For adoptees born in Pennsylvania, new access to birth certificate uncovers long-time secrets

Mary Gant, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1981, stands with a summary of her original birth certificate. She's among 2,000 adoptees born in Pennsylvania who have received their birth information in the last two months.

Mary Gant always had an inkling that she wasn’t biologically related to her parents. She certainly didn’t look like them.

Her hunch was validated two years ago, after she took an at-home DNA test and confirmed with her family what she already thought to be true: She was adopted. But now, she didn’t know any details of her own birth. Not her parents’ names, or the name they gave her.

Two days before Christmas, all that changed. Inside a white envelope from the Pennsylvania Department of Health — an envelope Gant nervously awaited for seven months — was a summary of her original birth certificate, complete with the name she was given at birth, the names of her birth parents, and how old they were when she was born in Pittsburgh in 1981.

“I slowly opened it and I looked at it, and I just stood there,” said Gant, 36, who now lives in Greensboro, N.C. “I’m just thinking, ‘I have this information.’ I’m just trying to process it.”

Gant is one of 2,028 adoptees born in Pennsylvania who have in the last two months received a summary of their original birth certificate after legislation was passed more than a year ago that allows them for the first time since 1984 something everyone else could obtain for a nominal fee. For some, getting their birth certificate is the first time they have ever seen the names of their birth parents. For others, it’s simply a confirmation of what they already knew. Some aren’t satisfied still, and want more information than what the summary provides.

The law Gov. Wolf signed in November 2016 took a year to go into effect, so adoptees started receiving their copies in December. Monday in Harrisburg, supporters of the measure gathered to celebrate the act’s passage and share personal stories.

For Gant, she immediately made copies of the document, and put the “original” — the summary of her certificate — in a safe deposit box.

But she keeps a folded-up copy in her wallet so it’s with her everywhere she goes.

“It’s just a reminder,” she said, “that I know where I came from.”

An eight-year battle

For most of his life, State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff wrote “N/A” — not applicable — on medical history forms. When two of his kids started experiencing epileptic episodes that required years of medical attention, he had to write “N/A” on some of their forms, too. Ditto for the two grandchildren.

Benninghoff, a Republican from Centre County, never knew his parents. Born in Lebanon County and adopted in 1962, he grew frustrated over the years with unsuccessful attempts to find information about his medical history.

Camera icon PA State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff
State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff places a form requesting birth records from the state into the mail. Benninghoff was the prime sponsor of legislation that allowed him to request such information.

After 1984, Pennsylvania prohibited adoptees born in the state from obtaining a copy of their original birth certificate without a court order. But as at-home DNA testing proliferated and genealogy gained traction, Benninghoff started hearing about more adoptees who wanted their own birth records. Many recited a similar refrain: “All I want is to be able to see my name on the same piece of paper as my birth mother.”

Around 2010, Benninghoff started working with advocacy groups to draft legislation that would reverse that 1984 policy.

Meanwhile, Benninghoff started writing a new “N/A” on his medical forms: “not available.” He wanted medical professionals to ask why his history wasn’t “available” so he could respond: “Because the government tells me I can’t have it.”

His efforts gained clout when he got the support of State Rep. Katharine M. Watson from Bucks County, the chair of the House Children and Youth Committee, who is both an adoptee and an adoptive mother.

“It’s like a puzzle. You’ve got almost all the pieces. You can do the puzzle. But there’s that last piece missing,” Watson said. “That piece becomes important.”

A birth parent’s rights

In order to get the bill passed, Benninghoff said, drafters of the legislation added an amendment that allows birth parents to request the Department of Health redact their name and identifying information.

So far, the department has received and granted 13 such requests.

Kristi Lado, the legislative liaison for the statewide advocacy group Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights, said the organization dropped its support for Benninghoff’s bill after the redaction provision was added.

“PAR would like to see adult adoptees treated equally under the law, period — that being unconditional access to our own original birth certificates,” she said. “PAR is against the notion one citizen should be able to dictate how the government treats another.”

Gregory Luce, an attorney and the founder of the Minneapolis-based Adoptee Rights Law Center, tracks state laws regarding access to records for adoptees. He’s found that nine states have “unrestricted” laws where adoptees can obtain copies of their original birth certificates, while 16 states have “compromise” laws like Pennsylvania’s and the remaining 26 states are “restricted,” in which adoptees can’t obtain their original birth certificate without a court order.

New Jersey legislators in December 2016 passed a bill similar to Pennsylvania’s that allows adoptees to request their birth records but also grants redaction requests from birth parents: Since it went into effect a year ago, 4,165 adoptees requested their certificates, and 558 birth parents requested redactions. This past December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have opened access to birth records for adoptees.

Several interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, opposed the Pennsylvania legislation. The Catholic Conference was concerned abortion rates would increase if birth parents’ anonymity wasn’t protected. Andy Hoover, the communications director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the group’s opposition was about privacy for birth parents.

Luce, himself an adoptee, said there’s no law protecting the anonymity of birth parents, and the notion that a birth parent won’t be found is “absurd,” particularly today as DNA testing becomes more common.

Records, research and reunions

On average, Priscilla Sharp helps someone find a family member every day.

Sharp, a 72-year-old who lives in State College, Pa., calls herself a “mother of loss to adoption” — in 1964 when she was just 19 and unwed, she placed her daughter for adoption under pressure from the baby’s father and the hospital nuns.

Camera icon Priscilla Sharp
Priscilla Sharp is a “search angel” based in State College.

She never quite got over it. In the early 1980s, Sharp learned everything she could about genealogy, built a family tree, and located her daughter. Eventually she became an “adoption search angel” — a person who helps others search for and contact biological family members.

She does it free.

“They express to me the anguish of not knowing who they are and being deprived of their birth information by secrets and lies and state laws that are so unfair and discriminatory,” Sharp said. “I can’t come to make money off of people’s anguish and heartache.”

Pennsylvania’s new birth certificate procedures have been a game-changer for Sharp. Now she gives Pennsylvania adoptees who have the summary of their birth certificate first priority on top of her pile of cases.

Lorna Pray, an adoptee born in Ohio who now lives in Carlisle, created a Facebook group for Pennsylvania adoptees who want to solicit advice and work together to search for biological family members, or simply to discuss how to learn more about themselves.

“The adoptees that had not-so-good relationships with their adoptive parents are just hoping that this fills the hole, hoping this is everything that they missed out on,” she said. “And it’s kind of scary, because it may or may not be.”

Gant worked with search angels to track down her birth mother, who lives in Pittsburgh. For the last couple of weeks, they’ve been texting back and forth about everything from tattoos to Gant’s birth father. On Jan. 7, they exchanged 2,846 texts.

Benninghoff requested his own birth records Nov. 2, though he said it would serve largely as a confirmation — he learned some details about his birth two years ago from records stashed in his adoptive father’s safe deposit box.

His birth certificate came in the mail just a few days before Christmas. But that white envelope is still sitting on Benninghoff’s counter.

He can’t bring himself to open it.