Adoptive birth certificates to be unsealed

Posted Nov. 25, 2008, at 8:47 p.m.

Beginning on Jan. 2, people adopted in Maine who are 18 or older will be able to find out the names of their birth parents.

A state law passed in June 2007 takes effect on the first of the year, allowing Maine adoptees unobstructed legal access to their original birth certificates for the first time since 1953.

That’s the year state law decreed that the birth certificates of adopted children should be sealed and stored, and opened only under court order.

“A lot of people are very excited to get at this information,” said John Hachey at the Office of Vital Records in Augusta. “The interest has been huge. I expect I’m going to be very busy.” Hachey said he has already heard from about 40 adoptees asking to have their birth certificates unsealed, photocopied and mailed to them as soon as possible.

To identify the correct birth certificate, Hachey will need the child’s name after adoption, the date of birth, and the town of birth, if known.

There are about 24,000 adoptees living in Maine, and approximately 15,000 of them are 18 or older, according to Catherine Robishaw, director of the Falmouth-based nonprofit organization OBC for ME. (The name stands for Original Birth Certificate for Maine.) In addition, there are many others who were adopted here and are now living outside the state. For each of these individuals, there is on file in Augusta a sealed birth certificate identifying the birth mother and, in most cases, the father.

The main impetus for the new law is to make it easier for individuals who were adopted to discover familial medical conditions, said Robishaw, who is an adoptee. After an independent search determined that her own birth mother had died of a form of cancer, Robishaw said, she grew more alert to her own health status. When she developed symptoms of the same disease a few years later, she was able to have it quickly diagnosed and successfully treated.

“Everything turned out OK for me because I was able to be proactive,” she said. “It made me wonder why I should be so lucky to find this information out when others are [unable] to find it out.”

Armed with the names of their birth parents, many people will be able to use the Internet or other resources to locate their families of origin, Robishaw said. In addition to accessing important medical information, the birth certificate also may be valuable for obtaining official documents such as a passport or for genealogical purposes, she said.

For birth parents, the new law provides an opportunity to attach two documents to the original birth certificate: a form that indicates their willingness to be contacted by a now-adult child they gave up for adoption, and a medical history. If provided to the Maine Office of Vital records, these two documents will be included with the birth certificate if it is requested.

Hachey said so far only two birth parents have submitted the optional documents, but he expects many more will be forthcoming.

Robishaw, along with a broad coalition of other adoptees, spearheaded the effort to provide access to birth records. The new law is modeled on similar legislation in New Hampshire and Oregon.

The legislation that created the bill was controversial, Robishaw said, in part because birth parents have been led to believe the records would never be unsealed.

But, she said, birth parents give up all rights to the children they surrender for adoption, including control over the information on the birth certificate, which is owned by the state.

Robishaw said a survey of Maine birth parents in the 1980s showed that the majority would welcome being contacted by their grown children. And while some birth parents may fear that their adopted children will look for them even if they indicate they would prefer not to be contacted, Robishaw said that in New Hampshire and Oregon there have been no reports of such violations.

Forms for adoptees and birth parents are expected to be available by mid-December on the Web site www.obcforme.org.

Adoptees interested in obtaining their original birth certificates and other available materials are invited to attend an informational and support meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Norway Savings Bank on U.S. Route 1 in Falmouth.

Additional information is available by calling Catherine Robishaw at 671-1375 or by e-mailing her at tmc3910@yahoo.com.

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