Family secrets

Adult adoptees and birth parents want Nevada to unseal records, so they can answers questions about their origins

Photo By David Robert

To learn more about Nevada Open, visit www.nevadaopen.orgJoin Nevadans searching for family at more information on adoption, call Catholic Community Services, 322-7073.

Baby Girl Tenk, your sister’s looking for you. She knows your birthday is July 12. That was the day her mom lit a candle to remember you.While growing up, she learned not to talk about you. She didn’t ask questions about the baby that her mother, at age 15, had decided to give up for adoption.

“Mom still cries about it,” says Tiffany, 18.

Baby Girl Tenk would be 22 years old. She was adopted in Reno, possibly by the family of a doctor or lawyer who moved out of state.

“I really want to find her,” Tiffany says. She leans back on a couch in her northwest Reno home and pulls her fringed leather coat over her own pregnant tummy. “Maybe I should go on Oprah.”

A bill being considered by the Nevada Legislature, Senate Bill 446, would allow adult adoptees access to records that could help them reunite with birth families. If the bill passes, Baby Girl Tenk can find her birth family—if she looks.

Her mom’s decision to pursue adoption 22 years ago inspired Tiffany, who’s five months pregnant. She thinks she’s having a boy.

Tiffany isn’t ready to be a mom.

She works two retail jobs to pay her share of rent. She doesn’t own a car. She’s applying for financial aid to go to college, where she’d like to study interior design or medicine or elementary education.

Her 23-year-old boyfriend lives with his parents. He’s been at his job for three years, and he’s “moving up,” Tiffany says.

When the two of them met, dated and started fooling around, Tiffany (who asked that her real name not be used) thought if she got pregnant, she’d have an abortion. She took birth control pills until a Planned Parenthood program that distributed free birth control ended. She went for two weeks without pills. She thinks that’s when she got pregnant.

She couldn’t go through with the abortion.

“Religiously, morally, I couldn’t do it,” she says. “No way. [My boyfriend] was pissed off at first. But since we decided [to put the baby up for adoption], he’s been supportive.”

She’s giving up her baby to a family she’s selected and interviewed via phone calls. Unlike with her mom’s closed adoption, Tiffany will know exactly where her child is placed. She’ll receive photographs of the child and might even be able to visit now and then, though she says she’d never interfere with the adoptive parents.

“That’s what’s best for the baby, I think,” she says.

She smiles. Wavy blond hair frames her face. Her gold earrings catch rays of sunlight.

“People tell me, ‘Your baby’s going to be beautiful,'” she says. “I’m trying not to be attached. Emotionally, we don’t want to give the baby up, but we know it’s the right thing. It’s what’s best for my child.”

Adoption isn’t what it used to be.

Remember tales of families waiting years to adopt? With more childless couples going through fertility treatments, and thus fewer seeking to adopt, the waiting period for an infant in Nevada can be as short as eight months. In the case of biracial infants, it’s often less.

Most adoptions these days are open—no anonymity or clandestine transactions between birth parents and adoptive families—at a level agreed upon in advance. At Catholic Community Services in Reno, birth mothers review family portfolios created by prospective parents, who include photos and descriptions of the family home, pets, relatives, vacations and nearby schools.

“The dilemma I face is in not having several families to give birth mothers a choice,” says Alice Drengson, a state-licensed adoption agent at Catholic Community Services.

The open-adoption trend, considered by many to be better for children, came too late for adult adoptees in Nevada who want to know more about their birth families.

As state law stands now, locating a birth parent is nearly impossible. Although a state adoption registry allows adult adoptees and birth parents to file requests for reunification, the process is arcane and riddled with red tape, say some who’ve tried to use it.

In the 1970s, Nevada lawmakers voted to seal adoption records in the state. Even as adults, adopted individuals can’t gain access to unedited copies of their birth certificates or files that contain information about their birth parents.

The idea? To protect individuals who don’t want to be found. In a time when out-of-wedlock pregnancy was stigmatized, this might have been critical.

That era is history, say members of a group called Nevada Open. These adult adoptees challenge the assumption that most birth parents don’t want any contact with the babies they surrendered for adoption decades ago. Though adopted at birth, they feel they’ve got a right to the kind of personal information that’s open and available to every other Nevadan.

For starters, Nevada’s adoptees have a dangerously slim knowledge of family health records. When adult adoptee Lisa Hownsell, a 38-year-old mother of four, visits a doctor’s office, the family health history forms are a painful reminder.

“I write a big ‘unknown’ across the whole section,” Hownsell says. “I get mad thinking that these people in the state control information that’s rightfully mine.”

Not knowing about a family history of diabetes or breast cancer can lead to less-than-adequate health care decisions. To address this, a legislative adoption study committee in 2004 came up with a way to communicate medical records, without revealing names or other identifying information to birth parents or adopted offspring, using the state adoption registry.

In late March, the Nevada Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing on AB 50, a bill that would create this anonymous database to be voluntarily updated by birth parents and adopted children or their families.

In introducing the bill to the Assembly Judiciary, Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, repeated testimony she’d heard from Nevadans who ended up in dire medical straits because they didn’t have access to the medical histories of adopted children. Like Geoff McAlister, whose adopted daughter had a stroke as an infant. If the McAlisters had known the child’s medical history, the girl’s lifelong disability could have been avoided with an inexpensive treatment.

AB 50 would create a database of medical records, edited for anonymity. The state would inform involved parties when information was updated in their files.

Members of Nevada Open testified against the bill.


Lisa Hownsell, who was adopted as an infant, wants lawmakers to treat adoptees like adults by allowing them access to their records, especially medical information.

Photo By Deidre Pike

The idea of the state acting as a go-between for medical records insults adult adoptees, who’d like open access to personal information.

“All other citizens in Nevada have a right to receive unaltered copies of their medical records,” says Jean Uhrich, a founder of Nevada Open. “As infants and children, we had no voice. It was in the state’s best interest to gather familial medical history to be provided to parents. But we’re not children any more, and we don’t want the state involved in our medical records—redacting them and making them anonymous.”

Nevada Open would like medical and birth records opened to adult adoptees. They’d like the state adoption registry dissolved.

The registry seldom accomplishes its purpose, they feel. And filing the appropriate paperwork can be tricky, as Hownsell discovered the hard way.

If you gave birth to a baby girl you never saw on March 27, 1967, at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Reno, your daughter wants to thank you.

She’d prefer to do it in person.

Sometimes Lisa Hownsell walks through Meadowood Mall searching for a familiar face—the woman who might be her mom.

“I want her to know I love her and thank her for what she did,” says this stay-home mom, who’s pursuing a degree in criminal justice. “It was the right choice. She gave me a chance at life.”

By searching for her birth parents, the freckled, auburn-haired woman isn’t trying to diminish appreciation for the family who raised her. She loves her adoptive parents deeply and hoped they’d understand when she began searching for her birth mother at age 19.

She filled out forms at the state adoption registry, managed by the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services. Hownsell updated these records when she went to college in Eugene, Ore., and when she married and moved to California, then Hawaii, then back to Nevada. If her birth mother was looking for her, Hownsell thought, the woman would find her.

But Hownsell recently learned that the information she’d submitted to the database hadn’t been in the proper format and wasn’t notarized. The state wasn’t paying any attention to her information—or trying to make a match.

“It was heart-breaking to find that out,” Hownsell says. She hasn’t lost hope. “Now that they have my information, notarized and in their format, maybe there’s a match there waiting for me.”

Hownsell’s interest in finding her mother waned over the years. But five years ago, after the birth of her third son, a brush with mortality left Hownsell desperate to connect with her mother.

She was receiving an echogram at Carson-Tahoe Hospital. Her doctor and the cardiologist were talking in hushed whispers. She panicked.

“Then I thought, ‘Wait a second, the Lord’s not going to take me from my husband and kids. … And if something happened to me right now, I’d never have a chance to say thank you to my mother.'”

Hownsell was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. While she battled her illness for six months, she revived the search for her birth mother by posting notices to multiple adoption registries on the Internet.

In 2002, she discovered Nevada Open. In the 2003 legislative session, she worked with the group to fight for the unsealing of adoption records. Though legislation never got off the ground, an interim subcommittee was formed.

Though she’s uncomfortable speaking in public, she plans to testify on behalf of SB 446 because, for her, the issue extends beyond the need for medical information into the realm of identity.

“We grew up, and we have questions,” Hownsell says. “When we reach the age of 18, let it be our decision. Open our records and let us know. … We’re decent people. It’s not like we want to hound or harass our birth parents, but there are a few questions I’d like answered.

“Who do I look like? Where do my fingers come from? My eyes? Does my quick-witted humor come from my adoptive parents or my natural parents? … These are things most people take for granted. Who you are is part of nature. You can’t say the people who’ve given us life don’t impact our lives.”

When she was a girl growing up in Las Vegas, Lisa Moore’s questions didn’t bother her adopted mother. Moore knew she had another mom. She possessed a hospital bracelet with her birth mother’s maiden name.

When Moore was 16, her adopted mother died. At age 23, Moore paid $200 for a maiden-name search so she could find her birth mom.

She received a packet with her mother’s married name and that of a city, Phoenix. Two women by that name were listed in Phoenix.

“I called the wrong one the first time,” Moore says. On her second try, Moore hit the jackpot. Sort of.

“There’s a saying, ‘You never know if your birth mother is in the middle of a dinner party,'” Moore says. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

A woman who turned out to be Moore’s half-sister answered the phone, and, since her mom was busy with food prep for a dinner party, the woman took a message.

“She didn’t know me,” Moore says, “but I thought, ‘I have a sister!'”

Moore’s birth mom was thrilled to hear from the daughter she’d never seen.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” Moore says. “I know I’m very blessed. … She would have never looked for me. She felt she didn’t have a right to.”

Her birth mom sent Moore a packet of photos. Moore noticed that her birth mother’s handwriting was nearly identical to her own.

“Things are inherited,” she says. “It’s exciting to see.”

For 14 years, Moore, a community association manager, has made regular trips to Phoenix to spend time with her family.

She and her mother enjoy shopping and cooking dinners together. Since her mother is a real estate agent, the two often go out looking at model homes.

Not all seekers’ stories end as happily as Moore’s.

Alice Drengson, a state licensed adoption agent with Catholic Community Services, says it’s a challenge to find a range of potential adoptive parents for birth mothers to choose between. In the days before fertility treatments, there were more parental hopefuls than babies needing parents.

Photo By David Robert

“I know people who weren’t as lucky as me,” she says, “but they aren’t sorry they know.”

Even if her birth mother had wanted nothing to do with her, Moore says she wouldn’t have regretted the search.

“At least I would know,” she says. “I wouldn’t have that wondering out there.”

One argument against unsealing adoption records revolves around promises made to birth parents about confidentiality.

Drengson, at Catholic Community Services, says she knows of cases where birth parents simply do not want to be found.

A man who’d long searched for his mother finally finagled a social worker into initiating contact. But his mother not only didn’t want to talk to him, she also told the social worker that she was calling her attorney.

“He’d always had this fantasy about his wonderful birth family,” Drengson says. “Now he’s glad he didn’t search much earlier, when he was young and wouldn’t have been able to take that rejection.”

But members of Nevada Open argue that most birth parents want to know what happened to the babies they surrendered at birth.

One academic study published in the journal Child Welfare showed 88.5 percent of biological mothers interviewed supported allowing adult adoptees to access identifying information. Even more surprising, a majority of adoptive parents, 70 percent, long thought to be wary of adoptees searching for biological origins, supported unsealing records.

“The majority of Americans support open records,” Moore says. “We’re not talking about opening records up to the whole world—just to me. I’m the one that [this information] is about.”

Adult adoptees say they’re willing to risk rejection—and it should be their decision, they argue.

“They’re always referring to us as ‘the child,'” Moore says. “To some, we’re perpetually five days old.”

Another fear is that opening adoption records will lead to an increase in abortions.

Five states have opened adoption records to adult adoptees: Oregon, Delaware, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Alabama. Abortion rates in these states have declined in past years, following a national trend that saw abortion rates decrease 12 percent between 1992 and 1996, according to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. But this trend is likely related to the decreasing availability of abortion services, researchers concluded.

That’s borne out by the reaction of 18-year-old Tiffany, when she considers going through a closed adoption, not knowing what would happen to her child.

Would Tiffany still consider giving up her baby under such circumstances?

Her first impulse is to frown and shake her head.

“I want to know my child’s OK,” she says. “Even if he doesn’t want to talk to me. Just to get pictures helps me feel secure. You’re happy to see they have a better life.”

In the end, Tiffany says she would choose adoption for her child—even if it were closed. But open adoption, Tiffany says, is a much better option.

“You should have that choice.”

Molly will know she has two moms who care about her.

Molly, 13 months old, enjoys dragging an oversized Tigger around her family’s home in Gardnerville. The dark-haired, dark-eyed infant’s vocabulary consists of five words—"hi,” “da-da,” “dad,” “daddy” and “kitty.”

“She doesn’t say ‘ma-ma’ yet,” says Janie Cloutier, who quit her job to stay home and raise Molly. “We’re working on that.”

She calls Molly “perfect” and “a genius.” It’s evident that the new mom’s life revolves around her adopted daughter.

David and Janie Cloutier faced a long struggle with infertility that included expensive and physically arduous treatments.

“It was like having PMS seven days a week,” Janie says. “You’re just pumped full of hormones.”

The couple stopped short of in-vitro fertilization and began pursuing the adoption option through an out-of-state adoption agency. Drengson, of Catholic Community Services, performed the Cloutiers’ home study.

But shortly before the baby they had hoped to adopt was born, the adoption fell apart. It’d been eight years since the couple began trying for a child. They felt they’d exhausted their options. They were ready to give up.

But when contacting Drengson for a home-study update, she expressed surprise that they hadn’t found an infant. She knew a birth mother whose baby was due in about five weeks.

At first, the birth mother didn’t want much contact with the Cloutiers. But after she met the family, they “connected and bonded,” Janie says.

The couple went to the hospital with the birth mother, holding her head while she pushed. Janie was the first to hold the baby. David gave Molly her first bottle.

In the end, the waiting was worth it, Janie says.

“We would do everything we did because it got us where we are,” she says. “Everybody who adopts says you have the child you were meant to have. We got Molly after eight years. I wouldn’t change anything, because she’s our daughter.”

The experience convinced the Cloutiers that open adoption is worth any perceived risk that a child’s affection will be divided between natural and adoptive parents.

“We are so for open adoption,” Janie says. “There’s always a little fear before papers are signed—fear that you’re going to walk out of the hospital without the baby. But, for the mom, she knows what life her baby’s going to have. She knows us.

“Molly’s almost 13 months old, and we’re already talking to her about adoption. It’s not a secret. We have pictures of her birth mother, pictures of all of us together. Molly’s going to know her story.”