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Published: Monday, 4/7/2014 - Updated: 7 months ago

RECORDS TO BE UNSEALED

New law opens window to adoptees’ history

Parents could choose to stay unknown

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
Greg Burnham, 43, was adopted in Ohio during a time when records were automatically closed. Greg Burnham, 43, was adopted in Ohio during a time when records were automatically closed.
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COLUMBUS — Greg Burnham was born in Toledo Hospital and adopted as an infant, finding himself living on the opposite side of the chain-link fence from the now demolished Miami Children’s Home, where he spent the first days of his life.

Soon after his adoption was announced in a newspaper, his adoptive mother received a call from an anonymous woman who seemed to know a lot about the child. She never identified herself.

Currently serving in the Navy near Tampa, Fla., Lieutentant Burnham has placed his information with an adoption registry in hopes his birth mother would do the same. There were no hits.

With Ohio preparing under a new law to open records that have been sealed for decades, he said he has to be prepared for the possibility the woman on that phone 43 years ago was his birth mother — and she still may not want to be known.

“If that’s the case, that’s their decision, and as much as my decision to try to find them, I respect that,” he said. “If they don’t want to be located, there’s a reason.”

On March 20, a one-year window opened for those who put children up for adoption between January, 1964, and September, 1996, to submit forms to the Ohio Department of Health providing contact information if their birth children decide to access their previously sealed records. The birth parents also have the option to request that their names be redacted from the original birth certificates released to their children.

If they choose the latter, they would instead submit family medical and social history that would be added to the adoption file. The law also requires the state to develop a system through which the adopted child may pose medical history questions to birth parents who wish to remain anonymous.

Once the one-year window closes in March 20, 2015, the original birth certificates will be considered public records available for release. A birth parent could no longer request that information be withheld.

Senate Bill 23, sponsored by Sens. David Burke (R., Marysville) and Bill Beagle (R., Tipp City), overwhelmingly passed both the House and Senate last fall and was signed by Gov. John Kasich on Dec. 19. It is expected to give about 400,000 adopted Ohio children who were born during a 32-year crack between laws access to records that have been much easier for others like them born before 1961 and after 1996.

The state is largely counting on word of mouth to reach birth parents for whom the rules are changing.

“We don’t track anyone down,” said Rena Boler, adoption manager with the Department of Health. “... There is information on our Web site for birth parents. ... There would be no way to [track them], because the information we have on them on the original birth certificate is in a sealed envelope. We only open them once we receive the form. Even then, there would only be the address at the time of birth.”

As of this week, she said the department had received about 10 forms from birth parents, largely evenly split between favoring contact with their children and requesting that their names be redacted from birth certificates. The state also has received some forms with medical history as well as social history such as the mother’s marital status and age at the time of the birth and such things as hair and eye color and other nonidentifying information.

Department information is available at www.odh.ohio.gov.

Linda Schellentrager, spokesman for Adoption Network Cleveland, said the organization has reached out through social media and newspaper stories.

“That is tricky thing,” she said. “We don’t really know how to reach everybody. We’re doing everything within our power to get the information out there.”

It was never a secret in the Burnham family that Greg and his younger sister were adopted from different birth parents. Today he’s a father himself and realizes how little information he has about his medical history.

“I am my own medical history,” he said. “I went into the military in January, 1989. I’m back on active duty after years in law enforcement.”

He’s been unable to answer routine questions from doctors about his family’s medical history, of whether certain diseases and ailments run in the family.

“Is there a genetic predisposition for my son?” he asked. “Obviously, I’ve passed a slice of myself to him. How is that going to affect him when it’s time for him to reproduce? What sliver of me will he pass on?”

He’ll have to wait nearly a year, but even should his birth mother not reconnect with him, he could get those questions finally answered.

His son is 19 and attending a culinary school in Denver.

Lieutentant Burnham is an anti-terrorism force protection officer who works to ensure that special operations forces have the training and equipment they need before being deployed to bases. Between stints in the military, he has worked in law enforcement with the Pinellas County sheriff’s office and the city of Largo near St. Petersburg, Fla.

He said he has never understood how his adoption should be treated differently than someone adopted before 1964 and after 1996.

“It’s frustrating, just because of the time,” he said. “Adoption is adoption.”

But Ohio law has changed over time, and during the period when Lieutentant Burnham was born, adoptions were considered closed under the presumption that anonymity for birth parents would make it more likely that a woman would carry a child to term rather than opt for abortion.

Michigan also has multiple rules for the opening of files of closed adoptions. For those born between 1945 and 1980, the birth parent must give consent, and only a court order could otherwise release the information.

For other dates, the information may be released to the now-adult adopted child as long as the biological parent has not placed a statement in the file denying access or the birth parents are dead.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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