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N.H. adoptees gain access to records

Just $12 and 20 minutes in a government office gave Sara LaCroix the pieces of her life that had been missing during the nearly four decades since she was given up for adoption.

Ms. LaCroix, of Kennebunk, Maine, drove to New Hampshire's capital last Friday to take advantage of a state law, which was passed in May and took effect Jan. 1, that allows adults adopted as children in New Hampshire to obtain access to their original birth certificates - and so to the names of their birth mothers and, occasionally, fathers.

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"I knew I was French," LaCroix said with a laugh as her eyes darted to her birth mother's last name, which she asked not be printed. LaCroix then noted her own listed birthday, Aug. 23, confirming she had been celebrating on the right day all these years.

Lacroix grew more pensive as she studied the document. "She was 24," she said softly.

New Hampshire is not the first state to install open-adoption policies. They are now in place unconditionally in five states, with Alaska and Kansas the 1950s pioneers. But it is the third since 2000, joining Oregon - where a two-year court battle followed a 1998 referendum - and Alabama.

The law passed decisively in the New Hampshire House, and by a vote of 12 to 11 in the Senate. Spearheaded by adoptee rights groups, it adds heat to a debate that pits advocates of birth-parent privacy against the rights of adults to know their full biological histories.

"I have an adopted daughter who, since the time she was 18, has wanted to find out who her biological parents were," says state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, who sponsored the bill. His daughter has since had health problems, the senator says, that have now shown up in her own daughter.

"Those problems could have been dealt with in a much different fashion had we known," he says. "There are many good reasons for that information to be available now. They negate, I think, many of the concerns."

Critics dismiss that reasoning.

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"A blood test, a DNA test, can provide infinitely more information about predispositions than a family history," says Lee Allen, a spokesman for the National Council for Adoption in Alexandria, Va. Nonidentifying information, including medical history, can often be obtained through state offices, though that can be a protracted process.

"These advocates seeking reunification [are just] furthering the notion that somehow adopted individuals are less than whole, they're incomplete if they don't reunite," says Mr. Allen. "It's a very vocal minority."

Further, he says, individuals who feel they need confidentiality must give it up in order to come out and fight open-adoption laws.

"It whittles down a [woman's] privacy option to one: She can maintain her privacy if she chooses abortion," says Allen.

He notes that women "historically" have made adoption decisions based on the assurance of confidentiality, and he calls the retroactive nature of such laws especially ill-advised.

"There are so many scenarios you can think of - a harmful relationship, a rape," he says. "A woman moves on with her life and maybe never reveals [the birth] to her current family. Sixteen to 18 years later, there's a knock at the door."

Personal meetings still relatively rare

Still, both sides concede that statistics show a very low percentage of adoptive children complete their searches with face-to-face encounters. And some experts downplay the likelihood of the kind of disruptive event Allen suggests.

"The fears of birth mothers of the 'rogue adoptee' bursting into the family and wrecking the family life is very theoretical," says E. Wayne Carp, a professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and author of "Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption."

He adds that no correlation has been found between state open-records policies on adoption and an increase in reported abortions.

Professor Carp is quick to acknowledge that birth mothers, too, have rights. He points to such common provisions in state laws as contact-preference forms, which allow birth mothers - assuming they can be located by the state - to state whether or not they want to be approached by a child, and even to explain why.

The New Hampshire law has such a provision. LaCroix, for example, plans to check databases to learn whether her birth mother is open to a meeting.

"[Such a form] allows birth mothers who do fear a problem to allow an adoptee to know where they stand," Carp says. "And for the most part it seems that adoptees respect that."

Experts on both sides of the debate acknowledge, however, that a birth parent would have no legal recourse under adoption laws should a child who was given up ignore a request for noncontact. A civil action, such as a restraining order, would have to be put in place.

The New Jersey legislature is wrestling with a bill that may include a one-year period during which birth parents can permanently veto access to their identities. (Tennessee and Delaware have similar conditional policies, in contrast to the five states with unconditional policies.)

Privacy was never guaranteed

Some backers of open adoption records argue that whatever adoption professionals have told parents who are considering relinquishing their children, privacy was never assured - nor could it be, since laws evolve.

"Adoption workers have, in many cases, kind of told women what they wanted to hear," says Marley Greiner, executive chair of Bastard Nation, an advocacy group for adult adoptees. She also rejects the idea of mutual-consent forms.

"If you got married in your misspent youth and some time later wanted to contact your ex-spouse, you wouldn't have to go through the state to see whether maybe that person had signed up. You'd just contact them," she says, adding that paper trails and public records exist for anyone who has the basic tools.

In LaCroix's case, the trail began in her local newspaper. It was only three days before her Concord appointment that her son and husband read reports about the law, and encouraged her to go forward.

LaCroix hopes eventually to see a photo of her birth mother, if it proves impossible to meet her. She will proceed with care, she says, and perhaps make some other kind of connection.

"I wouldn't want to ruin anything," she says.

Over the years, during visits to the schools that her son, now 12, attends, one thought has often struck her: "You could look at the faces," she says, "and tell who belonged to who."