"Who am I?" "Why am I?" These are two basic questions human beings ask themselves upon growing older—especially when one's birth parents are not the same as the parents he or she grew up with.
For now, in Connecticut, it's nearly impossible for some people to find answers. Adults who were adopted when they were children don't have access to their true birth certificates. Now, an organization that includes a handful of lawyers, and a legislator with a J.D. degree, are advocating for a law change that would lift that restriction.
Access to birth certificates would not only identify a person's birth parents and connect them to other blood relatives, but it would also allow them to find out about possible genetic probems and address and anticipate possible health issues.
"To cut a human being off from their genetic heritage is insane," said lawyer and psychotherapist Karen Caffrey, who has a counseling practice in West Hartford. "We have to correct this inequality and injustice to Connecticut citizens, just like we did for women voters years ago."
Caffrey and other advocates are members of a group called Access Connecticut, which is lobbying for a change in the law.
Working alongside Connecticut's movement is state Representative David Alexander, an Enfield Democrat, an adoptee and a member of the legislature's Public Health Committee. He plans to try to push a bill through the committee in the 2014 legislative session that would allow adult adoptees to receive both of their birth certificates.
"I am a captain of the Marine Corps, and initially when I joined, I had to obtain and produce my birth certificate," said Alexander, who graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 2006. "My original [birth certificate] existed, it was there in the government office, and the town clerk was like, 'I'm sorry, I can see it, but you can't.'"
Alexander said he has lined up several co-sponsors, and if the measure passes the Public Health Committee, it will be forwarded to the Judiciary Committee. The bill would allow adoptees over the age of 18, and who were adopted after 1983, to get their birth certificates. "It's weird that the government and the state have complete acccess to this" document, said Alexander, and the adult adoptee does not.
For most people, obtaining a birth certificate is as easy as visiting a government office in the state of birth upon turning 18 years old. For those same people, there is only one birth certificate to obtain—the original documentation of birth.
However, for adoptees, there are two birth certificates. The original birth certificate contains the names of the person's biological parents. The second one is known as an "adopted" or "amended" birth certificate, and it contains only the names of the adoptive parents.
Connecticut is hardly alone in barring adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates. Forty-three states have the same prohibition. Alaska and Kansas have never had a law addressing the issue. And five states have changed their laws following lobbying by adoptee rights activists.
There are ongoing efforts elsewhere. Since 1917, Minnesota has sealed the original birth certificates of those born and adopted in that state. Now the General Assembly of Minnesota is considering a bill that would grant adult adoptees unconditional access to their original birth certificates.
Oregon was the first state to grant adoptees the right to their original birth certificates, in 2000. "The activists [in Oregon] gathered 80,000 signatures, passing the bill through the legislature," Caffrey said. "Who's to say Connecticut can't do the same? The whole nation can't do the same?"
Caffrey continued: "There has and will continue to be a domino effect. This will be looked back on in about 10 years, just like we look back on the false ideas that women can't vote and black people aren't really people."
But the bill may not face clear sailing in Connecticut. A similar bill measure was approved by the General Assembly in 2006, but vetoed by then-Governor M. Jodi Rell.
"Rell vetoed [that] bill claiming it violated the biological parents' right to privacy," said Hamden family law attorney Renee C. Bauer. "However, we are not talking about providing carte blanche access to all sensitive documents surrounding the adoption. We are talking about allowing access simply to a birth certificate."
Bauer said a change in the law is long overdue, adding the proposal now being discussed would allow for biological parents to "opt out" if they don't want to be contacted by their child.
In a guest commentary in this week's Law Tribune, Caffrey wrote that before 1974, anyone adopted in Connecticut had the unrestricted right to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate at the time they turned 18. She said the law was changed that year, without a hearing, at the behest of a single legislator who worried about "angry teenagers" seeking out their birth parents.
(Access Connecticut says it has heard no "horror stories" resulting from anyon receiving access to their original birth certificates.)
Interestingly, since 1983, biological parents giving up a child for adoption have been required to sign an affidavit—or "Consent to Termination of Parental Rights"—stating, "I am aware that the child/youth, upon reaching his/her 18th birthday, may have the right to information which may identify me or other blood relatives."
However, officials still routinely reject requests for adoptees to access their original birth certificates. Caffrey said she was able to obtain hers only after she petitioned a probate court, which ultimately sought the consent or her birth parents before releasing the document. She said it's not practical for a non-lawyer to purse their birth certificate by that route.
"This is more than a legal issue, it's a human issue," said Bauer, the family law attorney. "It is illusory for a biological parent to think they will forever remain anonymous. There is a far greater benefit to making this information available to adoptees—and I have yet to hear of a story where disclosure of this information was detrimental to anyone involved."•