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For more information about the new law, visit: www.doh.wa.gov/LicensesPermitsand Certificates/BirthDeath MarriageandDivorce/Adoptions/Adoption LawSHB1525.aspx
For hours, state legislator Ann Rivers listened to mostly joyful testimony of adoptees reuniting with their biological mothers.
Those who spoke urged Washington lawmakers to allow adopted children to access their original birth certificate.
Finally, Rivers spoke up, telling her colleagues a voice was missing: What about the mothers who had conceived under "less-than-delightful circumstances," women who had given up a child and wanted to move on with their lives?
"I'm that mom," the La Center Republican said.
After her emotional revelation and a subsequent vote, the then-House member stood up, walked to the back of the committee room and hugged the measure's chief sponsor, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who was adopted. Rivers knew she had killed that version of the bill.
The two went to lunch after the 2012 hearing. On Tuesday, the compromise measure they crafted takes effect.
For the first time, many adoptees in the state of Washington will be able to see the name of their birth parent. Nearly 500 people have already alerted the state's Department of Health they would like their birth certificate and officials are expecting more once the measure takes effect.
Most adopted people in the state have different versions of their birth documents. The first is their original certificate, listing their birth parents, which is often sealed. The second is their amended certificate, showing whatever the judge ordered, perhaps including adoptive parents, foster parents and maybe even a different name for the child.
Starting Tuesday, the law allows those adopted on or before Oct. 1, 1993, to access the original version of their birth certificates, unless a parent has filed a form denying access. Even if the parent indicates he or she does not want their name known, medical history will be released. Previously, adoptees could ask the court to appoint a confidential intermediary to search for the biological parent. But the process could be cost-prohibitive for some.
For those born after Oct. 1, 1993, the process generally has not been as difficult.
Donna "Marie" Bruin has a photo on her desk at work. It's a shot of her as a little girl, with her adoptive father.
"I always thought it was a picture that would help ground me — that's your beginning and where you go from," she said. "And for some reason it reminds you more of being lost than belonging."
Bruin was born at Vancouver Memorial Hospital. For most of the 54-year-old's life she's weaved together a narrative of her birth parents and their story, based on tidbits of information she managed to gather over the years.
Bruin believes she was born out of a brief affair at a time when mixed-race relationships were frowned upon. Her mother, who's 5 foot 3 inches tall with red hair and blue eyes, left home to hide her pregnancy. But when one of her other children fell ill, she risked pariah status and returned home to care for the child, Bruin believes.
Only a loving mother would do that, right?
"I think she did what she did for my benefit, so I didn't have to live a life where people are whispering," Bruin said.
She wonders if her father, an African-American man in the military, knows of her existence. And of her four older half-brothers, she would hope "having a sister of multiple ethnicities isn't as hush-hush, taboo or horrible as our generation or the generation before us thought it was."
Bruin doesn't know what she will do with the information. Perhaps, just seeing her birth mother's name will be enough. She would likely be in her 80s now.
Or, "it would be nice to meet her," Bruin said, "if I didn't disrupt her life."
Bruin said she would like to tell her mother: "I turned out all right. I'm smart. I'm fine. Life has been OK."
And maybe she would finally feel like she belongs.
Adoptee, birth mom
Growing up, Orwall celebrated two birthdays: the day she was born and the day she was adopted.
Despite never looking for her own birth family, the lawmaker and chief sponsor of the measure, said she understood the issues adoptees face: not knowing their medical background or even their ethnicity. It took three years to get the measure through both chambers. On the day Gov. Jay Inslee signed the measure into law in 2013, Orwall, who was born in Florida, decided to seek out her own biological family.
She had always wondered about her birth family. But listening to the testimony and hearing people's stories, she was ready to find her own.
The wondering, Orwall said, "doesn't go away."
When Orwall was contacted by The Columbian this month, her children were at the movies with their biological cousins who were visiting from out of state. She had reunited not only with her birth mother, but three younger siblings.
"It's been incredible," she said, "very life-changing."
Orwall toured the town where she was born and saw the hospital.
"When you're adopted, we're all told birth stories and it's never accurate," Orwall said. "So I got to hear what really happened."
Rivers declined to tell The Columbian much about her personal story.
"I was 14, in Michigan, and I don't really like to talk about the circumstances other than to say they were not pleasant," she said.
Her biological daughter has her medical history, Rivers said, but the two do not have a relationship.
"Certainly, I can tell you this: There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about my daughter and … wish the very best for her," Rivers said.
Both lawmakers called it the most personal measure they have worked on.
Because birth parents can still block their children from accessing their birth certificates, Penni Johnson said the legislation was disappointing.
"Someone I don't know having the right to deny me access to my own birth certificate is ludicrous," said Johnson, who started the group Wa-Care, Washington Coalition for Adoptee Rights and Equality.
Johnson will continue to lobby that all birth certificates be available for adoptees without restrictions. She noted that she can't stop her children from accessing their birth certificates, but someone who "signed us away 40 or 50 years ago has a special privilege denying a document" that belongs to her and could help shed light on where she belongs.
She's already found her birth mom and sisters, but still, "it's about my beginnings of life," she said. "Adoptees are the only citizens in this country not allowed to have their birth certificate."
Rivers said although she's pleased with the final product, she knows there are people on both sides who are unhappy. "Information is power," Rivers said. "We tried to strike a balance and I'm sure we didn't reach perfection, but we made a good start."