Iowa adoptees seek access to birth certificates


birth certificates

Danielle Gehr

For Michelle Spear, gaining access to her birth certificate is about control.

Spear is the founder of the Iowa Adoptee and Family Coalition whose purpose is to give Iowan adoptees access to their original birth certificate which a law has blocked them from doing since 1941.

The main argument against granting access is that the names of parents who wanted to remain anonymous would suddenly be revealed. Spear said her goal is not to find anything out. She wants to be like most adults in Iowa.

“For our goals and our purpose, it has nothing to do with finding things out for us. It’s that we’re adults,” Spear said. “It is our desire to, just like anyone else in the state of Iowa, to have a copy of our original birth certificate.

“We feel … that they’re treating us like second class citizens, so to speak, and that we are not worthy of handling our own affairs.”

The Iowa Adoptee and Family Coalition is a Facebook group with around 950 people from in and out of Iowa who follow it. Some of the followers are adoptee rights lawyers and concerned legislators. Many of them are Iowa adoptees themselves.

All are in favor of granting adopted people access to their birth certificates.

Spear emphasized this isn’t a fight for the rights of adopted children. This about giving adults access to this document, so they can handle their own affairs.

Adopted people don’t run into these issues until they turn 18.

Spear’s cause has been tossed back and forth in the Iowa legislature since about four years ago when Rep. Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, first wrote the legislation. This wasn’t the first time the issue was brought to the state level.

Wessel-Kroeschell said a woman contacted her after she filed the bill saying she was glad Wessel-Kroeschell was bringing the issue back to the Iowa Legislature. This woman was a part of a group who tried and failed to give adoptees access to their original birth certificates in the ‘90s.

This time around, Wessel-Kroeschell is fairly confident that they’ll get the legislation through.

“I think because we had long enough discussions and there’s bipartisan support for it that there’s a chance that we might be able to come to a compromise,” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Hawaii, Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine are the only states where adoptees have complete access to their original birth certificate.

There are 17 states which are described as compromised states where the rights are still limited, but some adoptees are able to access their original birth certificate.

Iowa, along with 22 other states, is described as having restricted access, meaning no adopted person can have access to their original birth certificate.

No one in the state of Iowa has access to their original birth certificate if they’re adopted. When adopted, that person’s birth certificate is amended to appear as if the adoptive family gave birth to them. The original birth certificate is then sealed.

The original law sealing adoption records was put in place in 1941, making Iowa what is called a closed state. This law originally protected adopted people and their families from having to produce a birth certificate that showed a child was illegitimate.

Birth certificates at the time were stamped illegitimate.

The law was originally to protect adopted people, but Spear said, now that times have changed, the law must be reversed.

Spear explained the birth certificate doesn’t get amended until the child is adopted, so a child who is in foster care until they are five years old would’ve had their original birth certificate up until that point.

This is where adoptees run into issues.

If the filing date on a birth certificate exceeds 18 months, people have difficulty when getting a passport. Spear said that person would be required to produce other information which they do not have access to—including their original birth certificate.

Daughters of the American Revolution is an organization that would be off limits to adoptees in Iowa since they require an original birth certificate to prove lineage.

Other amended certificates offer vague or incorrect information. One women in the organization has a certificate that says she was born in Des Moines but fails to disclose a hospital or exact location.

Her husband’s time of birth was incorrect on his birth certificate.

“This law is antiquated,” Spear said. “It’s not, it doesn’t need to be in today’s world. We are trying to educate them, the legislators, to understand why this is important and I think that once you hear why you want it and what it is about it’s pretty cut and dry.”

For Spear, she was adopted not long after her birth, so her amended birth certificate is similar to what her original birth certificate says.

The law as a whole is fairly uncontroversial, but still has difficulty make it through legislatures around the country.

“The controversy arises in the fact that there are some women who have never disclosed to their current family that they had children previously,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “Before they met a husband or before they had the children that they’ve been raising. They haven’t disclosed that and if they haven’t disclosed that and they are afraid to disclose it, and they’re afraid of the reaction that their family will have, then it becomes an issue.”

However, with easy accessibility to DNA testing, the state wouldn’t be the first to disclose the biological parents’ identity.

Provisions in the current legislation would require that the state send out notices that the birth certificate with the parents’ name will be made available.

“When you sit down, and you talk to the individuals who are promoting it, their question is, or their argument is ‘it’s a document that’s only about me. It’s a legal document and it’s only about me and I’m not allowed to see it, I’m not allowed to have a copy,’” Wessel-Kroeschell.

Missouri is one of the more recent states to grant compromised access to adoptees. Parents are still able to ask not to be contacted or to only be contacted by an intermediary.

There are currently eight states including Iowa with pending legislation. During the 2017 legislative cycle, the bill received a hearing for the first time which resulted in a request to refine the language.

“We shouldn’t be hiding things from adults,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “We shouldn’t be hiding heritage from adults, and another argument they made is they said, ‘You know, my biological mother and father decided they wanted to be secret from me, but nobody asked me. And so that was their decision. I’m an adult, now I get to make some decisions about me.’”