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Columbus Dispatch: Push to Open Records for Adoptees

1/27/2013
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Mike Martindale has spent more than 10 years and thousands of dollars trying to solve the most personal of mysteries. He wants to know who created him.

The state of Ohio could answer the question easily, but Martindale is turned away — legally — every time he asks for his original birth certificate.

“I don’t like portraying this as any kind of pity party,” he said. “But it seems like there’s something fundamentally wrong that an American citizen is singled out not to have information the government has when it’s about him.”

The biggest roadblock to Martindale’s search, however, might finally be lifted. Adoptee-rights advocates expect legislation to be introduced soon that would change what they call an unfair, inconsistent law that has long banned original birth-certificate access to thousands of Ohioans. Under the state’s three-tiered system, those born and adopted before 1964 have unrestricted access to their original birth certificates once they turn 18. But people born and adopted from 1964 to 1996, such as Martindale, are not permitted access.

Ohio adoptees born after 1996 can get their original birth certificates as long as the birth parent did not file a non-disclosure request. New birth certificates are issued after an adoption is finalized, listing the adoptive parents’ names.

“This is an issue I’ve been working on for 24 years, sadly,” said Betsie Norris of Adoption Network Cleveland. “We’ve had several bills over the years but, frankly, it just got too politically hot to handle.”

Norris and others are more optimistic this time because a powerful anti-abortion organization, Ohio Right to Life, has agreed to drop its longstanding opposition to making the 1964-1996 records available.

“Historically, Ohio Right to Life has opposed efforts to disclose identities of birth parents,” said Mike Gonidakis, the organization’s president. “That position has thawed, for lack of a better term.”

Many anti-abortion advocates didn’t support original birth-certificate access because they reasoned that taking anonymity away from birth mothers would lead some to choose abortion instead of adoption. Gonidakis, whose two young children are adopted, said the organization also was reluctant to support a law that would change a prior legal promise Ohio had made to birth parents. But the Internet has been unlocking those secrets for years.

“You can find out information that you couldn’t in the past,” Gonidakis said.

Norris said the proposed changes could give birth parents more control. Proponents want the new law to include a “contact preference option,” allowing all birth parents — even those who had children many years ago — to file a document making their wishes known about future contact.

“I think that’s the perfect balancing of the situation,” said Norris, herself an adoptee. “The adoptee gets the information and the birth parent gets to let their wishes be known.”The contact-preference form wouldn’t make it illegal to contact a birth parent, but it’s not illegal now, even when records are sealed, she said. Online records, registries, adoption-search services, Facebook and private detectives lead people to each other’s doors all the time.

According to AdoptionEquityOhio.org, states that already have granted access to original birth certificates report that few birth mothers file no-contact requests.

Norris said the proposed changes would preserve existing law that, since 1996, has given birth parents the option of denying their children access to birth certificates in the future.“According to the social workers I talk to, very, very few do,” Norris said.Norris found her birth parents in 1986. The task wasn’t too difficult because she was born in 1960, before records were closed. Her mom and dad had married, and she had three siblings. “I tried to be very careful how I approached the situation,” Norris said. “She said, ‘Oh, my God. I’ve been praying for this call for 26 years.’  ”

Advocates say that the original intent of Ohio’s sealed birth-certificate law was to protect the adoptive family, not the birth parents. Legislators wanted to assure that the birth family would not interfere, and adoptions were thought to have a better chance at success if all records and ties were severed.

But adoptees eventually grow up and wonder.

Martindale, who was born in Summit County, is now 42 and lives in Charlotte, N.C., where he works in software development. He has twice petitioned Ohio courts for his original birth certificate, and the state’s reunion registry proved useless. Meanwhile, his birth parents likely are growing older and he fears he’s running out of time.

“For me, it’s the ultimate nature-nurture question,” Martindale said. “I have a family who cared for me and raised me. But the genes that I have? I’ve never met anyone who was related by blood to me.

“Thanks to Ohio’s laws, I don’t know that, even though the state does.”
 
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