///Access to Their Origins

Access to Their Origins

Betsie Norris’ legislative victory on behalf of the Ohio’s adoptees has made her a saint in the eyes of adoptees across the state, and the nation.

By Diana Simeon

Betsie Norris, founder of Adoption Network Cleveland

March 20, 2015 was a huge day for Shaker resident Betsie Norris. What she calls her “life’s passion” was finally fulfilled. As the founder of Adoption Network Cleveland, she had spent decades struggling to get a state law enacted that would allow hundreds of thousands of adoptees in Ohio access to their birth certificates and adoption decrees – in short, access to their origins.

That law in fact had been enacted in December 2013, affecting Ohio adoptees adopted during the state’s only closed-records period – between January 1, 1964 and September 18, 1996. (Adoption Network Cleveland was also responsible for the earlier law that opened the records from 1996 forward.) After a 15-month implementation period, “opening day” finally came around. Norris and hundreds of supporters staged a celebration at the Crowne Plaza in Columbus.

A landslide of media attention followed, including features on National Public Radio and ABC’s “Nightline.” By the end of April, Adoption Network Cleveland’s happily overworked communications manager, Linda Schellentrager, had tracked more than 100 stories – local, state, and national. Norris received Smart Business magazine’s Women Who Excel Entrepreneur Award, the Virginia Colson Award for Service to Families and Children from the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies, and the Eleanor R. Gerson Leadership in Social Justice Award from Greater Cleveland Community Shares.

“As long as I’ve worked on this and as much effort as I’ve poured into this, seeing it all play out has been incredible,” says Norris. “It’s been incredible to watch people’s journeys, as they’ve been receiving their birth certificates in the mail.”

What She’d Lost

As a child growing up in Shaker Heights, Norris was often asked where she got her bright red hair. “I would proudly say, I was adopted, so I didn’t know,” recalls Norris.

Norris’ adoptive parents, Lois and Brad Norris, didn’t know either. “They were told how much formula I drank and that was it,” explains Norris, seated in her sunny office at Adoption Network Cleveland. Norris finally did get her answer. It was on the day she picked up the phone and called her birthmother for the first time.

“I chose my words carefully. I was prepared for her to be shocked,” recalls Norris, who lives in Shaker’s Lomond neighborhood. “Once I got the words out, she said, ‘Oh my God I’ve been praying for this call for 26 years.’”

“She asked me if I had red hair. She asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a nurse. She told me about her mother, whose name was Betty and who had red hair and was a nurse.”

Norris also learned that her birthmother and birthfather were married. She had three biological brothers. There were aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents too.

“I think I was the one who had to be scraped off the floor,” says Norris. “I can’t even describe how emotional it was.”

It was also confusing. “As an adoptee, I’d looked at what I gained through adoption,” says Norris. That included a happy childhood in Shaker, with two brothers who were also adopted, and supportive, loving parents. Norris’s father was a lawyer, who was instrumental in the effort to protect the Shaker Lakes in the 1960s and also helped launch WCPN.

“But I hadn’t looked so much at what I’d lost,” she says.

Betsie Norris standing in front of mural by Stephanie Miller-Davis

Norris pauses in front of a large-scale painted panel entitled Family Trees by artist Stephanie Miller-Davis. The trees of different colored branches represent adoptive families – the trees with severed limbs represent birth families.

Norris discovered some of the same confusion in her own patients. “I was working in pediatric mental health,” she explains. “This was right after my own search and reunion. Children who were adopted were overrepresented on our inpatient hospital unit.”

Norris resolved to create a place where Clevelanders like her – anyone touched by adoption – could come together to find support.

“I don’t know what came over me,” explains Norris. “But I decided it would be really powerful to have a place to talk about these things.”

So, in 1988, Norris launched Adoption Network Cleveland, and she’s been working tirelessly on behalf of Ohioans on what she calls the “lifelong adoption journey” ever since.

Another Focus: Foster Care

There have been other victories, too, especially in the area of foster care. In 2004, the United Way Community Vision Council asked Adoption Network Cleveland to lead an initiative to improve the process by which children are adopted out of foster care in Cuyahoga County.

At the time, there were around 1,700 children in foster care awaiting adoption in Cuyahoga County. Within several years, Adoption Network Cleveland had helped winnow the number to around 600, where it remains today. It did this by working with the County to redesign the process.

“We were able to bring our grass roots perspective of where the gaps are,” explains Norris. “And look at it from outside the system.”

“I don’t know what came over me,” explains Norris. “But I decided it would be really powerful to have a place to talk about these things.”

It’s an area on which the organization continues to focus. “Six hundred children is still too many,” says Norris. “We can do better.”

The organization is also pushing legislation that would allow children to remain in foster care until they are 21 years old. Currently, children “age out” of the foster care system at age 18 or 19. Not surprisingly, they face a tough road. Few go to college. Many end up homeless or worse, in jail, says Norris.

“You’re 18. You’re on your own. You’re in your own apartment. You pay your own bills. It’s no wonder a lot of them struggle.”

In the meantime, Adoption Network Cleveland is working on ways to offer additional support to those teenagers, in particular with a program that matches older children in foster care with mentors. Explains Norris: “Having at least that one adult relationship that is a stable force during what is otherwise a chaotic time is really powerful.”

Despite the excitement of the last few months, Norris is already working on what’s next for Adoption Network Cleveland. That not only includes chipping away at barriers to foster-care adoptions, but continuing to seek ways to fine-tune the adoption process in general. But, still, she’s enjoying the moment.

“There are thousands of adoptees and birth parents who now have access to records. I want to make sure they are all supported as best we can,” says Norris. “Going through it alone was overwhelming for me and so to be able to provide support to other people has been so meaningful.”

Shaker Adoptees Speak Out

Andrew Cleminshaw

Andrew Cleminshaw found his birth parents with the help of Adoption Network Cleveland.

For years, around his birthday, Andrew Cleminshaw observed a tradition. “I would light a candle in honor of whoever my birthparents were for giving me life,” says Cleminshaw, who was adopted as an infant.

One year, after lighting a candle during a service at Shaker’s First Unitarian Church, Cleminshaw was approached by Betsie Norris, executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland.

“She piqued my interest in finding my own biological parents,” recalls the Shaker resident. “I have amazing, wonderful adoptive parents, but I was at a point in my life where I was curious.” He was in his 30s and about to get married.

With the assistance of Adoption Network Cleveland, Cleminshaw was able to locate his birthparents. They were in Northeast Ohio.

He wrote a letter. They met. And today, both are part of Cleminshaw’s life. He credits Adoption Network Cleveland for the results. “They are a brilliant organization,” says Cleminshaw. “They are really concerned with the whole triad of adoption. It was not just about me, but also about working with my adoptive parents to make sure they were comfortable, and my birthparents.”

For adoptees, birthparents hold answers to questions that many have spent years wondering about. That includes big questions like “Where did I come from?” But there are the smaller ones too.

“A lot of it is just having family members who look like you,” explains Cleminshaw, who lives in Shaker’s Lomond neighborhood. “When I first met my biological family, I noticed this trait of giant ears and it was like, ‘Oh, I got those ears.’”

Darlene Collins

Darlene Collins was born in California, where birth records are still closed.

That’s something Shaker resident Darlene Collins also ponders. She was born and adopted in California, where birth records are closed.

“I want to know my history,” says Collins, who’s an executive assistant at Adoption Network Cleveland. “I got my hands on a college yearbook for the year my mother should have been there. I went through it and was like, ‘Do I look like anyone here?’”

Collins has searched for her birthparents using what’s called “non-identifying information.” Many adoptees, including Cleminshaw, have been able to find birthparents with non-identifying information – basically, biographical details provided by the state – but others, like Collins, have not been so fortunate.

“That is the beauty of this new law in Ohio. It’s giving adoptees an actual birthname. That’s what is important,” she says. “It’s exciting to be watching this unfold in Ohio, but it’s bittersweet because I want that same access.”

“There have been lots of happy reunions,” says Norris. “Sadly, there have been a number of situations where the birth parents have passed away. And others where the adoptees have discovered that, yes, the birthparents were looking for them. There also have been some birthparents who are not ready and have said, ‘Not now,’ and the adoptees are respecting that.”

Norris found her own birthparents at the age of 26, after searching for a year. She knows all too well the desire we all have to get our most basic questions answered. “I wanted to know the truth,” she says.

Originally published in Shaker Life, Summer 2015.
2017-08-23T17:08:54+00:00Brilliant Careers|