JEFFERSON CITY • Almost at the start of business hours Monday, eight people waited in a conference room at the state records office for something that had been out of their grasp for decades: their original birth certificates.
They paid $15, filled out yellow forms and waited intently for state workers to retrieve the documents from a storage facility 10 miles away. Their requests would take about two hours to process, but most agreed that wasn’t long compared to nearly a lifetime of waiting.
Until Monday, such documents had been under seal by state law. The birth certificates possibly held the names of birth mothers and fathers the adoptees had longed to know. Though some of the adoptees waiting on Monday had determined those names with the help of private detectives and volunteer adoption searchers, a few had not.
They included Raymond Diven, 91, of Cameron, Mo., who hoped to find out the name of his birth father. And Dean Mitchell, 76, who had driven from Broomfield, Colo., in hopes of learning the identity of both his birth parents so he could tell his grandchildren about their heritage. And Herman Denkler, 76, of Benton, Mo., who has spent most of his life wishing he could meet his birth father.
For years, the Missouri Adoptee Rights movement has been lobbying for more lenient laws on adoption privacy.
On Sunday, members got their wish when a Missouri law took effect enabling adoptees born before Jan. 1, 1941, to obtain their original birth certificates.
State Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City, an adoptee who previously reunited with his birth parents, sponsored the bill. He said the legislation succeeded after handlers agreed to remove a passage allowing access of the birth certificates to lineal descendants — meaning the children and grandchildren of adoptees still cannot obtain the birth certificates after their deaths.
Phillips said Monday he expects to sponsor legislation to further open the records. He stood in the conference room, ready to hand out the birth certificates after they arrived from storage.
Monday marked the first of several changes for adoptees. About a year and a half from now, Missouri law will become even less restrictive. On Jan. 2, 2018, adoptees born after 1940 and who are at least 18 years old will be able to request their original birth certificates. For this group, the law will have some limits. Birth parents who want to remain anonymous may file a document with the state that would effectively redact their names from the original birth certificate. If both birth parents file the same document, the original birth certificate will remain sealed.
Patti Naumann, an adoption rights advocate from St. Charles, said she expects very few birth parents to do so, and most everyone who requests their birth certificate at that time will likely get them. In Oregon, where adoptee birth certificates were unsealed some 18 years ago, only 86 birth parents have come forward and requested no contact with their birth children among more than 11,000 requests for original birth certificates.
Clues are sparse
When Diven was in his early 80s he learned he was born Sept. 29, 1924, at 3:50 a.m. in the Willows Maternity Sanitarium, a Kansas City home for unwed mothers that operated from 1905 to 1965. A redacted adoption record gave him only the sparest description of his birth parents. His dad, for example, was 20, weighed 150 pounds, stood 5 feet, 8 inches, had blue eyes and was “town and country reared.”
The lack of information was vexing to him. Had he been born two miles away in Kansas, he might have learned his birth father’s identity. Unlike Missouri, Kansas has no restrictions on adoptees obtaining their original birth certificates.
“My adopted mom and dad and my sister, they couldn’t have been any better to me,” Diven said. “But there’s just so much I want to know. With my dad I only have his height and weight, eye color and that he was ‘town and country raised.’ It covers everything, but it doesn’t cover a damn thing. Know what I mean?”
Mitchell, of Colorado, was born at another maternity home in Kansas City — the Cradle. When he arrived at the state office Monday he hoped to learn the identity of both his birth parents. He suspected he had German heritage and wanted to know so much more. The only clue he had came from his adoptive mother years ago: a bottle of formula that came home with them on adoption day had the name Ernst on it.
Heather Dodd, president of the Missouri Adoptee Rights Movement, said Missouri adoptees have had to live with these frustrating mysteries. She said adopted adults should have the same right to know their heritage as anyone else.
Lobbying for open records became more urgent in recent years as many adoptees realized they might not live to see the laws change. Several arrived at the state office Monday with the help of canes and walkers.
Surprises and setbacks
Groups opposing the changes included nonprofit and religious agencies that handled adoptions decades ago. They argued that opening the records broke a sacred promise of anonymity made to the mothers, many unwed, when they agreed to the adoptions.
But advocates argued that times have changed, and that the emotions associated with unwed pregnancy are overshadowed by adoptees’ need to learn essential information about medical histories, relatives and where they came from.
“What people I don’t think realize is, the birth certificate is really part of my identity. It’s not just a piece of paper,” said Don Schroeder, of Holts Summit, Mo. He learned his birth father’s identity in 2014 and later connected with a half brother who lived about an hour away. “You really don’t know what your true identity is until you get that paper, and you can see your name on it.”
Finally, a little after 10:30 a.m. Monday, a state worker appeared in the doorway of the conference room with a neat stack of sealed envelopes.
“The big moment is here,” Phillips told the group and then reminded them they had the right to open their birth certificates in private, if they chose. Diven and the others would have none of that.
“I’m going to stay up here and open this up right now,” Diven declared to applause as he ripped open the seal and gaped at the paper for a few seconds before uttering, “Nope.”
His birth father’s name was not listed. He said he would work through a DNA registry to get more clues.
Things turned out differently for Denkler. His birth certificate contained the name of his birth father. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers and nearly cried.
And the surprise of the day went to Mitchell.
“I have my mother’s name and father’s name,” he excitedly told the group to an outburst of applause.
He found his birth father’s last name was Ernst — the name written on his formula bottle the day he was adopted more than seven decades ago.
This story has been updated with the following correction: Only 86 birth parents in Oregon have requested "no contact" with their birth children among more than 11,000 original birth certificates requested from the state since a law made them available to adoptees 18 years ago.