What’s the public interest in hiding a court record created 108 years ago?
That’s the question raised by Terry Green’s search for her family history in Ramsey County. Green, who lives in Woodbury, has tried in vain for years to get the full story behind the adoption of her father, James Keith, in 1909.
I reported last month about the secrecy in Minnesota law that prevents many adoptees and their family members from knowing the names of birth mothers and sometimes fathers as well. One thing seemed clear, though: Adoption records older than 100 years were available to anyone.
Nothing about adoption documents is that simple, as Green reminded me when she reached out to tell her story. On her dining room table, she laid out sepia-toned photos that showed her father as a young man who sang on the air during the golden age of radio; as a tennis star at St. Paul Central High School; and as an infant, taken in by a middle-aged couple in St. Paul.
Green knew from a young age that her father was adopted. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about. But in 1998, with Green eager to know more about the family medical history, her father agreed to sign an affidavit asking a Ramsey District Court judge for a copy of his original birth certificate.
A judge granted the petition with no fuss. Yet the state could not find the birth record.
Keith was the longtime publications editor at 3M and kept a foot in showbiz, doing a walk-on role as “Pa Poole” on “A Prairie Home Companion.” He died in 2000 at the age of 92.
His daughter kept up her search, but the Ramsey District Court said in 2002 and again in 2011 it couldn’t find any records.
Then, in 2016, a breakthrough: the state Department of Human Services gave her its file on Keith’s adoption. It revealed that he had embarked on his own search in 1942, seeking “to know something of his identity,” a social worker wrote.
Green learned for the first time that her father knew the name of his birth mother: May Campion. “He was abandoned by his mother and left in the care of the Minnesota Magdalen Society,” a social worker wrote.
The new records also helped the court locate the adoption decree from April 10, 1909, which had been misfiled, Green said. She felt that this could be the big break she was waiting for. There were many May and Mary Campions in Minnesota a century ago, and the decree could have an age, an address, an agency name or something else that could narrow her search.
The court wasn’t going to hand over that decree so easily, however. A clerk told Green she would have to petition the court, again, and pay fees totaling $327.
Green argued that Minnesota law says all adoption records become public after a century. She was told that law doesn’t apply to the court system. In its interpretation, those records are sealed, forever, unless a judge orders them released.
If that sounds arbitrary, listen to this: If the Ramsey District Court had turned over those case files to the Minnesota State Archives, as many counties have done, the adoption decree would be available to anyone. The archives use a 100-year standard for unsealing records, and its librarians regularly provide adoption records from other counties to people researching their family histories.
“It’s very frustrating,” Green said. “My dad was such a kind, thoughtful, talented man. I just want to know more about his parents.”
After nearly 20 years, that curiosity shouldn’t cost her another expensive trip to the courthouse.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.