SPRINGFIELD -- Sara Feigenholtz says she’s counting the days until she can “walk into the office of vital records, put my $15 on the counter and apply for my birth certificate.” 

SPRINGFIELD -- Sara Feigenholtz says she’s counting the days until she can “walk into the office of vital records, put my $15 on the counter and apply for my birth certificate.”

“I cannot wait to hold that document in my hand,” she said.

As sponsor of House Bill 5428, the Democratic state representative from Chicago has paved the way for herself and some 200,000 other adopted adults in Illinois to obtain copies of their original birth certificates — just like people who were not adopted always have been able to.

“I think that non-adopted people take the right to know the first chapter of their life for granted … To know where you came from is a basic human right,” she said.

“We have to stop stigmatizing adoption,” she continued. “ Adoption is a beautiful thing. We have nothing to be ashamed of. This legislation turns the corner on the stigmatizing of adoption.”

Signed by Gov. Pat Quinn May 21, the law allows adopted adults born before Jan. 1, 1946, to apply immediately for copies of their original birth certificates. It was not until 1947 that adoption records began being sealed in Illinois, Feigenholtz said. Then, in 1989, those records were retroactively sealed for 99 years.

Adopted adults 21 years or older who were born after Jan. 1, 1946, must wait until November 2011 to obtain their birth certificates. The delay is because of the law required a yearlong campaign to alert birth parents to the fact that they must file denial forms if they do not want their identities revealed to their biological children who were placed for adoption.

 “I can’t get my birth certificate for another year. Fifty weeks, but who’s counting?” said Feigenholtz, who was born in 1956.

First to get his

Born in 1937, Joel Chrastka of Berwyn did not have to wait. As soon as he read a newspaper article about passage of the birth certificate access law, he downloaded the application for a copy of his original birth certificate and mailed it in. But he couldn’t let it go at that.

“I thought, ‘My goodness, somebody had to do this,’” he said, “so I called her (Feigenholtz) with the idea of saying thank you for the work of putting this together.”

That phone call, which he describes as “very emotional,” led to Chrastka and his wife, Betty, meeting the lawmaker and some of her staffers for coffee. During that meeting, Feigenholtz asked him if he would be willing to be the first person in the state to receive his birth certificate under the new law. He responded by saying, “I would be delighted to do that. If other people can find out about it and benefit from it, that would be wonderful.”

The governor handed Chrastka a copy of his original birth certificate on Aug. 9 at the Thompson Center in Chicago.

Unlike the amended version Chrastka had previously been given because of his status as an adoptee, this copy revealed such vital information as his place of birth and his birth mother’s name. It struck him then that he “had another real name.”

It wasn’t long before Chrastka found out he had another family as well. One of his four sons launched an Internet search that turned up relatives on the East Coast. Chrastka learned that his birth mother, who died four years ago, moved there after giving birth to him in Chicago. She got married and had another son, who died two years ago, and two daughters, with whom Chrastka has established contact.

When they saw a picture of him, he said, they told him, “You look like us.”

Chrastka and his sisters have been getting to know each other through letters.

Connecting with biological relatives has given him access to a family medical history for the first time. That recently benefited him by helping his physician make a diagnosis, he said.

“I now have a medical record,” Chrastka said. “Whether or not I ever establish a personal relationship beyond the letter writing with my sisters, I don’t know. But what I’ve learned is invaluable.”

Birth mother ‘protected’

Chrastka hopes that birth parents who have the choice of granting or denying access to birth certificates will understand how important this is to the children they placed for adoption.

So far, 21 birth parents have exercised the option for anonymity, according to Feigenholtz, who doesn’t anticipate a dramatic spike in that number. She cited a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry in 1991 that showed that 88.5 percent of birth mothers supported the ability of adult adoptees to access identifying information about their birth parents.

Contrary to what one might think, “the majority of adoptees don’t want family contact; they just want their birth certificate,” Feigenholtz said.

Like Chrastka, the legislator is in the minority in this respect. Before the Internet came along to aid in searches, she spent countless hours going through phone book after phone book in the Chicago area in an attempt to locate her birth mother. She describes searching for her birth mother as one of the riskiest things emotionally that she has ever done.

“When an adopted person wants to search, it’s quite an experience,” she said. “It’s a journey. It’s something you pick up and put down because of the fear. I was very fortunate to have been able to figure out where she was.”

Feigenholtz was reunited with her birth mother 25 years ago and has maintained a “confidential relationship” with her ever since.

“I have respected her wishes,” she said. “People will often say adopted kids have no respect for their birth parents, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have protected her.”

10th state to enact law

Although Feigenholtz has a personal interest in having original birth certificates made available to adopted adults, she said she would have sponsored the legislation had that not been the case.

“I am always a true believer in restoring rights to people,” she said, “and I feel that the sealing of adoption records was a very barbaric thing to do.”

Feigenholtz is grateful for the support the legislation received from her colleagues. It was sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, D-Joliet.

“There’s been an absolute groundswell of good feelings about what we’ve done here,” she said.

Illinois is the 10th and largest state in the nation to enact such a law, according to Feigenholtz. She said she believes “all eyes are on Illinois” now to see how the legislation pans out. It is her hope that Illinois’ example will serve as a catalyst for other states to take similar action.

“I’m working on doing a film on the Illinois experience so we can help states large and small,” said Feigenholtz.

Illinois’ birth certificate access law represents Feigenholtz’s most recent effort as a champion for adoption reform. She previously got a bill passed to expand the state’s adoption registry, which facilitates the reuniting of birth parents and adoptees, and she was instrumental in revising a law so that adoptees do not need a medical reason to seek information about their birth parents through intermediaries.

 

Theresa Schieffer can be reached through the metro desk at 788-1517.

 

Birth certificate access

A website has been established to help adoptees, birth parents and others navigate the new birth certificate access law.

By going to www.NewIllinoisAdoptionLaw.com:

• Adopted persons 21 years of age or older and the surviving relatives of a deceased adopted person may access forms to request from the Illinois Department of Public Health non-certified copies of the adult adoptees’ original birth certificate.

• Birth parents of adopted persons born after Jan. 1, 1946, can find information needed to deny the release of non-certified copies of their birth child’s original birth certificate during their lifetime.

• Birth parents can access instructions and forms to establish contact with their adopted child through the Department of Public Health’s Illinois Adoption Registry and Medical Information Exchange.