The open adoption records bill that emerged from an emotional City Council debate this week is a considerably weakened version of the measure introduced a year ago by council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large).
The legislation, which passed its first council test by a 7-to-2 vote, would open District of Columbia court and adoption agency records to adopted children after they reach the age of 21 and after they meet several other conditions. These include attempts to obtain the consent of their biological and adoptive parents. The council will vote a second time on the bill.
The original version of the bill would have allowed adoptees access to their records when they reached 18 and would not have required them to obtain parental consent.
The compromise bill did not totally please either side. Supporters of open adoption records argued that adoptees have a right to information about their heritage and the medical history of their biological parents. Opponents predicted that the legislation would result in an increase of black market adoptions and abortions if parents who give up their children can no longer be guaranteed anonymity.
A measure of the emotionally charged nature of the issue was the impassioned declaration of council member Willie Hardy (D-Ward 7) that she was "sick to my guts of this legislation . . . (It) will destroy the freedom and dignity" of biological parents who give up their children for adoption.
Hardy, the mother of an adopted child, said that "there will be fewer and fewer children offered for adoption" if the bill becomes law. After closing her argument against the bill with a plea that the council "support the rights of birth parents," she lowered her head and wiped tears from her eyes.
Mason said that as "the child of an adopted person (her father) who lived 76 years searching for his parents," she believes "there is more than one side to the issue." She said it was "a tragedy" that her father, "who prayed in tears every day that he would find his mother," could never find her.
The bill according to council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), attempts to "balance the needs, desires, emotions, etcetera of what is sometimes called the adoption triangle," which is made up of the adoptee, the birth parents and the adoptive parents. Clarke is chairman of the judiciary committee that revamped the original bill to include the provision that the consent of birth parents must be sought before records can be opened.
Under present Law District records can be opened only when a court decides the information they contain will "promote or protect" the welfare of the adopted person. Courts have usually allowed access to information such as medical histories when adoptees can prove a serious need for it, but they have refused to disclose names of biological parents.
Despite the restrictions written into the bill during judiciary committee sessions over recent months and last minute amendments approved at the council meeting this week, the legislation, if it becomes law, would place the District of Columbia in the front of a nationwide movement toward open adoption records.
In recent years, growing numbers of adult adoptees have begun to search out their birth parents and to push for legislation that would allow them free access to records. So far, however, only six states - Alabama, Virginia, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota and Ohio - have open adoption records laws.
Several amendments introduced at the council meeting this week by Chairman Sterling Tucker were adopted after bitter debate, and resulted in several of the major changes in the legislation. These included the requirements that adoptees reach the age of 21 before they can request access to their records, and that the consent of one or both adoptive parents be sought, in addition to that of the birth parents, before records are opened.
Another Tucker amendment extended the waiting period for constent from birth parents from the 90 days specified in the original version of the bill to 180 days. If a birth parent cannot be located within the six-month period is over, the records would be opened. The same conditions would apply to obtaining consent from adoptive parents.
In another change, the city would be required to counsel adoptees about the possible social and psychological effects of seeing their records and of making contact with birth parents.
Tucker told the council he might not be able to vote for the bill after the amendment calling for consent from adoptive parents was defeated. Clarke asked that the amendment be vote on again; the amendment was then approved and Tucker later voted for the entire bill.