ORLANDO, Fla. – For many adopted children in the state of Florida, there is a curiosity or sometimes even a need to connect with birth parents. The curiosity comes from an adoptee wondering: Where did I come from? Who were my parents? Why was I given up for adoption? The need arises from questions about genealogy, medical and mental illness history or even the intrinsic desire to meet parents, siblings and relatives.
Curiosity and needs for an adoptee in search of his or her family in the Sunshine State, however, don’t bode well. Current Florida law makes it difficult, if not almost impossible, for an adoptee to gain access to his or her original birth certificate, or OBC.
“After the finalization of the adoption, the original birth certificate is sealed in the file,” says Nicole Moore, a Florida Bar-certified adoption lawyer and member of the Florida Adoption Council. “An amended birth certificate is issued with the child and the adopted parents just as if the child was lawfully born to the adoptive family.”
And getting access to the original birth certificate?
"Lots of luck."
That quote comes from state Rep. Richard Stark, D-Pembroke Pines. Stark is an adoptee, and when it was time for him to search for his birth parents, he got lucky.
“When I was in my 30s, as an adult adoptee, I wanted to find out who my original family was,” Stark told News 6.
Despite his court records being sealed, Stark was able to find his birth parents even in the pre-internet 1980s.
“I do think that the climate of adoption has changed over the years, and I do think that there is an increasing need for adult adoptees to gain information,” Stark says.
The south Florida lawmaker also thinks the time has come for more states to relax their rules and make it easier for adoptee adults to find their birth families.
In 2015, Connecticut gave adoptees born before 1983 access to their birth certificates. A new bill introduced this session would make access to birth certificates for all adoptees in Connecticut universal. Ohio also changed its birth certificate law in 2015. Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana and Missouri each had new OBC laws kick in last year. New Jersey’s open-access rule became state law on Jan. 1, 2017, and Texas is in the midst this spring of voting on a new law to unseal hundreds of thousands of adoption records.
Despite the trend of many other states loosening their rules, according to the Donaldson Adoption Institute, Florida is still in the minority and lumped in with 20 other states and the District of Columbia that provide no access for adoptees to obtain their OBCs without an order from a judge.
“There’s a movement nationwide by adoptees like me to change the law in the various states,” says Stark.
And for Florida, Stark has fired the first shot to get that movement up and running.
Earlier this year he introduced HB 257, legislation to allow adoptees, after they turn 18, to request a copy of their original birth certificates.
“I was lucky enough to find, you know, my birth family. A lot of people cannot,” he says.
Though well-intentioned and a critical part of adoptees discovering more about themselves, critics believe Stark’s bill needs to take into account not only the wishes of the adoptee, but also the implied privacy of the birth parents.
State Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, who is also adopted, thinks Florida’s law provides protection that may not be fully appreciated on first glance.
“Rep. Stark’s bill would be more palatable if there was an opt-out,” Brodeur told News 6 last week. “I can't imagine what it could do to individual and family lives if someone were to unexpectedly show up. Just the prospect of that alone may lead some women to terminate the pregnancy, rather than give that potential adoptee a chance at life.”
Brodeur adds, “If it was a Florida state law that every child who turns 18 can find the names of the birth parents, I believe some may rather opt to terminate the pregnancy.”
Moore has a somewhat similar but not as ominous concern, not looking ahead to what might happen, but instead concerned about repercussions because of language in the present bill.
“The biggest issue that I have with the bill is that it’s retroactive,” she says. “I think that opens up huge concerns for privacy violations of women who have placed, under the assurance that their last name and their choice to place, their entire adoption would remain confidential.”
Moore believes any type of legislation has to consider the rights of everybody involved: the so-called triad made up of the child, birth parents, and adopting parents.
“I do think that the climate of adoption has changed over the years, and I think that there is an increasing need for adult adoptees to gain information,” she adds. “But I think that we could do it in other ways, and I think that it must be done with the birth parents’ consent.”
Brodeur weighed in on this point as well.
“By definition a 'reunion' requires two or more parties, not just one armed with mandatory information, and a possible chip on their shoulder,” he said
One alternative to help all parties hinges on a state system that has been around since 1982.
The Florida Adoption Reunion Registry will link up adopted adults, birth parents and birth siblings who are all trying to find each other. Sounds good, but there’s one major catch: atAt least two parties have to be registered in the database, like an adoptee on one side and the birth parents or birth siblings on the other, for possible matches to work. The site cannot take information from one party to search outside the registry for the other.
According to the website, FARR has over 6,200 people registered and helps facilitate about six to eight connections each month.
HB 257 probably won’t make it out of committee this year, even with the introduction in the Senate of a companion bill, SB 434 by state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. In the complicated world of state politics, both the House and Senate need to move forward on introductory legislation to give any bill a fighting chance of being made into a law.
Sen. Baxley’s office told News 6 there wouldn’t be a push on their side for a change in the law governing access to birth certificates by adult adoptees after Rep. Stark informed them his version had stalled.
“Without the House version moving, the Senate bill would not accomplish anything alone,” they added.
“There are a lot of adult adoptees in the state that want this bill passed, and many more supporters,” says Stark.
He thinks however that with some tweaks and rewording, his bill will have better support and a better shot of passing next year.