Right to know identity of birth parents still unaddressed in Mississippi

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JACKSON, Miss. — 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 identity 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 birth mother 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.”