Color me concerned. I have seen the Donaldson Adoption Institute’s announcement of its “OBC2020” project. The Institute states that the project is intended to “extend” its work on OBC research by creating an “organized advocacy campaign” that will “empower needed change and ensure that all states without access have an active and robust OBC access campaign in place by 2020.” The project, of course, has a catchy and well-branded social media message as well as an extremely ambitious if not confusing goal. But I have serious initial questions and concerns about the project, its goals, its commitment, and its overall execution.
1. What is Donaldson’s Specific Interest in This?
The Donaldson Adoption Institute grew out of the New York-based Spence-Chapin adoption agency, with which it currently shares at least one of its officers. It continues today to serve all parties and interests in adoption and pursues in part the “engagement of all members of the adoption and foster care adoption communities, including the professionals that serve them.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this origin and mission, and Donaldson has in fact developed solid research materials and resources for adoptee advocates to use in arguing for unrestricted access to an original birth certificate (OBC). That has been Donaldson’s strength, and I’ve used those resources myself in legal briefs and arguments.
Now, though, it seeks to “extend” its role to adoptee activism and to a fairly nebulous role in political organizing within the adoptee community. With this, it steps far out of its core triad-based mission and into a position that does not bode particularly well for adult adoptees. Why? Because adoptees almost always lose when triad interests are explicitly accommodated within the context of OBC access. Minnesota, where I practice law, was the first state forty years ago to enact a confidential intermediary system for OBC access. Despite advocates at that time pushing for unrestricted access to their own OBCs, a legislator required the parties to accommodate all triad interests, leading to a badly compromised bill that has, to this date, become an expensive and complex disaster for Minnesota adoptees. Numerous compromised bills followed in other states, and compromised bills continue to be proposed and pursued across the country today. When one compromise bill passes and is enacted, it is then held up by advocates—and even opponents—as a way to enact what looks like, but is not at all, “adoptee rights” legislation—i.e., it is sold as good for all, acceptable to all, but unfortunately it is not even close to equal for all.
Accommodating adoption triad interests in OBC access legislation makes losers out of adoptees and carves empty promises out of their rights. Even suggested accommodation of triad interests in OBC access signals that compromise is intended if not expected. Because, once triad members are promised a full seat at the table, corresponding rights with the OBC are implied to exist for birth parents and adoptive parents—even if those rights never existed. It has almost always been this way with accommodation and compromise, from Minnesota in 1977 to Missouri in 2016. Given Donaldson’s origins and its stated goal to engage “all members of the adoption and foster care adoption communities, including the professionals that serve them,” it is more than reasonable to ask this: what is Donaldson’s own specific interest in extending its adoption industry work to pursue “organized advocacy” around OBC access? Adoptees deserve a clear answer to this.
2. Who Is Involved in This?
Specifically, who has participated with Donaldson in developing and pursuing the OBC2020 concept and project? So far, though I may be misinterpreting this, I believe at least one Indiana adoptee group has been involved: Indiana Adoptee Network (IAN).
IAN, however, grew out of the success of compromised OBC access legislation in 2016 that, similar to Minnesota’s 1977 law, will leave many adoptees with redacted OBCs, some redacted beyond the death of a birth parent. Because adoptees have been misled and misrepresented numerous times on what should remain core commitments to their civil rights, it is critical to know who is on whatever “OBC2020” committee and what commitments, if any, those participants have in securing or advocating for unrestricted and equal access to original birth certificates. While Donaldson has asked adoptees and others to engage with the project, I would expect that Donaldson would let us know up front who, in fact, we are engaging with. It makes little sense to participate in a project that does not publicly disclose who has developed the project and who may be reviewing and acting on information that Donaldson seeks— from us.
3. What is Donaldson’s Actual Position on Unrestricted OBC Access?
This is fuzzy at best. Stated more specifically, is Donaldson committed to unrestricted OBC access for all adult adoptees, unequivocally and without compromise? Unfortunately, Donaldson waffles on this critical question. On the one hand it indicates that OBC access is an issue of civil and human rights and that the lack of “full access” to the OBC constitutes a “human rights violation.” Yet in other statements—both in its OBC2020 announcement and in past articles— it abandons that commitment by supporting a legislative framework that ultimately subverts and undermines those rights.
In 2011, for instance, the former Donaldson president advocated for a compromise OBC access bill that would have deliberately excluded thousands of adoptees from the right to obtain an unredacted OBC, in effect stating that it is better to sacrifice a small percentage of adoptees so that all of the other adoptees can exercise whatever “rights” are left over; i.e., a New Jersey solution. Or Missouri. Or Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, all the way back to 1977 Minnesota. And in Donaldson’s own announcement of the OBC2020 project last week, it failed to state anywhere that it was committed to unrestricted access, without compromise, something that by definition would be required if you view OBC access as a human right. Donaldson rather opaquely stated instead that:
Although many states have updated their laws to allow an adopted person’s access to this vital record, too many more continue to deny adopted people full access to their OBC.
I responded on Twitter and stated the obvious: only nine states have “updated” their laws to provide unrestricted OBC access (though two of those states have always maintained such access). I questioned why Donaldson believed “many states” have updated their laws to allow access when in fact access in 42 states is conditionally restricted (18 states) or fully restricted (24 states). Donaldson ultimately replied that full access is simply a “gold standard,” which only raised more concerns: i.e., whether there was any committed standard at all. Ultimately, because Donaldson expressed implicit support for “partial” access—and also characterized unrestricted access as only a “gold standard”—Donaldson sent an unmistakable signal that whatever standards it has are fuzzy, wholly undefined, and ultimately pliable. This is extremely troubling.
Donaldson, which is now seeking to become the de facto leader of an “organized advocacy campaign” on OBC access legislation, should at least answer whether it is committed to unrestricted OBC access for all adult adoptees, unequivocally and without compromise. For this question, adoptees deserve a clear and straightforward answer so that they know what they are being asked to support. If Donaldson cannot answer clearly, and its partners or allies cannot also commit to such a baseline understanding of adoptee rights, then I question the leadership role of everyone involved in this project. It bears repeating that this is not a triad issue—it is a core issue of adoptees and their rights—civil rights if we fully believe Donaldson.
It is now forty years after the first piece of compromised legislation. It’s way past the time to entertain more compromise or to signal that it is acceptable. The only standard for protecting adoptee rights is unrestricted and equal access for all. Any legitimate leader on this issue must adhere to that. Any leader who cannot commit to this basic understanding of adoptee rights should simply step aside.