Nova Scotia says no to opening sealed adoption records

Terrena Parnell has been searching for her birth parents for 23 years.

“I’ve wondered all my life,” she said. 

“Does my father know about me? Do I have sisters and brothers? Where do I get my green eyes from? Who do I take after?” she said.

The 49-year-old Liverpool, N.S., woman was given up for adoption when she was a newborn.

Because of Nova Scotia’s closed adoption records, any details about her prior to her adoption including her original birth certificate — is sealed by the province.

Teerrena Parnell

Teerena Parnell has been looking for her birth parents for decades. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Parnell first started her search in the 1990s. At the time, she was told by the province that portions of her records had been destroyed by mistake.

“[They told me] my mother was a resident of Nova Scotia, she was Protestant, she was married, she was separated, and her husband was not my father. Other than that, they had no other information for me.”

After giving up for a number of years, Parnell restarted her search again this June, in part because she wants to know more about her medical history.

“When I go to a doctor… they ask me, ‘What’s your medical background?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know’. I have medical issues coming up and I’d like to know my background.”

Terenna Parnell

Terenna Parnell says growing up, she always knew she was adopted. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Other provinces looking to open records

Nova Scotia could soon become one of the only places in Canada where adoption records are sealed.

Most provinces already have open adoption records and the practice is getting attention in other areas. 

Earlier this month, Prince Edward Island announced it will start public consultations in January to see if it should open adoption records. New Brunswick is set to open its records in April 2018. Quebec still has sealed records, but it too is moving towards opening them. 

Nova Scotia’s minister of community services said she won’t look at following suit.

“It’s not something we’re considering right now,” said Kelly Regan, adding that previous governments had looked at opening records and heard from adoptive parents who did not want that. 

“I think we give a lot of information right now to adoptive children. They can find out about their health backgrounds, that kind of thing,” she said.

Kelly Regan

“I’m not saying not ever. I’m saying right now we have a lot underway and that’s what we’re focusing on,” says Kelly Regan, Nova Scotia’s minister of community services. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

‘We are standing in last place’

In Nova Scotia, birth parents or adult adoptees can apply for more information through something called the Adoption Disclosure Services Program. 

A worker with the province will discretely make contact with the other party and see if they are interested in knowing their biological relative. If not, they will attempt to provide non-identifying information, including medical history.

But Halifax-based adoption advocate Mike Slayter says the system isn’t working — and a lot of that information is incomplete.

In many cases he says, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, the documentation that was kept wasn’t thorough. As well, newborns were often given up for adoption simply because they were born to unwed mothers.

Michael Slayter

Michael Slayter has been fighting for adoption records to be open for decades. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

“What would medical history really mean from an unwed mother who was maybe in her late teens? She wouldn’t have much of a medical history to pass on anyway,” he said.

Slayter searched for five years on his own to find his biological parents, has been fighting the province since the early 1990s to open adoption records.

“We are standing in last place. This is the only province that says, ‘No, we’re not going to deal with it.’ “

Turning to DNA testing, social media to find family

As for Terrena Parnell she’s sitting on a wait list to have her file looked at by the province’s Adoption Disclosure Services Program. 

She’s been told there is no timeframe for when her case might be reviewed, and that she should check back in five months.

Instead of waiting birth parents and their now adult adopted children in Nova Scotia have turned to DNA testing to find each other.

But at a significant price tag Parnell is hoping to take another route that thousands are doing: posting her details on social media, hoping the few details she can provide might help her find someone.

“It’s very emotional,” she said. 

“There’s always been this voice in the back of my head,” she said. “Am I walking by a relative?”

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