By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
They live with questions as deep as the very core of their being. Thanks to a new adoption law in Washington, many who were adopted as babies could soon get answers.
Yet those answers may not be all that adoptees hoped to find.
When House Bill 1525 was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2013, the legislation’s key date — July 1, 2014 — was a year off. Now it’s almost here.
On Tuesday, all adoptees 18 and older who were born in Washington will be able to request their original birth certificates from the state. Earlier law allowed only adults adopted after Oct. 1, 1993, to get birth certificates without going through the court system.
What the change in access won’t do is guarantee that adoptees will know their birth parents’ names. On one hand, the law offers information to adults who were adopted. But on the other, it ensures privacy for birth parents.
Birth parents can choose to share their identity, or keep it confidential by filing a contact preference form with the state Department of Health. Whether or not they opt to share their names, if they file a form they must fill out a four-page survey of medical history.
“We’re expecting a pretty big influx,” said Marqise Allen, a Department of Health spokesman.
Under the law, birth parents have been filing contact preference forms and medical histories since last summer. And already, adoptees are requesting birth certificates, Allen said.
As of Friday, birth parents had filled out 117 contact preference forms. “Eighty-two of those do not want contact with the adoptee,” Allen said. Also, he said, by Friday 540 adoptees had contacted the department seeking birth certificates.
“What the law did was make it the same for all adopted people in Washington,” said Michele Heiderer, who has worked since the 1990s as a confidential intermediary. The Arlington woman has helped dozens of adoptees find birth parents.
Confidential intermediaries are trained and certified in conducting searches to help adoptees and birth parents find and contact each other. In Washington, adoptees may petition courts to open adoption records through a confidential intermediary. If a search is successful, the intermediary reaches out — often with a letter — to see if a meeting is desired.
“In my experience, 95 percent of people want to be found,” said Heiderer, 66, who is on a Snohomish County Superior Court registry of confidential intermediaries.
Three-quarters of the people she helps are adoptees looking for birth parents. “I have had only a small handful, out of hundreds I’ve done, who have said no to a meeting,” Heiderer said. “None of the intermediaries would want to do this without all the reunions. People form lifelong, bonding relationships. They get the truth, and somebody who looks like them.”
Heiderer charges a flat fee, $150, for her work, which includes court document costs. Some intermediaries charge by the hour, she said.
Our state’s confidential intermediary system was started in the 1970s through the work of the Washington Adoption Reunion Movement (WARM) and King County Superior Court Judge Norman Ackley, who died in 1980.
Adoption records obtained through the courts are likely to have much more information than a birth certificate, Heiderer said. While today many adoptions are open, that was unusual decades ago. And some homes for unwed mothers kept few or inaccurate records, she said.
Even with the new law, adoptees may be disappointed to find that only a birth mother — not the father — is listed on an original birth certificate. Sometimes, the mother’s name will be false, Heiderer said.
She is working on a few cases in which adoptees are considering DNA testing to find birth parents. Several websites, including FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry.com and 23andMe, offer the possibility of finding relatives that way. “It’s a crapshoot,” said Heiderer, adding that at least 700,000 people have registered DNA online in searches for family members.
One Seattle area woman, a 69-year-old who asked to be identified only as Pam, had the help of an intermediary to find her mother in 1978. Her adoptive parents had died, and she was 33 at the time.
Pam is a longtime volunteer with the WARM organization, and helps other adoptees find answers.
“I’ve had a close and ongoing relationship with my birth mother,” she said. Pam learned that her birth mother was almost 16 when she was born. She also got to know her birth father before he died. He was in the Navy when she was born.
Pam’s birth parents had married other people, but both were widowed when she met them. Her reunion with them brought more happiness. Her birth parents were also reunited, and lived together until her father died, she said.
For Pam, so many questions were answered. “I am the third generation in accounting — that came from my dad’s side. My interest in music came from my mother. We have speech and mannerisms in common,” she said.
Today, Pam helps care for her birth mother. She also stays in touch with adoptive loved ones.
“It’s all family,” she said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adoption law change
A new state law taking effect Tuesday will allow all Washington-born people 18 or older who were adopted on or before Oct. 1, 1993, to request original birth certificates. Until now, only adults adopted after that date have been able to request birth certificates from the state. A birth parent may choose to share their identity or keep it confidential by filing a contact preference form with the state Department of Health. If birth parents file a form, whether or not they choose to disclose identity, they must provide a medical history. Information: