Birth certificates for 400,000 Ohio adoptees unsealed for first time

Birth certificates for 400,000 Ohio adoptees unsealed for first time.

A decades-long political battle ends later this month when Ohio unseals birth records for about 400,000 adoptees. Reporter Chris Stewart examined what prompted the change and heard from adoptees hoping to see what’s inside their records for the first time.

• The change affects people adopted in Ohio between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996.

• About 400,000 people are estimated to have been adopted in Ohio during the 32-year span.

• Beginning March 20, adoptees can begin requesting records from the Ohio Department of Health’s Office of Vital Statistics.

• The law provided a year ending March 19 for birth parents to request their names be redacted from the records.

• Knowledge of family medical history is a primary reason adoptees request records.

• Anonymity for all parties in an adoption was previously cited as the main reason for sealing records.

• Legislation passed in 2013 due to a change in the stance of pro-life, Catholic groups.

“Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people didn’t really talk a whole lot about adoption,” said Betsie Norris, founder of Adoption Network Cleveland. “There was kind of a shroud of secrecy hanging over adoption.”

Read the in-depth report:

Shaken by the stillbirth of his daughter Cecilia, Steve Kelly asked a court to release his birth records to help determine whether he had a genetic condition that caused his wife Jennifer’s first pregnancy to end at 21 weeks.

The judge said no.

After a second daughter began having seizures at age six months, Kelly again sought the court’s intervention.

Again, a Montgomery County Probate Court judge denied his request, saying state law restricted Kelly, who was adopted in 1975, from viewing his birth and adoption records.

Kelly then took his frustration to the Ohio Statehouse, where he testified in 2013 before a Senate committee on a bill that Ohio Gov. John Kasich would sign that December, making Ohio one of 12 states to open all birth certificates to adoptees. Birth parents were given a year to request whether to have their names removed.

Kelly told lawmakers he and his wife met with genetic counselors after Cecilia was stillborn.

“Unfortunately, every response that I gave resulted in a giant question mark being placed next to my name,” he said. “That was not only humiliating, but extremely frustrating, as I felt that I had potentially betrayed my own daughter and had maybe been a contributing factor to her terminal genetic disorder.”

Cecilia died of a chromosomal abnormality known as Turner syndrome.

Following the testimony of Kelly and others exasperated that the state had put off-limits the most elemental information about their lives — ethnicity, ancestry and medical history — the Ohio General Assembly cracked the embargo preventing about 400,000 adoptees from accessing their birth records.

Beginning March 20, adoptees like Kelly — those born in Ohio and adopted between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996 — will be allowed to peer inside their files kept at the Ohio Department of Health’s Office of Vital Statistics.

For many, it will be the first opportunity to stitch together a biological past that was put under seal decades ago out of a desire to protect all parties, including the birth parents who often made wrenching choices to hand over their children.

‘I didn’t really have a home’

Marjean Akers knows exactly when she got pregnant for the first time. It was the night before her 17th birthday. A few months later she told her father, who promptly booted her from their Vandalia house.

“My father was an extreme alcoholic,” she said. “He called me some really not nice names and told me to get out.”

Akers stayed with friends for a short time and then a family acquaintance let her live rent-free at an apartment where groceries from good Samaritans regularly appeared on the doorstep. Her boyfriend, who was six years older than Marjean, was out of her life by this time, but her mother, Doris Stafford, moved in with her daughter after leaving her husband of 27 years.

On Nov. 17, 1975, 17-year-old Marjean gave birth by emergency Cesarean section to a boy at Miami Valley Hospital. She agreed to put her son up for adoption.

“When I delivered, I didn’t really have a home,” said Akers, who now lives in West Milton. “There really wasn’t any way to have kept him and given him any kind of a life.”

Complications from the delivery kept Marjean in the hospital for 11 days, so only Doris Stafford, the boy’s grandmother, was able to hold the baby long enough to carry him over a threshold and into the hands of a state guardian.

Marjean never saw her son.

‘Absurd anomaly’

The door to changing Ohio’s law was kicked open by one of the people responsible for shutting it: William B. “Brad” Norris.

When Norris adopted his son in 1957, the general public had unlimited access to vital statistics records, including those of adopted children. Like many adoptive parents then, Norris felt anonymity would be in the best interests of not only adoptees like his, but also adoptive and birth parents.

Norris, a Cleveland attorney, worked with other adoptive parents and in 1963 drove to Columbus with a draft of a bill that eventually became a law that for decades dampened the efforts of thousands upon thousands of adoptees to ever reunite with their birth parents.

Thirty years later, after raising three adopted children, Norris had misgivings about what he had done. He went to legislators again, this time seeking amends.

“In doing what I did on this 1960s legislation, I was unable to see the impact this would have on my adopted children when they became adults,” Norris told an Ohio House committee in 1994. “Subsequent events have taught me that we went too far.”

The legislation Norris backed in 1994 opened future records — from Sept. 18, 1996, on — but the state’s birth record access remained jumbled and inconsistent. Those whose adoptions were finalized before Jan. 1, 1964 — or before the law was changed — have access to their records, but those adopted in a 32-year window between 1964 and 1996 were left without equal access to their birth records.

One of those adoptees left hanging was Steve Kelly.

‘I just knew it was him’

Like many birth parents, Marjean Akers was under the impression that once adoptees turned 21 they would gain access to their birth records and perhaps begin a search for their birth parents. That’s what she hoped her firstborn would do.

“There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think about him or wonder where he was,” she said. “All these years from the age of 21 to current I just thought maybe he didn’t want to know who I was or his parents never told him he was adopted. I just had to pray he was having a good life.”

Kelly was indeed successful. He traveled the world, moved through the ranks in his career as a firefighter and administrator, and is married with a daughter and, more recently, a son. But there was something missing: information that could answer questions about his biological history.

He went to court twice, attempting to get his records unsealed. Then in 2013, with help from the advocacy group Adoption Network Cleveland, he was given the name of his birth mother.

Thirty-eight years after “Baby Boy Stafford” was born at Miami Valley Hospital, Marjean Akers listened to a voice message from a man named Steve Kelly who said he was working on Stafford family genealogy.

Marjean had never forgotten the last name of the family that adopted her son.

It was Kelly.

“Well, I couldn’t sleep,” Akers said after hearing his voice. “I couldn’t wait because I just knew it was him.”

‘I was born Nov. 17, 1975’

The afternoon after Marjean Akers heard Steve Kelly’s message she called the number he left at the precise time when he said he would be off work.

“I’m not really doing a genealogy on the Stafford family,” said Kelly, who lives in Mason. “I was born Nov. 17, 1975.”

He paused.

“You were 7 pounds, 11 ounces,” Akers told her son.

Shroud of secrecy

“Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people didn’t really talk a whole lot about adoption, said Betsie Norris, the founder of Adoption Network Cleveland, the group that helped Kelly reunite with his birth mother. “There was kind of a shroud of secrecy hanging over adoption. I kind of bought the stereotype at the time that this is better left unopened or unexplored.”

With the support of her adoptive parents, Norris — born in 1960 — began a search in her 20s to find her birth parents. Because she was adopted before 1964, she had access to her birth records but didn’t know it until six months into her search.

Soon she realized others didn’t have the same rights to their records. “It quickly hit me that people just a few years younger than me somewhat arbitrarily didn’t have access,” she said. That included her younger brother, who was born in 1963 but whose adoption wasn’t finalized until the next year.

She founded the network in 1988. A few years into her effort her adoptive father made an admission.

“My dad came to me and said he had in fact had a hand in closing the records,” she said.

It was personal

William B. “Brad” Norris, who died in 2006, “did everything he could” to overturn the restrictive law he helped write, his daughter Betsie said.

Now she is doing everything she can to help adoptees in Ohio reunite with their birth parents. Since its founding, Adoption Network Cleveland has assisted in more than 2,000 reunions between adoptees and their birth parents. Thousands more have sought help from the group or participated in meetings that are held throughout the state, including in the Miami Valley.

Like her father, Norris pushed for changes in Ohio law, often meeting with legislators unfamiliar with the adoption issues she had shepherded for years. But in 2011, a new senator representing Ohio’s 5th District took an interest in Norris’ demand for change.

For Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, the interest was more than academic.

It was personal.

Fading opposition

Beagle, whose district includes Miami, Preble, and parts of Darke and Montgomery counties, has an older brother and a sister who have no access to their birth records because both were adopted in New York, where birth records remain closed to adoptees. His sister, in particular, has unsuccessfully sought information about her birth parents.

“I think I understood better than many some of the frustrations an adoptee could feel or even that hard-to-explain feeling of maybe not knowing who you are or where you came from, and that’s despite being raised by a loving family as many adoptees are,” he said.

“I couldn’t help my sister,” Beagle said, but he could “help the 400,000 people who are like my sister.”

Beagle co-sponsored the Senate legislation in the 130th General Assembly along with Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, who is among the Ohio adoptees poised to get their records on March 20. A companion bill co-sponsored by Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, R-Marysville, passed overwhelmingly in the Ohio House during the same session.

Similar legislation had been introduced on multiple occasions but stalled amid opposition from groups fearing a spike in abortions. That opposition faded to the point that Ohio Right to Life provided testimony in favor of the 2013 legislation.

“Right to Life always opposed it because they didn’t want to go back on their word to women who placed their children for adoption who wanted the choice of anonymity,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, who is the father of two adopted children.

The power of the Internet has eliminated much of the privacy private citizens once enjoyed, Gonidakis said, and adoptees were sometimes paying huge sums to find their birth parents.

“So instead of having people jump through financial hoops to find out who their biological mother is, let’s do the right thing,” he said.

Groups such as Ohio Right to Life also were satisfied that the opt-out provision protected birth parents who wanted their privacy protected.

After the bill passed, House and Senate sponsors — along with Norris — stood behind Kasich at the bill-signing ceremony.

Afterward, Kasich turned and hugged Norris. The state, he said, should have changed the law 20 years ago.

‘Crossing my fingers’

For thousands of people in Ohio, the reopening of the records can lead to a connection, a missing piece.

For Fred Campbell the missing piece might be discovering whether the story he was told at age 13, that his father was missing in action in Vietnam, is in fact true.

Campbell is biracial, raised by a loving adoptive family in Dayton’s Five Oaks neighborhood. “I had no wants,” the Springboro resident said of his childhood.

But now that he has his own children, he wants them to know their ancestry.

“Dayton’s not that big,” said Campbell who turns 45 later this month. “I’m sure I’ve got relatives here in the area and I would like to reconnect with them.”

His knowledge about his birth parents consists of what little information his placement service, Catholic Social Services, provided his adoptive mother when he was adopted in 1970.

His birth mother was white, 19, possibly German-American; she was perhaps a department store clerk who wanted to attend college. His white adoptive family received even less information about Campbell’s birth father, only that he was black and purported to be missing in action fighting in Vietnam during the woman’s pregnancy.

Campbell questions the veracity of the few tidbits of information about his birth father and suspects an undertow of racial prejudice contributed to never knowing his identity.

“My theory on the relationship in 1970 is that she probably never told her family that she was pregnant by a black man,” he said. “I feel like race could have been a prominent factor in the situation.”

Campbell is anxiously waiting the March 20 opening of his birth records and crossing his fingers that his biological mother doesn’t come forward before then to redact her name from the birth records.

He said he doesn’t necessarily want a relationship with her, but knowing her identity could lead to finding answers to lingering questions about his birth father.

Even if the story about his father is true, perhaps he still has family in the area, or a mother who has no idea about her grandson and great-grandchildren.

“What would be better to his mom,” said Campbell, “than to know me and know her great-grandkids?”

Answers coming

Kelly was selected to be among the first in Ohio to finally get a glimpse of their birth records during a March 20 ceremony in Columbus.

Although he now knows who his birth mother and father are, the opening of the records will mark the end of years-long effort to grant access to information many take for granted.

His wife, Jennifer, daughter Caitlin, 5, and newborn son Patrick, will be there along with his adoptive parents, Joanne and Steve Kelly.

Marjean Akers will be there too.

“I remember when we were filling out the birth certificate. I remember seeing his footprint and I remember staring at it for a very long time trying to remember every little line in that footprint, knowing that I may never see it again – not knowing where he was going or if he would ever know about me,” she said.

“I just remember rubbing my fingers over his baby footprint and trying to remember everything I could about it, thinking maybe that’s the only thing I’ll have.”

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