Mutual Consent Voluntary Registries
AN EXERCISE IN PATIENCE--AND FAILURE
By Melisha Mitchell with Jane Nast, Barbara Busharis and Pam Hasegawa
Three years ago, when I began searching for my then 28-year-old birth daughter, a friend told me she’d heard there was some sort of adoption registry in Illinois. Maybe they could help me locate my birth daughter? It took over half a dozen phone calls to ascertain that the government agency I was seeking was the Illinois Adoption Registry (IAR). I then called three different government agencies before finding someone at the State of Illinois’ main switchboard who was able to direct me to the Registry’s downstate headquarters. When I called the number I’d been given by the bubbly State of Illinois operator, a gruff-voiced civil servant was manning their Springfield number. “Yes,” I explained, “I’m looking for the Illinois Adoption Registry.” “The Illinois WHAT?” I repeated my request a second time, more slowly, enunciating clearly, and heard the receiver clunk onto a wooden desk. “Hey,” the Department of Public Health employee barked to his colleagues, “Does anybody know anything about an adoption registry?” After being “on hold” for about five minutes, I heard a pair of feet slowly shuffle to the desk, pick up the receiver and hang up the phone. Although this encounter alone would have probably been enough to give me second thoughts about signing up with the Illinois Adoption Registry, over the next few days I learned that the IAR was one of the most ineffectual registries in the country and, depending on the source, had matched either 35, 78 or 110 adoptees and birth parents in its 10 years of existence. Needless to say, I never called them back again.
Under-funded. Under-staffed. Under-publicized. It’s a lethal combination that characterizes the majority of the less than two dozen state-level mutual consent voluntary registries (MCVRs) still operating in the United States. Also known as passive registries, MCVRs are the cumbersome, bureaucratic band-aids that legislators began “offering” to original- birth-certificate-hungry adoptees in the late 70s. They are based on the principle that, if adoptees and birth parents really want to meet each other, all we need to do is create a governmental message center where everyone can express their wishes regarding contact. Build it and they will come, they said. But most adoptees and birth parents stayed home.
To try and understand why MCVRs have encountered so much indifference in the adoption community, the American Adoption Congress conducted a survey of 21 passive adoption registries in 1993. The survey was repeated in 1996 and again in October and November of 1998. Each time, the directors of mutual consent registries from Maine to Oregon were sent a questionnaire asking them to provide statistics on the total number of registrants and matches since their registry’s inception, as well as general information on cost, basic provisions and operation. Although several registries did not participate in the 1993 and 1996 studies, all 21 states submitted responses in 1998.
Just What Is a Mutual Consent Voluntary Registry?
Mutual consent voluntary registries allow adoptees, birth parents and, in some states, birth siblings, who have been separated by adoption to register with a government agency in the state where the adoptee was born and/or adopted and then wait for a match. By registering, eligible triad members (i.e. adoptees, birth relatives and adoptive parents) can indicate their wishes regarding contact with specified biological and adoptive relatives. At least two parties to the adoption must register independently before names or other identifying information can be released.
Why, you might wonder, is there so much opposition within the adoption reform movement to such a simple concept? Clearly there were no strong objections to the “I’ll call you, if you’ll call me,” approach when it was initially introduced by Jean Paton in the mid-50s. An adoptee and social worker whose visionary non-fictional work, “The Adopted Break Silence,” was published in 1955, Jean was the founder of Orphan Voyage, the first adoptee/birth parent support group in the nation, and operated her first-of-its-kind adoption registry from her home.
However, while national adoption registries (such as the highly successful ALMA (Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association) Registry founded by Florence Fisher in New York in 1972 and the International Soundex Reunion Registry established by Emma Mae Villardi in Carson City, NV in 1975) have reunited thousands of triad members and enjoyed quasi-unanimous support within the adoptee/birth parent community over the past two decades, state mutual consent registries have become increasingly unpopular with everyone. The paradox is grounded in the raison d'etre for MCVRs, historically, which was NOT to facilitate the reunion process for searching adoptees and birth parents, but rather to stall the progress of the original access-to-records bill, the Model State Adoption Act. Drafted by an HEW-funded panel chaired by New Jersey Assemblyman Al Burstein during the Carter Administration, The Model Act would have given all adoptees aged 21 and older the right to access their original birth records.
To combat this progressive piece of legislation, the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a Washington, D.C.-based adoption agency trade organization, began promoting passive mutual consent registries throughout the U.S. Using what is known in political circles as the “decoy bill” maneuver, NCFA began touting MCVRs as the “only” acceptable “compromise” to the adoption reform conundrum. NCFA recommended outrageous provisions (limiting registries to adoptees over the age of 25, requiring all parties to the adoption to register annually before a match could be made), and confused enough undereducated legislators to successfully implement passive registries in many of the states which are the subject of the AAC study.
Not only was this “wait and see” approach to birth family reunification passé before most of these “adoption reform” laws were enacted, but, as the only post-adoption option offered in many states, it had a number of obvious drawbacks. Dead people may vote in Chicago, but they certainly don’t apply to adoption registries! The often-complicated registration procedures are impractical for elderly or seriously ill adoptees and birth parents. Registries don’t work well for adoptees who are unaware they were adopted—or for birth parents who have been told their child is deceased. And, to make matters worse, behind the scenes, legislators and registry administrators who, like most NCFA-member agencies, were not as keen on facilitating search and reunion as those actually affected by these laws, began making the kind of budgetary and protocol decisions that would doom all but two of these state registries to single-digit reunion rates.
The Three “U”’s: Under-Staffed, Under-Funded and Under-Publicized
When the AAC conducted its first survey of passive adoption registries in 1993, only one state reported both adequate funding and staffing for its MCVR. Five years later, registries in ten states continue to be plagued by under-funding and/or under-staffing. A handful of states are still shuffling 5 x 8” index cards to figure out if they have a match, and have yet to computerize their registries. Others complain that archaic database programs, which can only be run on pre-Microsoft computers, make their job unnecessarily tedious. South Dakota and South Carolina both claimed that staffing and funding for their registry were “adequate,” but South Dakota still has no official--or unofficial--count on the number of registrations or matches realized since their registry opened its doors in 1984, and South Carolina wrote that 30 days was “not enough time” to gather the information requested.
When staffing and funding are BOTH insufficient, actually locating a phone number where interested parties may obtain further information about a given registry can be a grueling test in perseverance. Locating a staff member knowledgeable about registry operations in at least half of the 21 states surveyed required between eight and ten phone calls. In registry offices across the country, automated voice mail systems, often used to counterbalance staffing inadequacies, also act as a barrier for those seeking to inquire anonymously about registry requirements. Oklahoma, overwhelmed by unexpected interest in their new registry-cum-confidential-intermediary-program (registrant may initiate a $400 search after a six-month stint on the registry), claimed that it would take “at least another year” for them to process the estimated 6,000 applications which have poured in since the new OK law was enacted in November of 1997.
Budget restrictions are also responsible for the “lack of adequate publicity” which was cited by at least half of the registry coordinators we spoke with. To the question, “How does your office publicize the existence of your registry?” most respondents answered “brochures” or “newspaper article.” One state indicated they were “listed in the Yellow Pages.” Only three states had made any noticeable effort to actively promote their registries and had some vague semblance of a media plan. And, although six of the 21 states (Maryland, Rhode Island, Texas, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois) purported to be “on the internet,” none of the top four internet search engines was able to locate more than three of these mutual consent state registries (but each web search netted hundreds of private internet registry sites!) Once located, four of these six web sites provided little more than sketchy information on their registry’s operation, and only three had thought to include downloadable application forms on their cookie-cutter home pages.