By Devin Rose
Bob Brown, 47, has known from a young age that he was adopted.
Brown, of Winfield, said recently that, from the time he was told, he's been interested in finding out who his birth parents are. Unsure of his ethnic background, for instance, he was unable to fill out his medical history when he visited the doctor.
He knew from adoption papers what his given name was, and that his mother had been a minor when he was born. But because his birth certificate was sealed by court order, that was all he knew.
"There was this part of my soul that was just empty," Brown said.
Thanks to a law that changed last year in Illinois, Brown's life has taken a turn. Beginning Nov. 15, 2011, people adopted after 1946 are able to request their original birth certificates. Brown said he sent in the request form that same day.
He picked it up shortly before Christmas, and he said it told him more than he'd ever known before. Seeing his birth mother's picture and signature brought him to tears.
Through an organization that helps adoptees, Brown was able to track her down in Florida. His birth father and mother were students at Oak Park and River Forest High School when she gave birth to him at the age of 16.
Brown sent a greeting card to her through the organization, which included a baby picture, a current picture and a letter explaining the recent legal change. On the afternoon of Feb. 6, he received a call from Linda Elliott, his birth mother. In the months that followed, he and his son met her in Florida. He has also met a brother and a sister he never knew he had, and visited his birth father, Cosmo Mercurio, in Alaska.
"I had spent 47 years imagining what my birth parents might be like," Brown said. "This law was basically the one thing that allowed me to find [them]."
According to the Adoptee Rights Coalition's website — an organization that Brown has gotten involved in since being reunited with his family — laws regarding the release of a person's original birth certificate vary widely by state. In some states, the access is unrestricted. Others require intermediary involvement between the adoptee and birth parent, or only allow adoptees born before or after a certain year to get access.
In Illinois, birth parents of people born after 1946 can have their names removed from their child's birth certificate, which is something ARC is still fighting to change, said Barbara Thavis.
Thavis, who lives in Oak Park, met Brown at an ARC gathering earlier this month in Chicago. The group feels it's not fair that some birth certificates can still be sealed because it denies adoptees the right to find out about their family history, Thavis said.
"It's a civil rights issue," she said. "If you're born in the U.S., you should be able to get your birth certificate."
Three years ago, Thavis, 53, was reunited with the daughter she said her family coerced her into placing for adoption. She was a 21-year-old college student at the University of Illinois when she got pregnant. Her parents wouldn't allow her to come home with a baby, so she left school and moved in with her sister in New Mexico until the baby was born. Her daughter, who still lives there, petitioned the court and used an intermediary program to track Thavis down.
After the two met, Thavis said, a sense of grief that her family had effectively outlawed, finally surfaced. Seeing her daughter made Thavis wish she had the opportunity to take care of her. Now she's staying active in ARC to help adoptees who, unlike her daughter, are still unable to find out where they came from.
"The thing that's not fair is I could've just denied contact and she still would have no idea of her ancestry," Thavis said.
For more information about ARC, visit www.adopteerightscoalition.com.