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Right to know identity of birth parents one of the last civil rights left unaddressed

By BECKY GILLETTE

mbj@msbusiness.com

Adoption laws in Mississippi haven’t changed since the 1800s, says Nash Nunnery, a Mississippi Business Journal reporter who was adopted in the mid-1950s when he was several months old. The laws that date from the time when an unwed pregnancy was considered a disgrace still linger.

“People like me searching for my birth mother can’t obtain any identifying information,” Nunnery said. “They have refused to give me her name even. I paid for Canopy Services, the state adoption agency, to do a search and all that they would tell me is that my mother was a 5’, 3” tall, strawberry blonde and that my grandfather was a farmer. Even with the death of my mother, they won’t release names or anything else. I actually think it is wrong. It is archaic.”

The right to know the identity of your birth parents, Nunnery said, is the only civil right left in the country that hasn’t been addressed. While both his adoptive parents are wonderful people, Nunnery feels there is a right for someone to have information about their biological parents, as well.

“An adoptee not knowing who they are and where they came from, I guess you would have to walk in our shoes to know the feeling,” Nunnery said. “It is not knowing like everyone else their family history. It is going to the doctor’s office and not being able to tell them anything when they ask for your family medical history.”

Nunnery is working on a campaign to get the laws changed in Mississippi. Since adoptees are only a small percentage of the population, it can be a challenge to find enough support for legislation to open birth records in Mississippi. But most other states have open birth certificate records.

“I spoke an hour and a half on the phone recently to a woman in Missouri who spearheaded a recent successful effort to open birth certificate records in that state,” Nunnery said. “I talked to her about how she did it. I’m so fired up about the situation, I would like to get the law changed. Probably the only way I will ever learn the identify of my birth parents is if we get the law changed in Mississippi.”

Attitudes about unwed pregnancies have changed drastically since the 1950s when Nunnery was put up for adoption.

“Back then unwed mothers were shamed,” he said. “If you were a minor unwed mother and didn’t take yourself to the unwed mothers home, the sheriff came and picked you up to take you there. The baby was taken from its mother after birth and taken to the Mississippi Children’s Society in Jackson. That is where I [was] for months until my adoptive parents came alone.”

Today adoptions are often open, and a child might grow up knowing his or her birth parents. Birth parents might even be included in gatherings like birthday parties. But older adoptees don’t have the same opportunities.

“Why can’t we know these things?” Nunnery said. “I do have a brother. My mother had a two-year-old when she had me. I don’t know whether he is alive or not. If he is alive, I would love to meet my brother.”

Canopy Services found Nunnery’s mother’s obituary from Dec. 30, 1999, but won’t share her name, where she was buried or anything else.

“I would like some closure,” Nunnery said. “I would like to visit her burial site. It all goes back to shame. My mother was considered an awful person for getting pregnant and having a child out of wedlock. They want to keep the shame buried. We are all about family values as long as they are prim and proper family values. People don’t want the ugly truth.”

Arthur “Skipper” Jernigan, an attorney with Canopy Services who has been involved in adoptions for several decades, said that the issue of whether the current law is fair hinges on your perspective.

“Fairness is a two-way street,” Jernigan said. “The adoptee has a natural want to know about his biological background and then you have a natural parent birthmother who on the other end may want to have her identity and the circumstances describing how or why she made decision to release child for adoption remain confidential. From the agency’s standpoint, their client is the biological parent. Without their client’s consent, they cannot release any specific identifying information either about the biological mother or father.”

Jernigan said if Canopy Services is contacted by an adoptee, It will make its best effort to contact the biological parent to see if they would agree would to release information or have contact with an adoptee.

“A large part of the time, they get a favorable response,” Jernigan said. “Every once in a while, the mother says ‘No, that was another part of my life,’ which is very painful to an adopted person. I can understand the situation where a biological parent is decreased. Why can’t the child find out more about his or her biological ancestry? But that information is still prohibited to be released by law.”

Some agencies now get the biological parents to sign an affidavit or consent at the time of the adoption that gives the agency the right, at a certain time in the future–most often when adoptee is older than 21–to release that information. Jernigan said that is a fairly recent practice.

“But as far as getting into the court records and getting the names of your biological parents just because you are curious about, that is still prohibited,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of frustration. I sure have. I bet I get one to three calls per week by  adoptees wanting to know how to get that information.”

Lee Ann Merritt of Southaven found her birth mother in 2002 after 17 years and hiring someone to do searches in her birth state of Louisiana. Merritt is known as a “search angel,” someone who helps others find their biological parents.

Merritt said one option for adoptees who want to know their parents is to do a DNA test and search for a match with a company like ancestry.com. But she said that is very much “like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

“More and more states are giving us access to our original birth certificates,” Merritt said. “Indiana will soon have open records. Arkansas and Missouri have recently changed. More and more of the states are allowing access.”

Merritt said adoptees deserve to have access to family medical records.

“People do die because they don’t have any way of getting their family medical history,” Merritt said. “When somebody gets sick, all sorts of tests have to be done that would not be necessary if they had a family medical history that would allow the doctor to narrow the search. It would save time and money.”

Merritt said adoptees and birth parents are one of the last groups where discrimination is not only practiced, but encouraged.

“Wouldn’t it be super if they would just fix that? she asks. “There is still a process and it can take years even when you have names. Recently I helped someone who had her birth mother’s name and her search took more than 30 years. A lot can happen to a person in 30 years.”

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About Becky Gillette

9 comments

  1. Hey Nash! welcome to the world of Adoptee Rights Advocacy. We have a strong group on Facebook and would love to share with you the information we have gathered to help you restore access in Mississippi. Look for me on facebook, I sent you a friend request already. Also, DNA testing is the way to identify biological relatives even with absolutely no information. Not private, but that is what the archaic laws are driving people to do in order to reconnect. You WILL match relatives in your DNA and be able to identify your biological family.

  2. I was adopted from MS Children’s Home in 59 and went to a Chancery Judge in Hinds County and spoke with him in his chambers asking him to unseal the records. His response – not kidding “My daughter is adopted and I would not want her to search for her birth mother so.. no.”

  3. What a pitifully selfish response by the Chancery Judge in Hinds County .. an inconvenient truth that He, not the daughter, would have to face. SMH …

    Completely agree with Connie Gray that DNA testing is a method that positively can (it’s no needle in a haystack) start piecing and knitting together a persons’ ancestry. With no known ancestry, the best place to start is with autosomal DNA testing. FamilyTreeDNA – Ancestry – 23andMe – MyHeritage … there are plenty of companies to choose from.

    In the spirit of full-disclosure, I am not adopted but have assisted an ‘Intermediary’ in Indiana. I was a close autosomal match with a person … the person not only matched me, but also with known 2nd cousins from one branch on our family tree. Knowing that greatly narrowed down the search parameters for her ‘client’. I provided family surnames within the one branch and a geographical location. I contacted the Intermediary a few months later to get a status on her clients search. From the information I provided from autosomal DNA results, plus other information the Intermediary had gathered, the identity of her clients ancestry was determined.

    A completely separate occurrence happened in Dec 2017, this time with Y-DNA results. Again, close matches with an individual at 67-markers on Y-DNA test results, as-well-as a 2nd – 4th cousin match on autosomal DNA results. I initiated contact with this match not knowing he is adopted. Our Y match is strong, so I encouraged him to “test up” to 111-markers, which he did. Our match stayed strong. So, on his own, he took the initiative to test what known as The Big-Y where hundreds of thousands of Y-DNA segments are tested (I had already done this test). Boom … again a close match between us. In this last test, as in his previous Y-testing, he continues to show most of his matches are of one surname.

    This person is now 48 years old and has no inkling whatsoever as to his birth parents. He was placed in a religious charities home in the Bay area (SF) at birth and adopted about at a few months old. Now a successful business person, married, 2 children of his own who has no idea who he is biologically nor genetically. His adopted parents are fully supportive of and have made efforts on their own to help and assist with his search … all to no avail. The home he was placed in at birth will only reveal “non-identifying” information. The state (CA) will not release his original birth cert. His only avenue at this point is DNA testing.

    We have a surname determined but that’s it, at this point. I’ve talked with him a couple times and not that it made him feel any better … but said isn’t it strange that if you were to purchase a thoroughbred horse or a pedigree dog that you would be presented with the pedigree/ancestry of the animal, but you are not allowed by law to know the ancestry of you.

  4. I was adopted at birth in 1963 in TX. TX is still a closed records state, too. I did DNA testing in 2014 and launched a very public biological search. My story and pictures were shared thousands of times on social media. The local newspaper in the city where I was born in TX saw my story/pix on social media (shared thousands of times) and contacted me (I now live in MS) and ran my story and pictures on the front page of their newspaper. What should be a very private matter has become a very public search for thousands of adult adoptees like us. DNA testing alone solved my maternal biological identity. I tested with all 3 of the companies that you see advertised, then uploaded my data to Gedmatch. I immediately had 2nd cousins to further out who all shared family tree info with me. It took 2 years, but I finally got a first cousin match who contacted me right away. My birth mother had long passed, but I have living half-siblings. They all welcomed me and tested for me to confirm my identity. Do DNA testing and get in touch with Connie Gray!!!! She helped me tremendously!!! Unless the outdated laws are changed, we all have to search publicly. Best wishes!!! Don’t give up!!

  5. It’s not about the right to know the identity of your birth parents; the right to access State Record about yourself.

    The State withholds vital records from adopted people and no one else. The State denies adopted people access to their birth record, and to the court record of the proceeding that declaired all their blood kin to be legal strangers. Adoptees are bound to a different family as if born into that family. Names and dates of birth are altered but DNA does not participate in the State sponsored deception: DNA does not lie.

    Less than equal treatment needs to end.

  6. I was born in Alabama, but my adoption took place in Mississippi through Catholic Charities. I have made contact with them so many times through the years trying to receive any information i can. They require payment, and do not guarantee they can or will give you what you’ve paid for. Luckily, Alabama finally opened their adoption records and I was able to receive my orignal birth certificate with my birth mother’s name. With the help of LeeAnn, she was found and overjoyed. She said she gave the agency permission to give out her information and went as far as always leaving her change of address and phone numbers, but did Catholic Charities follow through with her request? Absolutely not! These backdated laws are doing nothing but abusing the system for their advantage. They took my money, more than once and never gave me what my mother and I both requested, as per THEIR rules. This needs to change for the health and benefit of both sides.

  7. Adoptee rights advocates all over the country are fighting to restore the right for adoptees to access their own vital records. The Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys recently passed a resolution that should assist all of us engaged in changing antiquated laws that deny adoptees this basic human right. http://www.adoptionattorneys.org/aaaa/academy-info/resolutions. Access Massachusetts would be happy to share our experinces with you, Nash. We are on the Web and Facebook.

  8. Attention Craig N: have your friend go on Facebook and look for a group called Search Squad’s Ohio & California Adoptee/Birth Parent Search. There are some California experts in the group who have some specific resources that might be able to help that he might not know about (I can’t get into details, but trust me on this.) Wishing best of luck to all of the advocates working to open records in all of the states. I live in Rhode Island, which made original birth certificates available to adoptees back in 2012. There have been exactly zero reported problems, and I know of several adoptees here who are grateful to finally have their truths and in some cases to have reunited with birth family.

  9. Tina,
    Thank you for the assist. I will definitely pass on the contact information you reference. Appreciate your thoughtfulness.

    R,
    Craig N.

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