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One public records battle I wish I could stick around to fight

Post by Kim Bradford on Aug. 18, 2011 at 9:40 am with 6 Comments »
August 18, 2011 9:49 am

Today, 12 years after I began editorial writing, I am leaving it to rejoin the newsroom. I have accepted a position as editor of the newsroom’s politics and government team.

I will miss many aspects of opinion writing, but none more than the people – the readers and sources who challenged me to sharpen my thinking and the colleagues who did the same.

Patrick O’Callahan and Cheryl Tucker are two of the most supportive and talented co-workers I have had. They will continue the important work of fostering debate on the issues that most affect this community.

But before I give up the soapbox, I am climbing up on it one more time to lobby for a cause that has personal meaning.

During my time on the Tri-City Herald’s and The News Tribune’s editorial boards, I wrote hundreds of editorials championing open government and public disclosure of records.

Citizens have the right, I argued time and again, to know how their public officials are governing on their behalf.

If that’s true, and I believe it is, then how much greater a right should a citizen have to access the most fundamental of government documents, the one that recorded his or her birth?

There is no such right for thousands of adopted Washingtonians.

Their birth certificates are a work of fiction, doctored to record only the names of their adopted parents. The originals are exempted from disclosure by one of the 300-plus exceptions to the state’s public records law.

That is about to change for a lucky few. This fall, a 1993 law takes effect for the adoptees who are least likely to know their birth parents. Come October, children adopted at birth will have access to their Washington birth certificates for the first time.

The law states that for “adoptions finalized after Oct. 1, 1993, the department of health shall make available a noncertified copy of the original birth certificate to the adoptee after the adoptee’s eighteenth birthday.”

Children who were adopted as newborns in October 1993 begin turning 18 this fall.

The state Department of Health doesn’t have any real handle on their numbers. But given the current rate at which the state processes adoption amendments to birth certificates, it’s possible that more than 50,000 adoptees will have access to their original birth certificates in the coming years.

That’s provided that their birth parents haven’t filed paperwork blocking the release. As of May, none had. That’s consistent with what adoption researchers have found in other states that allow biological parents to indicate contact preferences; fewer than 1 percent ask for no contact.

Many adoptees adopted before 1993 would like the same right. As the law stands, they are limited to petitioning a court to order the records’ release or to paying a confidential intermediary to inspect the records for them and contact birth parents.

For the last two years, they have lobbied the Legislature to get rid of the 1993 date and allow all adoptees, upon reaching the age of majority, to request their original birth records.

Lakewood’s own Sen. Mike Carrell was the last lawmaker to make a run at getting legislation passed. His bill was opposed by some access advocates because it retained the provision giving birth parents’ veto power over the release.

Their arguments for equality are compelling, but social reform is nearly always incremental – just ask gay couples whose “everything but marriage” legal status in Washington is itself the result of several rounds of legislation.

Advocates and lawmakers might be well advised – as the American Adoption Congress recommends in some cases – to accept compromise legislation like Carrell’s with an eye toward winning unfettered access in the future.

What Washington will find is the same that Oregon and three other states have discovered upon unsealing adoptees’ birth certificates: Adoptees who request their birth certificates aren’t stalkers bent on disrupting their birth parents’ lives. They are simply people who want to know a little bit more about themselves. In some cases, they never attempt to even contact their biological parents.

Oregon has released 10,000 original birth certificates since voters passed the law there in 1998. Not a single problem has been reported.

I have one of those 10,000 certificates. It sat in my file cabinet for 11 years until earlier this year, when I wrote to the woman whose name is on it to let her know that I am happy, healthy and grateful.

She wrote back to say that I had affirmed what she always knew – that she had made the right decision 39 years ago – and she thanked me for finding her. We continue to email each other occasionally.

I want the same opportunity for adoptees who were unlucky enough to be born in this state. If any public records battle is worth fighting, it’s that one.

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My take
Leave a comment Comments → 6
  1. Copper2Steel says:

    Quite possibly your best soapbox delivery.

    Thank you for your editorials, Kim.

  2. Great opinion piece. Thank you.

    My niece and nephew were adopted by my sister and her husband in different cities from two different adoption agencies. When they were 19 y.o. in a state with the right of adoptees to find their birth parents at that age through birth records disclosure, they found out they were full brother and sister by birth.

    When my nephew’s second kidney transplant was rejected, that knowledge was most important, since his adopted/birth sister was tested and was able to provide a perfect match.

    It is an unlikely, but true story. For health reasons alone, I think disclosure is of utmost importance.

  3. Thank you Kim for reminding people of this milestone.

    On the subject of incremental reform – the comparison with marriage equality is only partially correct. Having a civil union or a domestic partnership does not preclude a couple from getting married when and where that becomes possible.

    There is a big difference between a de facto “disclosure veto” based upon current law and allowing someone to file an actual specific disclosure veto. When the compromise law gives way to unrestricted access, will those vetoes be declared null and void? I think not.

  4. Have always enjoyed what you have written and how you have worked to open doors for those unable to do so themselves. Look forward to reading the fruits of your new work effort in forthcoming editions.

  5. aislander says:

    I enjoy reading your opinion pieces, but I would like to thank you for your performance as “Board Nanny;” specifically for the latitude that I have enjoyed during your tenure in that thankless position. Well, I guess it isn’t thankless anymore, since thanking you is what I am now doing.

    In any case, I have tested the limits, hoping that I was being entertaining enough to merit some indulgence on your part. I flatter myself that was the case.

    Best wishes to you on your new course…

  6. Thanks for making me cry at Starbucks this morning – I had been holding it in since last night when my only child, my 11 y.o boy, born of the miracle of in vitro technology and an anonymous donor’s kindness revealed that he DID wonder about his “biological” mother and he would like to meet her some day. Maybe he has half-siblings out there somewhere.

    If he feels that way after I carried him for 9 months inside me, how much more intense must be the need of adopted children to know their birth parents.

    So on the flip side – as a ‘gestational’ mom – I do have fears that once a biological mother sees the beautiful child she missed all those years that it would only be natural for her to want to be a part of his life and I am so afraid of this. Maybe when he’s more mature – like at 90?: :)
    I wonder how other mothers of adopted/in vitro children feel and whether it is natural for us fear our 18 year olds leaving leaving us in some way for the ‘real’ mother?

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