America. Another fact in his book: Fewer than 3
percent of American women give up their babies for adoption today.
As far as adoptees finding their birth parents, Pertman asserts
keeping birth records secret is often no obstacle for those determined
to find their roots. With the Internet and groups that help with
cyberspace searches, it's not that hard for an adoptee to find his
or her parents. But thats little comfort to those who oppose
opening birth certificates.
Pertman understands the concern of those who want to keep birth
records closed, but thinks its misplaced. Were
in the throes of a revolution. The secret is out, he said
of the success supporters have had in some states in getting adoption
For Pertman, adoption is a passion. He would give his book away,
he says, if it would help remove the stigmas and normalize
the adoption process entirely so that my children are never hurt
by peoples misunderstandings, skewed opinions and negative