Claudia Vercellotti of Toledo spent years trying to unlock the mystery of her past. Long after her adoption was finalized, she became severely ill and needed to know her family medical history — but her birth records were sealed under Ohio law.
“Nobody should have to beg or grovel to find out who they are,” Vercellotti told the Columbus Dispatch. “This was like a pseudo-witness protection program.”
That’s now changing. A new law went into effect Friday that allows people adopted in Ohio between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996, to apply to see their previously sealed birth records. About 400,000 records have now been unsealed, and Vercellotti was first in line at the Ohio Department of Health Vital Statistics Office, the Dispatch reported.
People born before that time period had access to their birth files, but lawmakers sealed them in 1964 over concerns that the records were available to anyone.
Advocates lobbied for a change, and in 1996, state lawmakers once again opened the files, unless birth parents denied access. But the law wasn’t made retroactive, leaving those born between 1964 and 1996 in the dark, unless they could obtain a court order to have their records unsealed.
The law was not made retroactive for those caught between the two laws because of pressure from groups, including abortion opponents who feared it would discourage people considering adoption, said Betsie Norris, executive director and founder of Adoption Network Cleveland, and an adoptee who led the fight to change the law.
Norris’s father had actually drafted the 1960s law that sealed the records, but he later supported her efforts to unseal the records, the Plain Dealer reported.
Norris has already been reunited with her birth family, but she told the Plain Dealer that what adult adoptees “want is that birth certificate. It’s a validation of something every other American takes for granted. It’s part of their life.”
With the documents about to be unsealed, a number of adults who had been adopted as children descended on the Vital Statistics office in downtown Columbus early Friday morning, eager to be among the first to apply for their birth certificates.
Some birth parents who pushed for the change were also eager for the records to go public.
“Birth mothers don’t forget, and some of us have lived a personal hell due to the fact that we had to give up part of us, our hearts, our souls, the day we signed the relinquishment papers,” 51-year-old Patricia Knowles told the Plain Dealer. Her son, Michael, was born 32 years ago, and she has readied a packet of information for him, should he choose to apply for his original birth certificate.
Birth parents had the opportunity to have their names redacted on the birth certificates. According to Norris, about 100 did so, the Dispatch reported.
The files typically include original birth certificates. The state expects requests to roll in over the coming weeks and months.
According to American Adoption Congress, an advocacy group, 18 states allow adult adoptees to have partial or full access to their original birth certificates.
“I have been waiting for so long to find out my history, who I originated from,” 48-year-old Dorothy Johnson told the AP. The Youngstown police officer waited in line, hoping to discovery her birth mother’s identity. She had been told her mother was 13 in 1966, the year Johnson was born.
Unlocking the past could bring pain, too.
Norris told the Plain Dealer, “there’s not always going to be a happy story, obviously.”
But, she added, many adoptees feel “I want to know what that story is, and I’m strong enough to handle it. I know there could be some difficulties, but I’m in a place now where I want to deal with this. I want to get the truth.”