Adopted children put hope on hold Intermediaries to aid confidential searches for birth parents

Md. law takes effect in '99

June 01, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Twenty-seven-year-old Nik McGowan can't wait to see his father for the first time -- but he'll have to wait at least 18 months to begin looking for him.

That's because a new Maryland statute designed to help adopted children find their birth parents -- which was signed into law last week -- does not go into effect until October 1999.

While the law will not completely open the birth records of adoptees, it allows "confidential intermediaries" to work with adoptees or birth parents to find the relatives and inquire whether they will agree to a reunion.

The state Department of Human Resources will receive $350,000 to fund a confidential intermediary unit. It will take 18 months or more to hire and train an unspecified number of intermediaries for the job, Human Resources officials said.

Until the program is up and running, adoptees like McGowan will have to sit tight.

"I've thought about trying to go through the courts and getting them to open my records, but I decided against that," said the Bel Air man, who recently tried to reunite with his birth mother through an intermediary at Catholic Charities but was told that his mother did not want a reunion.

Because McGowan's birth mother was the Catholic Charities client who signed the relinquishment papers at the time of adoption, the agency could search only for her when McGowan requested a reunion with his birth parents.

But when the adoption law takes effect, adoption records will be open to the confidential intermediaries, who can then search for the birth father as well.

"Once this bill gets off the ground, I'd like nothing more than to try to find my birth father," McGowan said. "I know that I'm not going to meet my birth mother in this lifetime. But this way, maybe I'll have a shot with him."

Having a shot at finding a birth parent or a child given up for adoption is what propelled state Del. Frank S. Turner to sponsor the adoption legislation that passed in April in the General Assembly.

Turner, a Democrat who represents Columbia and North Laurel, knows firsthand the frustration and heartache many adoptees face during their search to find information about their parents and genetic background.

One of five children adopted by a middle-class family in New York, he has been searching for his birth parents for a couple of years. Like most adoptees, he does not have access to his birth certificate, adoption records or an extensive medical history.

But the 50-year-old law professor says getting the bill passed wasn't about him. "We've gotten so many letters from all over the country in support of the bill," he said. "It really seems to have struck a chord. I understand that the Internet was flooded with messages when the bill passed. People were celebrating."

Before the law takes effect, a court order continues to be needed to open adoption records of public agencies, though a 1995 measure opened the medical records kept in Maryland adoption files.

In 1997, Turner submitted legislation that would have opened all the birth records of all adoptees 25 years or older unless birth parents had filed forms specifically blocking access.

The proposal did not pass in part because opponents worried that the bill would violate confidentiality. (Only two states, Kansas and Alaska, open all birth records to adoptees.)

"I think it's absolutely crucial that the confidential intermediaries were added to the bill and that they're used to help find people," said Tina Nemphos, coordinator of search and reunion services at the Baltimore-based Catholic Charities, which has arranged more than 3,000 domestic public adoptions over the past 50 years.

Mary Ellen Bean, head of adoption services for Catholic Charities, said that "reunions are very emotionally complex things. There are a lot of boundary issues and it impacts the entire family. Special care has to be taken."

Nemphos said that the new Maryland law follows a national trend toward using trained confidential intermediaries -- or search and consent parties -- to establish contact with adoptees and birth parents. "A lot of people who were for opening adoption records completely jumped on the bandwagon for this [current] bill," she said. "There are a lot of people who don't have the skills to understand how much disruption something like this can cause for everyone involved."

Under the new law, all those adopted after 2000 will, upon reaching the age of 20, be able to find out the identities of their birth parents unless a birth parent places a veto provision in the file, which will be kept with the adoption agency.

For those involved in adoptions before that year, birth parents or adoptees would fill out the forms requesting that their records be searched. An intermediary would contact clients if a birth parent or adopted child is found and agrees to a reunion.

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