Fifteen years in the General Assembly may have earned state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz some political clout, but whatever capital she acquired meant nothing when it came to obtaining a copy of her birth certificate.
Like thousands of other adoptees, the Chicago Democrat had been unable to get a copy of birth records, which remained confidential unless a birthparent granted access.
That changed Friday when Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that allows adoptees access to their birth records. Adopted people born in 1945 or earlier now will be able to obtain their birth certificates right away. Adoptees born after 1945 will have to wait until November 2011, to give their birthparents a chance to file an objection, if they want.
Yet, the law doesn't guarantee adoptees access to information. Birthparents who want to remain anonymous can do so by filing a request with the state.
Opponents have raised concerns about what happens to birthparents who do not want to be found but don't know about the law and its requirements that they make a formal request with the state. The law also has raised concerns that some adoptees will show up at the door of a birthparent unannounced.
Feigenholtz has long pushed for the change, suggesting that denying adopted people their birth records treats them like children.
"In the eyes of the government, I'm either a perpetual infant or a potential stalker," she said. "I want the true document of my birth and I need to be trusted with it."
State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, mother of six adopted children, agrees.
"This is something I want for all of them," said the Champaign Democrat, referencing the movement within the adoption community to allow adult adoptees access to birth records.
Keeping those records secret stems from the closed adoption era when birth records were sealed, said Jody Moreen, an adoptee who heads up a Naperville support group for adoptees, adoptive parents and birthparents.
That's less of an issue now that open adoption has become the norm.
During the closed adoption era, many birthparents "were in a crisis situation," said Moreen. "They felt pressured to make the decision (to give up their baby), so they signed papers but they didn't know about or understand all the fine print."
They weren't aware that relinquishing their parental rights meant no communication between the adoptee and the birthparents, said Moreen, who supports the new law.
"It's impossible to have a perfect (law), but I believe this one respects all parties involved," she said.
And yet, while "the vast majority of birthparents contacted" by adoptees welcome it, not everyone wants their identity exposed, said Ruth Jajko, director of adoption services for the Des Plaines-based Lutheran Social Services of Illinois.
The law does allow birthparents to protect their privacy by notifying the Illinois Adoption Registry (idph.state.il.us/vitalrecords/adoptioninfo.htm) to deny release of personal information. However, it is the responsibility of birthparents in that situation to notify the state and then to keep any nondisclosure request up to date. Failure to do so would be treated as consent.
That concerns lawmakers who say it puts the onus of responsibility on birthparents. Consent by lack of action could be a dangerous precedent, they said, particularly if birthparents never learn of the new law.
"By this legislation, we mandate they follow it, though they may never be aware of it, never be aware they have the right to deny access," said Keith Sommer, a Republican state representative from Morton who has two adopted children.
One group says the law doesn't go far enough for adoptees.
"We believe everyone should have equal access to their original birth certificates regardless of whether they're adopted or not," said Triona Guidry, spokeswoman for Adoption Reform Illinois, a Cary-based group made up of adult adoptees, adoptive parents and birthparents.
Supporters promoted the law as restoring the rights of adult adoptees, but that's not the case, Guidry said.
Adoptees still have to go through what's called a confidential intermediary program, in which a third party acts as a go-between between the adoptee and the birthparents, said Guidry, adding that not everyone would be accepted into the program and not everyone can afford it. What's more, an adult adoptee "can still be subjected to the disclosure veto" which would redact or edit out the birthparents' names and the adoptee's original last name, Guidry said.
Ultimately, her group's goal is for "adult adoptees to have equal access to their identities," she said. And that means unfettered access to their birth certificates just like everyone else.
A yearlong informational campaign will begin in November to inform birthparents of the new law. It will let them know that adoptees will be able to view birth certificates and outline the rights of birthparents, through public service announcements, postings on state and adoption agency websites and notices in vehicle registration renewals.
Opponents like Guidry question where the money will come from for such an undertaking. Others fear the fear the law will prompt adult adoptees to show up at the homes of their birthparents.
Both Guidry and Jajko believe that fear is unfounded.
"A lot of people come to the conclusion that the adoptee wants a reunion," said Jajko. "What they want is information."
Some may want medical background information. Others may be curious about their ethnicity. In any case, the new law makes those answers easier to obtain.
"Having access to an original birth certificate is not going to open a floodgate that has not already been opened," said Jajko, adding that adoptees have other resources at their disposal, including agencies to help them search.
Jajko believes the law satisfies all parties involved.
"It gives as many adoptees as possible access, while still protecting the birthparents' right to privacy," Jajko said.
Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report.
Experts offer these tips for adults seeking birthparent information and/or a reunion:
• Contact the agency that handled the adoption. Most adoption agencies have post-adoption/search and reunion services. Staff members can help clarify adoptees' goals and determine if a search or reunion is appropriate. They can also prepare adoptees for potentially unsettling information, such as learning a birthparent is deceased, had other children or was the victim of rape.
• Educate yourself about adoption. Books to consider include "Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption" by E. Wayne Carp and "Birth Bond: Reunions Between Birthparents and Adoptees - What Happens After" by Judith Gediman and Linda P. Brown.
• Consider joining a support group. If one is not available, consider an online group.
• Ask for the non-identifying information from the adoption file. That information alone may satisfy questions and may determine whether to proceed with a search. Also, it is normal for adoptees to start and stop the search process several times.
• Sign up with the Illinois Adoption Registry at 877-323-5299.
• Adoptees who pursue a reunion should begin with a letter and avoid calls and unannounced visits.
• Be patient. The birthparent or other birth relative contacted may not respond immediately. If there's no response after a month, send a second, certified letter with a restricted signature to ensure the correct person receives it.
• Prepare for the possibility that the birthparent or other birth relative may not respond.
• If a reunion occurs, remember that this relationship, like any other, takes time to grow and develop.
• Adoptive parents should remember that their adult child is not looking to replace them; they simply want to answer questions about themselves. Be supportive, listen and develop a support system to discuss worries or fears.
Sources: Lutheran Social Services of Illinois; Jody Moreen, facilitator of the Adult Adoptee, Birthparents & Adoptive Parents Together group at Calvary Church of Naperville