Illegitimate Complaints

Veterans of a D.C. home for unwed pregnant women demonstrate for open adoption records.

Washington CityPaper
Washington's Free Weekly Vol. 19, No. 20 May 21-27, 1999
By Susan Gervasi

In 1966, after two months behind the walls of a spooky mansion called the Florence Crittenton Home, unmarried Virginia teenager Karen Wilson bore an infant daughter she surrendered through legal adoption to strangers ("Wayward Past," 3/19). "The caseworkers said if we kept them, our habies would be called bastards, probably outright, to their faces," she recalls. "I knew what 'bastard' meant. It meant a child horn out of wedlock, it meant a baby was illegitimate, it meant shame and humiliation, and it meant 'social outcast."'

Thirty-three years later, on an overcast spring Friday, Wilson, now Karen Wilson, is waving placards along with 30 or so others on 17th Street NW to change that definition. Working with a group called Bastard Nation, the protesters are as dedicated to the broader goal of detoxifying the B word as they are to the more immediate cause for today's demonstration: making original birth certificates and other court-sealed information accessible to adult adoptees.

The demonstrators have gathered outside the 17th Street headquarters of the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a lobbying group that emerged in the early '80s, when waves of adult adoptees began demanding information about their origins. NCFA is the nation's primary legislative advocate for states' maintaining closed adoptee birth records, a practice from which only Kansas and Alaska deviate.

Clad in black T-shirts emblazoned with a bright gold logo called a "spermburst," the Bastard Nation protesters chant "Willie P, Willie P, why are you afraid of me?" They're taunting NCFA president William Pierce, whose staunch defense of keeping original birth records sealed infuriates many adult adoptees and [natural] parents. Protesters say Pierce's organization is motivated by a desire to conceal evidence of past wrongdoing -- such as baby selling -- by adoption agencies.

Even while they're trying to rehabilitate the word "bastard," the protesters seem determined to trash Pierce in name, image, and even ghostly spirit. On Bastard Nation political buttons, his exaggeratedly scraggly face is depicted with a diagonal rubout line across it. He was hung in effigy at a previous rally. The stated goal of its May 14 gathering is to "exorcise" his headquarters -- presumably of Pierce.

"We shall put this beast in chains and shall vanquish him utterly," roars Marley Greiner, the self-described "founding foundling" of Bastard Nation. Clad in Judge Judy garb, she goes on to denounce a conspiracy by anti-adoptee forces who make up labels "misidentifying adoptees [who want records opened] as dysfunctional, maladjusted, dangerous."

The protesters are full of the righteous indignation that comes from viewing access to records as a civil rights matter. But Buterbaugh, 50, a legal secretary who reunited with her daughter a few years ago, says it is also a way of making personal amends for the surrender of her daughter. "My feeling is that, even though we were coerced into relinquishment, we still did something that we shouldn't have -- right or wrong," she says.

NCFA represents 130 adoption agencies across the nation and sees itself as a beleaguered defender of mothers who don't want to be found. For every Buterbaugh, Pierce says, there are "all these little old women around the country" who dread the arrival on their doorsteps of children about whom their families may know nothing.

Pierce tells horror stories of adoptees who locate [natural] parents and -- if they don't get what they want, such as financial help or personal relationship -- proceed to harass them, in one case sending "post-cards filled with vituperation and vulgarities" to the [natural] parents' neighbors. He contends that his views about keeping records sealed were shaped by those adoptee-as-stalker stories. "I said, 'Bullshit, I'm going to fight for her,'" says Pierce of harassed mothers.

Such women sometimes "call and sob and say thank you," he says, telling him he's the only one doing anything to protect them against unwelcome intrusions. NCFA recently assisted a group of [natural] mothers in legally challenging an Oregon open-records initiative, among other cases.

But many mothers say they neither expected nor were promised lifelong confidentiality, and want their adult children to be able to track them down through their names on original birth certificates. Those documents were typically sealed by courts at the time of adoption and replaced by "amended" birth certificates, wbich may or may not carry accurate information about time and place of birth.

"Bill Pierce has neither the equipment nor the inclination to speak for me as a [natural] mother," says Pollie Robinson, 52, who located her daughter in 1983 with the help of a professional searcher. "What kept me going for 18 years was that the social worker led me to believe that once she turned 18, we could be reunited."

Buterbaugh says she understands why some mothers may be reluctant to revisit the past -- in the form of the adoptee -- and that unexpected contact might "disrupt their lives." That, nevertheless, doesn't make it right to deny adoptees information about their origins, she says, noting that women who don't want a relationship with children they relinquished are free to politely shut the door.

Pierce argues that opening adoption records could induce future relinquishing parents to lie about vital medical information, included now in the limited "nonidentifying" information legally accessible to adult adoptees. "They might have had some sexual activities, might have indulged in some recreational drug use," he says. "Let's assume I used marijuana in the past and had sex and also had anal sex with a woman who may have had anal sex with a guy who is gay. And I also had a bout of depression, and there may be some biochemical or genetic thing. There is zero chance you're going to get a candid background history if they know it will be accessible. So they'll say, 'My health is perfectly good.'"

Such arguments don't convince adult adoptees, who say that by states' keeping their own records away from them, they're being treated not only as potential stalkers, but also as children. Robinson, who in 1963 as an unmarried and pregnant South Carolina teenager was grimly warned by her older brother that the baby she was expecting would be called a bastard if she kept it, has become deeply involved in adult-adoptee-rights battles. Not long ago, someone asked her what an "adult adoptee" was. "I said, 'You know those little babies that people adopt? Well, they grow up."'

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