Pence administration’s concerns stall bill to open adoption records


Dave Stafford for

Adopted adults deprived by law of access to their birth records were dealt a setback Monday when a Pence administration official testified against a bill that would open those records to some 350,000 Hoosiers.

“We do still remain conflicted and have concerns about the bill as it is written now,” Lindsey Craig, family policy director for Gov. Mike Pence, testified before the House Judiciary Committee. “We believe the state did make a promise to birth mothers” to protect their identity when they placed their child for adoption.

Craig also said the administration believes birth parents need more notice than a year to determine if they wish to opt for a no-contact order the bill would allow. “We just want to be respectful to all the Hoosiers who would be affected by this,” Craig said.

Craig was among a few who testified against Senate Bill 352, which easily passed the Senate in January.  The bill would permit adult adopted children born between 1941 and 1993 to access their birth certificates, which adopted adults born before and after those dates may do.

The committee chair held the bill from a vote Monday so that a potential amendment can be drawn to address concerns.

Supporters want Indiana to become the 15th state where adoptees have access to birth records, and they dismissed the concerns opponents raised. They said in states where access to records has been opened there have been no problems, and adoptees gained access to valuable information including potential genetic health risks.

Opponents including Indianapolis adoption attorney Steve Kirsh said the state’s current system already allows adoptees to get records through confidential intermediaries, something his sister does for clients at his law practice.

“There are (birth parents) out there who don’t want to be contacted,” Kirsh said. While he said he was sympathetic to the desire of adult adoptees to be able to get their birth certificates, he testified, “their entitlement to the information is no greater than the birth mother’s right to privacy.”

Proponents of access to birth records, including bill author Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, disputed that birth parents were ever made promises of privacy or confidentiality. They said the bill would simply give all adult Hoosier adoptees the same rights.

“We are not the scared, pathetic teenagers we once were,” testified Marcie Keithley-Roth, who placed her child for adoption in the 1970s, a time when she said a young single women with no resources was stigmatized if she became pregnant.

“We do not need protection from our own offspring,” she said. The current law “may have been well-intended but was very short-sighted.”

Adoptee Melissa Shelton recalled learning of her siblings through the confidential intermediary process. She saw her brother for the first time when he was in a casket after dying from colon cancer. “That’s just something horrific no one should have to do,” she said.

“We make this process (of accessing birth records) very, very difficult and very, very expensive for adoptees born before 1994,” Shelton testified. “The system in Indiana is broken, it’s not the solution, and it’s not a compromise.”

University of Baltimore law professor and adoption expert Elizabeth Samuels testified that laws in Indiana and elsewhere never guaranteed lifelong anonymity for birth parents. In her experience, she said, “birth mothers, overwhelmingly, they support this access.”

Samuels said laws that foreclosed access to birth records weren’t meant to protect the birth mothers, but rather the adoptive family.

Steele said his support of the bill has engendered more positive recognition from his constituents than any piece of legislation he’s backed in more than 20 years at the Statehouse. He said a walk through the not-so-distant legislative history sheds light on adoptees referred to as “bastards. … That’s the way it was burned in our statutes,” he said. “It was considered a shameful thing.”

In his law practice, Steele said he’s handled enough adoptions to know that no promises of privacy or confidentiality are extended to birth parents. Even so, the bill would allow birth parents to sign no-contact forms if they choose.

“Fear of this bill is what I call down home, looking for alligators in mud puddles,” he testified.