The State of
Unseals Records for Adoptees!
Law unseals state records on adoptions
Legislation helps parents, offspring locate each
other; 100 applications already in; Critics say opening files
could lead to privacy violations
By Joan Jacobson
Spurred by a new law that opens records sealed for a
half-century, hundreds of Marylanders are seeking answers about past adoptions -- and
moving a step closer to reunions they once only dreamed of.
The law, similar to statutes in 13 states, allows
court records to be opened for the first time since 1947, when they were sealed to protect
the privacy of birth parents and adoptees.
It also allows a state-appointed intermediary to
search state tax, motor vehicle, welfare records, and military and other national records
to locate either party in an adoption. The intermediary would make the contact with the
adoptee or the birth parent.
As of Friday, the state Department of Human Resources had received at least 500 calls for
information and 100 applications from birth parents and adoptees who want the state to
begin searches under the law, said Stephanie Pettaway, adoption manager for the
Charlotte Barnes is among those eager to take
advantage of the law, which took effect this month. The 61-year-old disabled woman has
waited nearly 40 years to find the baby girl she held for only a moment before giving her
up for adoption in 1960.
Now, the state-appointed intermediary can unseal the
records and begin to search for the daughter Barnes reluctantly gave up as a young, single
"I want to know that she's all right. I'd like to have a relationship withher,"
said Barnes, adding that her two other daughters would love to meet their biological
sister. The adoption, she said, has "left a hole in my heart."
Such demand reflects changing attitudes toward adoption in the past half-century, as an
atmosphere of taboo and secrecy has given way to openness and curiosity about biological
But the law has sparked criticism from right-to-privacy advocates who say the government
has no right to open adoption records.
Critics say law is mistake
"The Maryland legislature made a terrible mistake,"
said William Pierce, president of the National Council for
Adoption, a Washington right-to-privacy group. He compared opening adoption records to
allowing a third party to review the private records of a physician or a psychologist.
He also worries that unsealing those records could
prompt a move to open other private records, such as the identities of sperm donors, who
believed their donations were anonymous.
The law was sponsored by Democratic Del. Frank S.
Turner of Howard County, who was adopted in New York state, where court records are
sealed. He has been frustrated in his attempt to search for his birth parents.
Previously, adoptees and birth parents often resorted to the techniques of private
investigators to locate each
other -- traveling to the town where the child was born and knocking on doors, for
In addition to opening sealed records, the law goes a step further by requiring that
records for anyone adopted after Jan. 1, 2000, be unsealed by 2021 when those adoptees all
will be at least 21 years old.
The law "hugely expands the ease in finding somebody," said Judith
Shubb-Condliffe, a Towson lawyer who has arranged hundreds of adoptions and placements
during the past 18 years. "It's a real breakthrough because they will now have
access to computer data banks that we have not previously had available."
Right to veto
Still, the law contains a "disclosure veto" allowing an adult adoptee or
biological parent to choose never to be found and to have no background information
Pettaway said the veto was included in the law because many birth parents and adoptees
believed records identifying them would always be sealed.
"I know adoptees who were angry that their mothers
could come look for them, and they felt like they should have that right" not to be
found, said Pettaway.
But Joanne Small, a director of Adoptees-in-Search,
a nonprofit group that has been helping people search for birth families for 26 years,
says the disclosure veto denies adoptees "equal access to birth records" and
prevents them "from researching their own genealogy."
Despite such criticisms, adoption experts say the law likely will draw more people who
want to open records.
Clyde Tolley, a longtime advocate for adoptions in
the region, said most adoptive parents no longer are threatened by the thought of their
grown children searching for their birth parents.
"After you've had a kid for 21 years, you've got as
much of that kid's childhood as you can get. What's the threat?" Tolley said.
"How can you say to a 21-year-old adoptee, `You can't know this?' "
Barnes, who has long wished to contact the daughter
she gave up at birth, has filled out the paperwork that will let an intermediary proceed
with the search. If Barnes' daughter is found, the intermediary will ask if she wants to
correspond with, and eventually meet, her biological mother.
Though she only saw the baby for a few moment after
birth, Barnes remembers her as "the most beautiful child in the whole family. She
looked like my side of the family with eyes wide apart."
The law also offers long-awaited help for Delores Cover, 38, of Pocomoke City, who is
hoping to locate her
biological parents and a biological brother.
She has been searching unsuccessfully for the past
nine years, writing once to a Baltimore judge only to learn "the records were
Cover, who is in poor health, said her adoptive parents are dead. Now she wants to find
her biological family, "so I
can finish my family history for my son. In case anything happens to me, he knows who he
Information: state Department of Human Resources,
Originally published on Oct 24 1999