A groundbreaking Illinois law allows adoptees who are now adults to get a copy of their original birth certificate. The movement is spreading to other states. Supporters of the law say it's as a big step toward reuniting lost relatives, but critics are worried what it could mean for birth parents who don't want to be found.
Fifty years ago Cletus Lynch found a photo in a drawer in his mother's dresser. He was 11, living with his mother in a one-bedroom apartment in Illinois, and stunned when she told him the girl in the picture was his sister.
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Lynch searched for his sister all of his adult life. Barbara Mapes knew she was adopted and always felt, for no particular reason, that she had a brother. Now reunited, Mapes recalled, "(I thought) I think I have an older brother out there. Someday I'm going to be walking down a street or in an airport and I'd see a guy who looks just like me, well ha!"
Mapes was raised by adoptive parents 35 miles away from her brother and birth mom in Illinois, but because of privacy laws, those 35 miles might as well have been 3,500. Mapes said, "I always felt like the corner foundation piece of that puzzle has always been missing."
Traditionally, in cases of adoption, birth certificates are sealed. After the adoption, a new certificate is issued with the adoptive parents' name on it.
"Everywhere you went, you got a brick wall," Lynch said. "Privacy rules, HIPAA rules, I had contacted the hospital, 'No, we can't give you that information.'"
In 2010, the Illinois State Legislature changed the law making it possible for adoptees over the age of 21 to get a copy of their original birth certificate. When Mapes got her 61-year-old birth certificate, she was stunned to see she had a sibling.
"It was that sibling that I was interested in because I just felt like I had a big brother," Mapes said. "I don't know, I never thought about a sister or anything, I just thought I had a big brother out there all these years."
Illinois Democratic State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz wrote the bill. She said, "I passed this law because I felt the pain and was approached by many other adoptees in Illinois who had no idea how to get any information.
She added, "(There were) a lot of adoptive parents who had children who were adopted who wanted to get medical information about the children they adopted, people who wanted to reconnect to get life-saving medical information were unable to do anything, and why?"
Critics of the Illinois law and similar bills around the country say that sealed records protect the biological parents -- and that this change constitutes an invasion of privacy.
Adam Pertman, executive director of the Adoption Institute, said, "What people are concerned about, I think, is the knock at the door. That somebody who doesn't want intrusion on their lives is suddenly going to have to have a relationship with a child they relinquish."
Mapes says it's a question of her right to know the truth. "I guess I'm speaking on behalf of all the adoptees out there that we don't know anything and it's an unknown factor of our lives that we feel like we need to know."