Legislation in Olympia would give adopted children greater access to their birth records.
OLYMPIA — Giving adopted children in Washington state greater access to their birth records is an idea that hits close to home for state Reps. Tina Orwall and Ann Rivers.
Orwall, 46, was adopted when she was 6 months old. Rivers, 45, gave her child up for adoption when Rivers was in her midteens.
Records currently remain sealed for many Washington adoptees, and Orwall set out to loosen those rules with House Bill 2211. It was after an emotional committee meeting last month, in which Rivers identified herself as a birth parent and spoke against Orwall’s proposal, that Orwall suggested they work together.
“I said ‘absolutely,’ ” Rivers recalled. “We were hugging, and I looked back, and all of the committee staff were behind me with tears and overcome with emotion as well.”
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Striking a balance between preserving birthparents’ privacy and allowing adoptees to obtain important records and medical information is the compromise that Orwall, D-Des Moines, and Rivers, R-La Center, set out to find.
“I hadn’t realized she was a birth parent until the actual hearing,” Orwall said. “After that we sat down and just started discussing it.”
HB 2211 received unanimous votes in two House committees and may get a vote of the full House this week. It faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Orwall was adopted in Florida and has parents and siblings who were also adopted. Under Florida law, she does not have access to her birth certificate — and that won’t change even if she succeeds in getting her bill through the Washington Legislature.
She has not attempted to find her birthparents, but she knows that the possibility of reunions is important for some adopted children.
Regardless, she says adoptees should have access to information about their biology and heritage.
“Birth-certificate information is bigger than just your birthparents,” Orwall said. “It’s knowing your ethnicity and knowing your family history — it’s about knowing your medical history.”
Washington adoptees currently receive amended birth certificates with the names of their adoptive parents, not their birthparents.
Adult adoptees can request the original birth certificate with the names of their biological parents, but those parents may file to keep the records sealed indefinitely.
Birth certificates of children adopted before October 1993 are automatically closed.
Orwall’s proposal would allow all adoptees to request their birth certificates and would limit the length of time birthparents can keep the records sealed without having to refile.
Part of the compromise Orwall and Rivers came to was a 10-year limit for pre-1993 adoptions and five years for more recent ones. Orwall initially proposed a two-year period, which concerned Rivers, who in her testimony said she couldn’t “imagine ripping the wound open every two years” as a birth mom.
Rivers and Orwall both feel strongly about requiring birthparents to file a medical-history form if they seek to keep records sealed. That means adopted children could get health information even if they can’t see the full birth certificate.
The proposal would also allow adoptees to ask the state Department of Health to periodically search whether birthparents are deceased. If they are, the birth certificate would be unsealed.
Sherrie Wilson of Olympia, who reunited with the son she gave up for adoption after he searched for her, testified in favor of the bill. She said that even with her consent, her now 42-year-old son couldn’t get his birth certificate. Because his adoption was before 1993, she had to request that it be unsealed and then give him a copy.
“It really has been such a blessing for me to know him,” Wilson said in a phone interview after putting her 2-year-old grandson — the child of that 42-year-old son — down for a nap.
Some people would prefer a completely open system such as in Oregon, where adoptees can obtain their original birth documents. Birthparents are allowed to attach a form stating whether they wish to be contacted.
Orwall’s proposal would allow birthparents in Washington to file similar forms.
Critics of Orwall’s proposal argue that birthparents should not have to revisit a decision to have records sealed. They’re also concerned that it would be challenging to inform birthparents about a change in the law.
“We’re always looking at balancing the interests of all these various parties,” said Laurie Lippold, public-policy director for the Children’s Home Society of Washington, a nonprofit agency that provides services for adoptive families. She testified in favor of the bill.
The bill’s future remains uncertain, assuming it passes the House and makes it to the Senate. A companion bill in the Senate never got a hearing and died in committee before a key deadline.
Orwall said she’s having an “ongoing conversation” with Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, who chairs the Senate Human Services and Corrections committee.
Hargrove declined to comment for this story because the bill has not reached his side of the Legislature.