MANKATO – Adopted as an infant, Sara Heller-Zimprich devotes her nights and weekends to a single-minded hunt for her birth family.
After work, she sometimes doesn’t change out of her nurse’s scrubs before logging on to two laptop computers to click through nine genealogy websites and family trees in search of a match that could lead to her birth family.
Her all-consuming quest is shared by thousands of adoptees in Minnesota and across the nation, but one that is frustrated by a patchwork of state laws that deny them access to their own birth and adoption records. In recent years, many states have relaxed their laws and cracked open long-sealed adoption records, but Minnesota’s Legislature has stood firm and kept those records closed.
An adoption agency knows the first name of Heller-Zimprich’s father, but says it can’t provide it. The Minnesota Department of Health has the name of Heller-Zimprich’s birth mother, but it will not hand it over.
“I just want to know where I’m from,” said Heller-Zimprich, 53. “It’s definitely a right. You need to know where your roots are.”
A national movement led by adoptees has improved access to adoption records in 19 states since 1997. This year, thousands of people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania will see their original birth certificates for the first time. Adoptees in Missouri and Arkansas will get that chance starting next year.
Largely unchanged since 1982, Minnesota’s laws place the privacy of birth parents ahead of the desire of adoptees to know their origins. Access to records by Minnesota’s estimated 135,000 adoptees depends on when you were adopted. A proposal to open all of Minnesota’s records never got traction in the most recent legislative session.
Opponents, including anti-abortion activists, say the law protects women who placed their children for adoption with the strict belief that their names would never be revealed.
“It scares me to set a precedent of opening people’s documents without their consent,” said state Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, who opposes proposals that would unseal more records.
Theis has confronted the issue herself.
She placed her oldest son for adoption in 1977. The father was her high school boyfriend, and they have since married and had two other sons.
Theis said she struggles with the balance between privacy and disclosure, given that she always wanted her firstborn to be able to know his birth parents. They now have a close relationship.
With the records officially out of reach, adoptees often go to extraordinary lengths to track down their birth parents. They hire private detectives, undergo DNA tests and seek help from volunteer “search angels” who can piece together a family tree.
Gregory Luce, a Minneapolis lawyer, is pulling together a national network of attorneys to help adoptees know their rights. For Luce, it’s personal. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1965 and adopted at a week old, he and his birth mother found each other years ago through an online voluntary registry, and he knows the identity of his birth father, who wants nothing to do with him.
Nevertheless, Luce has gone to court in D.C. to try to get his original birth certificate and adoption records.
“I want that as a final resolution of who I am,” Luce said.
‘Doesn’t seem fair’
For adoptees yearning to learn about their origins, they describe the mystery of their births as a hole in their hearts and an obstacle to moving forward. They often feel humiliated when they call the state to get a copy of their birth certificate, only to find they need the permission from the same people whose names they are blocked from knowing.
They’re reminded of their status every time a doctor asks whether heart disease or cancer or depression runs in the family.
“Isn’t it saying the birth mother’s rights are more important than the child’s?” asked Sharon Stein McNamara, a Shoreview psychologist whose clients are often adoptees, like herself. “That just doesn’t seem fair.”
When children are adopted in Minnesota, the state creates a new birth certificate with the child’s adopted name. Adoptees who have requested original birth certificates from the state Department of Health are often surprised to get a call back from the private agency that handled their adoption.
That’s because Minnesota law requires that agencies try to find the birth parents before honoring an adoptee’s request for original birth certificates. About 5 percent of birth parents have notified the state ahead of time about their preferences. Ninety percent of them said they welcome their names being known.
Without those affidavits, however, adoptees must wait for months as the agencies seek approval or disapproval from the birth parents. Adoptees must pay for the search, which can cost hundreds of dollars. If the search is not successful, what happens next depends on the date someone was adopted. Those adopted after Aug. 1, 1977, are entitled to their original birth certificates. Those adopted before that date must persuade a judge to release the record.
Different rules apply to the more extensive records held by adoption agencies. In this case, the presumption of openness applies to people adopted on or after Aug. 1, 1982. For those adopted before that date, they must petition a juvenile court judge for access to the agency file.
Adoption agencies will often provide only vague information, such as the physical appearance and health history of birth parents, with some details about the circumstances of their birth. But adoptees who have gone to agency offices describe the heartbreak of seeing a clerk leafing through their files in front of them.
Joe Duea, 49, of Farmington recalls his frustration of visiting the Catholic Charities office in St. Cloud in 1991 and being told he needed to pay $500 for them to search for his birth parents.
It took him 11 years to decide to pay the money. Days after he did, in 2002, Catholic Charities arranged a meeting between Duea and his birth mother. He remembers a “tiny little lady” walking in and listening to her son talk about his life and his two children. “I wanted to make sure she understood that I’m not mad,” he said. But he wasn’t allowed to know her name.
Then, after an awkward hug, he watched his birth mother drive away in a red Ford Escort. Duea went back into the office, and demanded copies of his adoption records.
“You’ve got these puppet strings you’re using on me,” Duea remembers thinking. “That’s my life right there in one document.”
They mailed him records, but struck the names.
Thirteen years passed.
In May 2015, Duea sent a saliva sample to Ancestry.com to test his DNA. Once his results were posted on the website, he devoted two to three hours each day to filling out family trees and examining what others had posted.
A year later, he came across a photo on one of the genealogy sites that showed a young man with a strong resemblance to Duea’s son. His birth mother was in the picture. Within days, he was able to confirm her name. Duea mailed her a letter in December, but she has not responded. He has introduced himself to an aunt, and on July 22, traveled to a bar in Plato, Minn., for a family reunion with cousins on his birth father’s side.
They welcomed him as part of the family.
Opposition stalls reform
In February, the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform sent a letter to the state’s main lobbying group opposing abortion, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, asking for its support in a law that would open more records. It pointed out that Ohio Right to Life reversed its position and supported similar legislation in that state in 2013.
MCCL did not reply. Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, said he thinks the group’s opposition helped sink his proposal.
Scott Fischbach, MCCL’s director, said the issue is not a simple one for the group because it supports adoption as an alternative to abortion. He said he also recognizes how few closed adoptions take place these days.
Nevertheless, “there are women today who simply want to end a chapter in their life,” he said. “The idea of opening up adoptions for women who gave up babies 40 or 50 years ago is unimaginable, just like it’s unimaginable to get the names of women who had abortions.”
Sentiments like that prompted Gretchen Traylor, an adoptee who opposes abortion, to quit volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. Traylor had to get a court order to see her adoption file, which she wanted in part to know more about her health history.
“Nobody received a promise in writing of perpetual and eternal secrecy,” said Traylor, 71, who recently moved from Brooklyn Park to New Mexico. “You can’t find a document that says that.”
Adoptees and birth parents have channeled their frustration to persuade states all over the political map to change their laws to provide more access to records. The latest wave began with Oregon and Alabama in the late 1990s. Twenty-nine states now offer at least some access to birth and adoption records to adoptees. Two states, Alaska and Kansas, have never restricted those records.
Bastard Nation, a group that advocates for opening records to “end a hidden legacy of shame, fear and venality,” reported that adoptee rights proposals were introduced in 13 states this year.
In 2008, a bill that would have standardized Minnesota’s access to records was vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, who cited an estimate from Lutheran Social Service that 23 percent of birth mothers wanted confidentiality.
In states that have recently opened their records, a much smaller fraction of birth parents have blocked the release of their names. In New Jersey, a state where an estimated 170,000 people were adopted since 1940, about 500 birth parents asked to block to the release of original birth certificates before the Dec. 31 deadline.
A measure passed by the New York Legislature this year was presented as opening up records. But adoptee rights groups are pressuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto the bill, saying it will impose an expensive, bureaucratic system that closely resembles the law in Minnesota.
Search goes on
After nearly 30 years of searching, Heller-Zimprich had made little progress. At the start of 2016, she had only fragments of information from the adoption agency. Her mother was 17 at the time, and in high school. She gave birth in a Minneapolis hospital and placed the baby girl with Lutheran Social Service.
Still, she was no closer to her mother’s name until she took a DNA test early last year. Once her results went up on online genealogy sites, she connected with a fourth cousin. Seventeen days later, she knew her birth mother’s identity.
Soon afterward, a 69-year-old woman picked up the phone to hear an unfamiliar voice.
Heller-Zimprich learned that her birth mother still had her baby picture, but wasn’t ready to make a closer connection. Heller-Zimprich followed up with a letter and a photo of herself. Her birth mother sent the letter back, via the adoption agency, and followed up with her own letter requesting no more contact.
“I’m sorry since this brings up painful wounds for both of us,” her birth mother wrote. “If there is any more communication, please let me be the one to initiate it.”
Other family members were more receptive.
In March, Heller-Zimprich flew to Virginia to spend a week with people she met online who turned out to be blood relatives. Her host was distant cousin Chelsea Tovar, a Richmond, Va., police detective and genealogy buff. “We are her people,” Tovar said.
Now Heller-Zimprich has focused her energy on finding her birth father. In July, she posted a comment on the Crookston Daily Times’ Facebook page, on an announcement of the Ox Cart Days celebration in August.
“Looking for my birth father,” she wrote. She gave what little information she had, that he was four years older than her mother, and a track star at a local high school, and probably didn’t know he had gotten someone pregnant in May 1963. She hoped by the time she headed to Crookston, someone would emerge to help her. Until that happens, she logs on to Ancestry.com, holding her breath for a name that could finally bring her 30-year quest to an end.