West Valley City police found my younger sister on the morning of Jan. 31, 1999. She was in her bed, behind her locked bedroom door, in her apartment. They surmised she had been dead for at least a couple of days. Heather was 33 years old.
An autopsy was inconclusive, but the likely cause was related to her endless struggle with epilepsy. Heather lived with grand mal seizures for most of her life. She took daily doses of heavy medication—Dilantin, Phenobarbital and more. She may have died during a violent seizure in the middle of the night. She may have accidentally overdosed on her meds. And, occasionally, even eight years later, I let my mind drift toward another possibility, the saddest one of all: Suicide.
That, after all, would put a logical cap on my baby sister’s tragic life. Her relatively short existence was punctuated with broken friendships, a baby born out of wedlock and given up for adoption, a short and abusive marriage.
Heather struggled to pass her school classes. She couldn’t hold a job. A couple of specialists enlisted by my parents gave us all brief comfort by putting names to her difficulties. One called it “attachment disorder”—like what the adopted Romanian babies suffered after coming to America in the ’80s. Another looked at Heather and listened to her halting speech, then diagnosed fetal-alcohol syndrome. He had no birth records, so he gave an educated guess.
Heather Mullen died never having fit in quite anywhere.
It didn’t start out that way. We adopted Heather into our family when she was just 13 months old. My parents went through an old-guard, respected adoption agency in Salt Lake City. The year was 1966. Just 8 at the time, I still remember a moment of pure joy: My mother let me walk to the car holding my long-awaited baby sister in my arms. She had toffee-brown eyes, a dress made of pale-blue, dotted Swiss fabric and she smelled of Johnson’s baby powder.
It would be six years before Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion, which is in factor in the decrease of the number of U.S. adoptions. “Open” adoptions—with birth moms and adoptive parents working together for a baby’s placement—were virtually unheard of. As for a young, single birth mother keeping and raising her baby on her own? Please. In the mid-’60s, unwed motherhood was still a social stigma most young women couldn’t bear.
So Heather came to live in the Salt Lake suburbs with a family that adored her. She was achingly slow to pick up language. She did not cuddle up the way you imagine a baby does. Stiff and aloof, she always seemed just … unhappy.
No one could ever effectively explain the cause of her epilepsy, either. She started having seizures in foster care, my parents were told, but that’s all we ever knew. Was she born with this neurological mystery? Had she suffered a high fever? Long after Heather’s death, the questions still hang like brittle leaves in a tree. Had our family—but more importantly, Heather—had knowledge of her biological and emotional beginnings, we might have better addressed these nagging questions.
We’ll never know. And why? Because Utah law seals all birth records to adoptees and their families. It worked that way 42 years ago, and it does today. The last time the Utah Legislature considered opening birth records to adoptees—as eight other states have—was nearly three years ago. The law continues to err in favor of the birth mother. Her right to privacy supercedes all considerations adoptees might reasonably have: a desire to know medical history or the origins of certain genetic disorders, help in solving emotional problems, or simply to soothe a yearning—deep as bone marrow—to know their roots.
Earlier this week, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based organization, issued a comprehensive report concluding that all states should make birth certificates available to adult adoptees. Keeping the records sealed to adoptees, the agency concluded, has “potential serious negative consequences with regard to their physical and mental health.”
Further, the Institute points out that adoptees are the only class of people in this country who have no legal access to original birth documents. This raises major civil-rights concerns for adult adoptees. Which is intriguing, because civil rights and religious organizations representing biological parents have argued the same point for their clients for years.
In Utah, we keep erring on the side of biological parents’ privacy. We do so at the expense of the Heathers of the world, who could have—should have—had every possible edge in tracking down her origins. She died knowing her adoptive parents loved and supported her through three decades of mental and physical anguish. But, I know she also died wondering what more there might have been to her existence.
The Legislature could make this right for thousands of adults who have the same needs. According to a story in the Nov. 12 Salt Lake Tribune, state Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, may take the latest findings from the Donaldson Institute and reintroduce his open-adoption-records bill that failed in 2005.
My baby sister had a right to know what forces helped shape her. Would she have lived any longer knowing her bio-origins? I can’t say. But I have no doubt that knowledge is power. In Heather’s case, knowledge might have been a healing balm.