Like Adoption Records, This Headline Redacted For Privacy

The Chicago Tribune has published numerous articles about what they refer to as the State Of Corruption in Illinois. One of their exposes is on clout-based admissions at the University of Illinois. To that end, they published an editorial about the attempts of their journalists to gain records under the Freedom of Information Act. Their experience will resonate with any adoptee, birth mother or other relative who’s tried to gain access to adoption records.

The ongoing series, “Clout Goes to College,” doesn’t identify the applicants. Cohen didn’t ask for their names, nor did she expect they would be released. The privacy provisions White alludes to require the university to redact identifiers such as names and Social Security numbers before releasing the documents.

But the 1,800 pages of documents eventually surrendered by the university went far beyond that. Applicants’ test scores, grades and class ranks were blacked out, for example. That information wouldn’t identify specific students, but it would show how far the rules were bent to admit them.

Names and positions of third-party players who lobbied trustees on behalf of an applicant also are marked out, as are references to people who are clearly public officials themselves. That information wouldn’t compromise the privacy of individual students. It’s not exempt.

In countless other instances, information is blacked out or pages are missing, with no explanation or clue as to what is being withheld. Asked to justify those redactions, the university flatly refused. “Your request would mean that the Illinois FOIA requires us, in response to any inquiry by a requesting party, to go line by line, word by word and explain why each redaction was made,” general counsel Thomas Bearrows wrote.

Actually, that is what the law requires. The law says release the information or explain why it’s exempt. There are two reasons for that: to ensure that the university is basing its denial on a good faith interpretation of the law, and to provide the requester with a basis to challenge the denial.

When I read this I could only give a cynical laugh. The Tribune is tasting the bitter pill that Illinois adoptees and their birth relatives have swallowed for decades.

When The Powers That Be want to keep things secret, they use the magic word “private.” Information is redacted regardless of laws that specify what can and can not be revealed. I ran into this during my ill-fated experience with the Illinois Confidential Intermediary Program. As I described in my post, “Caveat Emptor On Confidential Intermediary Programs“:

Just about everything is “confidential,” but what exactly constitutes “confidential” is equally unclear. Officially, it’s what’s in the Illinois Adoption Act, 750 ILCS 50, Section 18. But in reality it’s whatever the [Illinois Confidential Intermediary] program decides it is.

For example, details were redacted from my birth mother’s letters, such as my maternal grandfather’s age of death, which are listed nowhere in the Illinois Adoption Act as being “identifying.” Similarly, I received mixed signals as to whether or not I was permitted to receive copies of the correspondence sent to my birth mother (redacted for identifying information). When contact was first made, I asked for and received the first letter [the program] sent to her. But later, when I asked for copies of additional correspondence (again, redacted for identifying info), it suddenly became “confidential.” Perhaps it’s only “confidential” when you begin to question the process.

Interestingly, program policies and procedures are also “confidential” – to the public as well as to participants. If you’re not allowed to know what steps have been taken in your search, how are you supposed to know if you’re getting what you paid for?

I’m glad to see the Tribune experiencing the same sorts of ridiculous redactions the rest of us have, because maybe it will encourage them to respond to complaints concerning adoption records access. So far, the Trib’s stance on transparency in Illinois government has not included adoption records. Questions on their public forum concerning adoptee birth certificates went unacknowledged by their editors. So, too, have requests for some sunshine to be let into the dark recesses of Illinois adoption politics. The Tribune has invited Illinois citizens to inform them where this state of corruption needs to be cleaned up, and has made a point of supporting causes that might seem like small potatoes. I would like to encourage them and other Illinois-based media to examine how adoption records access works, or doesn’t, in this state. And if you believe in equality, I would like to encourage you to contact the Tribune and others and urge them to support unrestricted adoption records access.

Those affected by adoption should have the exact same access to records as everyone else. Equality for all is the only equitable solution!

Comments

  1. Great blog! I guess all we need now is an email contact at the Trib we can write to.

  2. Pennagal, you can contact Tribune reporter Jodi S. Cohen, the person who was asking U of I for these records, at jscohen@tribune.com. Another reporter who worked on this story is Stacy St. Clair, sstclair@tribune.com. The general address for letters to the editor is ctc-TribLetter@Tribune.com.