Charlotte Staten will always be glad that her baby girl was not given up for adoption in Utah. She most likely would never have found her when she started looking nearly three decades later.

Staten was "older - 24" - when she became pregnant. So she was able to move around, and her family didn't suspect anything when she left to "take a job" in another state."I kept secrets for 28 years," said Staten, who is a strong proponent of opening adoption records so that children and parents can find each other when the child becomes an adult - if they want to. Her organization, LAMB (Love in Adoption Means Birth-par-ents), has joined other groups to lobby for laws that would remove much of the secrecy from the adoption process.

Utah, as a matter of course, seals birth records. An adopted child can get some information, but it is classified as "non-identifying."

A matter of luck

Finding the child she gave, with love, to another family was surprisingly easy.

In February 1989, she started looking. As luck would have it, Michigan's adoption records are more open. The court in Michigan put the package together, sending her a form that would allow the court to release identifying information. She returned it, and the court sent the information to the young woman, along with a cover letter that gave her her birth name and identifying information. The adoptee then could decide if she wanted to get in touch. Within a few months, they had begun to get acquainted.

Others, whether seeking the children they gave up or the parents who gave them life, have not been so lucky. Dozens rally at the Utah Capitol each year, asking for a more open process. Some, with persistence, find their birth families. For others, the search is ongoing and seemingly endless.

"I'd like to see a system that would allow the adoptee and the birth parent, once the adoptee is 18, access to identifying information - at least names," Staten said.Opponents of a more open adoption process worry that such openness would have a chilling effect. Not so, says Staten.

"What has a chilling effect on adoption has been the sealed-record system. It's a heavy burden to carry, knowing if you give up a child you'll never see him again."

Adoptees seem to want to know who they are and where they came from, she said. "They're not looking for another set of parents. But they need to know who they are. Birth parents need to know, `Is my child alive?' `Was she really adopted?' "

Attorney Phillip Harding has some sympathy for the sealed-record system, although he understands why people want to be reunited and he tries to help, where possible.

"It cuts both ways. Birth mothers go on, they marry and have their own families. Sometimes they haven't told their families. We're very careful to see that they get what they want."

He encourages the women he represents in placing children to be as open as they comfortably can be. Some want no contact; others are very open. He also recognizes that adopting parents "have a fear that if the identity is known by the birth mother, she will someday show up on their doorstep and say something like, `I made a terrible mistake. Please give me back my baby.' This is a nightmare for them."

Adoption attorney Keith Eddington and Harding both say that many of their clients provide letters, videos and photos to the adoptive mother, often while keeping their identities and addresses unknown. It's a way of letting the child know that the mothers care.

Such mementos and contact help the birth mother with the grieving process of giving up her child, Eddington said.

Adoptive parents can help

Marilyn Groussman adopted a boy almost 24 years ago. When he was 18 or 19, he started wondering about the people who gave him life. She promised her son that she would support him in his search, both emotionally and financially, if that's what he wanted.

"I believe in opening the records. I think a child has a right to know who he is. (The agency) provided such sketchy information: There's a possibility he could be allergic to wool or have asthma. That doesn't help. Who is he?

"But I can see that parents have rights, too, including the right to get on with their lives."

Groussman's support of open records is not unique. A surprising number of people who have adopted support their children in the search for their genealogical roots.

Is the search worth it?

What happens when the adoptee finds his roots?

Often, not much. Several LAMB members said they wanted the information for medical reasons but had no particular inclination to try to kindle a long-term relationship.

A few have been made very unhappy by what they found out. One adoptive mother, who didn't want her name used, said her daughter had over the years built an imaginary picture of her parents and why they gave her up when she was born. They were young, poor, struggling. They wanted the baby to have a better life. That was her dream picture.

She was confused and even devastated to discover that her parents had been older, married and settled into their lives. They had older children that they kept.

"She couldn't understand why they wanted the other children but not her. She felt terribly rejected," the mother reported.

There are hundreds of happy reunions every year, though. Steve Rich, a former Utahns who was with LAMB, searched for his birth parent with the support and assistance of his adoptive family. When he found his roots, he discovered a group of people he both enjoys and loves. His adoptive parents are still his mom and dad. But he now has two families to care for - a double blessing.

More open in the future?

Utah does have an adoption registry, operated through the Bureau of Vital Records in the Department of Health. If both the birth parent and the adoptee register with the registry, a match is made and the bureau releases identifying information. But it doesn't always work, because so many people aren't even aware of its existence, said John Brockert, bureau director.

Staten is hopeful that the rules of adoption will someday change, but she doesn't see it happening right away.

The American Adoption Congress met in Salt Lake City in October. Representatives from many agencies involved in adoption came to learn "why all these people need this done," Staten said. "Why birth mothers need to reconnect and why adoptees need to learn where they came from. We have a bill to present, and I think we'll be getting a little more recognition of the issue. It will take a while. Educating the public, especially in this state, is very difficult."

Some states, like Washington, are embracing more open adoptions. There have been cases where birth parents even receive regular visitations, much like a divorce visitation schedule, said state adoption specialist Roland Oliver. But it's still the exception rather than the rule.

The search for roots, complete with disappointments and victories, was worth it for Staten, although she says it took a lot of courage to tell her family, after so many years, that she had another daughter besides the three children they knew.

She remembers telling her father. "I swallowed hard, had the photographs developed at the one-hour photo and went to Dad's."

When she told him, he cried. Then he patted the photograph like he was trying to give them both a hug.

Her family is complete.