Oprah’s reunion exposes the folly of closed adoption records

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She was a secret. She was a foster kid bounced from home to home. She was an adoptee. She was one of millions of Americans who callously rejected by their birth parent. But thanks to a robust adoption file and a keen eye for the media, Patricia Lloyd can now stick “Oprah’s sister” onto the pile of labels next to her name.

Monday’s Oprah Winfrey Show chronicled a tear-jerking, Oprah-worthy reunion between the talk show host and a half-sister who presented as an affable and sensitive Midwestern mom.

Patricia was born in 1963. Her mother chose to give up for adoption so that she could get off welfare and Patricia spent the first month of her life in the hospital before going through various foster homes for the first seven years of her life. She was then adopted but described her life as “difficult”.

In 2007 Patricia applied for her adoption records which she described as a “big old package”.  She was able to get non-identifying information such as medication information and a description of her birth family but no names or addresses.

Wisconsin’s adoption record laws

In Patricia’s home state of Wisconsin they won’t give an adult adoptee the birth mother’s name without first obtaining her consent. So, if the birth mother says “Sorry, no.” That’s usually the end of the road for an adoptee searching for the truth. This is what happened with Patricia.

In her article The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records, Elizabeth Samuels explains that most American adoptions in the first half the 20th century were not buried in the secrecy of sealed records, amended birth certificates. She quotes author Jean Paton’s description of a probate court in 1942 “There was no rigmarole then; you were allowed to see your own paper in a kindly procedure”. In 1960, about 40 per cent of adult adoptees had access to their original birth certificate but from 1960 to 1990 most states implemented laws which restricted or eliminated an adult adoptee’s access to heir own birth records.

Fortunately for Patricia, her  thick adoption file gave up enough clues to put more of the pieces together. A chance interview with Oprah’s mother on the local news station as well as an official Oprah biography was enough to convince her that she was, in fact, Oprah’s half sister.

She contacted other relatives, eventually connecting with Oprah who was thrilled to meet her new sister saying she looked forward to building a relationship with her in the months and years ahead.

It’s not just the birth mother’s call

Lori Jeske, an adult adoptee from Washington State, pretty much summed up my feelings on the story.

“What I hope comes across clear to the public is the fact that ‘contact’ or ‘reunions’ are not just the decision of the birth parent(s),” posted Jeske on an adoptee rights Facebook group. “There are adult siblings and other biological relatives that may in fact want to interact with the adoptee.”

I think Monday’s Oprah show is a perfect example of why closed adoptions or “birth mother has to agree to it first” reunions are so wrong.

If it was up to Vernita Lee she probably would have just hung up the phone and gone to her grave with that secret. But since Patricia’s sister has a huge public profile she was one of those rare adoptees who were able to circumvent the closed record laws of her state.

Vernita Lee was not enthusiastic about the reunion. During a home video interview Vernita Lee coldly refers to Patricia, who is seated next to her, as “it”, “that” or “the baby” as though she was talking about a ghost.

Finding family

The reaction of other relatives, however, was profound. Patricia first approached Oprah’s niece who is the daughter of Oprah’s late sister who was also named Patricia. Oprah said that Patricia bears an uncanny resemblance to her late sister and described it as a Beloved moment, referring to a scene from the 1998 film in which a deceased sister comes back to life.

When Vernita Lee hung up the phone she was not just closing off contact between mother and daughter she was making an attempt, backed by the heavy hand of the law, to cut Patricia off from other relatives who as it turned out are happy to have her in their lives.

Patricia hit the nail on the hammer when she said this was a family matter that should be handled by family alone.  Adoption has redefined the contemporary notion of family. The search for biological relatives and subsequent reunions, while not obligatory or inevitable, represent a healthy part of this new norm. It is up to adoptees and birth families to work this all out. The government, or any adoption agency, have no right to withhold records.

I am a resident of Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada who has blogged here for 20 years. I like to share my thoughts and feelings on my own online space. From 1998 until 2017 I worked as a journalist and I hope to use this website as an archive for all of my stories.

11 Comments

  1. IAM THE OLDEST of 7 Children born to our mother 5 out of 7 who all 5 were born in Virginia were adoped my brother Dennis and i were not adoped we lived with our dad and his new family in CA.When we were teenagers i started searching for my siblings in 1976 i wrote a letter to the Virginia Beach court in VA they wrote me back and told me that i had no rights also sent me a two page copy of the Virginia Law. i still have the two pages that didnt stop me for searching for over 30 years 17 years ago my two half sister’s found my brother and me my sister said that she wrote to The Oprah Show a long time ago and wanted them to please help her find her sister’s and Brother but Oprah’s show turn my sister down and because of that when she did found our sister Dennis and me it was too late to find our mother she never left Virginia in hopes that one day her Children would find her they found her in a grave yard in Virginia with no head stone she was only 58 years old I found my full sister Donna 16 years ago so i moved back to VA.I had to tell her that mom had passed away so she went to see her grave.iam still looking for two more brother’s that i have never seen they are my half brother’s same mother adoped right from birth one in 1960 and one in 1969 dont have a month or day of birth no thanks to the dumb law ok Oprah now you know how it feels to have a sister that you didnt know about but you were the luckey one you didnt have to spend your whole life looking for her .

  2. Hi Trace, thanks for sharing your story! There really is something healthy about at least knowing who are people are. Connecting with them is definitely an added bonus. It’s sad that Oprah’s mom was such a cow, but at least Patricia got to connect with her other relatives.

    COMMENTING ON YOUR BLOG NOW! 🙂

  3. d28bob: Missouri law sucks! Nothing replaces being able to contact your family to ask them about medical conditions. They’re usually able to give answers for a wide selection of relatives over a great span of time.

  4. Jimm: I agree with you about Oprah. She seems very disconnected from her mother and it looked like she was talking to her with a professional face as though she was a guest. I think her object was to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed so that they would open up and speak the truth. I was not left with a very positive impression of Vernita Lee…

  5. The “non-identifying” information is often useless in determining hereditary medical conditions. Most parents were healthy in their teens and twenties and the father’s info is usually missing entirely.

    IMO, Oprah was way too soft on her mother, refusing to call her on her blatant display of hatred for her sister. What a bitch Oprah has for a mother!

  6. Medical information in non-id files only contain what was taken at the time of relinquishment and is almost never updated. My own says my mother was a healthy 19 year old – 60 years ago!
    Missouri law permits adopted adults to petition their court of original adoption for “urgent medical reasons” but judges rarely grant such requests, even for bone marrow transplants etc.

  7. Hey Marie! In most states there is a provision that allows adoptees access to non-identifying information such as health records and a general description of the family. And the veto can go both ways. In some cases it’s a birth mother searching for their adult child only to have the “kid” say “sorry no”. But you really don’t hear about taht side very much…

  8. What I find disturbing is that the biological MOTHER gets to decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’.. shouldn’t the child have at least some say, or some right to know? What if they need to know their medical background, if there are any genetic and/or hereditary illnesses? Family history is SO important to SO many illnesses and disorders and without it diagnses can sometimes be complicated. Anyhow, that’s my opinion and i’m stickin to it 🙂

  9. Elaine: It’s interesting that in some states the legislation pertaining to the contact ONLY mentions the mother. Not even a mention of the father…

  10. I am very glad that it came across that the mother isn’t the end-all, be-all spokesperson for every adult in the family. Sadly, many mothers seem to manipulate and control in this fashion — deciding if other adult children in the family can get to know their sibling.

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