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Missouri adoptees view birth certificates

Supporters and family members gather to shoot a group picture of adoptees who requested copies of their birth certificates at the Missouri Vital Records office in Jefferson City on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. A new law that took effect Monday enables adoptees who were born before Jan. 1, 1941 to obtain copies of their original birth certificates which sometimes include the true identities of their birth mothers and fathers. In 2018, the openness expanded to all adoptees over age 18 unless the birth parent wants his or her name redacted. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-disptach.com

JEFFERSON CITY • A law enacted two years ago to help adoptees in Missouri track down copies of their birth records is being dogged by delays.

Although the Department of Health and Senior Services previously warned adoptees that they might face up to a six-month wait, the delay now is stretching to the nine-month mark.

More than 3,000 adoptees are affected by the delay, and some are expressing frustration.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Gerelyn Hollingsworth Weil, a St. Louis resident who was adopted in 1942. She has been waiting for her records since January.

“Five months is a long time to wait, after a lifetime of waiting for sealed records to be made available to the people they’re about,” Weil told the Post-Dispatch.

Michelle Newell of the Adoption Triad Support Connection of St. Louis said the two-person staff at the agency was not enough to keep up with the demand.

“The state of Missouri didn’t expect the abundance of people filing requests for their records,” Newell said Monday.

In 2016, then-Gov. Jay Nixon signed the Missouri Adoptee Rights Act, which allows adopted Missourians over the age of 18 to have access to their birth certificates.

Previously, a person needed a court order to request the original birth certificate.

The measure was praised by adoptee rights groups, who viewed it as a way for adoptees to determine whether they could face health issues because of their genetics.

Opponents argued that women who put their children up for adoption were made a promise of confidentiality at the time.

The new law came in two phases.

Last August, adoptees born before 1941 were given access to their original birth records. In January, those born after 1941 were given the ability to access them too.

To make a request, an adoptee must complete an application, pay a $15 fee and have the paperwork notarized unless it is submitted in person to the vital records office in Jefferson City.

Megan Hopkins, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said 848 individuals had been provided with a copy of their original birth certificate or notified that the agency did not have a record on file for them.

As of June 11, there was a backlog of 3,480 requests for original birth certificates. Some of those include applications that contain insufficient information to identify a record, applications that are being researched, and applications waiting to be researched, Hopkins said.

“These requests are being diligently researched in a first-in, first-out manner,” she added.

One problem could be a lack of adequate staffing at the agency. Hopkins said no additional funding nor employees were included in the budget to comply with the new law.

On its website, the agency says adoptees should allow three to six months from the date of submitting an application to receive the records “due to the demand for these records and the research required to find and process these records.”

Now, Hopkins said, the wait could be longer.

We are currently estimating six to nine months as the wait time for an adoptee to receive a copy of their original birth certificate,” she said.

“That’s infuriating,” Weil said.

Two key proponents of the change in law are urging adoptees to be patient.

Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City, an adoptee who sponsored the legislation, said it was not a question of if, but when people would receive their documents.

“They are as shorthanded as can be,” Phillips said. “As it is, they are doing the best they can.”

He said he planned to talk with new Gov. Mike Parson about potential solutions, such as hiring additional workers or transferring a current worker into that department.

“We’ve even talked about volunteers,” Phillips said. “But that opens other questions, such as privacy issues.”

Patti Naumann of the St. Louis adoption triad said early estimates had the waiting period set at about six to eight weeks.

But, she said, “The volume of people making requests was much more than anticipated.”

And, Naumann added, workers shouldn’t be rushed to fulfill applications.

“I think the state is very concerned that the process is flawless. They don’t want to release incorrect information. I think they are doing the best they can,” Naumann said.

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch