I returned home from the U.K. in the summer of 1986. I still needed a few more units for graduation, so enrolled once again at my hometown campus. I found an office job on campus and set to work. I had done all the research I could do on my end–my parents had given me the “adoption papers” that they had saved all these years that bore my mother’s last name. Funny . . . I kept hearing over and over about “sealed records,” however, no one mentions that the adoptive parents have copies of the court filings. At least mine did. I had the first piece of the puzzle: “In the Matter of the Adoption of Baby Girl Michaels.”
This was 1986. No one owned a personal computer. “Research” meant a lot of legwork and a lot of phone calls. I knew I had a right to receive “non-identifying” information from my file stored with the San Bernardino County Welfare Services. I also knew that the State of California had a mutual consent registry. A mutual consent registry is a method many states use to arrange the consents that are required for release of identifying information. A mutual consent registry is a means for individuals directly involved in adoptions to indicate their willingness or unwillingness to have their identifying information disclosed. In California, the registry requires consent of at least one birth parent and an adopted person over the age of 18 in order to release identifying information. Consent is given by filing an executed affidavit with the appropriate authority (in my case, the County of San Bernardino) consenting to the release of personal information.
The mutual consent registry still exists in California and in many other states. With the advancement of technology and the evolution of the internet and its plethora of ever-growing information and databases, we’ve also seen a growing number of private registries, many of which have proven to be successful tools for adoptees and birth parents. Some charge a fee to register, some do not.
My only option back in 1986, however, was the California mutual consent registry. I thought I should at least sign a consent and have it on file, on the off chance my birth family is looking for me, right? I called the County Department of Social Services. I spoke to a very nice gentleman named Bill Witt. I made an appointment to meet with him and to fill out and sign the Waiver for the adoption records.
I don’t really remember everything Mr. Witt and I spoke about on the phone. I do remember that he asked me to bring a recent photograph of myself so that he would have it on file in case he had contact with my birth mother. I went to the County Social Services Department to meet with Mr. Witt. I signed the Waiver. I gave him the photo. Then he handed me an official-looking envelope and told me he’d be in touch. Huh? He’d be in touch for what? Surely he wasn’t going to search out my birth mother. Why would he do that? In fact, the language of the Waiver confirmed, the signing of this waiver does not necessarily insure that a contact can be arranged . . . the law prohibits the Department or agency from soliciting, directly or indirectly, the execution of . . . a waiver. I just figured I’d sign the Waiver and it would get thrown in my super-secret “file” somewhere in the basement of the Social Services Department until (or even if) my birth mother decided to sign a Waiver herself. Which I wasn’t expecting to happen. Ever.
I walked back to my car in a daze, grasping the envelope. Once sitting in the car, I took a deep breath and opened it. Mr. Witt had apparently read my super-secret file. The envelope contained every bit of non-identifying information–in painstaking detail–beautifully written on three pages of County Adoption Service official letterhead. I was stunned. Not just by the information he provided, but just the fact that he had gone to the trouble to tell me this story in such beautiful detail. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even ask for the non-identifying information–I thought that what I already had was better than any non-identifying information he could give me. I had her last name on the adoption papers. I was wrong.
I read the story. Over and over. Sordid as it was, it was a beautiful story. It was MY story. At the bottom of page 3, Mr. Witt wrote: “Laureen, I have begun to search for your birth family . The trail, however, is 23 years old so it may take some time. I’ll keep you abreast of my progress.”
He was actually going to help me. Go figure.