Adoptees fight for the right to know

Nova Scotia is the last province with closed adoption records—advocates hail a new report as an important step towards change

A report released last month by the Department of Community Services is a win for the Nova Scotia adopted community’s efforts to improve access to government records.

“It means we are heard,” says Scott Pyke, adopted person and founder of the Nova Scotia Adoptee Advocacy Group (NSAAG). “It means we are understood and it means the government is taking this seriously.”

Pyke created the group in February 2019 to work with the government to improve access to birth records. Nova Scotia is currently the only province in Canada without open adoption records. Under an open system, adoption records are open by default, leaving the onus on the birth family or adopted person to request their identifying information not be shared by filing a disclosure veto.

The What We Heard Report summarizes consultations that happened from November 2019–January 2020. These consultations included a survey, community information sessions, and meetings with people affected. Many people said they wanted open records.

“I look at the big picture of things here which is 82% of people want a change,” says Pyke.

Yet this report isn’t the first of its kind. Calls for better access date back years. Similar reports and studies happened in 1994, 1999, 2001, 2006, and 2008, all with the same call for change. Scott says more pressing matters overshadowed those reports. He believes that won’t happen to this report.

“I think it was of course our push, I think it was previous discussions and I think it was also the change of the times,” says Pyke. “Back when those other reports were done there was no DNA testing, no social media, there was no anything. Searches were done through records and really just detective work.”

He also sees attitudes toward adoption are shifting: “There is still a stigma to it but it’s changing. People are actually willing to talk about it now.”

The report found that 65% of surveyed people believe disclosure vetoes should apply to all adoptions regardless of when they occurred. It was found that the majority of participants believe everyone should have the right to say no, and also have the right to change their mind and remove a disclosure at any time.

The idea of disclosure vetoes applying to all adoptions has always been fundamental to the NSAAG. “We understand there are people who don’t want to participate and this is a very sensitive subject,” says Pyke. “We have to do what is right to make sure that people who don’t want to participate have that option to opt-out.”

While most people are in favor of the veto, they still want adopted people to have access to their medical information. One option that was discussed was in order for people to get a disclosure veto they will have to provide up-to-date medical information.

Medical information has been a priority for the adopted community. It can prevent them and their children from undergoing extensive testing, spares them the embarrassment of not being able to give their doctors their medical history, and by learning their medical history they can learn of conditions that run in their family.

In an open system, in addition to medical information, the increased access to identifying information will give adopted persons and their birth families a better chance at reconnecting. “When you are adopted it is a totally different feeling, people can empathize they can understand, they can try, but you don’t know what it’s like to grow up not knowing who you are,” says Monica Kennedy, an admin of NSAAG.

Kennedy was adopted in 1976 when she was two years old, moving from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. When she was 15, she became curious about her birth family. Too young to join the adoption registry, with her parents support she took a course to prepare herself for the reunion she wanted.

“It was a very valuable tool for me at that age. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now as an adult looking back, I realize just how much it did help prepare me,” says Kennedy. Yet those kinds of support services are no longer around.

When she was 17, her birth brother joined the adoption registry. Kennedy was allowed to exchange letters with her birth family but identifying information wasn’t allowed due to her age. Yet a photo her sister sent of her sons included the family’s last name on a lunch pail. With this she was able to find them and reconnect.

“I can honestly say that at 46 the hardest memory I have in my life, and I’ve been through a lot, is the day I found out both my parents had died,” she recalls. “That ability to ever meet them and to fulfil that dream was over. It completely made me more driven to make sure that more families don’t miss that date, there is an expiration date.”

She says to open adoption records without support systems would be devastating to the people involved. The government has been listening to their concerns about support systems, says Kennedy, she and the NSAAG just want to ensure it happens.

“Being now in my 40s and understanding the significance that finding my birth family made in my life. I think everybody has the right to find out who they are.”

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