Peggy Klappenberger of Crownsville, Maryland, has a little game she plays with her two teenage sons. Every time she drives by the hospital where they were born, she points to the window of the room where their birth took place. She makes a point of telling them, over and over, that they are seeing the building where they came into the world.
It may seem like a harmless quirk, but there’s a reason it’s so important to her: Klappenberger doesn’t know the name of the hospital where she was born. She doesn’t know her original name, either.
When Klappenberger was adopted as an infant, she received a new birth certificate with her new name and the names of her adoptive parents. She’s never seen her original birth certificate, because the state sealed it after her birth mother relinquished her.
She’s intent on getting that certificate—the one that identified her for the first five and a half months of her life. While she has been able to track down some information about her origins, seeing the actual document is important to her; it will show her the name of the hospital, her birth parents’ names and her original name. But Maryland and most other states make it difficult, if not impossible, for adoptees to see their original certificates.
Nine states allow adoptees over 18 or 21 unrestricted access to their sealed birth records, according to the American Adoption Congress, an interest group. In 19 states and Washington, D.C., the records are sealed and cannot be accessed without a court order. The rest have limited access, restricting the records to those born in certain years or allowing release of only partial information.
This year, lawmakers in about a dozen states, including Maryland, considered bills that would make it easier for adoptees to see their original birth certificates. Legislation in Florida and Texas would provide unrestricted access. Texas’ bill is still under consideration, but Florida’s is hanging by a thread. Other state bills would allow access with some restrictions. Several, including Texas’, are likely to pass, but others are foundering.
Opponents argue that opening original birth certificates to adoptees violates the rights of birth parents who may not want their identities revealed. In some states with open access, birth parents can file a “veto” petition with the state, saying they prefer to remain anonymous. Sociological research shows, however, that an overwhelming majority of birth mothers are open to being contacted.
Klappenberger said in a phone interview that she considered going to court but decided to set aside her own needs to push lawmakers to widen access for all adoptees.
Modern DNA science, social media and the internet have made it possible for Klappenberger and many other adoptees to collect information on their birth parents. In Maryland and many other states, there is a “confidential intermediary” law that allows adoptees seeking information on their birth parents to contact an intermediary, who is generally a state-employed social worker. The intermediary then reaches out to the birth parent or parents, who can decide whether to get in touch with their biological child.
Klappenberger’s birth mother sent back word that she did not wish to be contacted. But according to Klappenberger, the conversation with the intermediary revealed a little bit of information—enough that she was able to check some records and come up with a pretty good idea of her birth mother’s identity. Klappenberger then used an at-home DNA test kit to confirm her suspicions. She also found a relative of her birth father who told her he had died.
So, with all that information, why does Klappenberger still want her original birth certificate?
“As an adoptee, even if you have a terrific [adoptive] family—and I do—at the heart of adoption is loss,” she said in a phone interview. “The very first thing that happened to me when I was born was the loss of my birth mother. The state of Maryland telling me that I am not allowed to see the record of my very own birth—they are telling me I don’t matter, and I’ve already had to battle the feelings that I don’t matter my whole life.”
Klappenberger and a host of other adoptees testified before the Maryland legislature on the bill. A Senate committee approved it, but the full Senate defeated it, much to the disappointment of adoption advocates, who pointed out that children born in Maryland after 2000 have the right to see their original birth document when they turn 21, under a modification of adoption law passed in 2000. They argued that giving all adoptees the same right is a matter of fairness.
Opponents argued that birth mothers who did not want their identities revealed would be the losers, although Maryland birth parents would have had the right to file a veto document to protect their privacy even if the bill passed.
Maryland state Sen. Susan Lee, a Democrat, said she supported the bill because of all the other ways adoptees can find information, among other reasons. “There’s no real privacy issue because a child can find out their identity by taking a DNA test,” she said in an interview. “When a mother gives up her child, she knows there is a possibility now that the child can find out who she is by DNA testing.”
Linda Clausen, a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Maryland, agreed. A birth mother who eventually was reunited with both of the sons she relinquished, Clausen argued last year in an Annapolis Capital Gazette column that “the original birth certificate is the adoptee’s. A copy should be in their hands because it is theirs.”
“Most adoptees spend much time throughout their life, fantasizing about their origins. No matter how much they are cared for and loved by their adoptive parents; and how much they love their adoptive parents, this is a separate issue,” Clausen wrote. “Secrets and lies should end. A new beginning should emerge for all Maryland born adoptees.”
But Maryland state Sen. Nancy King, also a Democrat, said in an interview that she opposed the bill because it would have legislated an unfair “one-size-fits-all” solution for adoptees. King has two adopted grandchildren. One of the children’s birth mothers kept her pregnancy a secret, even from her family and husband.
“The mother had a little indiscretion,” King said. “She didn’t want anyone to know about it. She signed the papers and the father signed off.”
And yet, King said, her granddaughter found her birth mother “through one of the online search things. She sent her an email and got to meet her and stuff. You can do it. But to make it open and mandatory like that, I think they would say forget it and have an abortion.”
That abortion rationale also was cited by Maryland Right to Life, an anti-abortion rights group that was the only group or individual to testify against the bill at the Senate hearing.
Elizabeth Samuels, professor emeritus at the University of Baltimore School of Law, who has researched and written extensively on adoption, said there is no empirical evidence that opening adoption records leads to more abortions. She said when women are asked why they had abortions, the issue of open adoption records “doesn’t come anywhere near” being a reason, and that those who espouse that view are “misinformed.”
Letting adoptees see their original birth certificates “is a basic human right and it should be a civil right,” she said. “It’s available to every other person in the state. Birth mothers, overwhelmingly, are open to some contact. It’s become kind of a feminist issue.”
And as far as privacy goes, Gregory Luce, an attorney and founder of the Adoptee Rights Law Center in Minneapolis, argues that getting direct access to a birth certificate is often more private than an internet search, which may turn up distant relatives.
“The protection for the information is a very weak argument,” he said in a phone interview. “What happens when you don’t release information [is] you provide incentive for a person to use social media, to use DNA registries, to hire a private investigator. You get matches from cousins, aunts, uncles, half siblings. Then you have conversations about, ‘Who do you know in the family that relinquished a child in 1975?’
“I represent adoptees. I say to the court, we’ve got all these matches. We can start down this list of cousins, half siblings, and it becomes much more intrusive, which no one wants. Or you can release the birth record. In every case the court has released the record,” he said.
One of Luce’s clients, Katie Kennedy, was born in Minnesota, but now lives in Pittsburgh. She was born Oct. 4, 1962, she said, and placed with her adoptive family on Oct. 30, 1962. “I knew nothing of anything prior to Oct. 30.” But she did know that she grew to be 5 feet, 11 inches tall and that her adoptive mother and father were no more than 5 feet, 4 inches. “I was a giant among all these tiny people,” she said in an interview.
She obtained lots of information on her birth parents through DNA searching. She learned their names, where they lived and that her birth mother had died. But she still wanted that original birth document.
“Because it’s my truth. It is who I am,” she said. “I have been living my life, and I built my life from Oct. 30, 1962, forward. Everything prior to that was a black hole. It’s my first chapter. They are my origins. I knew everything that was on that piece of paper. I knew my birth mother’s name, hospital, date, everything. But the feeling of holding my real birth certificate….” Her voice trailed off at the very thought.
“I can’t describe enough to you of holding your own story and seeing it with your own eyes,” she said later in the interview.
She also obtained her original baptismal certificate, following another extensive legal battle. She discovered that her original name was “Sheri Ann” and learned from her birth mother’s relatives that her birth mother had been searching for her under that name before she died. Her adoptive parents named her “Catherine Mary,” and called her “Katie.”
She said that growing up, she never had the sense of who she looked like, or what mannerisms of her birth parents she might mimic, until she found her birth relatives.
“When you go back and think about your childhood, [people said], ‘you laugh like Uncle John’ or ‘you do that weird thing just like Cousin Jane.’ I never had that.
“To grow up with no genetic mirrors is really hard, but you don’t realize it’s hard until you see … yourself reflected in someone else,” she said. “it takes your breath away.”