Carmel family hopes to change Indiana adoption laws
By Mark Ambrogi
This is mission that Melissa Shelton and her son Nick Shelton were born to undertake.
Melissa, an adoptee herself and an adoption social worker, and her adopted son Nick have been seeking a change in Indiana adoption laws to open records for those born between 1941 and Dec. 31, 1993, a time when the records were sealed.
Adoptees can get a copy of their birth certificate when they turn 21 if they were born in 1994 or after. The records are closed for those born prior to that.
“I could not figure out the laws in this state, it’s so goofy,” said Melissa, who has lived with her family in Carmel since 2007. “I got together with some people and we just knew the laws had to change.”
A plan began in 2007 and in 2009 Melissa was part of a group that created Hoosiers for Equal Access to Records. Nick, a 15-year-old Carmel High School freshman, has helped take an active role and testified before the committee. After the bill didn’t get out of committee in 2011, it was passed by the Indiana Senate 46-3 on Jan. 22.
“We changed the minds and hearts of the legislators,” Melissa said of the difference this time.
The bill was authored by State Sen. Brent Steele (R) and signed by Sen. Mike Delph (R) and Sen. Lonnie Randolph (D). Melissa said the bill will now go to the Indiana House of Representatives for committee consideration before hopefully being put to a vote in the spring.
Nick was born in Washington where the records are open. Melissa and her husband Bob, who retired from the Army after 24 years in 2010 and now works for Defense Finance and Accounting Service, also have an adopted daughter Isabella, 13, a Creekside Middle School eighth-grader, who was born in Nebraska, where records are closed.
Melissa, 46, who was born in Wisconsin, said if Nick was born in Indiana he could have access to his birth certificate as an adult but she couldn’t.
“To me that just says it all, that’s so odd. There are a chunk of us between 74 and 21, who can not have our information,” she said.
To Nick, this didn’t seem fair, either.
“A big opposition to the bill says this could lead to great emotional trauma to the birth parents,” Nick said. “If we don’t have access to these records and these records are closed. We don’t get emotional trauma, we could die because we don’t know about a history of diabetes in our family, a recurring cancer we need to be watching out for. We don’t know about genetic disease that can be passed down from parent to child if those records aren’t opened then we can’t do anything. We’re just lambs waiting.”
Melissa said those are old myths about trauma to the birth parents that everyone hears over and over again.
“Research has been done, it’s just not true,” Melissa said. “But that might be emotional trauma, but that is physical trauma. This isn’t about I want to meet my birth mother and father. This is about it’s my birth certificate. It’s not the government’s birth certificate. It’s not my birth mother’s, it’s not my birth father’s.”
A case in point is Melissa has always kept track of where Nick’s biological mother was since she did have her name. In 2007, she did a Google search when she found a story about friends supporting a 10-year-old boy with a brain tumor by having their heads shaved, too. That 10-year-old boy was Nick’s half-brother so Melissa immediately got hold of the birth mother to learn the details.
“We had met so when I got ahold of her, she knew exactly who was calling,” Melissa said.
Since then, Nick said he has a good relationship with his birth mother and his half-brother and a half-sister, who now live in Nebraska.
Melissa spent 13 years in the Army and then went back to college to get her master’s of social work from the University of Kansas. She is a state-registered confidential intermediary helping adoptees reunite with their birth parents. She found she had one full birth brother and seven other half-brothers and half-sisters.
“My brother and I were born one year and 36 hours apart and we didn’t even know each other existed until I did my search about 10 years ago,” she said.
When Melissa and Bob couldn’t have children, Melissa said it was the natural progression to adopt their children as infants.
“They are just as much my child as any other child,” Melissa said.
Nick said he has been interested in social work since his mother began teaching him about it as a small child.
“I remembered when she went to get her master’s, I would always look at the books,” said Nick, who served as a page for Sen. Mike Delph. “I would be so confused but it would seem so interesting at the same time. I’ve also really liked politics and how legislation works since I’ve been seven or eight. When my mom offered to let me be a part of it, I jumped at the change.”
Fourteen states have open adoption records.
“We’re hoping Indiana is 15,” Melissa said.
The Hoosiers for Equal Access to Records has released information pertaining to the proposed change.
What the bill does:
1. Balances the interests of the birth parents and adult adoptees by promoting truth and transparency.
2. Recognizes adoptees’ need for life-saving medical history as they start having children and as they age and start having health problems of their own.
3. Creates a level-playing field for all adult adoptees, regardless of when the adoption occurred. Only Indiana adoptees born between 1941 and 1993 are denied access to their records.
4. Takes a significant step toward healing the harmful shame, secrecy and lies that characterized adoption for decades.
What the bill does not do:
1. Does not release records to minors or the general public.
2. Does not violate any constitution, statutory or contractual rights to privacy. There have been no legal challenges in the 14 states that allow access since all challenges have been unsuccessful.
3. Does not release identifying information about the adoptive family to the birth parents.
4. Does not change current law which allows a birth parent or an adoptee to file a “no release” form if they don’t want to be contacted.
For more information, visit indianahear.org.