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 façade. 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.