As an adoptee, state Rep. Tina Orwall once hoped to win more disclosure. As one who gave up a child for adoption, Sen. Ann Rivers didn’t want to allow more. In the end, a compromise bill signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee this week strikes a middle ground both lawmakers are hailing as a step forward for those involved in adoptions.
The legislation – House Bill 1525 – lets those adopted before October 1993 obtain a copy of their original birth record, if the birth parent has not filed papers to prevent it. Under the state’s old law only those adopted after 1993 can get access to original birth records without court orders.
The new law was the result of a two-year, bipartisan effort by Orwall, a Des Moines Democrat who was adopted in Florida and won’t be helped by her law, , and Rivers, a LaCenter Republican.
Orwall calls the legislation a significant step forward for adoptees in Washington. That is because the law requires birth parents objecting to release of birth records to fill out a medical history form that will become available to adoptees. The information could be helpful to those who still don’t know their family background – or inherited risks, say, for heart disease or cancers.
Even where the mother chooses to withhold her identify, Orwall said: “The adoptee would get that (medical) information. We thought that was essential. That is a big step forward for our state.”
The new law takes effect July 28 but original birth certificates won’t be released until after June 30 next year for adoptions finalized on or before Oct. 1, 1993.
“We worked together and came up with something we felt was a really good balance between the privacy of birth moms – and … birth parents – and then allowing the adoptee to have important information,” Rivers said. “I’m happy with it.”
But advocates of full disclosure are not so happy. “Our group had really been hoping for a bill that had no restrictions so every single adoptee could get a copy of their birth certificate,’’ said Penni Johnson of Washington Coalition for Adoptee Rights and Equality, or WA-CARE.
“It’s about the right to know who you are,’’ said Johnson, an Everett mother of three who was herself adopted.
Johnson said that her organization will continue pushing to end the veto still granted in law to the birth parents. “It’s so wrong,’’ Johnson said.
Although the law makes a parent’s objection moot at the time of the parent’s death, Johnson said that adoptees won’t automatically know. They’ll have to ask the department each year whether their birth parents have died.
In 2012, Orwall and Rivers discovered during a legislative hearing that they were on opposite sides of the adoption issue. They then teamed up on a compromise bill, but their efforts hit a block in the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee, where then-chairman Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, refused to give the House bill a hearing. Sen. Hargrove had concerns that parents giving up children for adoption before 1993 believed records
would be sealed permanently.
A year later, Hargrove moved up to serve as budget lead for Senate Democrats, and Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood took over as human services chairman. Carrell had a much different view and sponsored his own bill to open adoption records.
But after Carrell became ill, Rivers said she grabbed the ball in the Senate and ran with it.
Orwall’s bill passed by votes of 94-1 in the House and 39-8 in the Senate this year. Hargrove was among the no votes.
Under the new law, the state Department of Health will create a new contact preference form that gives birth parents several options – to say they want to be contacted or to be contacted only through an intermediary or not at all. The preference forms would not expire until the death of the parent but they could be revised.
The agency would be able to charge up to $20 for a noncertified copy of birth certificates it provides to adoptees and also a fee to cover costs to verify whether a birth parent has died.
Rivers indicated the lawmakers plan to do outreach through adoption agencies, news media and other means to make people aware of the new law.
“We both are committed to going around the state and educating people to make sure those moms who want to maintain their privacy can understand how best to do that,” Rivers said.
Laws vary by states but court orders are still required to release adoption records in 25 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nina Williams-Mbengue, program director for NCSL’s Children and Families Program, said in an email that at one time nearly all states sealed adoption records but laws are changing.
She cited the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare information Gateway’s “Access to Adoption Records” report for details on how states handled the issue through June 2012 (see footnotes on pages 5-6 for a breakdown).
Laurie Lippold had helped lobby for the bill and is a former lobbyist for Children’s Home Society of Washington, which at one time did adoption placements.
“My sense is that our law falls into the partial access category but each state does things somewhat differently,” Lippold said.
Lippold pointed to a 2012 policy paper by the Children’s Home Society that notes adoption records became sealed in Washington in 1943. That was a time during World War II that “public scrutiny about non-marital pregnancy and infertility significantly influenced adoption laws across the country,” the paper says. “Many states passed laws to keep adoption information secret in order to help ‘reform unwed mothers’ and protect adoptive mothers from the ‘shame of their infertility.’ During this time, many states began to deny public access to original birth certificates.”
Lippold said her research shows that about nine states have relatively open access to original birth certificates (including Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee); seven had partial access that allowed for a certificate’s release to be blocked (including Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Vermont, Massachusetts, Montana, and Ohio); and four have legislation in the works (Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania).
Oregon’s records were opened by citizen initiative, and Rivers said elements of that were used for the Washington law.