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Law prevents Manitoban from discovering her roots

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Penny Treflin is seeking records of her adoption.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Penny Treflin is seeking records of her adoption. Photo Store

Penny Treflin doesn't know whether her birth mother is still alive or if she has siblings she has never met.

Treflin (nee Studney), 68, who was adopted when she was a young child, wants a copy of her government adoption file, but under decades-old Manitoba law, that information is denied her.

Over the years, she has been able to glean some information about her past.

She knows her birth parents came from a small francophone community in southern Manitoba, although she doesn't know which one, that her parents were not wed, that her birth father was in the military and served in Europe in the Second World War and that he was later listed as missing. She knows at least part of her birth mother's name, but not her father's name.

It's what Treflin, a mother of two and a grandmother, doesn't know about her history that leaves her with a feeling of emptiness.

"It's like there's a little hole in your heart that you just want to fill in. And they won't let us," she said.

"They" is the Province of Manitoba, one of a shrinking number of Canadian jurisdictions with a closed adoptions-records system. In 1999, the then-Filmon government passed a law to open records for anyone born after March 15 that year. But adoption records that predated the law remained closed.

'I have the right to pay taxes, but my government doesn't feel that I have the right to know my own family history'

-- Penny Treflin

In recent years, several provinces have opened their adoptions records, including Ontario (2009), Alberta (2004) and Newfoundland and Labrador (2003). British Columbia has had open records since 1996. All contain veto clauses, however, allowing birth parents to remain anonymous.

Roy Kading, a retired railway worker who operates LINKS Post-Legal Adoption Support, has been lobbying the Manitoba government for a dozen years to open up all its records.

The number of people affected could number in the tens of thousands, he said. "I have 5,000 people in my files -- parents looking for kids, kids looking for parents."

Kading also helps grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings of adoptees try to reconnect with their family members.

He's upset that after more than a decade of effort, he and others have been unable to persuade the province to open up its records.

For some folks, he said, time is running out.

"When you're over 60 and you're looking for your mother, she's going to be over 80, and chances are she might be dead," Kading said. "What's the delay?"

'We're actually looking at options to move that forward in the next several months'

-- Family Services and Labour Minister Jennifer Howard

Furthermore, he said folks who place requests for assistance from the provincial adoptions office to try connecting with a birth mother face a wait of up to two years.

Family Services and Labour Minister Jennifer Howard said she is on top of the issue and the government is working to open its records, especially so children who were part of the "'60s scoop generation" can learn about their birth families and their histories. The '60s scoop generation refers to a period from the 1960s through the 1980s when large numbers of aboriginal kids were apprehended and adopted into white families.

"I believe that all children who were adopted do have that right, and so we're actually looking at options to move that forward in the next several months," Howard said.

Later, a government spokesman said Manitoba wanted to first study the experiences in other provinces to make sure it gets it right. The government is now confident it is in a position to move forward to open its records.

Meanwhile, Treflin is exasperated by the province's foot-dragging.

Her birth mother, if she is alive, would be in her late 80s. Because it was a private adoption, she's unsure what information may be in her government file that she doesn't already know. But she said she's entitled to it.

"It's my life. It's my information. And if there's any little, tiny thing in there that can help me at all, I want to know," she said.

Treflin said her parents did not tell her she was adopted as she was growing up. She learned of it at age 14 when a friend taunted her with the information during a spat. She didn't raise the subject with her father for two years. Her adopted mother was involved in an accident when she was nine and suffered brain damage. She died in 1962. Her father died in 1983. Any adoption records her parents kept have gone missing.

Treflin was told her birth mother boarded for a time with her adopted parents and worked briefly in Pine Falls, but lost her job when the men returned from the Second World War. She knows her birth mother's surname and one given name, which she asked not be published.

In 1992, she asked Child and Family Services to notify her if a member of her birth family wanted to get in touch with her. She's heard nothing since. Last year, she again contacted CFS, requesting the agency conduct a search to see if her birth mother had died. CFS told her the results of its search were inconclusive, meaning it could find no proof she was dead.

To say Treflin is frustrated at her inability to see her adoption file is an understatement.

"What is this -- an issue of national security? A criminal in jail has more rights than I do. I have the right to pay taxes, but my government doesn't feel that I have the right to know my own family history."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Is the Manitoba government wise to delay opening historic adoption records, given the stigma birth mothers faced then? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2013 A3

History

Updated on Monday, June 24, 2013 at 6:45 AM CDT: replaces photo, changes headline, adds question for discussion

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