Emotions high as veil around adoption lifts

TheStar.com – Ontario/ParentCentral.ca – Emotions high as veil around adoption lifts: Crush of applications expected as new rules on disclosure take effect
May 31, 2009.   Nicole Baute, STAFF REPORTER

Paul O’Donnell wants to meet his mother. His other mother, the one who gave birth to him.

O’Donnell, 45, was adopted as an infant and raised by a gregarious couple. Although he loved them dearly, the differences between them were stark: he was a serious, introverted math whiz; his parents were the most popular couple on the block.

“My father was a salesman. I couldn’t sell if my life depended on it. I don’t have that kind of personality,” O’Donnell laughs nervously, a self-deprecating tic.

Nor were his adopted parents bookish like Paul, who, despite his age, looks a bit like a university student in his thick, brown glasses and blue backpack. His adoptive mother, Donna O’Donnell, wonders why her son talks to her at all, “because I don’t really know all he’s talking about.”

Though he has had a great life, Paul always felt like an outsider. He hopes that is about to change.

Tomorrow, the secrecy that has shrouded the adoption process will be lifted, and adult adoptees and birth parents will have access to adoption orders and birth registrations.

In Ontario, 250,000 children have been adopted since the government started keeping records in 1921. For Paul, that means he could finally learn his mother’s name and can begin to track her down.

The Toronto computer programmer has been clinging to information he got in 2005, when, at age 42, he went to the Catholic Children’s Aid to ask about his birth family.

When the envelope came, he was too nervous to open it himself. While a friend read all 10 pages aloud, Paul sat shaking, almost dizzy, and an image of his birth mother began to take shape in his mind. She was short, five-foot-one, with a medium build, dark blond hair, blue eyes, and “lovely teeth.”

“Birth mother,” as she was called throughout, was from Eastern Canada, of good health and average intelligence. She couldn’t afford to go to school past Grade 10 and moved to Ontario, where she worked as a clerk-typist in a hardware store until she had Paul, at age 19.

She was not married and Paul’s father denied paternity. She later had two more sons – Paul’s half-brothers. She was of Scottish and Irish descent; his father was Italian.

For Paul, these were meaningful details, but it is the description of his mother’s personality that he dwells on. She had a quiet, withdrawn manner and did not make friends easily. His grandmother stayed at home; his grandfather, laid up with an arthritic foot, was an intelligent man and an avid reader. Much like Paul himself.

“When I read that thing about my grandfather reading a lot, that really clicked,” Paul says. “What did he read? What was he interested in?”

He went home and read the document at least 20 times, and typed it up on his computer.

“I’m a different person since having gotten that piece of paper,” Paul says. “The day I got it, or the day after, I remember looking at myself in the mirror, when I was brushing my teeth in the morning, and I liked what I saw more than I did the day before. And I’m not even sure I can articulate exactly why.”

Tonight, Paul will sit at his computer in his Toronto apartment, waiting for the application forms to appear on the Service Ontario website. He hopes they will appear at the stroke of midnight so he can fill them out quickly and squeeze to the front of the line, although a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community and Social Services didn’t know when they would be posted. He also didn’t how long it will take for the forms to be processed. Adoptees like Paul expect a backlog: a few months, a year, perhaps even longer.

He is fortunate to have his nonidentifying information, and a piece of paper with his birth name on it, William Thomas MacDonald, which was given to his adoptive parents by the Catholic Children’s Aid in 1963. But even with his mother’s first name, she will be difficult to find.

It is also possible she saw one of the ads the government spent $6.8 million on to warn adoptees and birth mothers they could soon be identified, and urged them to file a disclosure veto if they wanted to protect their identity.

The veto option was added last year, after Toronto human rights lawyer Clayton Ruby managed to have the previous legislation struck down on the grounds that it did not protect those who wanted to remain anonymous.

As of May 1, only 2,483 people had applied for the disclosure veto. The forms will be available after June 1, but it will become a race of sorts: If the disclosure veto is not filed before the other party applies for adoption information, the information will be released.

Joy Cheskes, an elementary teacher from Stratford, has already applied for a veto. She was adopted as an infant and raised in a small southwestern Ontario town by the only family she is interested in knowing.

Cheskes was part of the Constitutional challenge that struck down the legislation in 2007 and made way for the disclosure veto.

“I have lived almost 45 years of my life deciding that I want to keep that part closed,” she says. “My life and everything that’s happened to me makes up who I am and I don’t welcome that kind of intrusion unless I decide that that’s okay. And at this point in my life, that’s not okay.”

Other adoptees have spent years looking for their birth parents, wondering whether anyone else on this planet has their crooked pinky finger or curly red hair or aptitude for complex algebra. Some worry about inheriting genetic diseases.

“Adoptees often feel like aliens,” says Karen Lynn, who gave a son up for adoption in 1963 and now works with three adoption support and advocacy groups. “They’re not really sure they were born on this earth.”

Lynn reunited with her son in 1999.

As adoptees and birth parents fill out their applications tomorrow, the disclosure veto will be on many minds. As Monica Byrne, registrar of the Ottawa Parent Finders group, says: “Everyone’s scared that they’re going to be the one that’s had their information blocked.”

Paul, who says he has great adopted parents, says his mission is not a search for parents. “I already have parents. It’s really more about learning where I came from.”

Donna, a bubbly 70-year-old who refers to her son as “my Paul,” believes he has a right to know his birth mother, and if she ever had the chance to meet her, she would thank her.

Paul knew he was adopted before he understood what “adopted” meant. Donna loves to tell the story of Paul correcting a neighbour who called him cute: “I’m not cute, I’m adopted,” he said gruffly. The neighbour was horrified, but Donna just laughs.

Donna is scrupulous in her lack of judgment: She supports Paul’s search completely, but she can also see things from the other side.

She worries that Paul’s birth mother could reject him.

Paul already attends an adoption support group called Adoption Support Kinship that will help him deal with the fallout.

Paul has read between the lines of his nonidentifying information so many times he is convinced he and his mother are of similar minds. He would never fill out a disclosure veto, and does not expect she will either.

“Maybe it’s just wishful thinking,” he says. “But … I think my mother’s brain is a little bit like mine. I think she’s like me.”

If you apply for adoption information or file a veto on the disclosure of information and want to share your story, please email nbaute@thestar.ca

Toronto Star

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