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Local woman knows both sides to 2018 adoption law change
By Cindy Klepper - Monday, January 23, 2017 8:28 AM
Originally published Jan. 19, 2017.
Jennifer Fahlsing sees the first day of July in 2018 as the end of the dark ages.
That’s the day Indiana will open access to birth records for Indiana residents who were adopted between 1941 and 1993.
“This is going to level the playing field,” Fahlsing says.
Fahlsing, a Huntington resident, is on the board of directors of the Indiana Adoptive Network (IAN), one of two Hoosier groups that have been working for years to open adoption records in Indiana. The bill to open the adoption records from 1941 to 1993 was passed in mid-2016 and will take effect on July 1, 2018.
Fahlsing is intimately acquainted with both sides of the issue — she was adopted as an infant; 16 years later, she unwillingly relinquished a son to adoption.
She has since been happily reunited with both her birth mother and her son, but she says those who haven’t been so fortunate need to prepare for the effects of the new law.
“We have to get the word out about the bill so people can know about it and prepare for it,” Fahlsing says. “It’s just a huge mental, emotional, process for an adoptee.”
It may also be difficult for birth mothers who haven’t told their husbands, or their other children, that an earlier baby was placed for adoption. A birth mother can still request not to be contacted, or to be contacted only through an intermediary, but Fahlsing says now is the time to make those preparations.
To that end, IAN has planned a two-day conference in April where adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents can learn about the new rules.
Before 1941, Fahlsing says, babies who were the result of accidental pregnancies were absorbed by extended families. But societal attitudes had changed by the 1940s. Families weren’t as large; they couldn’t afford an extra mouth to feed.
“They had to find a place to put these babies,” she says.
Churches stepped in to handle adoptions, and the state established rules for the process.
Original birth certificates for those babies were stamped “bastard” or “illegitimate,” and amended birth certificates were issued to imply that the baby was the biological child of the adoptive parents.
Until that time, Fahlsing says, birth certificates were open. It was only beginning in 1941 that original birth records were kept secret.
And Hoosiers adopted in 1994 or later have always had the option of requesting their original records once they turn 21.
Fahlsing was born in Auburn in 1963; her original birth certificate was filed during the “closed” years.
She started looking for her biological mother when she turned 21. After locating her, she sent her a card and received a letter in return. Her biological mother, she learned, was 18 when Jennifer, her second child, was born.
“I had a daughter named Jackie when I was sixteen and was told if I didn’t give you up they would take Jackie away from me,” the letter read in part. “At the time I didn’t want to give you up, but later I thought it was the right thing to do.”
“It’s sad how women were treated back then,” Fahlsing says.
Rural judges had absolute power, she says, ordering sterilizations of young girls and forcing others to give up their newborns.
Fahlsing’s adoptive parents also lived in Auburn, and her brother — 9 at the time of her adoption — remembers the day she joined the family.
“They got a call from the courthouse,” she said. “They said, ‘Hey, are you still looking for a baby? Because we have one.’”
The couple and their young son, also adopted, drove out into the country, where a nurse drove up and showed them the baby. They agreed to take her.
“My brother says he remembers bringing me home when I was 3 days old,” Fahlsing says.
Her adoptive parents wouldn’t talk about her adoption, she says.
“I always knew I was adopted,” she says. “But you don’t talk about it. You don’t ask questions.”
In 1980, at 16, Fahlsing got pregnant.
“That did not go over well with my family,” she says. “I was sent away in the middle of the night.”
She had been living in Auburn with her adoptive father and was sent to Fort Wayne to live with her adoptive mother and stepfather.
“I lived in a bedroom upstairs and hid if they had company,” she says.
She gave birth to a son who was immediately placed for adoption.
“I was told I was going to; there was no choice,” she says. “They make you feel like you’re the worst person in the world … They show up first thing in the morning just after you’ve given birth. They make you sign the papers then.”
A sympathetic nurse let her have 12 hours with her baby. She didn’t see him again until her son’s father found her. He had lost another child, she says, and wanted medical information about the family of his second son’s birth mother.
Fahlsing says she had told her husband about her pregnancy at 16 when they began dating; she told her other children when she located her firstborn son.
“They were excited,” she says. “They were ready to meet him.”
“Health issues are huge” for adoptees, Fahlsing says.
“I see my (birth) mom all the time,” Fahlsing says. “She gave me all the health information.”
Her biological mother and sisters all take thyroid medications, so Fahlsing says she requested a thyroid test from her doctor; now, she’s on thyroid medication, too.
Fahlsing’s firstborn son now has serious health problems, she says, and had no information about the health background of his biological family.
When Fahlsing’s daughter’s child was born with a rare birth defect, she couldn’t answer any of the geneticist’s questions. As it turned out, her medical history didn’t matter; the baby didn’t survive.
“So I think secrets are bad,” she says.
Beyond that, knowing the identity of the birth family can head off problems, she says. Fahlsing became best friends with a girl from school who was actually her biological sister; what if that had been a brother, she asks, and the two had developed a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship?
Adoptees can’t use their amended birth certificate to get a Secure ID or a passport; the government demands a birth certificate that was filed within one year of birth. Most adoptions, Fahlsing says, take longer than that; hers took 13 months.
When adoption occurs, Fahlsing says, the ideal would be an “open and honest” adoption.
“They child knows from the beginning,” she says. “They stay in contact with one another.”
The fight to open adoption records was not done to hurt anyone, Fahlsing says.
“We’re not out to ruin people’s lives,” she says. “it’s health, it’s travel, it’s just knowing …
“Really, for a lot of people — a lot of people just want to know, ‘Where was I born? When was I really born?’” Fahlsing says.
“I know where I came from,” she says, after finding her original birth documents.
She’s been able to research her family trees, something she couldn’t have done without knowing her biological family, but something any non-adoptee is able to do.
“It’s nice to have the same opportunity.”
The Indiana Adoptee Network will sponsor the Building Bridges Conference April 21 and 22 at the Monroe County Convention Center, in Bloomington.
Adoptees can learn how to request their records. Birth parents and adoptive parents are also invited to attend.
In addition to explaining the new law, the conference will address using Ancestry DNA to find birth relatives, tips for reunions, addictions in adoptees and more.
To sign up for the conference or for detailed information, visit indianaadopteenetwork.org/2017conference.