Senate Bill 859

On Monday, Oct. 15th, 2001, a public hearing for PA SB 859 by the Senate Judiciary Committee resulted in a long and positive day of testimony. Despite the testimony of three members of the Catholic conference in favor of keeping all adoption records sealed, five adoptees and birthparents testified to the contrary. In fact, the "OBCs for all adopted adults" testimony of Cyn Holub, Mari Steed, Sue Romberger, Kristi Blazi, and Judy Cotten led to many interested questions from the legislators, who seemed intrigued by how this might be accomplished in PA.

As a result, post-testimony support was critical and letters were needed to show that the folks who testified were not a minority but representative of the norm.

This bill is in the past now, but info about it is left here to help others who might seek to reform adoption law.

Essentially, SB 859 rewrote most of PA's adoption code, and a lot of it was good- BUT- there was bad here too that needed to be amended. If passed as written, SB 859 would have divided adopted adults into two classes: those adopted before and after its passage. (This all hinged on the assumption that before the bill's passage b-moms were promised "confidentiality" even though it is not in the law nor in relinquishment documents.) If you were adopted AFTER its passage, you would have been allowed to get your OBC info unconditionally, but if you were adopted BEFORE it, you would not have had equal rights to this info.

Other Concerns about SB 859

•If adopted BEFORE this bill passed, you could not get identifying info unless your b-parent has filed an "authorization of disclosure". If adopted AFTER, you could get it if your b-parent has not filed a veto.

•Time period for a birthparent to revoke a decision to place a child for adoption was extremely confusing, potentially leaving them unclear on whether they should or should not request a hearing. If a b-parent did not request a hearing, the option to revoke was lost in 20 days. If they DID request a hearing then the time period may have been extended until the time the adoption becomes finalized, BUT at the hearing parental rights may get terminated on the spot. The revocation period needed to standardized, with or without a hearing and to more than 20 days- maybe 60-90.

•A prospective adopting family was not required to have a home study done within the standard 30-60 days before getting the child- in fact, a homestudy as old as one year was considered "current".

•Non-id was defined, but there was no mandate for collection of a standard minimum; a form needed to be developed, including health history exceeding two generations. A person needed to be made responsible for collection of non-id and health history so it could be accurately disseminated to adopting parents and later, adopted adults.

•Had this passed, adoption agencies going out of business or wishing to dispose of files would be required to turn them over to the state, while private adoption attorneys MAY have sent theirs to the county of finalization. This is critical personal history. This needs to be mandated, not a suggestion.

•The bill purported to create registries for social and medical purposes, but PA has them already and they do not work- unknown to people searching, useless for those who are dead, who do not know they are adopted, who cannot accurately recall a date of birth or whose information is incorrect. They make us feel better that something was offered, but they do not work, and are no substitute for rights.

Write Your Letter!

These are proposed letters that were offered for others to send, to urge the amendment of this bill. They are left here in the hope others will note important points to observe in future bills.


Sample #1-

Dear Senator:

I am writing to you to ask that you please amend SB 859 to support the right of adult adoptees to access unconditionally their original birth certificates.

While there are some good changes within it, this bill as currently written does not treat adopted adults as equal citizens entitled to their original birth certificates. It divides them into those adopted before this bill's passage and those adopted after it, by recognizing the access rights only of those in future adoptions. Those already adopted continue to be treated differently, given no OBC information, but a bigger search system instead, and one they have to pay for.

The right to one's own unaltered birth certificate is a fundamental one to which all citizens are entitled, regardless of the circumstances of their birth- circumstances over which they had no control in any case.

To those who suggest that birth mothers were promised confidentiality, it bears noting that this could never be rightly promised. First, who could be sure the laws would never change? Also, the process of relinquishment makes this promise untrue. If a relinquished child is never adopted, they maintain the right to their original birth certificates, while it is only the adopted person who loses this right. So could anyone guarantee a birth parent that a child would be adopted and not go to foster care?

Adoption is not a shameful process, and it's time to stop treating it as one.

I also suggest amendment of this bill to include a consisent revocation period for birthparents regardess of whether or not they request a hearing, a mandate for a final homestudy to be conducted 30-60 days prior to the arrival of an adopted child in a home, the development of a form for non-id and heath history to ensure it is uniform, collected, and able to be accurately disbursed to adoptive parents and adopted adults on request, and a mandate for adoption attorneys to turn adoptions records over to the county of finalization upon retirement or when desiring to dispose of files.

(IF YOU ARE A BIRTHPARENT) As a birthparent who relinquished a son/daughter in PA in 19xx, I never wanted or asked for confidentiality, nor was I told my child's birth certificate would be altered. While I may not have wanted my name in the local newspaper, my decision was to not to parent my child, not to condemn them to second-class citizenship or hide from them.

(IF YOU ARE AN ADOPTEE) As an adopted adult, I believe it is time to be treated as a full citizen, and not as a potential hazard to my birth parents. I have a right to obtain the original, government- held records of our births in the same manner as all other adult citizens. Birth is a shared event; whether I choose to search or not, these documents are mine.

(IF SIBLING, A-PARENT OR CONCERNED "OTHER") As a _____, I believe it is time to treat adopted adults as a full citizens, and not as potential hazards to birth parents. They have the right to obtain the original, government-held records of their births in the same manner as all other adult citizens. Whether they choose to search or not, these documents are theirs.

Please amend SB 859 to allow all adopted adults access to their own original birth certificates.

Sincerely, name address/phone number

Sample #2

Dear Senator:

As an adoptee rights activist and Pennsylvania resident, I urge you to amend SB 859 to support the right of adult adoptees to access unconditionally their original birth certificates. The bill as it stands grants this only to adoptees who are adopted after the passage of the Act, and condemns the rest of us to an increasingly convoluted and expanded confidential intermediary system (SB 859, Chapter 26). While there are a good many laudable improvements to current adoption statutes in this bill, its failure to restore the rights of an entire class of citizens to equal protection under the law cries out for amendment. We adoptees are tired of being treated like second class citizens, like children who cannot manage our own private affairs, or like potential criminals from whom our birth parents need protection. We have a right to obtain the original, government-held records of our births in the same manner as all other adult citizens.

I'd like to address some of the myths the opposition to open records likes to bring up against us. The myth that allowing adult adoptees to obtain copies of their own original birth certificates would lead to more abortions is patently false, as the states (Alaska and Kansas) and countries (most of what we used to call the Free World) which have allowed this access for decades have lower abortion rates than those states and countries with sealed records. Allowing this access has also not had a negative impact on the adoption rates in those places.

The most prevalent myth concerns birth parent privacy. There is a crucial distinction to be made between privacy and secrecy. The sealed records system has always cloaked itself in secrecy; its foundation was the culture of shame which stigmatized unmarried mothers and their bastard children. Things which are shameful are kept hidden and secret. As long as the sealed records system with its secrets and lies continues to exist, an aura of shame will cling to adoption. If there had been a real concern for birth parent privacy, records would be sealed at relinquishment, but they remain open until an adoption is finalized, which can take months or years. Indeed, if an adoption never takes place and a child lingers in foster care, the original birth certificate is *never* sealed. The original intention of sealing these records was not to protect the birth parent, but to shield the adoptive family from scrutiny by outsiders, and to protect the adoptee from the shame of illegitimacy.

Privacy is another matter. There is no explicit right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution, so case law has been required to flesh it out. The federal Sixth Circuit Court has ruled in the Tennessee case of Doe v. Sundquist (Feb., 1997) that issuing original birth certificates to adult adoptees does not violate their birth parents' right to privacy, and the Oregon Court of Appeals concurred in a decision regarding that state's adoptee rights initiative, which passed in Nov. 1998.

While some agencies may have promised eternal anonymity to birth mothers, others were told that their children would be able to obtain their documents when they grew up (and indeed this was true in PA until 1985).

Which promises do we honor? How could anyone in all good conscience have made a promise which effectively denied another entire group of people their rights? How could anyone have made a promise that a law would never be changed? If such a pledge of secrecy was made by adoption practitioners, it was a bad promise and should not be upheld by the state. The law denying us access to our own records needs to be corrected retroactively as well as prospectively, as have other heinous laws in our nation's history.


Cynthia Bertrand Holub
address & phone number

Contact Information for the Senate Judiciary Committee

As stated above, this bill did not pass, but the info here is to help other efforts in the future.

Real snail-mail letters are always the most effective. There were only 13 people on the Senate Judiciary Committee. How much would YOU be willing to pay in postage for decent adoption legislation in our state?

If this bill had passed, it was likely Pennsylvania wouldn't have re-visited adoption issues for years. Legislators don't like to go back over what they believe is resolved. This is why it's critical to get a clean bill with no holds barred for adult adoptee access to original birth certificates.

Your support through letters and emails is important when bills arise.
When ever we have the legislators' collective ears it's important to speak!

If you want to read the full text of this massive overhaul of PA adoption law, click here.
If you'd like to see what Bastard Nation has to say on this bill, go here.

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