Christine Stuart photo
Eileen McQuade, a birthmother who gave up a child for adoption, tells her story (Christine Stuart photo)

Adoption reform advocates at the State Capitol this year have shifted the focus of their effort to open adoption records from the rights of adoptees to the rights of birthmothers.

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Monday about a bill that would give birthmothers access to the papers they signed — years ago in most cases — terminating their parental rights.

“There’s a question as to whether biological parents were promised, or made agreements, that their identities would be kept secret from their adult offspring,” Karen Caffrey, president of Access Connecticut, said. “We believe biological parents should have a copy of everything they signed.”

Caffrey’s organization is trying to prove that there was no promise of confidentiality in those parental rights termination agreements. If Access Connecticut can prove that, then they believe they will have undermined a key argument against opening the records.

The documents in question would not give biological parents the information they would need to track down their children. But Access Connecticut believes that opening the documents to birthmothers will further the adoption reform movement because the documents will show what confidentiality, if any, was promised to birth parents when their parental rights were terminated.

Caffrey said she expects to find that there was no promise of confidentiality or nondisclosure in the documents that formalized the termination of parental rights. Many of the documents they have been able to obtain say that the person signing away parental rights was advised of the “law on and the legal effects” of the removal, but there was no confidentiality language in the document.

Caffrey told the Judiciary Committee that after 1983 there was a state-mandated form for termination of parental rights, but there was no uniformity before that time.

“Many of these people don’t have a single piece of paper that documents they gave a child away,” Caffrey said.

She said the movement for openness and access to the records is comprised of birthmothers, who were driven to secrecy and shamed back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

One of those mothers was Eileen McQuade of South Windsor.

During a panel discussion Monday, McQuade said that adoption wasn’t really a choice she made. It was imposed on her by her parents. It was the way unwed pregnancy was handled back in the 1950s.

McQuade gave birth in a maternity home in 1956. Just before the birth of her daughter they knocked her out so that “it was like I wasn’t even at the birth.” She said they told her she would “never remember this.” But how could she forget?

“When I left, I took the card in her bassinet that had her name and her length and her weight,” McQuade said in a documentary film titled “Four Birthmothers—For Mothers.” She said she was afraid she would forget and she knew she couldn’t. She said she carried the card until she met her daughter 30 years later.

Aside from the card she stole from the bassinet, McQuade said she never had any proof she had a child.

Other women in the film say they were tied down with leather straps during birth and never allowed to even touch their newborn.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said she thought the adoption reform movement was being driven by the adult adoptee who was working very hard to find his or her birth parent.

The General Assembly passed legislation last year giving adult adoptees who were adopted after Oct. 1, 1983, access to their original birth certificate with the names of their biological parents. The law will go into effect July 1, 2015.

Boucher said she heard from birthmothers during that debate who were trying to stop legislation because they didn’t want their identities to be known. She said this new legislation raises a lot of questions about what motivated a person to engage in the adoption process. Boucher said mothers told her that if they had known they could some day be found out, they would have terminated the pregnancy instead of choosing adoption.

Caffrey said the move for openness in the state is being driven by birthmothers.

“What drove secrecy . . . was shaming,” Caffrey said.

Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, who was adopted, said the legislation is about the adoption reform movement.

“It makes no sense for adoption agencies to deny birth parents access to copies of documents that they actually signed when they put their children up for adoption,” Alexander said. “Connecticut residents have a legal right to obtain copies of documents they signed regarding car sales, mortgages, and other contractual transactions. Therefore, why should we deny birth parents access to copies of documents that they signed completing the contractual transaction of their adoption?”

He said the subject of reform shouldn’t pit adoptees against birth parents.

“This is a difficult and emotional topic, but a balancing test must be used to weigh the interests of all concerned parties,” Alexander added.

But Boucher worried about what happens when adoptees find their birth parents or their birth parents find them.

“We’re talking about lives that can be dramatically impacted and in some cases improved dramatically, but at the same time destroyed,” Boucher said.

McQuade said the legislation isn’t about regulating relationships between birth parents and adoptees. She said it’s about access to documents.

Advocates for the legislation believe the adoption agencies have access to these documents. No adoption agencies testified against the legislation Monday.