There are 1.5 million adopted children in the United States, more than 2 percent of all U.S. children, according to the U.S. Census (about one-third of these are children legally adopted by a stepparent). In Virginia, 2,634 children were adopted in 1992, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available.
The symposium discussions will affect more than those who are adopted or adoptive parents, says organizer Mary Zoller, who this year founded the nonprofit Virginians for Adoption Reform and Education. Similar issues of openness exist in families with children born to surrogate mothers, those conceived with donor sperm or eggs, or otherwise expanded in ways made possible by reproductive technology.
There are workshops aplenty on the practical, legal and emotional aspects of adoption, says Rebecca Ricardo, director of clinical services at Coordinators/2. "But rarely does anyone look at what's underneath adoption."
And rarely have Virginia laws on the matter been examined, says Lynne Edwards, executive director of Coordinators/2. Since 1976, she says, adoption records have been sealed a decision made primarily "to protect the child from the stigma of illegitimacy."
In 1992, the state began permitting agencies to arrange parental placement adoptions, in which the birth family transfers a child to the adoptive family directly instead of surrendering the child to an agency and giving up all contact rights. Since then, Edwards says, such open adoptions increasingly have become the norm. "But the laws have stayed the same," she says.
Virginia law states that no identifying information in an adoption file, such as names or even time of birth, may be revealed unless the adoptee can show "good cause" for the records to be opened. But Edwards, who has worked in the field for 35 years, can't recall any time when the state agreed that a reason given even a grave medical concern was compelling enough to be considered "good cause."
The records may be revealed at the request of an adoptee older than 18, but then the Department of Social Services must act as a go-between to try to find the birth parent(s) and get consent. But what if the birth parent is dead? Edwards asks. Or disabled and unable to consent? Or rejects the request at first and then has second thoughts?
Birth parents, she says, "do not have parallel rights for access of information." They may opt to transfer information to a child in an adoptive family, such as medical records. But there is no process in state law that a birth parent may use to try to contact that child.
Nonidentifying information can be released to adoptees older than 18 by request. But again, Ricardo says, there's no statewide policy on what is considered "nonidentifying." Some agencies will gladly hand over a description of the parents' situation, the adoption process, the place of birth and any correspondence the parent may have left for the child. Others agencies will censor some of that information.
Details can matter a great deal, says Ricardo, who is both adopted and a birth mother of an adopted child. For instance, an adoptee might want to know if his or her mother had quickly turned over her baby for adoption or agonized over her decision. One agency might include accounts of counseling sessions with the birth mother, while another may deem that too private.
Six states Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, Oregon and Tennessee allow adopted children to obtain their birth certificates and some records. "The sky hasn't fallen there, as far as we know," Zoller says wryly. Tennessee, however, permits birth parents to place a "contact veto" on the records, which prohibits a child from trying to reach them.
Edwards supports more open adoption laws in Virginia. She has lobbied for the change in the state code that allows open records for parental placement. But Edwards says she doesn't know how other agencies stand. "It would be guesses that we're all making about each other," she says.
There are 66 private agencies that handle adoptions and/or foster care in the state. Yet never before have they sat down to discuss a unified position on adoption laws. Hence the symposium which is not intended to start agencies lobbying, Zoller says, but "to educate people about a topic that has really been shrouded in mystery and misinformation."
She quotes Thomas Jefferson: "A broadly educated and informed citizenry is the bulwark of a sustainable democracy." Virginia could become an open-records state, she believes, but "it will probably take the remainder of my life to make it happen." S
The symposium "Shedding Light on Secrecy and Openness in Adoption" will take place May 20 and 21, in the Jepson Alumni Center at the University of Richmond. For more information, visit www.c2adopt.org or call 266-2694.