Adoptee Upset That Sealed Records Were Opened
DINAH WISENBERG BRIN
Jan. 07, 1996
DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) _ Carol Sandusky didn't want to hear how her biological father supposedly stabbed her mother with an ice pick and threw her out a window while she was pregnant with Carol.
She didn't want to know she was beaten in the face with a saucepan and burned with cigarettes as a toddler. She didn't want to hear that her biological family members accuse each other of rape, murder, beatings and infidelity.
Sandusky, 26, learned the details because a government caseworker violated her wishes _ and the law _ by helping a sister track her down. What's worse, she said, the same agency might have saved her from a tormented adolescence had it disclosed the abuse to Jeanne and Thomas Sandusky when they adopted Carol in 1973 at the age of 3 1/2.
``The state made a decision to take me out of this environment, then they decided 20 years later to bring it back to me,'' Sandusky said. ``My file was supposed to be really private.''
In telling her story and advocating privacy laws, Sandusky stands among the few trying to counter a movement promoting vigorous searches for birth families. She rejects the arguments of those, including her biological sister, who believe she's not dealing with her adoption and must hear the grisly details to heal emotionally.
``They thought this information was going to help me. I wasn't even born yet. What's this information going to do for me?'' Sandusky said.
Sandusky, her parents and her husband recently filed a federal lawsuit against the Cumberland County Children and Youth Services, administrator Gary I. Shuey and the person she blames for improperly revealing sealed information, former agency caseworker Marlene Bohr. They contend the agency violated Sandusky's privacy and fraudulently withheld information that would have led her adoptive parents to seek therapy for her years earlier.
In Pennsylvania, adoptees may obtain information about their birth parents with the consent of a court and the parents, but the law forbids agencies from opening records to siblings. Most states have restrictions on adoption records.
Bohr did not return messages left on her home answering machine and Shuey didn't return calls to his office. Ruby D. Weeks, attorney for the youth agency, referred calls to county solicitor Hank Johnson, who said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
Sandusky's ordeal started in February 1992, two months after her wedding.
At 22, Sandusky had achieved stability after an adolescence marked by bulimia, suicide attempts and hospital stays for emotional problems. Along with a new marriage, she had a good job as a nanny.
Her parents then got a call from Bohr saying the eldest of Carol's two older biological sisters was looking for her. The Sanduskys, who live in Newtown, Bucks County, refused to divulge their daughter's phone number but passed the message to her, along with Bohr's number.
``I said, `Throw the number out,' '' Sandusky recalled.
But her parents, who also have a biological son, 17-year-old Brad, encouraged her to call as a matter of courtesy.
Talking on the phone with Bohr, Sandusky said, she learned that her sister ``had a great need to see me because she protected me during infancy.'' Sandusky was put off by that great need and mortified when she learned the sister had located her biological parents and grandparents.
``I didn't want to be involved with any of that,'' said Sandusky. ``I said, `No way.' ''
Sandusky did, however, agree to hear medical background information from Bohr. Instead, Sandusky said, she ended up with disturbing information from the caseworker and two years' worth of bizarre, harassing letters from the sister.
First came the medical information from Bohr.
``She said, `It looks as if you were beaten in the face with a saucepan. It looks as if you have cigarette burns. It looks like you were tied to a chair and shot up with Thorazine. I have a picture right in front of me of your face with a huge hand print on it,' '' Sandusky recalled.
The abuse reportedly came at the hands of her birth parents and, later, her foster parents.
``That wasn't what I expected to hear. That's not what I consider medical information, and I hung up the phone,'' Sandusky said.
Two days later, she got the first letter from her sister, who is two years older. Many others followed, detailing not only family medical history but also family brutality.
``It's unbelievable what this family life was like,'' said Sandusky.
Sandusky and her husband eventually moved to a new home in Bucks County, fearful of visits from blood relatives.
In the letters, the sister indicated Bohr had given her extensive details about Sandusky and other biological relatives.
Sandusky's anger focuses on Bohr. In a thick file, she has letters from state lawmakers who agree that, by law, Bohr had no business calling on behalf of the sister.
But District Attorney Michael Eakin, in a statement issued at year's end, said the two-year statute of limitation in the case had expired, giving him no legal avenue to press charges. He declined to comment further.
Florence Anna Fisher, who helped found the adoptee search movement 25 years ago by launching Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association, advocates breaking laws that keep information from adoptees. She said she doesn't understand Sandusky's complaint.
``Nobody can pressure you into staying on the phone and seeing someone you don't want to see if you're an adult,'' Fisher said.
She agrees adoptees should be left alone if they want no contact, but she believes that all adoptees really do want to know about their past and owe it to their children and grandchildren to find out.
``If they told me I had been burned, if they told me I had been abused as a child, I would rather know that than walk around a blank slate all (my) life,'' she said.
Joanne W. Small, executive director of Adoptees in Search in Bethesda, Md., said the Sandusky case should not be used as a reason to keep records closed. ``It must be considered atypical and aberrant,'' she said.
But Mary Beth Style, vice president of the National Council for Adoption in Washington, D.C., the prime organization lobbying to keep adoption records closed, said she receives calls from people hysterical over unwanted contacts.
One woman in Washington state reported that an intermediary had violated her wishes and revealed her identity to her birth daughter. It turned out the daughter worked for the mother's husband.
``You're assuming that these adults cannot make decisions on their own, that they're in denial and you're going to help them,'' she said. ``There is no way to protect the quality of the searches and I'm very concerned about that.''
Even initial contacts can be traumatic for people who thought they had put adoptions behind them, according to Style, who added that opening closed records also erodes trust among those considering adoption.
For her part, Sandusky, who hopes to adopt someday, can do without the biological family reunion.
``They almost killed me,'' she said. ``I don't need to confront that situation.''