Bill That Would’ve Granted Adoptees Access to Birth Certificates Fails on Senate Floor

Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) at a press conference in 2020. File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

When Thomas Diepenbrock, an adoptee in Maryland born in 1969, began his search for his birth family in the mid-1990s, he faced many bureaucratic challenges — one of the most arduous being obtaining his original birth certificate, he told a Maryland Senate committee in January.

Under current Maryland law, birth certificates of those adopted between 1947 and 1999 are sealed and only available under a court order. Individuals born on Jan. 1, 2000 and after, however, can get access to their original birth certificate and adoption records as long as their birth parent did not file a “disclosure veto,” which allows a biological parent to have no background information revealed.

There have been no disclosure vetoes filed since 2017, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

Although Diepenbrock got a court order to have his records opened, he was not allowed to see them and they were sent to his original adoption agency instead.

But the adoption agency was not willing to share any information unless Diepenbrock made a generous donation, he said during the bill hearing in January. “No donation, no search,” Diepenbrock said a social worker told him.

“Maryland law prevented me and still prevents me from knowing my own name,” Diepenbrock said. “This is a human rights issue.”

Senate Bill 331/House Bill 999 would have allowed all adult adoptees 18 years and older unrestricted access to their original birth certificates and adoption records without a court order. It would also change the “disclosure veto” option into a “contact preference form,” in which a biological parent or adoptee can state whether they prefer to be contacted or not.

Approximately 70,000 sealed records of those adopted between 1930 and 2000 would become immediately available if this proposal passes, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

Some adoptee advocates have spent the last few decades trying to change state law, arguing that it is their human right to have access to their birth certificates and to know where they came from. Meanwhile, opponents support the birth mother’s right to privacy.

“Birth records belong to the child, not the parent,” Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), the bill sponsor, said on the Senate floor Monday night. The measure is intended to update the current law so that all adoptees, regardless of what year they were born, are treated equally, Lee said. The current date-based discrimination is arbitrary, she said.

Although lifelong anonymity was not guaranteed to birth parents by law, opponents argued that this measure would invade the privacy of birth mothers who were promised anonymity and do not wish to be contacted.

“A mother who was raped as a teenager, who became impregnated due to incest, may have married, may have remarried, may have a new family, may have a life and has never shared with her family a tragic story from her past,” Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) said Monday.

“It is not the job of this body to rip away her privacy and take away her choices that she made in a really challenging situation.”

Many adult adoptees also say it is a matter of health equity to know their birth family’s medical history, which could be potentially life-saving.

But Kagan said health information can be made available through an intermediary, so that birth mothers still have the choice to stay private.

Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said that her adopted grandchild’s birth mother relinquished her child without anyone in her family knowing. “She wants nothing, there’s no recognition, she wants no contact at all, and that’s her right,” King said.

But Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) argued that every person has an equal right to know who they are.

“The world is changing. It’s not static, and our understanding of human rights change with it,” Kelley said. “It is wrong for anybody born as a human being, to not be able at least by the time they reach the age of maturity, to be able to know who they are and to whom they are related.”

Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) shared a story about a woman who came to his wife’s pro-life counseling clinic for help and wound up staying with his family during the process of placing her child for adoption. She signed papers saying she did not want to be contacted, and although he lost touch with her, Reilly said he has a feeling that she would still stand by her decision today.

“This bill will tear families apart, and I want no part of it,” Reilly said.

Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Carroll and Frederick) said the bill would break promises made to birth mothers that their personal information would never be divulged. Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) said the proposal would “take us out of whack, out of the balance, between the right of adoptees to know versus the rights of privacy to the birth mother and birth father.”

The only written testimony opposed to the bill came from a group called Maryland Right to Life. Without a disclosure veto option, birth mothers who would have chosen adoption will instead choose abortion, they wrote.

However, lifelong anonymity has no legal standing, as birth mothers were never guaranteed confidentiality in surrender documents, according to Elizabeth Samuels, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. In fact, records were sealed mostly to protect adoptive families’ privacy and to preclude unwanted interference from birth parents, contributing to an old culture of secrecy around adoption, she continued.

A 1980 commission on adoption laws appointed by the governor found that “the birthmother herself had no choice about future contact with her relinquished child.”

Open adoptions, which allow birth parents to have contact with the adoptive family, have become the norm in recent decades, advocates said.

Eight states, New York being the most recent, have passed legislation that would grant adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates.

In lieu of birth records, adoptees have resorted to private investigators and more recently, DNA tests, to find their birth families. Even if birth mothers were promised confidentiality, it would be rendered nearly impossible now because of technological changes and widespread DNA testing, which could reveal not only birth parents, but also extended family members, advocates say.

Given this reality, only a state law stands in the way of an adoptee from claiming their full identity, Lee said.

In the 1960s, Linda Clausen relinquished her two sons in Vermont and reunited with them 30 years later. She said she was not promised confidentiality. Since then, Clausen has facilitated support groups for adoptees and birth parents and advocated for adoptee rights in various states, including Maryland.

“I’ll never forget the time a woman turned around and looked at me and said ‘Linda, what do you think, do you think I’m Italian or do you think I’m Greek?’” Clausen said in an interview. “I think she was in her 40s, and she had to ask a question like that — it made me so sad.”

Last year, a similar measure passed the House of Delegates in a 131-7 vote, but stopped short because of the abbreviated legislative session. A hearing on the House version of the bill this year was canceled.

Kagan had prepared an amendment to Lee’s bill, though it was never read on the floor after lawmakers started to debate the Judicial Proceedings Committee’s favorable report — by an 8-3 vote — on the bill.

After about 30 minutes of debate on Monday night, Lee’s bill failed in a 16-31 vote. It had passed the Judicial Proceedings Committee with no amendments. SB 331 is the second bill that has failed on the Senate floor after being voted out of committee this legislative session.

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