Motherhood—it can be the most exciting moment in a woman’s life when she finds out she is pregnant. However, for those women who face pregnancy alone, without a husband, it can be a terrifying prospect. Over 75 percent of the 31,882 abortions performed in North Carolina in 2008 were to unwed mothers. Many of those unwed mothers were probably looking for a way to avoid the difficulty of single parenthood or the shame of unwed pregnancy. For a frightened woman, who has just learned she is pregnant with a child she does not want or feels she cannot keep, and who is looking to keep the pregnancy a secret, there are really only two options—closed adoption or abortion. A bill pending in the General Assembly would essentially eliminate closed adoptions in North Carolina, leaving abortion as the only truly confidential option for women facing a crisis pregnancy.
When a mother or couple decides to place a child for adoption, a wide variety of relationships with the birth family, child, and adoptive family are possible—from completely open to completely closed. More than two-thirds of adoptions in the U.S., which do not involve a relative, report having a pre-adoption agreement or post-adoption contact between families. Contact can range from letters between the biological and adoptive parents to telephone calls to visits as often or infrequently as desired. Today, less than five percent of adoptions are closed—without contact between the birth parent(s) and the child. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some circumstances where a closed adoption is in the best interest of the child include the inability of a birth parent “to maintain appropriate relationship boundaries with a child due to mental or emotional illness” and such excessive “violence directed at a child that any contact with that parent would only result in more trauma for the child.” Additionally, in instances where pregnancy resulted from sexual abuse, a woman may not be emotionally capable of interacting with that child, despite understanding the value and right of the child to live.
In 2008, the General Assembly established the Confidential Intermediary (CI) program in North Carolina primarily as a means of easing the process for adult adoptees to find and contact their birth parents. North Carolina’s adoption statutes permit an adult adoptee, or the adoptive parents of an adoptee to request non-identifying copies of the adoption documents and health information. If that request is denied, the person may “petition the clerk of original jurisdiction for review of the reasonableness of the denial.” Both before the institution of the CI program and still today, a person seeking identifying information in a closed adoption could petition the court, which then determines whether cause exists for the release of such identifying information.
The law that passed in 2008 to establish a non-court path for attempting to obtain identifying information or to establish contact defines a CI as “a licensed adoption agency staff person who may act as a third party to facilitate the sharing of information” between adult adoptees and biological relatives in an attempt to establish contact. Under the CI program, an adult adoptee contracts the services of a CI, who then searches for the biological parent. If the parent is found, any attempts to facilitate contact, and the obtainment or sharing of information can only occur “with the written consent of all parties.” HB 1463—Expand Access/Confidential Intermediaries would expand the persons able to participate in, and the information able to be shared through, the confidential intermediary program.
Expanding Access. House Bill 1463 would expand the list of persons able to access confidential intermediary services to include not only those immediately impacted by the adoption, but also adult biological siblings and half siblings of adult adoptees, adult family members of deceased adoptees, and adult family members of deceased biological parents. In expanding access to CI services to extended relatives of adoptees and biological parents, the bill maintains the requirement that all involved parties must consent to contact or information sharing. Additionally, even if the CI services do not involve a biological parent, but rather extended relatives, “written consent of the biological parent is required if the biological parent is living at the time” the services are contracted. HB 1463 would also allow confidential intermediaries to obtain a copy of a death certificate if the person being sought is deceased, and to provide that death certificate to the individual who contracted for the confidential intermediary services.
The CI program in North Carolina only requires the consent of one party in order for a search to be initiated and a non-consenting person to be contacted about an adoption. Many parents who placed their child in a closed adoption did so with the understanding that they would not be contacted again regarding that decision. Contact made by a confidential intermediary to the biological parent on behalf of any of the parties listed in the bill represents a fundamental violation of the parent’s decision to remain anonymous. It also violates the implicit contract with the state for privacy when a woman chose a closed adoption. There is fundamentally no difference in principle than if the state decided it would renege on its contract to pay retirees what they are owed after a career in state government. Most egregiously, the bill could lead to the disclosure of identifying or contact information of adult adoptees and their biological family members without their prior consent, compromising the very intent of closed adoption.
Expanding Access to Relatives. Although the confidential intermediary program requires the consent of both parties and a biological parent (if still living) before contact is made between them, by not requiring the consent of both biological parents and by allowing parties beyond the adult adoptee and the biological parents to use the program, the likely result will be the disclosure of identifying information, even if accidental. Many or all of these biological relatives may not even be aware the adoption ever took place.
Death Certificates. Similarly, providing a copy of the death certificate of a deceased biological parent to an adult adoptee would disclose the identity of the biological parent, regardless of whether or not the biological parent would have consented to such a disclosure. Utilizing various sources, such as an obituary published in the local newspaper, the adult adoptee could easily identify and contact the surviving spouse, children, parents, other relatives and close friends of the deceased biological parent. The deceased biological parent may never have disclosed to these individuals that they had placed a child for adoption. The disclosure of such information could cause significant family disruption and harm the reputation of the deceased individual.
North Carolina law is very clear that an adoptee’s legal ties to their biological parents and family are entirely severed at adoption. North Carolina’s adoption statutes recognize the following:
HB 1463 would further compromise the bright line established by these statutes. As such, it would eliminate a woman’s ability to choose a closed adoption in North Carolina by enhancing the possibility of non-consensual identity disclosure intentionally or accidentally at a later time.
Parents who would be most adversely affected by this bill are the same parents who wish to maintain their anonymity. It is important to recognize that because these parents are concerned about the disclosure of their identity, they are far less likely to come forward in vocal and visible opposition to these kinds of bills. As such, it is incumbent upon members of the legislature to act in the best interest of protecting those parents who make the very difficult decision to give a child up through a closed adoption process.
It is not right for the state to change a law under which closed adoptions have historically taken place. Such adoptions are based on the assured anonymity of parents’ identities, and HB 1463 would increase the opportunity for those difficult decisions by parents to be violated.