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Adoption Disclosre is Back

September 12, 2005 permalink

The Ontario adoption disclosure law, bill 183, abandoned by the government in the spring, is back under consideration. The disclosure veto for birth parents is gone. The following article gives the legislative facts, along with a case in which adoption disclosure could have been helpful in restoring a family sooner.



Adoption changes would open door to the past

But unwanted revelations could destroy lives, say privacy advocates

Michelle Edmunds was 1½years old when she was taken from her home in Toronto and placed in foster care. But she never stopped thinking about her mother -- what she was like, the colour of her eyes, and why she had given her baby up for adoption. They finally reunited when Ms. Edmunds was 34.

Ms. Edmunds, now 42, said the happiest day of her life was when she received family photographs in the mail from her mother in 1996. Her younger brother, John James, had the same red hair and freckles and looked like her twin. The photo of her grandmother as a young woman bore an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Edmunds -- they had the same eyes and mouth.

"I could actually look at those pictures and see myself," she said.

The photos helped Ms. Edmunds fill in some of the missing pieces about her past. She began searching for her birth mother in 1975. But she does not understand why it took 21 years before she had enough information to track down her mother, who had moved to Edmonton. She also met four of her brothers and sisters and is still searching for her father.

"It's my identity. How could anybody have the right to withhold that from me? "

Ms. Edmunds decided to share her story with The Globe and Mail after the proposal of legislation in Ontario that would lift the veil of secrecy on adoption records. Hearings resume Wednesday.

Ms. Edmunds, who is single and works as a counsellor helping immigrants find jobs, is on one side of a battle, sparked by the government's efforts to bring greater openness to a process that has long been confidential.

On the other side are privacy advocates who say the government has gone too far by proposing to retroactively expose the identities of birth parents who expected decisions they made to remain private.

Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian is leading the campaign defending the rights the birth mothers who now fear exposure because they have never told even their families about having a child they gave up for adoption.

"I feel like I have no other choice," Ms. Cavoukian said. "I feel that it's my job, because there's no one else to express this view."

Under the current law, in place since 1927, adoption records are sealed. The only way for birth parents and adopted children to reunite is for both to register with the government to have identifying details revealed. Even then, a match can take as long as three years.

The proposed legislation, known as Bill 183, would allow individuals at age 18 access to their birth records, which contain their original name and information about their birth mother. Parents would have access to birth records and adoption orders once the child turns 19.

Ms. Cavoukian is urging the government to amend the bill to give birth parents and adoptees who want their identities protected an automatic disclosure veto for adoptions that occurred before the proposed rules take effect.

She's received hundreds of letters, many from elderly birth mothers who fear revelations about their past would destroy their families.

"I made the hardest decision of my life 20 years ago alone with no family knowledge of my pregnancy or adoption," says one letter. "These proposed changes could completely upset my life as it stands today."

Ms. Cavoukian said the goal of greater openness of adoption records can be achieved without trampling on the rights of these individuals and potentially destroying their lives. She has the support of every one of Canada's federal and provincial privacy commissioners and the provincial Progressive Conservatives.

Tory MPP Norm Sterling called on the government last week to withdraw Bill 183 and draft a new piece of legislation to improve access to adoption records without revoking the privacy rights of birth mothers and adoptees.

Sandra Pupatello, Minister of Community and Social Services, said there would be little point in changing the legislation if it is not retroactive. The government has amended the bill to allow adopted persons who had been victims of abuse by their birth parents to maintain their privacy and to allow others who want privacy to appear before a tribunal where they would argue that disclosure would cause significant harm.

Ms. Edmunds said her thirst for information never went away. "It wasn't a choice. It was a physical need, a craving."

At 10, she was adopted into the family that included three older children, where she had been in foster care since the age of 2. But that did not end her craving for information about her birth mother.

"Telling an adopted child that you love them does not override that physical need to know your roots," she said. "What adopted kids want to hear is who they look like, what's your mother's name, when's her birthday."

She remembers going through the telephone directory when she was 10, looking for a listing for her mother. She didn't find it.

When she was 13, her adopted family took her to the Children's Aid Society in Toronto, and asked them to give her some information about her background.

She got a document titled Non-identifying information on child prior to adoption. It had basic information about her background: she was born in Chicago on Sept. 28, 1962, began walking at nine months and had her tonsils removed at 3. It also noted a doctor observed in 1964 that she never smiled.

She spent the next 20 years feeling confused and thinking she could be related to everybody. On one occasion, she approached a haggard-looking woman in a bar -- she knew her birth mother was an alcoholic -- and asked if she had a daughter named Michelle.

In 1995, Ms. Edmunds returned to the Children's Aid Society and found out more about her family. Her mother was raised in an orphanage in Nova Scotia and she had eight brothers and sisters. One brother died in infancy and five other siblings were adopted or became wards of the Crown.

She also found out that one of her older sisters, Colette, had been searching for her for 17 years. She met her and another sister, Mimi -- in New York where they live -- and the three have become close. "We became the sisters we should have been all along," Ms. Edmunds said.

The following year, Ms. Edmunds tracked down her mother at an address in Edmonton with the help of a friend who overheard her phoning across the country. She spoke to her mom for the first time on the telephone on Mother's Day in 1996 and went to visit in September.

She said her mom was only 62 at the time, but looked like 92. Her mother told her she had tried to find her many times but that no one would give her any information.

Ms. Edmunds was struck by one overwhelming emotion. "l lost her for 34 years and then had her for eight months. I never really cried because I didn't know her well enough."

The reunion was bittersweet. Her mother died two months later of pneumonia.

Source: Globe and Mail