PA HB162 Testimony 4/14/2015

Representative Watson, Representative Conklin, Members of the Committee.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today in support of HB 162.

My name is Kristi Lado.  I’m an adoptee and have been involved with the adoption community for most of my adult life. I’ve served on the Board and hosted a search and support group for Adoption Forum of Philadelphia, and am currently a board member and legislative advocate for Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights.

The first time I truly allowed myself to feel outrage that my Original Birth Certificate (OBC) was sealed was in my college media law class.  We were discussing the Freedom of Information Act and state open records laws. The professor spoke of our American belief in an open government and breaking down the walls between the bureaucracy and the citizenry it is intended to serve.

These laws are supposed to prevent our government from keeping secrets from its people. Clearly, the intent of sealing OBCs in Pennsylvania carried the intention of making my biological identity a state secret.

Fortunately for me, the lawyer who handled my adoption had shared my natural mother’s name with my adoptive parents. This was perfectly legal then as it is now.  Relinquishment documents have never contained language promising birth mothers confidentiality, and our OBCs are obtainable until our adoptions are finalized.

So how did we arrive at a point where Pennsylvania sealed Original Birth Certificates away from the very people they pertain to?

Back in 1984, Senator Stephen Freind, with help from Catholic Social Services, managed to convince the entire PA legislature that equal access to OBCs was causing a rise in abortions.  Act 185 went into effect a few months later and retroactively sealed adopted Pennsylvanians’ OBCs, including mine.

Although, time and again, the link between open birth certificates and a rise in abortions has been proven statistically false, you will still hear this tired lie from those opposed to HB 162.

Why would entities like the Catholic Conference stick to a lie? Why would they attempt to scare this legislature into voting a certain way? The answer is simple: It is profitable.

Pennsylvania requires adopted citizens seeking the identity of their birth parents to undergo the state mandated search process under Act 101.  Under this law, the adoptee must file a request to the Orphans’ Court in the County where their adoption was finalized. The county will either perform the search, order the agency that handled the adoption to search on the adoptee’s behalf, or assign the task to a third party of the County’s choosing.  That county or third party is at liberty to charge the adoptee any amount of money for this search.  In other words, rather than paying a mere $20.00 for a simple piece of paper non-adopted citizens are allowed to have, adopted adults must pay fees ranging from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 in York County ($500 per birth parent).

It is noteworthy that Centre County appoints Catholic Charities of Altoona-Johnstown to handle ALL adoptees’ requests for information, no matter which entity handled their adoptions. This means that Catholic Charities in Centre County collects the Act 101 fees from and is granted access to the files of adoptions it didn’t facilitate.  In fact, in many counties the appointed searcher is not affiliated with the same entity that originally handled the adoption. As such, it is quite clear that birth parent confidentiality is not an issue, seeing as any third party, including a religious agency, can be granted full access to the identities of everyone involved in any given Act 101 request.

In all cases, the adoptee is not able to verify whether or not the person being sought was actually contacted or not, or what exactly was said by both parties.  This is a totally unnecessary and unwanted “service” to censor information that is rightfully ours and monitor our personal relationships.  It also forces a search on an adoptee who might merely want to know their birthparents’ names, but does not want to contact them.  All for the purpose of obtaining permission from a parent to release her name to her child.  Could you imagine being required by law to obtain your parents’ permission to know a basic fact about your own identity?

If the Act 101 investigation is mishandled (judging from the stories shared in the “Who Am I” book, they often are), we can take a DNA test at $100 per test and attempt to cobble together our family tree, or pay a private detective thousands of dollars to seek our information.  There are investigative agencies that cater specifically to birthparents and adoptees.  It’s often curiously easy for these investigators to find a birthparent’s name when this information is supposedly sealed.  You see, preventing us from obtaining our own documentation doesn’t make that information unknowable.  Those of us with the means to pay can rely on third parties willing to exploit us.  Those of us without the means live in limbo.

This is the danger of taking vital information out of the hands of the people and allowing a third party to control what we do and don’t know about ourselves.  Information is power.  Either we place that power with those who stand to profit or we return it to the hands of the adopted citizens it belongs to.

You will hear those opposed to HB 162 use words that sound very reasonable until we examine how they are applied to manipulate your judgement; words like “privacy,” “confidentiality,” and “balancing” of interests.

“Balancing interests” is based on the false stereotype that birthparents never want to hear from their children after relinquishing custody.  As you can see by the statistics, in open states only a miniscule number of birth parents ever file a “no contact” preference form.  Even if that number was higher, most injustices in this country have involved the interests of another party.  This isn’t a reason to not bother to correct the injustice.

As for “privacy” and confidentiality,” they are reasonable in the sense that the details of an adoption should not be released to just anyone.  But they are not the same as secrecy, which is what we have with a closed records system.  As we have stated time and again, there has never been a legal promise made to birth parents that their names would be withheld from their own children.

I also question which is more “private” and “confidential”: Simply handing the adoptee a piece of paper with the information they need so, if they choose to search, contact can be kept between two individuals, or having an intrusive state system where perfect strangers are able to look at the birth parent and adoptee’s information and interfere with their personal business.

Some will tell you that OBCs should remain sealed because some adoptees were conceived by rape.  Rape happens to be my conception story.  Is that anyone’s business but my own?  Absolutely not.  But again, under act 101 a perfect stranger (likely from an entity that had nothing to do with my adoption) would have access to my personal information and my mother’s for no reason other than to supposedly “protect” us from each other.  If my conception story is true, does it make me any less of a human being?  Am I less deserving of my origins?  I am not a rapist and should not be punished for my father’s alleged actions.  As the law stands in Pennsylvania, even a rapist has the right to know his accuser; he has the right to know her name, but her innocent child (if given up for adoption) does not.  Victimizing the next generation will not take away a rape survivor’s pain.

As a woman, I’m offended that the opposition seems to think mothers (whether they conceived by rape or not) would not be able to handle communication from their own children.  In fact they believe women are so fragile they need the state to intervene in their personal lives and shield them from such communication. Note we never hear the same fears in relation to birth fathers.  Under HB 162, a woman who relinquished a child who does not want a relationship with that child will have had 19 years to formulate a response should she be contacted. She is well within her rights to do what every other human being in the State can do when they receive unwanted communication:  She can simply say “no.”

The opposition to HB 162 speaks from fear.  Although our system functioned very well before sealed birth certificates, they’ll have you believe the very fabric of our society will tear apart if we treat adopted citizens fairly. You will hear unfounded abortion fears, the idea that one should fear her own child, and fear that institutions profiting from our unfair system may lose their authority over our information.

So what exactly would happen if we allowed Adoptees to have equal access to their Original Birth Certificates?  Probably the same thing that happened in open-records states across the country and in Pennsylvania prior to 1985 – nothing.  People will handle their own lives as they see fit.

All adoptees want and deserve is our truth.  You will likely hear testimony from searchers, court clerks, and others who profit from our current system about how horrible some of our truths might be.  My own story could be considered tragic.  Many third-party intermediaries would see that my conception story included rape and try to discourage a reunion… after all, I could find information they would consider “damaging.”

My story could have still been considered “bad” after I asked my birth mother for my genetic father’s name.  She cut off all communication because asked about my own paternity.  I have since taken three DNA tests and figured out who my natural father is.  He is deceased, but I found a loving half-brother and a paternal family who are excited to meet me.  It also turns out that my birth mother and father, a man she described as an acquaintance, almost got married.  I can only imagine, had my reunion with my birth mother been placed in the hands of a stranger, how that stranger’s judgements may have affected what I know about myself today.

The truth of our beginnings, whether one would consider it positive or negative, is all adoptees want and deserve.  Some of us may just want a name on a piece of paper.  Others like me want to explore our truths to the full extent.

Ask yourself: What is the point of adoption?  Most of us would say the objective of an adoption is to do what is best for the child.  Why would we profess to care about the welfare of adoptees and then strip them of a basic human right to know who they came from as they reach adulthood?  If we think the point of adoption is to spirit away the child from his or her origins permanently, we have a problem with our priorities.

What this boils down to is we’re all adults.  The fact that we were adopted as children does not mean the system should have authority over our lives into adulthood.

The opposition is asking, “Who do we think we are?” Who are adoptees and natural mothers to challenge others’ authority over our lives?  Who are adoptees to stand up for our civil rights?  Something an adoptee hears very often in life is to just be grateful for what we have because of how much worse our situations could have been.  Imagine what kind of country we would have if we compromised our rights because of how much worse things could be.

Catholic Conference, a paid searcher, and a court clerk didn’t show up to the Committee Hearing when HB 162 passed unanimously in the House last session.  Today, they are here because they are clearly threatened by this movement and are protecting their own interests.  I’m testifying before you today because I believe in our worth as human beings.  I believe all adoptees in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are deserving of our civil right to our biological identities and treatment equal to non-adoptees under the law.  Above all, I believe in allowing people to have their truth, unimpeded by bureaucracy.  May only the truth sway you.  Please do the right thing and vote “yes” for House Bill 162.