Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Right to Human Identity doesn't go far enough


The Albany diocese of the Episcopalian Church recently passed a resolution "A Right to Human Identity" urging the New York state legislature to enact a law enabling adoptees “to secure current information regarding their historical heritage, medical history, and genetic derivation without the necessity of court action.” Our friend and adoptee Episcopalian priest Mark Diebel of East Greenbush, New York wrote the resolution, and it will be taken up for consideration by the Church’s General Convention in July.

While we strongly support the right of adopted persons to have this information, we at FirstMother Forum have doubts about the mechanism for achieving this result. Information gathered years earlier and filtered through the eyes of a social worker often leads to misinformation.

Two years after I surrendered my daughter Megan for adoption in 1966, I married and my husband and I have raised three daughters. Over the years we have given them information about their heritage, medical history, and genetics through dinner conversations, get togethers with relatives, and the like. “Your great-grandfather came cross country on a train all by himself when he was five; my cousin played the piano; this used to belong to my mother; I remember when I was a little girl….”

That’s how Megan, my surrendered daughter, should have gotten her information, from me and her father. That’s why we at FirstMother Forum wholeheartedly support the right of adopted persons to obtain their original birth certificate which has the name of their biological mother, and often their father.

Megan, however, first learned about her historical heritage, medical history, and genetic derivation in 1986, not from family folklore or direct experience but through a redacted version of a report prepared by a social worker 20 years earlier based on a couple of relatively brief meetings. There were bound to be errors. Here’s an example:

The social worker asked me about my parents and siblings. I told her my younger brother had dropped out of high school, smoked pot, and protested the war in Vietnam. When Megan got the report from the agency 20 years later, she read that she had an uncle with metal health problems. We didn’t meet until 1997. So for 11 years she believed that there was mental illness in my family which might be hereditary. As for my brother, he is still a hippie today, but his is also an excellent father to four sons and runs his own business selling South American imports at Seattle’s Pike Street Market.

Besides being inaccurate, Megan obtained personal information about someone, my brother, who had nothing to do with her. My raised daughters were not entitled to this information about his youth, although if they had shown interest, I would have shared it with them in the context of the times, when many were smoking marijuana, dropping out of school and protesting the war.

Social worker notes may contain comments like "the mother very much wants to place her child” or “the mother does not want to parent her child.” We were much like the condemned man walking to the gallows. The time for tears, for protestations had passed. We signed our surrender papers as stoically as General Robert Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. We would not outwardly resist the inevitable even though our bodies were screaming “don’t do this.” The social worker wrote what she observed but what she observed was a fa├žade. An adoptee reading these remarks years later might well believe that his mother had no feelings for him and decide not to search.

A couple of other comments about the inherent unreliability of case reports: Information about the adoptee’s birthfather likely comes from the birthmother and thus is further filtered. The picture of the mother in agency reports is fixed in time. The pregnant 17 year old, frozen with guilt, unable to express her feelings, is far different from the confident successful woman the adoptee is likely to meet years later.

The availability of material from the adoption agency file can derail legislation allowing adoptees to receive their original birth certificates. If adoptees want only historical, medical and genetic information, the adoption industry argues, the redacted file is sufficient and adoptees don't need to search for their birthparents. As birthmothers, we want adopted persons to search because we know there are thousands of women waiting hopefully for their calls.

On a positive note: The resolution adds a respected voice to those asserting the right of adoptees to have information about themselves and the injustice of denying it to them. Media coverage of the resolution at the General Convention in Anaheim will bring to the fore once again how millions of Americans are denied the fundamental right of knowing their identity. And just perhaps, the legislatures in New York, California, and the other 42 states which have refused to end this discrimination against adopted persons will finally get it.

Here is the resolution in its entirety:

A Right to Human Identity

RESOLVED, that the Diocese of Albany adopt the following statement: Personal history is a fundamental human right and knowledge of one's entire parentage should be assumed as part of a person's natural property. Be it further
RESOLVED that the Diocese of Albany adopt the following statement: That the NY State legislature be urged to establish procedures that would enable adoptees [upon reaching legal age] to secure current information regarding their historical heritage, medical history, and genetic derivation without the necessity of court action. Be it further
RESOLVED, that the Diocese of Albany propose the two above resolutions to the next General Convention (July 8-17, in Anaheim) with the second resolution written so as to cover all states.

5 comments :

  1. Its funny but when I had my son taken for adoption, I didn't want my medical records used for someone else's my record of live birth was used by another woman as hers. I know I didn't sign my medical records over so is the use of my records, medical records, that are MY records, misused, and taken by another to prove her to be the mother of the son I gave birth to.

    Wrong, but where are my rights, I will NEVER give anyone medical information, not even my grown adult children have the right to my medical records, so I am supposed to give it to a stranger, no way, over my dead body.

    they are taking another thing from me, no one, ever again

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  2. I am confused about today’s post.
    While I admire the Albany Diocese of the Episcopal Church taking a stand for open records – they don’t have any pull with state/federal legislation, do they? Isn’t it our state senators and congressman we should be targeting?

    With regard to the comment by Anonymous – YOUR medical records are YOUR records – HIPAA protects individual privacy but YOUR CHILD’s records are his/hers. An adoptive mother cannot “assume” the medical records of a birth mom as her own.

    Amended birth certificates are another story.

    With regard to the “mental health” issues your daughter feared for so many years, Jane – I have the same story. Through reunion with my daughter and in fairness to the adoptive family – we learned that we were all victims of “misinformation” double-speak by the adoption agency.
    When my daughter became a mother herself and suffered PPD, she went to the agency to obtain copies of her file. To her horror she discovered that “mental illness” was “in her blood”. The report said MY MOTHER and I were mentally ill. I have no idea who/where/why this column was checked (maybe I had to be declared mentally ill in order for the agency to terminate my parental rights?) But it caused her much anxiety for years until she met me and learned it was untrue. You are so right when you say there is “inherent unreliability in case reports”. And how can one obtain “current info” from a file 20,30 or 40 years old?

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  3. And just think about what information is passed on at the time of birth and adoption...my daughter's adoptive parents were only told that I was Polish but the information that her father was a hundred percent Irish was not passed on. Yet her adoptive mother was Irish, and Jane had great conflicts when St. Pat's Day rolled around...would she be offending Irish people if she wore green?

    This is not even a question that I, a Polish/Russian American, even thought of. I simply wore green...and was Irish for the day. So many identity issues that the rest of us do not even think about...and so much hidden information with closed records.

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  4. I am glad to see this post here because the real point of the resolution is to assert that a person has a right to their history...in the case of birth it means knowing the identities of the parties involved. In the old times that meant parents. Today it means donors, surrogate mothers...commissiong parents...first mothers and fathers.

    The means for passing on this information must be examined. I certainly hope that the resolution in the Episcopal Church can help put the discussion of this important subject in another forum.

    To the question above...no the EP has no pull in the legislature. Statements like this serve to indicate how a group of people are coming to think. It has an indirect value (we hope!)

    Mark Diebel

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  5. I think the resolution is great, even if it doesn't have political pull. The more recognition we can achieve toward equality, the better.

    I too was told there is "mental illness" in my birth mother's family. In my case she told me in a letter given to me by the intermediary, but I have my doubts as to whether or not it's true. I know they redacted information that was not their business to redact, so why not otherwise modify the letters? That's the problem with third parties, it's like the tin-can telephone and the message can get garbled. I was told one of my birth uncles suffers "severely" but from what was not disclosed. This is one of the many, many problems with sealed records. I also got conflicting information about my birth father. It's hard to know if the information was not taken correctly at the beginning by the social worker or if it was modified somewhere down the line.

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