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Adoptees Battle Secrecy of Records

Updated:
NEW YORK (AP) — Abigail Lovett searched for her birth mother for six years before finding her in a psychiatric hospital on Long Island.

Tony Gambino pursued a similar quest, only to discover his birth mother had died of cancer while desperately trying to locate him.

Lovett rekindled a relationship with her mother, whose condition improved so dramatically that she was able to leave the hospital after 18 years as a patient. Gambino, though devastated at learning of his mother's futile search, tracked his 92-year-old grandmother to a tiny town in east Texas. ``I've been so enriched to be able to meet her,'' he says.

Today, Gambino, of Bethesda, Md., and Lovett, of New Hope, Pa., are part of a legion of adopted Americans who want to dispel the secrecy of adoption records. They believe that adoptees who reach adulthood should have access to original birth certificates that include the names of their biological parents.

A law allowing such access took effect in Oregon in May, 18 months after approval by voters in a referendum. A similar law, passed by legislators, took effect Aug. 1 in Alabama. The two states joined Alaska, Kansas, Delaware and Tennessee as exceptions to the more restrictive practices prevailing elsewhere.

Advocates of openness hope the trend is irreversible, but grueling state-by-state struggles lie ahead. In several legislatures, defenders of adoption privacy have kept open-records proposals from progressing to a floor vote.

``We just have to be persistent,'' said Cynthia Betrand Holub of Philadelphia, an executive committee member of the militant adoptee-rights group Bastard Nation.

``The opposition won't give up, but they see the writing on the wall,'' she said. ``The momentum will build, like a popcorn effect — a few kernels burst, then the whole lot. I see it happening in 10 years. It's way overdue.''

With unwed pregnancy no longer as stigmatized as it once was, many adoption agencies already have modified their approach to confidentiality. Some now advise birth mothers that they should anticipate contact from their relinquished children at some future date. Other agencies promote ``open adoption'' that encourages contact between birth parents and adoptive parents.

Meanwhile, the Internet provides adoptees with new tools to search for information. For fees of perhaps $250, professional searchers offer to trace hard-to-find birth parents.

Despite these trends, opposition to open records is both fervent and diverse. Some state affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union have defended birth parents who want to protect their privacy. Some Roman Catholic and anti-abortion groups contend that loss of privacy might prompt pregnant women to choose abortion over adoption.

One of the feistiest opponents of open records is William Pierce, founder of the National Council for Adoption. His group monitors legislative developments nationwide and provides e-mail links so its supporters can contact key state officials.

Proposals for easier access to adoption records have foundered recently in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Washington. Pierce doesn't expect to prevail everywhere, but he refuses to accept that Oregon-style laws are inevitable everywhere.

``Personal privacy is a major concern for most Americans, whether it's health records or adoption records, your video rentals or your grocery list,'' Pierce said. ``The American people ultimately are not going to go for this.''

Pierce favors voluntary state registries that enable adoptees and birth parents to reunite through mutual consent, but says mothers who were promised confidentiality deserve the option of protecting their privacy.

Tennessee's open-records law, unlike those in Oregon and Alabama, acknowledges the privacy concerns by allowing for a ``contact veto.'' Though birth parents in Tennessee can't block release of original birth certificates, they can stipulate that the adopted child should not contact them. Adoptees who violate this provision can be prosecuted.

Marley Greiner, one of Bastard Nation's cofounders, finds the contact veto offensive.

``In effect, it's a restraining order, without having to go to court to get one,'' Greiner said. ``If you don't want a reunion, you can just say 'No.' The cases where people don't take 'No' for an answer are very rare.''

One of the most passionate arguments on behalf of open records is that adoptees are entitled to potentially vital information about their birth parents' medical histories, such as whether cancer or heart problems run in the family.

Pierce and other defenders of adoption privacy say medical information can be provided without divulging the parents' names. But in states with closed adoption records, adoptees often must go through costly, time-consuming court procedures to obtain medical data.

To Bastard Nation, adoptees deserve access to their birth certificates whether or nor they seek medical information or yearn for a reunion.

``At issue is not search and reunion, but the constitutional rights of millions of American citizens,'' the group's manifesto says. ``To continue to abrogate these rights is to perpetuate the stigmatization of illegitimacy and adoption.''

Such declarations are too simplistic for Cheryl Ramette, a birth mother who understands adoptees' yearning for information but believes that open-records laws go too far.

Now a learning-assessment specialist at Oregon's Portland State University, Ramette and her high school boyfriend put a newborn daughter up for adoption in Minnesota in 1971, when Ramette was 17.

``It is impossibly difficult for a woman to give up her child,'' Ramette said. ``Once done, a door is closed and you make your peace with it all; you have to for your sanity, even though the heartbreak, love and loss are eternal.''

The daughter, Wendy, contacted Ramette in 1988. The ensuing years were an emotional roller-coaster.

``It was great to meet her, fabulous, and then it got very difficult quickly,'' Ramette said.

In a complicating twist, Ramette, who had divorced her first husband, reunited with Wendy's father and married him in 1997. Wendy came to the wedding, and in 1999 Ramette and Wendy's father visited their daughter in Florida.

``We had an absolutely horrible time,'' Ramette said. ``Her husband didn't think we should have any part of her life.''

Ramette has mixed feelings about her relationship with Wendy, but she emphatically opposes the Oregon-style laws that prevent a birth mother from deciding for herself whether to have contact with a relinquished child.

A birth mother from Pennsylvania, who asked to be identified only as Emily in order to guard her privacy, said her life was shattered when the son she put up for adoption in the 1960s recently contacted her.

``Way back, I was told the files would be sealed forever — I was told to put all this behind me and get on with my life,'' Emily said. ``When he contacted me, I was devastated. I freaked. I was hysterical.''

She said it was an ordeal to inform her current family, including a grown son, about the adoption.

``Maybe I shouldn't be ashamed, but I am,'' Emily said. ``Even today, if I'm asked how many children I have, I say one. The person I gave up for adoption is not my child, he's the child of the parents who adopted him.''

Tony Gambino used to feel that way. Adopted by a lawyer and his wife in Cincinnati in 1956, he entered adulthood feeling well-loved and uninterested in his birth mother.

Now a Central Africa specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gambino changed his mind six years ago and received court approval in Ohio to obtain his birth certificate. Then he went to the agency that had handled his adoption, and what he learned there broke his heart.

His mother, he was told, put Gambino up for adoption in Cincinnati after trying to keep her pregnancy a secret in Texas. ``It took her literally years to get her life together again,'' Gambino said. ``She moved to California, got married, but she never had any other children.''

In the mid-1970s, as Gambino was turning 20, his mother find out about him, entering her name in a voluntary contact registry. That did no good because Gambino hadn't entered his name. The mother's search turned urgent in the late 1980s when she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

``She wrote a letter to the adoption agency in 1988 saying, 'I'm dying. Can't you tell me anything?''' Gambino said. ``The agency wrote back basically, 'No.' I find that nearly criminal.''

His mother died in 1989, five years before Gambino began his own search.

Still, he's grateful that he tracked down his grandmother, Norma Simpson, and other relatives in Texas, including a cousin who tells him he is a lot like his mother.

``She told me, 'You look like her, you walk like her, you talk like her, you act like her,''' Gambino said. ``Instead of this woman being this really scary 'other,' I find out that this woman was me.''

Now, he sees his grandmother as often as he can. ``She's a wonderful person,'' he said, ``a critical person in my life.''

Gambino sympathizes with birth mothers who do not want to be contacted by the children they put up for adoption.

``But they are likely to be a tiny percentage of the cases,'' he said. ``They shouldn't penalize the overwhelming majority.''

Abigail Lovett, who found her mother in the psychiatric hospital, says increased openness about adoption records should be part of a broader change in attitudes.

``Birth mothers should be proud of what they've done,'' Lovett said. ``Instead we shove them in a corner and tell them, 'Don't talk about it.'''

Lovett initially used official channels to search for her mother, but county social workers couldn't find her.

Lovett kept up the search on her own, trying ``all kinds of underground things'' over a six-year period. Finally, almost 10 years ago, she found out where she was and called.

``She was tentative,'' Lovett said. ``She kept grilling me for details to verify I was who I said I was.''

Later, Lovett spoke with an astounded social worker at the hospital, who said the mother's condition had improved swiftly. The mother, now 60, was released and lives with a grown daughter.

``The diagnosis they had for her was completely wrong,'' Lovett said. ``No one ever knew she had placed a kid for adoption; no one ever asked her.''

The mother was 16 when she put Lovett up for adoption in 1954. She went on to marry and have five children — half-siblings Lovett has now met

``For the first time, I met people who looked like me,'' said Lovett, recalling her amazement at traits she shares with her half-sisters.

Lovett began searching for her mother after a chance encounter with the elderly doctor who had delivered her in 1954.

``He gave me some details — he knew my mother got married and had other children,'' Lovett said. ``But he wouldn't tell me how to find her... I was really angry that he could play with me like that — that he could know more about me than I knew about myself.''

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On the Net:

National Council for Adoption: http://www.ncfa-usa.org

Bastard Nation: http://www.bastards.org





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