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Bonnie Burnell

Obtaining the Original Record of Birth
– an adoptee shares why it matters

Amend–verb (used with object)

1. to alter, modify, rephrase, or add to or subtract from (a motion, bill, constitution, etc.) by formal procedure: Congress may amend the proposed tax bill; 2. to change for the better; improve: to amend one's ways; 3. to remove or correct faults in; rectify.

I was born on March 1, 1967, abandoned 3 days later, in foster care for 14 months and adopted at age 15 months.  Until that day, I was Elizabeth Anne. After that day I became Bonnie Abigail. I grew up in a wonderful family, and always knew I was adopted.  As an adoptee, I grew up knowing there is just something different about me. I learned to improvise on family tree projects in school, I would nod and smile politely when people would say they could see a family resemblance, I learned to  cross out the medical history portion on doctor’s forms and simply write, ‘adopted’ across the page.  I learned to live with a void, a longing to know my true beginnings.  I knew that I was born to a woman other than my mom and given a different name and yet I was expected to ignore all that and live on in this separate identity. 

My birthmother‘s identity was protected and my adoptive parent’s privacy was protected with the creation of my amended birth certificate.
  But who was protecting me?   Who thought 21 years or more into the future when issues surrounding my identity, my medical history, and genetic disorders that may be passed on to my children, would come into reality and become real issues?  I have always wanted to know where I came from; I always wondered what my true ethnicity is. There has always been something missing. As a woman I have legitimate concerns about my medical health and wellness.

I have searched for nearly 20 years to find out how my story began.  It was a very long and complicated search, but I finally discovered my true identity just weeks ago.  I am still reacting to this discovery, and I am overwhelmed with relief and joy.  I now know my ethnic background, I know the family from which I come, I know my biological relatives, I have some medical background, which I now know is truly critical information for me and my son. I should have known this information years ago.  This recent discovery is tremendous and answers so many questions, but one thing remains the same. I still cannot access my original birth certificate. I know my original name. I know my birthmother's name, I know her mother's name, yet I cannot obtain the one thing that documents my true beginning. While no longer in the dark about my own background, I remain different than all persons who were not adopted. This document is not a means to an end in my search. It is the truth. It is my truth. The birth certificate that I possess has been amended, it was changed to fit with someone else's truth. Someone else chose for me what I should and should not know about my origins, my ethnicity, my heritage and where I began.  Knowing this information cannot hurt anyone. The other records in my adoption file are admittedly not mine and I respect the privacy of another individual.

Every other person in California can obtain this record, with the exception of adult adoptees.  This restriction only applies to children who are adopted, and not children who are separated from their natural parents and/or remain in foster care. To amend a birth certificate implies that the original is not good enough, that it needs improvement, needs corrections.  I disagree. May I have the original, please?

My Name was Robert

My name is Jim - not James or Jimmy ... Jim. I’ve had one nickname that I liked (JD) and several (Jed, Cap’n Supine, JimmyD) that I haven’t - but given the choice I would rather be called Jim. When I was young it seemed like a constant battle with my parents, teachers, and classmates over what my name would be. My mother would use one of two versions (James or Hamish) to signal her frequent displeasure. My seventh grade teacher, Mr. Pringle, called me “J. Edison” in recognition, I can only imagine, of my preternatural memory and status as the class brain. My hispanic classmates called me “Jaime” because I could speak Spanish as well as they could. But to me “Jim” was not just my name, it was my identity.

All of that changed on an early summer morning of my 16th year. On that day I learned I was adopted and along with all the freighted implications of that unwelcome news came the likelihoodthat I had been born with a different name. The feelings of dissociation, of coming unstuck from my frame of reference, hung with me for many years and colored my life in ways I may never understand. Years later, attempting to re-anchor this portion of my life I began a search for my birth name. At the time I had no desire to seek any form of reunion with my birth parents. What I wanted was very simple - the name I was given at birth. But I learned that that gift - common to all of us - is inaccessible to me. By accident of my birth in California my original birth certificate is sealed and along with it my birth name. 

Fortunately for me, the story doesn’t end there. In the aftermath of my father’s death I conducted an assiduous search of my parents’ records and discovered that for the first 22 months of my life my name had been “Robert”. I wonder what my middle name was?


Ruth Wilson – a 92 year old adoptee’s desire to know a name 

Ruth Wilson was born in San Francisco, California, in 1916. She was adopted in Humboldt County several months later. When she was nineteen years old, the state of California sealed her original birth certificate. Had she known at the time how much this document would mean to her, she would have requested a copy.  The state sealed her record retroactively. Years later, when she began to have children and became increasingly interested in learning her original identity, she was told that her birthmother had been promised confidentiality and privacy. Since Ruth’s record had, in fact, remained available to her into adulthood, this statement rang false.

For forty years, Ruth tried to find out her birthmother’s name. Twice, she went to court and received a court order to receive the name. Twice, the Department of Social Services refused to release the name, citing that it was too identifying.  

Ruth’s daughter and granddaughters had many health issues over the years, as did Ruth herself. Her strong desire to know her name and true ethnicity was born of her hope to provide more information to her own descendants about their background for medical reasons.  Ruth was a lifelong resident of California, a witty, strong, and independent woman who sold real estate in Orange County. She was elegant and gracious and beautiful, yet her daughter Cheryl would tell you that her outward confidence masked the debilitating impact the secrecy of Ruth’s original identity had on her. “My mother just wanted to know most of her adult life, who she was and where she came from. She didn’t want to share that with the world. She just needed to know, for herself, and for us.” 

Ruth ultimately became an advocate for change in the California system. Throughout the seventies and eighties, she was in touch with legislators in support of any legislation which would provide her the dignity of information about herself which she sought.  

An interview with ninety-two year old Ruth in October of 2008 sparked the decision of other Californians to form the California Adoption Reform Movement (C.A.R.E.) and to sponsor AB 372, authored by Majority Whip, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma.

Ruth died in December, 2008, before the legislation was submitted. But she is an important part of the change that was being sought. There are adoptees statewide who simply want to have the right to receive the record of their own birth. It is for Ruth, and for millions like her, that this legislative effort was taken…

 Jean Strauss

reflections entering my 55th year...

Today is my 54
th birthday. Two decades ago, I met my birthmother on her own 54th birthday, and so I am thinking a great deal about her today.
We were not supposed to ever meet. The closed records system was to insure that we would be kept apart. To this day, I wonder: why?


Fifty-four years ago on this day, a doctor witnessed my birth, along with nurses, and of course, my mother who gave birth to me. A document was created recording the event: my birth certificate. It is the public record of my arrival, in Martinez, Contra Costa County, California, the United States of America, Planet Earth. It recorded everything that happened in that delivery room, from the exact time I was born, to how much I weighed, to who was there, including my mother and me.

I have never been able to see it.


When my parents adopted me, they were given an amended birth certificate. In the boxes where it says who gave birth to me, it has my adoptive parents names. I love them very much, and will always view them as my parents, but this fallacy in the public record has always troubled me. I was raised to believe public documents should, at the very least, reflect facts.


The amended birth certificate is not a record of my birth. It is a record of a new familial relationship. I am not allowed to have the record of my own birth.


Unsealing my original birth certificate would do many things for me. It would validate for me that the county and state where I was born and raised, acknowledges my birth. It would be an acceptance of reality: I was born to one mother, and raised by another. It would document the two sides of myself, the family I was born into and the family who nurtured me. Both sides gave me life. Both sides are part of me.

My original birth record is, for me, quite symbolic. It has come to represent not only my birth, but the way in which the community where I was born views me. To have my own original birth certificate would validate me, not just as a human being, but as a citizen. That’s the birthday present I desire, on this date, in the beginning of my 55th year. A simple piece of paper recorded in 1955 in the State of California saying that I was born. For whom else does that document exist, but for me?

Erin Kenny Rodriguez
The painful loss of two identities...

I was adopted at 6 months old from a convent in Nova Scotia and I was brought to New York. When I was 6, my adoptive parents told me i was adopted and I was NEVER allowed to tell anyone, because the kids would make fun of me. It was a huge secret. When I turned 15 my adopted parents kicked me out of the house when my adoptive mom finally got pregnant with her own child. I lived in group homes, shelters, rehabs, etc... I was on my own, with absolutely no one.  I have been searching for my birth mom for over 25 years with no luck at all. I was able to find out my birth name, Susan Lynn Gillis, but that is it. I was able to get non-identifying info, which tells me nothing. Who am I? I have fought for so long to cope with the fact that I was abandoned by both my birth mom and my adoptive mom. What is wrong with me? Life is hard enough, without throwing in the fact that I have ZERO information about my identity. No one claims me as "theirs". Its so sad. Its been a hard life. I often wonder what it is I did in my past life to deserve this...

Laura Hughes
The truth led to closeness....

I found out I was adopted by finding my own adoption papers one rainy day when I was snooping through my mother's things. I was 8 years old.

When I confronted her, in tears, about this, she stated, "Well, I told you before!"


"You were 3."

Years later, as soon as I was 18, I found my birth parents, against my mother's wishes, after searching for over 10 years. Even after all this time, my mother was petrified that somehow I would turn away from her and attach to my birth mom.

What helped greatly was, after meeting my birth mom and knowing about her current life and wonderful family, to introduce my mom to all of them. She fought going to the dinner every step of the way, but after she saw that my birth mom had her own life, her own children, her own family, her attitude completely changed. I also began giving her lots more attention, so that she would know she would always be my "real mom." How could she not? My birth father thought that I had been aborted, and when he called me for the first time was so excited. He was married, with no other children. I was his insta-daughter! He is very friendly, and randomly mails me things he thinks are, as he puts it, "just really neat." A book, a pie bird, a ship clock, cookies - I never know what I will get from him! I talk to my birth parents a few times a year. It is so nice now to look at older people who look like me, and not wonder if they are my birth mother or birth father. I know. It is wonderful that, from such an unpleasant situation in such an unpleasant time, that all of our lives are so much better now. For us, everything truly worked out in the best way possible. We were very fortunate.

 Jeanne Hood
First Mom and Son Eric

I am a birthmother who originally saw “For the Life of Me” at a rough cut screening at the conference in Cleveland.  It was a 7 kleenex movie for me.  Several months ago, a male adoptee friend and I did a presentation at our church... the main message was our stories. Our minister began the service by taking a paper out of his pocket, looking at it and sharing how he has had this paper his entire life.  He asked how the people would feel if they didn't have that paper, weren't able to get that paper. Then he told them it was his birth certificate.  And then my friend and I told our stories.

I was found by my son who was born before records were sealed in Ohio. And my friend was, too. Actually my son looked for me for almost 20 years... on and off... because he didn't know he could get his original birth certificate.  They both eventually got their certificates and searched for and found both birthmothers.  I opened my arms to welcome my son but my friend was a secret and was turned away by his birthmother. How sad.

After the Sunday Service, we showed the film.  I know it touched people and opened their eyes.  I am waiting for my son to come up from Florida so we can watch it together and cry together... I know we will.   Bless you.

Kathy Trumbaturi
One of Millions...

Note from the Filmmaker: While we will mainly post stories in this section, Katherine's plea stands as a heartbreaking example of the thousands of ads people post on the web, in newspapers, in registries, anywhere they can think of, seeking their family of origin, seeking closure. These individuals have found no relief from the existing closed system in their state. Katherine's anguish, and the length of her effort, eloquently expresses the need for reform.. 

I was b 4/4/44 Shirley Ann Alford. Adopted thru Catholic Home Bureau NY. Looking for siblings/parents. Have been told I have 7 older sisters, brothers 4 & 1 years older and asister 4 years younger. I have been looking for a long time, I think I am in every registry possible. Please help me.

Susan Morgan

- the need to know beginnings transcends culture, race and ethnicity...

My husband and I have two daughters adopted from China, ages 13 and 12.  For the last several years, I've been searching on their behalf (with their knowledge and support) for their birth families in China.  We have located two birth sisters of my oldest daughter, both adopted by two other American families.  Last summer, all three families met for the first time here in Philadelphia.  This relationship has helped all the girls immensely and gives us hope that eventually we will succeed in finding birth parents.

Of course, there are many different issues between adoption in this country and international adoption in China and other countries.  What is constant, in my opinion, is the emotional need to know of our beginnings, our "roots", that transcends culture, race, and ethnicity.  My hope for all adoptees, and for their birth families, is that they will find out the truth, however difficult that may be to hear or understand.  I look forward to viewing the film and pray that it touches all of us to begin to open doors that are currently locked...and allow everyone the right to know where they came from and what happened to the children relinquished.  Then we can move on...

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