Early Wednesday morning, Shane Carter stood on the steps of the state Health Department in Little Rock and hesitantly grasped a letter-size kraft paper envelope extended to him by Nathaniel Noble, branch chief of vital records.
And with that exchange, Carter -- the director of public affairs and governmental relations for Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field -- became the first person in the state to receive his adoption file, which was previously sealed under state law.
Aug. 1 was the first day that Arkansas adoptees age 21 and older were allowed to obtain their birth records under Act 519 of the 2017 legislative session. By the end of the day, nearly two dozen request petitions had been filed.
The law gave the state Health Department a year to pull more than 65,000 birth records -- some dating as far as 1914 -- from private storage and ready them to fulfill the requests. Web technicians and employees created Web portals with information and the necessary forms.
Birth parents were given until Wednesday to file redaction request forms if they chose to keep their identities secret. The parents had the option also of providing social, cultural and medical histories, whether they chose to remain anonymous or not.
All parents also were asked to submit forms to indicate their preferences on being contacted by the adoptee -- whether through direct contact, through an intermediary or no contact at all.
Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, who helped craft and pass the legislation, said only about 45 out of the thousands of Arkansas birth parents chose to keep their identities secret.
"Nationally, very few birth parents choose to redact," Ferguson said. "I think we did a good job in the legislation of balancing the privacy rights of the birth parents with the needs of the adoptee."
The journey for Carter began five years ago when he encountered some health problems and was unable to provide doctors a family medical history. He was adopted through the state foster system at 6 months old by Johnny and Kay Carter of Paragould.
"All they got was a single sheet of paper with my eating and sleeping habits and my picture," Carter said. "The secrecy of it all ... it just opens up primal wounds."
Carter, with the help of his father, researched other states' laws and enlisted the help of legislators like Ferguson, as well as state Rep. Chris Richey, D-Helena-West Helena, and Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, to draft legislation that lifted the lid on adoption records.
On March 16, 2017, with Carter and his mother by his side, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 519 into law. Johnny Carter had died two months earlier.
Richey, who sponsored the bill and is the adoptive parent of two children, gave the credit to Carter for changing the future for the state's adoptees.
"I was blessed in the process for my two sons in that we had access to their biological family history so we didn't have to go around in circles trying to get it," Richey said. "I know how important it was to my family to have that information and now Shane has opened the door for others to get that same access."
Wallace, who has two adult adopted children, said it was easier with Kentucky's open adoption laws for his son, Jason Wallace, to find his birth parents.
"This is going to help so many individuals," the elder Wallace said. The senator also was quick to give the credit to Carter.
"I had the easy part. I just had to take what he had done and sell it to our committee and then on the floor of the Senate," Wallace said. "It was 33 to zip in favor of it."
Adoptee Westley Ashley, a Little Rock lawyer, said he's on pins and needles waiting for his birth file to be released. Ashley worked closely with Carter helping to get the legislation passed.
"I was quietly waiting for Aug. 1 to arrive, and now that it's here, it's hard to put into words," Ashley said. "It's like that disgusting feeling of waiting for bar exam results."
State Registrar Shirley Louie said requests should take about two weeks to fulfill from the date of request. The forms are on the department's website or requests can be filled out in person.
"It's a search process," Louie said. "We have to locate the actual file and process the redactions if there are any."
For Carter and Ashley, the work is not done. Ashley takes issue with the $100 fee that must be paid for each request. Act 519 sets the fee amount but allows it to be changed under the department's rules.
"It unfairly treats the adoptee requesting the birth certificate," Ashley said. "We need to watch it and re-evaluate it later so that it's not a barrier to other people."
Carter wants to see more support and assistance for adoptees searching for their birth parents. While some birth parents allowed contact information in the adoption files, some unredacted files contain only names.
"As adoptees, we've never had a voice," Carter said. "And that needs to change."
The Board of Health voted last week to allow Carter to be the first to get his file.
Carter, who waited until he was alone in his car to open his envelope, said his file was not redacted.
He now knows his birth parents' names, but he's not sure yet what he will do with the information.
"It was difficult to comprehend that I would actually get the birth certificate today," he said. "Up on those steps, I was excited, grateful, but I was a little overwhelmed in that moment."
A Section on 08/02/2018
Print Headline: Adoptees in Arkansas now able to get once-sealed birth files