In May 2005, the Daily Record of York received an unusual request for a classified ad. That request lead to a full blown article.
"Where do I look for my records?"
State's sealed birth records remain a barrier
By JENNIFER GISH
Sunday, May 15, 2005
The phone rang just before lunch, Southern California time, on Mother's Day. Shawn Wright knew it had to be her.
The newspaper story about how he took out a classified ad to find his biological mother hadn't even been in print a full day. But the 41-year-old high-school algebra teacher, born Victor Lee Smith Aug. 29, 1963, at York Hospital, picked up the phone and hoped hard.
"Don't get excited, I'm not your mother," the woman on the phone told Wright at the beginning of a 45-minute conversation that wouldn't yield any real leads. "And I've had a few drinks today."
Wright still waits for the call he's looking for, the one from the woman who gave him up for adoption so many years ago.
Meanwhile, adopted children — now grown up and touched by his story — called the newspaper saying they understood exactly what Wright wanted.
"If you ever talk to Shawn, please tell him that he has a friend here," said Carol Attig, a 65-year-old York woman who successfully located her birth mother 10 years ago. She had a not-so-sweet reunion over the telephone with her biological mother when she was told that she had wasted her money placing the long-distance phone call. Still, Attig said, she's glad she knows.
Tell Wright, Attig said tearfully, that she understands what it's like to wonder about those places inside where nurture stops short and nature takes over.
Sealed vs. open records
An estimated 1.5 million adopted adults live in the United States. About 2,460 adopted children live in York County, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Even without the well-wishing calls from his fellow adoptees, it's clear Wright isn't alone.
Those who have searched and helped others search for their birth parents say Wright's situation is common for children adopted in Pennsylvania and the other states that seal the records of adoptees.
And those who search also say Pennsylvania needs to follow the lead of places such as New Hampshire, which allow adopted adults access to their original birth certificates.
"Right now, this system that defaults toward assumed confidentiality doesn't really allow the birth parent to speak for themselves," said Sue Romberger, who started PAFind, an e-mail listserv of more than 800 people who help each other find their birth parents.
Although Pennsylvania adoption records were sealed beginning in 1953, adoptees could request their original birth certificates. It was as easy as writing a letter, and that's how Romberger eventually found her own birth mother decades ago.
In the 1980s, the state Legislature set out to change that.
A Delaware County representative convinced his fellow legislators that women were choosing abortion over adoption fearing the children they gave up through adoption would one day find them.
In the interest of protecting a biological parent's privacy, original birth certificates became open only with the consent of the parents. And the state established a system that sent adult adoptees to the courts and forced them to use a third party to seek out their parents for that permission.
The process is a murky one that people like Wright have struggled to navigate, yet Romberger and her e-mail volunteers have witnessed 600 reunions through it since 1998.
Options for adoptees
Pennsylvania has two adoption registries adoptees can contact for information, one housing medical history information at the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare and the other a general registry maintained by the Department of Health.
Both rely on birth parents submitting information, but Romberger said few do because they do not know they exist.
The other option for adoptees is to petition the court in the county that finalized their adoption. Although adoptees over 18 are entitled to nonidentifying information about themselves, such as nationality and age and marital status of birth parents at the time, Romberger said the law also says judges "may" appoint a third-party agency to search for the birth parents to get permission to release identifying information. Sometimes, Romberger said the adoption agency that handled the case in the first place will provide the same service for a fee.
A judge's willingness to look at opening the files varies from county to county, Romberger said, and the process can get expensive, costing anywhere from $200 to $400 for a search that may lead to nothing.
Wright spent $400 consulting with a private investigator just to learn where to start searching. Ten to 15 letters to the orphans court, adoption agencies and a hospital later, he has little more than he started with. He tried every option he could think of, including posting messages on genealogy Web sites.
And then, the week before Mother's Day, he put his hope in a 1-inch-by-1-inch classified ad:
Victor Lee Smith, born on August 29, 1963 at York Hospital is looking for biological mother or possible contacts. Please call Shawn L. Wright...
It cost a little more than $180 and ran for a week, and Wright thought it was his best hope yet of finding this woman he's wondered about for so long.
He had a nice childhood in Lancaster County with his adopted parents, Owen and Pat Wright. During his summer breaks from teaching school, he heads up to his folks' new home in Oregon to help them with household projects.
The Wrights adopted Shawn when he was 6 weeks old. Of the five adopted Wright children, Shawn was the one who was always curious about his past. Those holes in his identity grew wider with the birth of his son Jared, now 4. He wanted his son to know his full history.
The need to fill in the holes pushed him to call the classified department and place the ad for his mother.
"That took a lot of guts," said Martha Koons Soth, a Windsor Township woman who in her search learned she was born at York Hospital on March 23, 1967, with the name Kelly Ann. She, like Attig, called to say she could sympathize with Wright.
"I thought about doing the same thing four years ago, but I didn't want to look silly."
She also has not laid eyes on her original birth certificate. Her adoptive parents remembered hearing her original name during a meeting with adoption workers when they took the 9-month-old baby into their care.
Like Wright, she's still searching for that one piece of vital information — her birth mother's name — that could be easily unlocked with one look at her original birth certificate.
People should have access to their own pasts, open-record advocates say.
"You have a right to your birth certificate," said Judy Cotten, a board member for Pennsylvania Adoption Forum, a nonprofit advocacy and support group based in Pottstown.
Potential changes in the law
Pennsylvania lawmakers are studying two bills which would expand the registry system in Pennsylvania to allow more people to register, including adoptive parents of those under 18 and biological sisters and brothers of the adoptee.
Matches are then notified by the registry, but Romberger said that process in the existing registries is already slow-going.
The Adoption Forum and searchers like Romberger say the legislation wouldn't be any more effective than the current system, which few people know about as it is.
"We don't need another registry," Cotten said. Instead, she said, she's urged Pennsylvania to adopt the system used in New Hampshire. There, adult adoptees have access to their original birth certificates, and when they get them they also receive a form filled out by the birth parents indicating whether they wish to have contact with their child.
That type of system allows both people to make the decision, without the state getting involved.
"We feel that adults are adult enough to say no to each other," said Cotten, who was happily reunited with her biological daughter several years ago.
Wright would like the opportunity to at least get some medical information. He wrote the state registry for it, but his birth parents didn't leave anything for him.
At best, he would like to meet his mother and talk, learn a little bit more about himself, have a history to pass on to his son.
The call Wright waited for, the one he'd hurry home from school and ask his wife, Tracey, about, hasn't come yet.
But now, Romberger and her volunteers have offered to help him look.
The classified ad didn't work out like he'd hoped.
But maybe they can help him find his mother.
PENNSYLVANIA ADOPTION MAIN SEARCH MENU PAGE
PAFind EMAIL LIST - a FREE e-mail list of PA searchers helping one another.
STATE REGISTRIES AND POLITICS - Why neither are helping PA searchers much.
RELINQUISHMENT PAPERS - Like to see an example of PA relinquishment papers?
COUNTY OF FINALIZATION - Some county specific info. You need to find this out and it may not be where you think.
THE DECREE - Adoptee is adopted in the county of finalization, records now sealed. Want to see a decree?
FORMAL PETITION - Learn how some counties make it a bit harder.
NON-ID - Learn what it is, and how to ask for it.
WAIVERS OF CONFIDENTIALITY - File them!
PA ADOPTION LAW - the easy version or the actual wording.
ADOPTION GROUPS - known in PA that handle search, support, legislation or all three.
SEARCH BASICS - In addition to this whole site, here's a list of ways to search and try to be found.
PHONE CALL AND LETTER IDEAS - When you are close to making that respectful first contact.
SEARCH SUCKS! I NEED A *@$#! BREAK! - Take one, pal.
HIRING A SEARCHER OR PI? - Caveat emptor! Read some parameters and cautions.
THE UNIFORM ADOPTION ACT or UAA - Learn more about "The Evil Act". Coming to PA or your state?
CITY PAPER - Coverage of adoption search, law and the UAA in PA.
PERSONAL ESSAY - on adoption with info for all sides of the triad.
REGISTRIES AND GENERAL (NON-PA) ADOPTION STUFF - links to varied good places.