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Senate panel advances bill to open adoption records

January 14, 2015

Advocates of opening Indiana’s adoption records won an emotional first round Wednesday as a Senate panel advanced legislation that for the first time would open birth records of hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers.

“It’s a really happy day for us,” said Marcie Keithley Roth, a supporter of Senate Bill 352. The bill would repeal laws that prohibit release of identifying information for adoptions finalized before 1994.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-2 to advance the measure to the full Senate. Sens. John Broden, D-South Bend, and Joseph Zakas, R-Granger, cast the lone votes against the bill, though other senators expressed concerns.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, championed the bill and testified on its behalf before advocates shared their stories of seeking answers to the basic question, “Where did I come from?”

Pam Kroskie, president of the Indiana Adoption Network and Hoosiers for Equal Access to Records Inc., said she was reunited with her biological mother in 2011. Tearfully, she said her birth mother died of breast cancer a year later. “It’s given me a chance to make sure I had early detection,” she said.

Kroskie said Indiana’s laws prohibiting access to adoptees’ birth records are outdated, and changing the law would open the records for about 350,000 Hoosiers who currently cannot access them without going to court and securing the services of a confidential intermediary between them and birth parents, sometimes at considerable cost.

Kroskie said 14 states have opened birth records to adopted children. “My hope is Indiana will be the 15th state.”

Roth, who placed her child for adoption in 1978, testified current laws reflect “a society that no longer exists,” in which pregnancy outside marriage was often seen as a shameful secret. She said the laws should change with the times instead of only protecting birth parents.

Adoptee Jon Casebere of Auburn testified that when he turned 18, he went to the courthouse to try to get his birth records, but he was denied. Years later, he found his birth mother through the services of a confidential intermediary, but it cost him $500.

It turned out he’d been working alongside his biological mom in the same factory for years and they had known each other through work.

Casebere learned his biological father had died of prostate cancer at 28, and his father’s siblings had died of cancer at an average age in their 40s. Now in his early 40s himself, he knows he may have a genetic predisposition.

“We deserve to know the first chapters of our lives,” he testified.

But Indianapolis adoption attorney Steven Kirsh opposed the bill. He testified that adopted children already have a means to access records as long as the birth mother consents. “Our adoption laws are among the best in the country,” he said.

Kirsh and his sister, Jill Freeman, who provides services as a confidential intermediary in his office, testified that the bill would break an implicit promise of confidentiality granted to mothers who made that difficult decision more than 20 years ago to place their child for adoption.

“The risk of doing this could be horrific to those mothers who don’t want to be contacted,” Kirsh testified.

Senate Bill 352 would allow a mother who placed a child for adoption to file a no-contact form that would continue to keep the records sealed. Advocates of the bill say that in states that have opened adoption records, only about 0.1 percent of mothers have done so.

But Kirsh contested those figures based on cases in his practice working with mothers on adoption plans. He said about 10 percent of birth mothers either want no contact with the child or would allow release of records only through an intermediary.

Asked by Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, if he believes adopted children have a right to know who their biological parents are, Kirsh said, “No. … The adoptees’ need to know is not greater than the birth mother’s right to privacy.”

But Steele said the only potential harm to Kirsh’s 10 percent of birth mothers who don’t want contact is emotional harm, whereas adopted children may not know of possibly serious genetic health conditions.
 
“I do see a difference,” he said.

Steele noted after the hearing that he’d voted against similar measures in the past, but his mind was changed after a personal health challenge. He developed a tumor that could have become cancerous, he said, followed by skin cancer that doctors told him was genetic. He said his three sons got genetic tests afterward.

“Our world has changed,” Steele said. “I’m weighing emotional harm (for a birth mother) vs. physical harm.”

But Zakas and Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, said they were concerned about the implicit promise of confidentiality to birth mothers. Glick nevertheless voted to advance the bill to the full Senate, and Zakas expressed hope that if the legislation passed, its effective date may be delayed to provide mothers adequate notice to file no-contact orders if they choose. As currently written, the bill’s effective date is July 1, 2016.

Kroskie acknowledged the proposal still has an uncertain future in the General Assembly, but after trying in prior years to get similar measures through committee, she said she believes advocates of opening adoption records have momentum.

“It’s like a weight has been lifted, for sure,” she said after the bill advanced.


 

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