NORMAN — At age 36, Norman resident Kevin Lewis knows he will take action to be screened for a genetically inheritable form of cancer. His biological father died from cancer in 2005, and that puts him in a high-risk category.
Taking precautions based on medical history is not unusual. What is unusual is that Lewis only learned this important information last year. Lewis, like many Oklahomans who were adopted, did not have the right to his own birth records or medical history under state law. Proposed legislation this session could change that.
House Bill 1118, as authored by Rep. Wade Rousselot, D-Wagoner, creates the Oklahoma Truth in Adoption Act which, beginning July 1, 2014, would allow adult adoptees born in Oklahoma or their descendants to obtain a noncertified copy of their original birth certificates.
The measure would allow a biological parent to file a contact preference form accompanied by an updated medical and social history with the Registrar of Vital Statistics to be made available to the adult adoptee.
“I’d always known I was adopted,” Lewis said. “As a little kid, I had two birthdays, my actual birthday and a special day. I think that was, all things considered, the true genius of my adopted parents.”
He now knows this life-saving medical information about his biological father’s cancer because his birth mother, Jackie Dawes, tracked him down at great time and expense.
“She reached out to me,” he said. “I got a letter in the mail on Feb. 15 last year and my mother read it to me over the phone. I had to pull off the road. I started uncontrollably crying.”
Hearing from his biological mother after all those years was a dream come true.
“Every day after that and probably six months after that, I felt like I was in a movie. It felt very surreal,” he said. “Not every day is always wine and roses, there are days as you replay your entire life in your mind and you think about the way that you were and you understand why you are the way you are.”
Lewis said some will call him a traitor, ungrateful or disloyal. He’s none of those things. He loves his family, but not knowing his genetic heritage left a hole inside of him.
“I felt loved, but I felt incomplete,” he said. “No one could have filled that.”
Lewis was afraid to seek his birth mother out for fear she had died.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know. The first thing I ever told her is that I’m sorry I didn’t search you out,” he said. “And then I asked to see her fingernails.
“I didn’t know anyone who had fingernails like mine until I met Jackie. My skin was darker, my hair was darker. There were visual cues,” he said. “You feel different. There’s no one you can really talk to about it, and you don’t really know what you’re feeling or why you’re feeling that way.
“It’s nice to not feel like a ghost anymore.”
Lewis believes the Truth in Adoption Act will benefit adoptees by allowing them access to important medical information and giving them an opportunity for closure.
“First off, it’s long overdue,” he said. “I think it’s important not just for reasons of medical history, but for the identity of those kids, a healthy identity that they understand who they are.”
Lewis said adopted children have a higher-than-average percentage of emotional and psychological issues. Many of them act out with alcohol and drugs or in other ways.
“Luckily, I didn’t fall into the statistic tangent a lot of adopted children do, but I do remember developing a little bit slower than other children,” he said.
“Whatever it was when lawmakers decided the framework of how adoption should be handled back then, I don’t understand it,” he said. “It was almost a protection mechanism. The silly thing is, what were we really protecting? I don’t see why it is necessary, fit or proper to deny anyone the right to know their origin. To me that is a fundamental right that we should all enjoy.”
The proposed law allows a biological parent three options — all of which include an updated medical and social history for any adult child seeking out his or her original birth certificate and information.
Birth mothers can opt to be contacted, to be contacted only through an intermediary or “not to be contacted at this time,” according to the measure.
Lewis said his adoptive parents have expressed nothing but happiness.
“Actually, we have discussed my feeling incomplete and they’re happy for me and they wish I could have had that earlier, but that’s not to discredit them because they did the very best they could,” he said.
Lewis has talked to other adopted kids and said his feelings are not unusual or unique.
“I do think that the dependent variable in this is people,” he said. “You don’t know how people are going to react.”
Some adopted children may not want to know more information.
Lewis said San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is adopted and has said publicly that he feels searching out his biological parents would be committing treason against his parents.
“So there’s an example that contrasts with me,” Lewis said.
But all adopted children could benefit from the medical knowledge, if nothing else.
“If the state should assume the replacement for a child for whatever reason, I think they should be legally bound to provide that information to every child once they reach adulthood,” he said. “There is no reason why anyone shouldn’t be able to obtain their birth certificate. I think it’s another example of an archaic law that needs to be revisited as society has changed.”
Lewis said for those adopted children who feel as he did, age is not relevant — whether they are 14 or 44, they are children on the inside and they need to know.
“A lot of adopted kids are subject to a lot of introspection, probably more than most,” he said. “That constant wonder of who am I and where did this trait come from. I certainly did. I was a very introspective kid.”
Now that he’s met his birth mother, he talks to her a lot, catching up on the years that they missed.
“She has said I’m the person most like her on the face of the earth, and I would say she’s the person most like me, which has really aided the healing process,” he said.
He also feels closer to his family and finally has a successful serious relationship with a girlfriend — something he struggled with in the past.
Even though he already knows his birth mother, he wanted to reveal these intimate details of his story to help the law pass.
“I want them to do this for children who are minors, and children who are grown, and children who are middle-aged who live life with a hole in their heart and a ghost in the mirror,” he said.