Lee and Carolyn Williams of Fort Worth won an early victory in the lawsuit they filed in the 352nd District Court against the Gladney Center for Adoption when State District Judge Bonnie Sudderth ordered that the Center release approximately 800 pages of medical records related to the birth mother of their adoptive daughter. However, when the parents sought to certify their lawsuit as a class action, arguing that Gladney should be forced to open up medical and psychological records for 4,000 other adoptions which dated back to the mid-1970’s, Judge Sudderth disagreed.
The parents, after experiencing years of troubling behavior by their daughter, starting with fitful sleeping and incessant crying as a baby and developing into serious misbehavior at school, including biting and fighting, initially sought medical and psychological information about the birth mother from the Gladney Center in order to obtain more effective medical treatment for their daughter, who was later diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder. The Center responded that these records were unavailable due to confidentiality.
When, at age 12, she pulled a kitchen knife on her mother, the parents sought legal counsel to help them try once again to find out more about her genetic history. Although the Center reiterated that the birth mother had refused permission for the release most of the information they sought, it did provide some new information about family medical history, including cancer, alcoholism and “mental problems” in general.
The parents continued seeking treatment for their daughter, who despite these problems, graduated from high school in just three years, from college in another three years, eventually earning a Master’s Degree in accounting for the Universityof North Texas. Even with her high academic achievement, her parents contended that because of her behavioral problems, she couldn’t keep a job. By this time, the parents had filed their lawsuit in the 352nd District Court, claiming that the Gladney center had violated state law by withholding information from them. They requested that Judge Bonnie Sudderth force the GladneyCenter to not only release the information they sought but also to release similar information regarding all adoptions from 1975-1989.
Gladney responded that because the birth mothers in many of the adoptions during this time period had been promised strict confidentiality at the time, they would not voluntarily release this information. They cited state laws which required them to maintain the confidentiality of the records and argued that recent laws which opened up some records didn’t apply to adoptions which had happened years earlier. Gladney essentially took the position that existing law tied their hands.
The Williams’ daughter was adopted under a “closed” adoption system, which means that the birth parents and adoptive parents remained unknown to each other, and at the time of her adoption the existing state laws were stringent, making access to adoption records virtually impossible to obtain. By the 1980s, however, the adoption laws in Texas began to relax, allowing adoptive parents to obtain some health, social, educational and genetic background information, but still requiring that information which would reveal the identity of the birth parents remained withheld.
In 2003, Judge Bonnie Sudderth ordered the Gladney Centerto turn over this information to the Williams family. However, when the Williams’ sought class action certification of their lawsuit, which would have required that all Gladney Center birth parents from 1975-1989 receive notification of the court proceedings and their right to participate in them, Judge Sudderth refused. If successful, the class action lawsuit would have resulted in the automatic opening of records for all adoptive parents during that time period.
The Gladney Center fiercely resisted these efforts, pointing out that if the class action was certified, the Center would be required to mail notices to thousands of birth mothers, advising them of the existence of the class action lawsuit and informing them of its potential effect. Gladney argued that the mere act of mailing the notice would violate the birth mother’s privacy rights. Most birth mothers, Gladney argued, expected that the promise of confidentiality given to them would always be protected.
In refusing the class action request, Judge Sudderth cited concerns that so doing would open up a “Pandora’s Box” on matters that many birth parents had received assurance would forever remain closed. She characterized the issues surrounding these closed adoptions as “so highly individualized, intensely personal and emotionally charged” that all of the affected persons should not be lumped into one class action group together. In her letter ruling, Judge Sudderth stated, “Certifying this proposed class would also carry with it a significant risk of opening up a Pandora’s Box on matters which at least some in the proposed class would prefer to remain closed,”
Not surprisingly, Gladney’s attorneys agreed with Judge Sudderth’s ruling, pointing out that Texas law permits class action certifications only when rigorous standards have been met proving that the claims should be grouped together.
Although the Williams family disagreed with Judge Sudderth’s ruling, they decided not to appeal to a higher court. Instead, they stated publicly that they would concentrate their efforts on helping other families get their individual records in the future, as they had.