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Adult adoptee searches for heritage not only for himself, but for his kids

Feb 2, 2015

Credit John Stempien

When most of us go to the doctor, we probably don't think twice when we're asked about our family medical history: mom had this disease, dad's got that disease.

We also probably don't think twice about seeing faces that echo our own.

But if you were adopted in Michigan before 1980, these experiences don't come as easily.

Michigan Radio listener John Stempien wrote to us to describe his experiences as a pre-1980 adoptee in Michigan wondering how many others are in the same dilemma.

Around the age of 21 he began to wonder about his background and heritage. After much searching he ended up at Catholic Social Services where he was adopted in Ann Arbor. 

He discovered his heritage was different from the Polish traditions he was raised with. He had German, Irish and English roots. 

"Just knowing that I walked out of the Social Service building and just felt grounded for the first time," Stempien says.

But because of stipulations that protect the privacy of his birth parents, he was only given non-identifying background information, and these few clues were the limit.

For those who were adopted in Michigan before 1980, their birth records are closed to them if their biological parents chose not to share them. Stempien was at first willing to live with the unknown after his initial discovery, but his interest was renewed when he had children.

He says as an adoptee, having a son and daughter was a special moment. It was the first time he was able to see his features reflected in another person. He had never realized he had been missing that experience before.

The search became a priority in order to determine his medical history, not only for himself but for the risks he may have passed on to his children.

"As an adoptee, from start I have to wind my way through a medical jungle not knowing what pitfalls I have to look out for," Stempien says.

The heightened risks for himself and his children led to Stempien contacting his Michigan Representative. In turn he received information on House Bill 5096, passed into law in 2012, that has altered access to birth records. With birth parent's written consent in a statement submitted to the the central adoption agency, adoptees can now find their records. But by continuing the requirement of the birth parent's consent it still doesn't change Stempien's circumstances.

Stempien says he isn't looking to disturb birth parent's lives. He respects that they have moved on, but for him, their civil liberties come at the cost of his own.

"For most of the adoptees I know they're not seeking to disrupt a life. They're not seeking to disrupt that biological parent. What they're seeking is part of their own life that they've lost" Stempien says.

While Stempien's search continues, he hopes that his story can help other adoptees search for their own records and to discover that they may now be available under the current law.

-Katrina Shafer, Michigan Radio Newsroom