I have not said much about a bill currently pending in Wisconsin, other than to list it on my legislation page. It’s mostly because the bill, while seeking to release identifying information, makes a fundamental strategic error in securing adoptee rights: it offers up a court-generated document as a bone to adoptees and then pretends the document measures up to an original birth record. It does not.
And while I don’t generally oppose legislation that seeks the unrestricted release of identifying information to adoptees, the Wisconsin bill tries to be cute about it, and that cuteness has backfired. No cognizant legislator is falling for what amounts to a trick. That is, this bill effectively says that if you aren’t going to release the original birth certificate, leggies, then we’ll just, wink-wink, release a court record that has some identifying information on it.
Everyone who looks for five minutes at this bill knows exactly what it’s trying to step around: equal rights and the right of an adult adoptee to request and obtain his or her own original birth certificate. And it’s trying to step around that issue because, well, I’m not quite sure. Sure, a bill in a prior session came in with a massive and overblown fiscal price tag of more than $750,000.00 for releasing identifying information and an OBC, but that’s because it was essentially a dressed up confidential intermediary bill that required the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to search for birthparents to obtain their consent before releasing information (through a misnamed “contact “preference form” of all things). DCF, in that case, said to do the searching would take:
$710,300 for seven (7) new positions; $50,000 for enhancements to eWiSACWIS; plus unknown costs related to reviewing over 100,000 closed adoption records to search for an affidavit, mail a notice to birth parents and track returned contact preference forms; and the costs associated with publicizing the bill. The Department will not be able to absorb these costs and will need new positions and new funding in order to meet the requirements of this bill.
Rather than return with a bill that isn’t about search and consent and identifying information (and I actually drafted and shared one last January just to demonstrate what such a bill looks like), advocates have supported a bill this session that would release a peripheral document known as a report of adoption. It’s a form document that the court sends over to vital records after an adoption, and it is the document used to find the original birth certificate so that a new amended birth certificate can be created and, in the terminology of Wisconsin law, the original record “impounded.” A report of adoption is not an OBC. It’s simply a court-generated adoption form.
What has made matters worse with this “adoption form” bill is that the department intricately involved in regulating adoptions in the state—the Department of Children and Families—naturally had something to say about it. DCF in part oversees Wisconsin’s complicated confidential intermediary program, otherwise known as the Adoption Records Search Program. That program combines most information—including the OBC—into the category of “identifying information.” When under Wisconsin’s system an adult adoptee requests “identifying information,” the law requires the agency to:
diligently conduct adoption searches for birth parents. A search is not considered complete until a birth parent has been located and contacted or all reasonable means for locating and contacting a birth parent are exhausted . . . .
When the DCF had a chance to step up and testify about the release of “adoption records,” it took the opportunity to devastate the bill and set adoptee rights legislation backwards, likely for years. The supervisor of the intermediary program testified that, for those people who seek adoption records through the Wisconsin search program:
We’re actually a little closer to forty percent of birthparents saying no at this point to having their information released.
The representative, of course, didn’t provide more context to this statement, particularly what “information” the parents didn’t want released and, importantly, that an adopted person’s own original birth certificate isn’t anyone else’s vital record other than the registrant’s—the adoptee. Rather, an OBC under current Wisconsin law is simply an “adoption record,” mixed into all other adoption-related information, and thus subject to a search/consent process. The current bill’s approach of releasing a “report of adoption” instead of the OBC doesn’t help at all in dispelling that notion.
The current bill should be pulled, not amended, because the damage has already been done and will continue to be done with additional testimony, particularly in the Wisconsin House (a hearing is apparently scheduled for early January 2020 but has not yet been announced). Even though some advocates now believe legislators should simply tack on “original birth certificate” in addition to release of the report of adoption, it’s too late in the game for that, plus it simply acknowledges the cute “trick” of the bill’s approach of substituting a report of adoption for what is really at stake: an adopted person’s right to request and obtain his or her own vital record.
There is a way to get this done in Wisconsin. But not through the bills introduced in the current session. I support the unrestricted release of identifying information. I do not support mixing that all up and calling it an OBC under a different name. That’s the big problem with the Wisconsin bill.