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Legally Speaking

 

Issue: December, 2008
Author: Hon. Peter G. Arnold & Anne Reiniger

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Blood Ties: Post Adoption Reunions in Wyoming

Betty had a baby when she was in high school and gave birth in Wyoming. She surrendered the little girl for adoption, returned home to Iowa and went on with her life. She married and had a son, but never forgot the little girl. What had become of her? Did she do the right thing? Thirty-five years later Betty decided to search for her daughter and answer those nagging questions. She filed a petition in Wyoming District Court and the judge appointed a Confidential Intermediary (CI). The CI secured the original birth record and found her daughter, now married and living in Nebraska. She agreed to a reunion with her birth mother and the CI gave them contact information. Two months later Betty wrote to the CI and told her they talked on the phone a few times and then her daughter and husband visited her. “She’s a wonderful young woman and had a great childhood with loving parents…for which I’ll be forever grateful.”

One of the most controversial and emotional issues in the modern adoption world is the opening of adoption records for the purpose of search and reunion by adoptees and their birth families. Most records may be unsealed only upon a judicial finding of good cause, but the trend is towards disclosure with mutual consent of parties.


History
The preference for treatment of adoptions as confidential proceedings and the disclosure of adoption records is a relatively recent practice. Until the 19th Century, formal adoption of children rarely existed. Court records and birth certificates were rare or non-existent and the best interests of a child was not a consideration. The first modern adoption law in the U.S. was enacted in Massachusetts in 1851. It emphasized the “child’s welfare” and established the principle of judicial supervision. The first adoption statute in Wyoming was enacted in 1876, spurred by the influx of children brought west on the orphan trains from New York and other Eastern cities; their Wyoming parents wanted to formalize their relationship with the children placed with them. There was openness and disclosure for those involved in adoptions until near the end of WWII. When the movement towards concealment of records in adoption proceedings began to appear in other states, Wyoming provided for confidentiality of its adoption records in 1943. After WWII, disclosure and easy accessibility to records gave way to secrecy throughout America. What was once considered a ‘right to know’ by birth parents and adoptees came to be viewed as a threat to the newly created adoptive family.


Emergence of the Adoption Rights Movement
In 1949 the first voluntary adoption registry was established in the United States, and in 1953 the first adoption search organization was created. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the adoption rights movement got traction. By then there was a critical mass of adult adoptees born after WWII and a culture of more openness within several national movements questioning the systems of authority. Research also supported opening adoption records. A survey of 123 adoptees in Canada found 86% pleased or moderately pleased with reunion; 75% of the birth mothers enthusiastic with reunion and the adoptees’ relationship with adoptive parents improved.

Initially the move toward opening of birth records made no headway in the courts. As a result, state legislatures began enacting laws facilitating reunions between adoptees and their birth families.

Today, 29 states have mutual consent adoption registries. A mutual consent registry is a system whereby individuals directly involved in adoptions can indicate their willingness or unwillingness to have their identifying information disclosed to the birth parent or adoptee. Currently, 15 states permit adoptees access to their original birth record, often granting veto power to a birth parent. In 1991, Wyoming enacted a law establishing a search and consent program known as the Confidential Intermediary Program. Nine states have similar programs.


Wyoming’s Confidential Intermediary Program
All Wyoming adoption records are confidential and are sealed after the final adoption decree is entered. This statute establishes a procedure by which adult adoptees, biological parents, grandparents, siblings and adoptive parents may file a petition in District Court requesting the appointment of a Confidential Intermediary (CI) for the purpose of determining the whereabouts of the unknown biological relative. The adoptee must be at least 18 years old. The petitioner states what he/she knows about his/her birth family or the child who was adopted and why he/she is seeking a reunion. The Court generally rules on the petition without a hearing and appoints a Confidential Intermediary from the list of state-certified CIs. It would only be in exceptional circumstances that the petition would be denied. In one case, an adoptee filed a petition seeking a copy of his adoption papers. This adoptee already knew who his birth mother was and was not seeking a reunion, only a copy of his papers for the purpose of establishing Indian tribe membership eligibility. The Court dismissed the petition because the relief sought was beyond the scope of the CI statute. In another case, the petition by a genealogist doing research was dismissed because Wyoming’s CI statute was intended for reunions, and the petitioner lacked standing.

The statute establishes a five member Adoption Intermediary Commission whose members are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Director of the Department of Family Services. They are responsible for managing and overseeing the CI program by drafting a manual of standards for training CIs, monitoring training, maintaining a current list of Confidential Intermediaries, and adopting rules for its own procedure.


Confidential Intermediaries
There are currently five certified Confidential Intermediaries in Wyoming. They are required to be 21 years old and complete a training program which includes four basic categories: knowledge of adoption law; issues of concern to adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents and others involved in the search; interpersonal skills, search skills and an understanding that their role differs from that of an advocate or counselor; ethical considerations and the importance of performing in an honest and trustworthy manner.

Once appointed by the court, the CIs have the authority to inspect sealed relinquishment and adoption records including, but not limited to, the original birth certificate. The information contained in the records may only be used for the purpose of arranging contact between the individual who initiated the search and the sought-after biological relative. When the Confidential Intermediary locates the sought-after relative, he or she must obtain a voluntary and informed written consent for contact with the petitioner and file the consent, along with the petitioner’s consent with the court before providing both the petitioner and the sought-after relative with information pertaining to the identity and location of the relative. The contact can be by e-mail, telephone, letter, or in person. Contact may include all forms of communication or be limited to just one. Once the petitioner signs a contract for the CI’s services, the CI secures the sealed original birth certificate and adoption decree and uses old fashioned investigatory methods to locate the sought-after relative. Those methods include poring over telephone books, high school directories, contacting adoption agencies which may have been involved in the adoption and most importantly the use of modern technology on the Internet such as search engines like Accurint. The search process can be one telephone call or many months of in-depth sleuthing to find that relative. Costs related to the proceeding and search are the responsibility of the petitioner.

A particularly satisfying case was one in which the petitioning birth mother was searching for her 20 year old daughter. The adoption records listed the adoptive parents’ names and address. They were married in the same county where the adoption had taken place and when the CI opened the local telephone book, they were still listed. The CI called them, making sure not to reveal the nature of the call. Their adopted daughter lived with them and consented to a reunion with her birth mother. The CI filed both consents with the Court, put the parties in contact with each other and they went forward with their reunion. The entire process was resolved in less than a month.

Once the consents are filed with the Court and the CI gives the parties contact information about each other, all papers are returned to the court, the case is closed and all documents are re-sealed. If the sought-after relative refuses contact, the petitioner is notified and all relinquishment and adoption records are returned to the court and remain confidential.

In a study conducted at the University of Toronto, after initial contact 50% of adoptees saw their birth mothers regularly, 20% saw them occasionally and 85% of the adoptees reported relief that their search was over and they didn’t have to dwell on fantasies and bewilderment about their genealogy.


Who Seeks the Information?
A review of records at the Children’s Home Society of Washington for the period of 1895 to 1988 found that adoptees constituted almost half of the persons seeking a reunion (47%). Their search was often triggered by marriage, birth of first child, death of an adoptive parent or a wish to get their medical history. Birth mothers made up the next group with 18%, followed by siblings (11.5%) and grandparents (4%).

Conclusion
While there may be a difference of opinion on the benefits of open adoption and unregulated post adoption contacts, the Wyoming Confidential Intermediary Program successfully balances the rights of privacy with the benefits of post adoption reunions by ensuring that all parties consent to contact. Wyoming should be proud of being in the forefront of this enlightened program.

For more information please refer to dfsweb.state.wy.us or call Rose Fry at (307) 473-3924, Wyoming Department of Family Services Adoption Consultant.


Hon. Peter G. Arnold is a District Court Judge in the 1st Judicial District. Anne Reiniger is a Confidential Intermediary and a partner in The Reiniger Law Firm in Jackson. They are both members of the Wyoming Adoption Intermediary Commission.

Copyright © 2008 – Wyoming State Bar

     

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