Friday, May 12, 2006

Herding Cats: National Strategies for Adoption Records Access Reform

The campaign to Open Records to adult adoptees is in actuality forty-five campaigns. Kansas, Alaska, Oregon, Alabama and New Hampshire have Open Records. All other states have restrictions on access. Tennessee has Open Records but also has the only state enforced contact veto, which has made its inclusion in lists of Open Records states problematic and contentious. Mounting one successful state grassroots legislative campaign is arduous, expensive and fraught with risks. Complicating the map is the fact that each state has its own more or less unique set of adoption laws, with completely different histories of enactment and narratives of legislative intent. State legislatures act with self-conscious autonomy, almost insularity, so success in an Open Records campaign in one state doesn’t ensure that a campaign in an adjacent state will prove easier.

At this point in time the United States is solidly polarized along lines described as “conservative” and “liberal”, red and blue states. Nearly every issue of importance is picked over by conservative and liberal cadres and frames are produced consistent with ideological party lines. Everything from abortion to the size of government, marriage, what constitutes a family, is framed to fit within the conservative/liberal dichotomy. Adoption reform, Open Records reform in particular, confounds this framing process. You can look at the legislative histories of Open Records from state to state and be unable to discern any consistent ideological pattern. Sometimes conservative legislators champion adoptee rights, sometimes liberal, often times both liberals and conservatives oppose adoptee rights, sharing the same frames. To observe this phenomenon in reverse, look at the legislative history of so-called “Safe Haven” laws; regardless of whether the sponsors of these bills are arch-conservatives or text-book knee-jerk liblabs, they all used the same rhetorical lexicon. If you wore a blindfold you would be completely unable to tell who was who.

Legislatures are a culture unto themselves, and successful grassroots efforts need personnel who understand this culture and are able to create and foster positive relationships with individual legislators. The successful records access reform campaigns have benefited from having a sound inside player, either a member of the legislature or an accomplished lobbyist, guide the effort. As noted, these successes have been few and far between, and were a combination of diligent and difficult effort combined with fortuitous timing. More common are the ten or more annual efforts that get stalled in committee or achieve death by amendment, led by volunteer lobbyists with limited experience. Sometimes there is a strategic objective in pursuing legislation that goes nowhere, it can create positive relationships if the activists handle themselves and their troops correctly by demonstrating knowledge of the legislatures protocols and culture, by showing that they are “players”. More often than not, though, these haphazard and ill-conceived efforts just gum up the works for a session and then fade away.

As I noted in an earlier blog, the main focus of legislatures is not on adoption law, and the individual members with an interest and knowledge of adoption are often the most resistant to reform. There are many reasons why this should be, many times legislators are interested in adoption because they are adoptive parents, and, having benefited from the system as it is, may be resistant to calls to change this system. Some of these adoptive parent legislators have strong personal and/or professional ties with the adoption agencies or facilitators who constitute the major opponents of Open Records. To many people there is no greater boon than to be given a child, and such a gift can incur a high degree of loyalty from the recipient. In recent years, however, a significant number of legislators with an interest in adoption are adult adoptees themselves or adoptive parents who see the benefit of adoptee rights for their children.

In light of the strategic and tactical complexity of achieving Open Records, it is paramount that there be a national organization to coordinate communication and resources for state efforts. Unfortunately, planning and executing forty-five campaigns is, at this point, beyond the capacity of any of the existing national adoption reform groups.

The two most prominent national adoption reform groups, the American Adoption Congress and Bastard Nation, have ostensibly similar objectives regarding Open Records, but take two very different paths in formulating their national strategies.

The AAC supports autonomous local legislative campaigns, often with the participation of local AAC members, but sometimes without. The AAC’s support is generally limited to publicity through their online and paper publications and letter writing campaigns, but in the past has included cash donations and legal support in pertinent legal actions. They also have provided personnel to deliver testimony at hearings and in the media. The legislation these autonomous local groups have conceived and negotiated is a mixed bag, everything from pure Open Records bills through various bills compromised by disclosure and contact vetoes, even bills strengthening mutual consent registries. Because the AAC’s practice in supporting these autonomous groups is also policy, the AAC has actively discouraged criticism of specific bills by “outsiders”, that is people outside the state in question. Sometimes this proscription against critique has been applied to critics who reside within the state but are “outsiders” because they aren’t members of the autonomous lobbying group or committee. This “big tent” approach has allowed the AAC to maintain a national profile without having to actually lead a campaign, since basically anyone with the ambition to lead a state campaign is made welcome. The drawback is that the AAC is thus everything to everybody, and can’t speak with a unified coherent message, which places it in an ambiguous position for a national leader. The AAC is also at a strategic disadvantage since it has ceded the power to discipline and control the autonomous organizations and has relegated itself to being the tail wagged by as many as ten state organizations in any given legislative session.

Bastard Nation’s approach is more traditional for a national advocacy group. It takes positions consistent with its Mission to Open Records. Bastard Nation supports state efforts to legislate unrestricted access to birth certificates whether the local campaign is BN led or not, but on the condition that changes in bill language that restrict access will trigger BN’s forceful opposition. This support is similar to the AAC’s; publicity through electronic and other media, strategic and tactical support from veteran organizers, and cash donations. Over the years Bastard Nation has been burned by local committees that began promoting unrestricted access legislation but ended up promoting bills with contact and disclosure vetoes or other compromises BN found unacceptable. Tactically, BN finds it more comfortable to support local efforts that are either led by BN members or organizations that have a strong BN presence. The advantages of this strategy is that there is no question about what Bastard Nation stands for and that BN may exert pressure and a certain amount of discipline on local adoption reform groups. The downside is that grassroots organizations may diverge from Bastard Nation’s Mission, and resent the result; a hail storm of emails and letters and hearing testimony from a national adoption reform organization against a bill in which they’re invested.

The two divergent national strategies of the AAC and BN were forged in conflict. Almost from its inception, Bastard Nation used its resources to attempt to defeat reform bills supported by the AAC that contained restrictions on access. This strategy was condemned by many, who felt that adoption reformers should present a “united front” against a common foe, and hardened rather than softened the AAC policy that “outsiders” should have no voice in state legislative matters (except when it came time to write letters of support). For its part, Bastard Nation has never wavered in its commitment to defeat bills that it determines undermine adoptee rights.

The main challenge to both the AAC and BN is not each other, but in low membership and numbers of committed (not to mention trained and experienced) activists. I will be writing in future blogs about the challenges of increasing membership and enhancing the capacity for leadership development on a national level, and will posit possible strategies.

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Blogger honorable bastard said...

Once again, you've hit the nail right on the head, Ron. Anyone who is thinking about bringing forth access legislation should be listening, Ron knows what he is talking about.


11:49 AM  
Blogger AdoptTalk said...

I think the whole approach is wrong on several levels.

The AAC is virtually useless and always has been, and both the AAC and BN continue to use the term OPEN RECORDS instead of what we are actually seeking with is EQUAL ACCESS.

I spoke over ten years against the use of the term Open Records which creates a mental picture of opening Pandora’s Box, creating a problems (for birthmothers), and also of asking for something special, when in fact we are asking for the same basic human rights as non-adopted citizens. We are asking to NOT be discriminated against based on birth status. This is indeed a national issue, as is any discrimination.

To ask for open records my friends would be have been comparable to Blacks asking to sit on the front of the bus and drink from the same water fountains as whites. They did not do that. They asked for the WHOLE ENCHILADA – to be EQUAL!!! When you ask fro EQUAL, it is inherent in that asking that there are no compromises! It’s either EQUAL or it’s NOT; it’s unequal and unfair and discriminatory.

THAT is what we are need to seek retroactively.

We need to separate the past and the future.

Going forward, we need to emphatically seek an end to FALSIFIED BIRTH CERIFICATES. Every so-called “amended’ certificate that states a person is BORN TO his/her adoptive parents is state committed fraud, again making it a national issue!

Not event the most open adoption is truly open when it starts with a FAKSIFIED BIRTH CERIFICATE. Every human being deserves to have a non falsified birth certificate to which could be attached a certificate of adoption. Access to it should be no different than anyone else’s access to theirs. No special age limit for adoptees!

There is no purpose for anything less and we should insist and not accept anything less! To accept anything less is to accept crumbs no bigger than those opposed by BN such as vetoes.

The alleged “stigma of illegitimacy” is long gone. The only ones protected by falsified birth certificates are those who first started the practice – Black and Grey Market baby brokers.

We must get over our shyness about language and stop endulging these euphemisms and TELL IT LIKE IT IS! Language controls arguments (read George Lakoff). And language also controls public opinion. I doubt anyone outside of the triad realizes that birth certificates are FALSIFIED the way they are! If people knew that they are much more likely to get behind us and support the end of this absurd ridiculousness.

Mirah Riben

5:14 AM  
Blogger BB Church said...


I agree with you almost whole heartedly. "Open Records" is a term that reflects the insularity of the adoption reform movement. Nobody outside of Adoption World knows what we're talking about. Equality of access is understandable as soon as someone is informed that adoption records are sealed to those to whom they pertain.

I'm going to write a bit about Bastard Nation in the next segment of this blog, and then I'm going to write what I see needs to be done.

Equally important as Lagoff, is Saul Alinsky. Without organizing basics we'll continue to piddle along.


8:53 PM  

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