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


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 department.

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 mother.

"I want to know that she's all right. I'd like to have a relationship with her," 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 heritage.

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 example.

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 released.

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 moments 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 locked."

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 really is."

Information: state Department of Human Resources, 1-800-39-ADOPT.

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