Parents, children reunite after adoption law changes

More than 4,000 adoptees have requested birth records since March 20.

Don Goodrich, 60, of Johnstown, Colo., stepped off a plane Saturday in Dayton and met his firstborn child, Julie Wikle, for the first time.

As Goodrich walked down the Dayton International Airport corridor, Wikle ran to hug her father who she had not seen for more than 40 years.

Minutes before Goodrich arrived, Wikle said she was anxious, excited and nervous about her father’s arrival. She knew she wanted to thank him. She wanted to thank him for her life which she characterized as good.

When Wikle reached Goodrich in the airport corridor, she threw her arms around him.

“That’s my girl,” Goodrich recalled thinking as he watched his daughter run toward him.

After holding each other for several seconds, Wikle broke away from the embrace to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“It’s the best feeling I could ever have,” Goodrich said.

That feeling will last a lifetime, he said.

“For me, that just completed my life,” Goodrich said. “I always had an empty feeling because I knew I had Julie out there somewhere in world. Christmas and Thanksgiving were never totally whole because I didn’t know anything about my daughter.”

Thousands of adoptees like Wikle are learning more about their biological pasts, and some are coming face to face with one or both of their birth parents, following a change to Ohio law.

Wikle filed the paperwork with the Ohio Department of Health’s Office of Vital Statistics when the state opened birth records to nearly 400,000 adoptees on March 20. She’s one of 4,084 adoptees to request records as of May 14, according to the state.

When a white envelope arrived at her Dayton home on April 4, Wikle’s husband drove straight to Miami Valley Hospital where she works so she could open it. Within minutes, a Google search gave her the identity of her birth mother, who eventually put her in touch with Goodrich, her birth father.

Both of Wikle’s birth grandfathers served at the same Air Force base in Germany during the ’70s. Their children, Cyndi Fruchey, then 15, became pregnant with her 17-year-old boyfriend Goodrich. Fruchey’s mother took her back to the states to give birth in Lima, where Wikle was placed for adoption.

Wikle, 42, began looking for her birth parents when she was 18. Not until the records were unsealed would she find them both living in Colorado.

“It’s something that you always kind of hoped and wished for but it was something in the back of your mind you never thought would happen and was a long shot,” Wikle said. “The whole journey has been very surreal.”

Her birth parents married when Fruchey turned 18, three years after Wikle was born. They had another boy and a girl together before ending their marriage after 21 years. Wikle also found her two full-blooded siblings in the search.

“I got the whole kit and caboodle,” she said. “I got the whole package.”

Wikle said she will meet her birth mother and siblings this summer when she makes a trip to Colorado. But Goodrich “couldn’t wait until July to meet me.”

After a decades-long fight to unseal the records, the Ohio legislature changed the law to allow those born in Ohio and adopted between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996, to see their records.

Before the law change, Brian Sleeth’s attempts to unseal his birth records, primarily to learn more about his health history, had been rejected.

On March 27, Sleeth, 40, of Franklin, overnighted his records request to Columbus.

His wife called him at work the moment the information arrived.

“I’d been waiting for that day half my life,” said Sleeth, director of the board of elections in Warren County.

In addition to getting information about his birth parents, Sleeth discovered some truths about his parents.

“I learned that I better adjust my retirement date earlier!,” he wrote in an email. “Both my birth mom’s parents died at 72.”

Sleeth has since grown close to his birth mother. Donna Davis, 56, who lives in Oxford and works for Miami University. They see the same doctor and share a strong resemblance as well as common habits.

While ecstatic about the impact on their families, Sleeth and Davis both see the greater significance of the law change.

“This isn’t about Brian and me anymore,” said Davis, sitting on the front porch of Sleeth’s home in Franklin. “This is about other people finding and having that closure in their lives.”

Betsie Norris, founder of Adoption Network Cleveland, worked tirelessly to help families get that closure. Her adoptive father, William B. “Brad” Norris, helped draft a bill that originally sealed the records and then had a change of heart. Before he died in 2006, Norris lobbied to get the records reopened.

Legislation had been introduced on multiple occasions but stalled amid opposition from groups fearing an increase in abortions. That opposition faded to the point that Ohio Right to Life provided testimony in favor of the legislation that Gov. John Kasich signed in December of 2013.

State Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, co-sponsored the Senate legislation in the 130th General Assembly along with Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, who was among the Ohio adoptees to gain access to their records. A companion bill co-sponsored by Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, R-Marysville, passed overwhelmingly in the Ohio House during the same session.

Beagle, whose district includes Miami, Preble, and parts of Darke and Montgomery counties, has an older brother and a sister who were adopted in New York but neither have access to their birth records.

The new law provided a year before the records were unsealed for birth parents to request their names be redacted from the records. Just 259 birth parents opted to remove their names, according to the Department of Health.

David Butts, 43, a communications professor at the University of Dayton started looking for his birth family 13 years ago.

“I quickly ran into a road block — like a lot of people did,” Butts said. “I couldn’t get my birth certificate. I kind of took that as a sign that maybe it wasn’t supposed to be for me and I needed to just go ahead and bury whatever it was that was compelling me to do that.”

Butts’ birthday is March 20, the same day the records became available to adoptees. “That’s got to be the biggest sign in the world,” he said.

Butts received his records just before Easter. When he searched the Internet, he discovered that someone had been looking for him since 2008.

“They didn’t have my name, but based on the description, it was obviously me,” he said. “And it was my sister. She described me to a T.”

They met for the first time in Cleveland a week later, along with his birth mother and other family members. The reunion and new relationships are proving to be more emotionally taxing than anticipated, he said.

“It’s a much harder process than I thought it would be – the entire thing,” said Butts, whose birth father “doesn’t appear to want to know me. We all have families and we know our family’s stuff. When you go down this route, you’re essentially having to figure out another family and their stuff.”

He doesn’t regret searching for the answers.

“What if I waited too long and God forbid something happened and I just didn’t get the chance,” he said. “I am extremely grateful.”

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