By Gregory B. Hladky
12:25 PM EDT, October 23, 2013
Genetically speaking, about 70,000 people in Connecticut are living in an informational black hole that could end up killing them.
That's approximately the number of adoptees here, and a Connecticut law passed in 1975 prevents them from finding out who their birth parents were. Often, that means they also can't find answers to potentially life-saving health-history questions.
Did their biological parents or grandparents suffer or die from cancer of one type or another? Is there a history of diabetes or heart disease in their family? Are they at risk from any other genetically related ailments?
"This is a critically important thing," says Karen Caffrey, a member of Access Connecticut, an organization working on behalf of adoptees looking to gain the right to information about their birth families.
Experts say about 2 percent of the American population is adopted.
Caffrey is adopted herself, and managed to discover her birth mother's name and made contact several years ago. In the process, she discovered her maternal grandmother died of breast cancer and her paternal grandmother died of colon cancer — information that may help Caffrey avoid an early death from either of those causes.
Access Connecticut has been working for years to overcome official resistance and privacy concerns that have kept Connecticut from repealing that 1975 law and giving adoptees the right to see their birth and family adoption records.
In Connecticut, an adoptee can apply to the state for "non-identifying" information from their adoption and birth records, including a summary of their birth family medical history at the time of the adoption.
But that can be a time-consuming and often frustrating experience, particularly since the decades of family health history since the adoption won't be included. Fees for record searches at private adoption agencies can cost upward of $300, according to Caffrey.
Caffrey and other activists believe public opinion is coming around in their favor (November happens to be National Adoption Awareness Month) and that 2014 could well be the year their campaign for access rights succeeds.
Supporters of adoptee rights say many of the concerns about the privacy of birth mothers date back to the era of the 1950s and 1960s, when society scorned single mothers and often forced pregnant girls to give up their babies.
A documentary entitled "A Girl Like Her" (to be shown Nov. 9th at Real Art Ways in Hartford) details the trauma so many birth mothers went through and the reality that most who gave up their babies to adoption do want to reconnect.
Caffrey says the stereotype so many people buy into is that these women "freely chose to relinquish their children and moved on with their lives... That's a complete myth."
Laws like Connecticut's also don't take into account the overwhelming desire by many adoptees to find out who their real parents were, what they looked like, and where their ancestors originated.
"Most people, when they get accurate information [about what birth mothers, adoptees and adoptive parents really want], they support our position," Caffrey says.
A University of Connecticut survey found that 85 percent of residents in this state support the idea of access to those sorts of records for adoptees. Five other states (including Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island) have passed similar laws allowing adoptees access to birth and adoption records since 2000.
Connecticut activists came excruciatingly close seven years ago.
The General Assembly approved legislation that would have granted adopted people the right to get their birth certificate when they turn 21. The voting was tight in the state House (79-64), easy in the Senate (28-8), and none of it made any difference.
Connecticut's governor at the time, M. Jodi Rell, vetoed the legislation.
Rell, like other critics, feared that the change would violate the privacy rights of mothers who gave up their babies for adoption and didn't want to be contacted by those children later or have the fact of that adoption known at all.
According to Rell, many women may have agreed to give their babies up for adoption only because all that information would be kept secret. She said the proposed change in the law would "violate that principle" of privacy rights.
"This question of privacy is a nagging one," says state Sen. Ed Meyer, a Guilford Democrat. Meyer has repeatedly offered legislation to overturn that 1975 ban, even if it's only for people who are adopted after the bill would become law. And he's failed every time. He tried again this year.
"We have not been able to get that through," says Meyer. "The hold-up is a conceptual hold-up." At the legislative hearing on the 2013 version of the bill, almost all the testimony submitted supported passage. Just about the only opposition came from the state's Department of Children and Families.
The DCF position was the same as Rell's in 2006: "There are many birth parents who gave up children for adoption with an expectation of anonymity and their privacy should be protected."
Gov. Dannel Malloy hasn't yet weighed in on the issue. Asked for a comment on adoptee rights, Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba pointed out that talks are scheduled between Access Connecticut and DCF.
"While we are concerned about respecting the privacy of birth parents who relied on confidentiality when they gave up their children," Doba responded last week in an e-mail, "the commissioner [of DCF] will meet with advocates to discuss the issue and hear their perspectives."
Which, of course, doesn't commit Malloy either way.
Meyer says doctors and other medical experts have repeatedly testified that adopted people need to know about their family's genetic background. "That's been very popular," he says.
Despite his past failures, Meyer says he plans to try to raise the adoptee rights issue once again in 2014. Caffrey and his other activist allies insist they can pull it off this time around.
"We're much more organized, we're doing more groundwork," Caffrey says. "We're getting more people involved."
Caffrey argues that lawmakers and Malloy may (since 2014 does happen to be an election year) be more inclined to listen to the arguments of adoptees now than in the past.
"Society has changed," she says. "We're going to reach a critical mass at some point."
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