Wednesday, March 24, 2010

We support NJ bill giving adoptees original birth certificates

The New Jersey Senate Monday (3/22/10) passed the adoptees' "open-records” bill, S799, which would allow most adopted individuals their original birth certificates (OBC), as well as access to their mother’s medical, cultural, and social information. The vote was 27 for to 10 opposed; it now goes to the Assembly. Our previous post outlining our qualms about this part of the bill sparked a great deal of commentary from both birth/first mothers and adoptees. We want to clarify our thoughts, and explain why we now support this legislation. 

We fully understand that the fight in New Jersey to pass any legislation giving adoptees what they were stripped of at the time of adoption has indeed been long and harrowing. More than three decades have gone by since this struggle began. Yes, S799 does grant most adoptees the right to know their true identities, a right that is unalienable and absolute, with the release of their original birth certificates. Birth mothers have a year to object, and the unfortunate offspring of those mothers will be denied their unaltered OBCs. After a year, birth mothers will not be able to prevent the release of the OBC to their children. We understand this will deny some adopted individuals their original birth certificates; however, past experience in other states has taught us that few birth mothers will use this veto. While we are not wild about any legislation that does not give all adoptees full access to their original birth certificates—should not that document belong to the owner on demand?—this veto is far less venomous than ones in those states (Delaware, Tennessee) where there is no time limit on a birth mother's veto.

The proposed legislation in New Jersey does allow disclosure of personal information about the mother-to-be, or birth mother, collected at a time of crisis through the lens of the social worker. Our solution for adoptees wishing to know their history was simple--ask your mother, just as the non-adopted do. But our friend Pam Hasegawa, with whom we have been in the trenches of adoption reform since the Seventies, has pointed out that some adoptees may never find their original families, and having the medical, cultural and social history from an agency file is a great deal better than nothing. In fact, this information has been provided to adoptees in New Jersey since 1977.  Ironically, this came about as the result of a court decision in a 1976 trial during which Lorraine Dusky (yes, your blogger here) testified:
"I desperately want those records open so when my child is 18 she can find me."  
The non-identifying file of the birth mother may in fact allow intrepid adoptees to complete a search, or at least provide heritage and the reason for relinquishment. Always confident of our own cultural heritages, we are not sure how much this limited data satisfies people who were callously stripped of their heritage when they were adopted in infancy. As adoptee/poet Penelope Partridge of Pennsylvania, who has also long been active in adoption reform, stated at the same Vineland, NJ trial: 
“We want to be like everyone else. We did not come out of an agency. We came out of a human being. It would mean a lot to me just to have a name.”
Lorraine here: While cognizant of some first mothers' objections, I now totally and fully support this legislation, New Jersey S799/S1399. It is not the best of all possible bills--neither was the health care bill Congress just passed--but it reflects the art of the possible. Adoptees were stripped of their right to their true identity with their adoption, and for the great many, this legislation will correct that with the release of their original birth certificates. The time limit on filing a veto will affect a small number of people, and makes this legislation flawed; but if that is what turns a no vote on this legislation to a yes, I will go along. As for the release of non-identifying information compiled by a social workers, whether released as a summary, compilation, or entire file, on reflection I can not in good conscience raise an objection, as this possibly will lead to solace to those adoptees who can not get their one, true, and original birth record, and so I support S799. 

Jane here: The new law goes farther, allowing an adopted person, the direct descendants of a deceased adopted person, or the adoptive parents of a minor to obtain identifying information unless the birth parents object within a year. I have problems with providing identifying information.

Besides invading the birth mother's privacy, her candid statements at a time of great stress, recorded by a social worker and summarized years later by someone unfamiliar with the facts, can create a false picture leading to suspicion and distrust.

In our first conversation, my surrendered daughter, Megan, asked me about an uncle who had "mental health problems." It took me a minute before I realized she was talking about my brother, who in 1966 was a high school drop out, pot-smoking, Viet Nam war-protester. The social worker had asked me about my siblings and I told her about my brother whose lifestyle caused my mother great stress and was regarded by many at the time as anti-social, if not dangerous. Megan received this information in 1986, 11 years before our first conversation. For 11 years she believed there was mental illness in her birth family.

I relate this anecdote, which is amusing today--no one except far righters believe that opposing war and smoking pot is a sign of mental illness--to show the harm that can be done if adoption agencies reveal too much. I should add that this information came in my "non-identifying" file. Although I don't know that my brother's story--once corrected--caused harm, I do believe that having other detailed information adversely affected our relationship.

Adoptees in support groups often say they were distrustful of their birth mothers--perhaps with good reason. How can you trust someone who abandoned you to strangers? If an adoptee has a file chock full of data covering the mother's medical, cultural, and social history (essentially everything) there are bound to be discrepancies between what the mother tells the adoptee and what's in the file. These discrepancies can create seeds of doubt and tarnish the relationship.

Often adoptees also say they want to know why their mother gave them up, whether she had a good reason. Adoption agency files may contain notes such as "mother wants to give up baby so she can finish college." In actuality, it may be that the young woman was told by her parents she would be in the street if she came home with baby, and if she gives up the child, she will be able to stay in college. So while the "college" fact may be accurate, it is far from the whole truth. I have heard many instances of the social worker parsing the facts to make it seem as if the woman was "comfortable" with her "adoption plan."

While I have problems with this legislation, if I had to vote, I would vote "aye" for the simple reason that it appears to be the only way that some adoptees will ever have to learn that which everyone is entitled to know. I have become less concerned about the bill upon learning that what is released will be subject to regulations which proponents of the bill agree will limit the report to only a summary of relevant facts.

Let's move beyond this particular legislation and eliminate all the roadblocks to reunions the industry has created to convince the public that mothers and children need to be protected from each, that reunions are unnatural and unwanted. Let's help mothers and their adult children find each other without resorting to social-worker files, possibly replete with half-truths, confidential intermediaries, and the whole panoply of adoption-industry tactics created to deny the truth, that the bond between mother and child remains.

Let’s work together to allow adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates and allow mothers to obtain their children’s amended birth certificates. And while we’re at it, let’s work to end false birth certificates, such as are written now when a child is adopted. Let’s promote reunions through the International Soundex Reunion Registry, shows such as Find My Family (which has not returned to the airwaves) and The Locator, support groups, whatever works.

And let’s stop pretending that we only want information, or that we just want to know our child is well.-- lorraine and Jane

24 comments :

  1. So sorry to hear that you are supporting this terrible legislation. This is NOT an "adoptee birthrights bill as falsely advertised. As a NJ resident, birthmother, and former supporter of open records legislation here, I was terribly disappointed when NJCare caved in to the compromises this legislation contains.

    These compromises did not satisfy our enemies and opponents at all. They will fight this bill just as vigorously as they would fight a clean bill. I am sad to say I hope they defeat it in the Assembly, and perhaps a clean bill can be introduced again later. NO cause for celebration or support here.

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  2. I am celebrating! I will be thrilled if this passes and will be ecstatic that my maternal source's husband will have his soapbox taken away! He has been allowed to repeatedly testify about things he has no idea about and wasn't even around for... Heck, there's only 4 of us in my family and we can't even go to dinner without someone compromising. My life is full of compromises. I realized a long time ago that if I have an all or nothing attitude -- as an adoptee, we get A LOT of NOTHING....

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  3. It's a dirty bill filled with exclusions, exceptions, and hoops to jump through just to get what non-adoptees can get by simply walking into a vital records office and writing a check.

    It's a shame that so many people will settle for the scraps and throw the rest of the adoptees who want REAL LEGISLATION AND REAL EQUAL RIGHTS.

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  4. As an adoptee, I'm surprised to even get scraps... So, it's more than I thought I'd see in my lifetime...

    Shame is something I've heard about from the coersion era and the 1960s... Shame is a way to manipulate people to all be the same -- think the same, do the same, be the same...

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  5. Elaine, you are twisting words and meanings. "A Shame" as used by Anon here has nothing to do with the shame of those who surrendered in the 60s.

    This bill is " a shame" in the sense that the compromises that have been made will not ensure its passing, and if it does pass, will set an awful precedent for other states where this kind of thing is popping up all over already. It has the potential to kill real adoptee rights legislation all over.

    I can understand you wanting anything to pass that defeats and shuts up your awful and outspoken mother and her husband, but it will hurt many more people. It is not just about you.

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  6. I don't think it will hurt many people. Oregon has less than 1% rejection rate (last time I looked, it was .87%). How many of those 1% of adoptees really want to hold up 99.13% of adoptees from getting their OBC? If I'm in the 1%, so be it...

    I can't imagine that 1% of adoptees saying, "If I can't get mine, no one should get theirs..."

    I'm not worried about the rest of the States... each one has to pass whatever legislation that they want to. The adoptees in each State will have to deal with their State. A federal law opening up birth certificates sounds like a pipe dream and unrealistic -- but that's just my opinion. No one has to agree with it...

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  7. Well, I do find it interesting that in some Australian states, gradual access gave way to complete access.

    Idk, though, I am like Emily though, dwelling in possibility and all. I can't help it, it is my nature.

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  8. Well, I expect to be blasted for this but I agree with Lorraine and Elaine. I know how hard Pam and team have worked to get ANYTHING done in NJ and how much they didn't want to have to compromise in this way.
    I agree that this is not a clean bill like Oregon, but the way I see it is that after 30+ years of trying; the adoptees in NJ deserve to get SOMETHING. It isn't as if this is a johnny come lately attempt for open access. They've been beating their heads against the walls there forever.

    To me it's a bit like Health Care Reform. I was hoping for the Public Option but instead we had to compromise to get anything passed. I wasn't going to withdraw total support because there were some things I didn't like about it. That's like cutting off one's nose to one's face. Sadly this is the way it is with controversial legislative changes and every state has a different culture in the way they govern.

    I haven't changed my personal stance on this issue but I'm supporting this one because NJCare has worked for years and years and if they feel this will at least do some good for the adoptees in their state - let'em do it.

    People have different viewpoints. My dad used to say "do SOMETHING even if it's wrong".

    If Maryanne is correct in that it won't pass; it's a moot point anyway.

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  9. kitta here:

    I support access to birth certificates and identifying information to both sides. And I encourage both sides to search. Life and time are limited and we don't know how much we have.

    However, where the agency files access are concerned, I do not support the 'right' of adopted people nor their adoptive parents, our grandchildren or other relatives to have access to "any family medical, social, and cultural history" that is in the agency file. This covers way too much , including other people and family members who may be mentioned but who cannot give consent.

    Mothers were given confidential counseling. That was a law, and comments made during the counseling sessions were often about other family members. I do not trust anyone to release information that I myself have not approved....and I would be very careful of what I consented to where my family members are concerned.

    My situation is exactly the nightmare that other mothers do not want . My agency has said, in an official letter to me, that they are bound by law to release my private medical files submitted by my doctor.
    I have read the 1977 release of the non-identifying information law for NJ(9:3-4.1). It describes the release of complete family medical information on a state prescribed form...and is limited to medical histories of birth parents only.

    S799 goes quite a bit further. In releasing medical, social, and cultural information to adoptive parents, adult adopted people,grandchildren of surrendering moms, it is likely to be misunderstood and grossly out of date, and all the more likely to result in conflict.

    there have been 4 adoption reunions in my extended family, and I have seen how the misunderstood interpretations of events around surrender, and the dishonesty of social workers can cause more conflict than anyone had ever imagined.The problems are severe and can cause a reunion to be rejected from the start.

    ,
    Section 5a and Section 10a should be amended out of the bill.The agencies should also be forced to take their "immunity from liability for damages" clause out of the bill. If they have caused harm, they should bear the brunt of it.

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  10. I don't think any bill is ever going to please ALL people - and I'm talking about the people directly affected - adoptees and first parents.

    Even if OBCs are released to all adoptees but no other information is released, there will be some adoptees who are not able to locate their families. So much for "ask your mother".

    If additional information is released, it may be incorrect, highly personal and/or slanted. The adoptee may believe it and decide not to search.

    The key is to get as many people satisfied as possible. NJ will never know how many birthmoms (defined as those who reject their children) would veto disclosure unless those women have an opportunity to do so. Then we will have another state that we can point to and say - "See? It's a tiny minority."

    As for a federal law - we will need a LOT more states to do something. That may not happen in my lifetime.

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  11. putting on my flack jacket because i know it's not popular: but i agree with jean, and am heartened that she has been brave enough to change her mind in public and come out in support of pam's work in new jersey.

    if there is anyone who has demonstrated to me over the years her complete committment to changing the system that denies adoptees their basic rights, it is pam. if she says something is worth supporting, i have faith she knows what she's talking about. she has earned my trust and support. if working as tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of adoptees rights over decades hasn't earned her that, what ever will?

    i confess i'm saddened that we have not been able to present a more unified front to proposed legislation over the years, because of our wide philosophical differences about what reform should be.

    they call politics the "art of the possible" for just that reason; if you want to engage a lot of people in making big change, i think that means making peace with not getting every thing you want every single time.

    but over time, i believe that our united support of all legislation that returns rights to adoptees will result in an increased power to educate more people about what is right and what is just. how will we feel 20 years from now if it turns out that our internal discord did more to prevent progress than all our opponents' scare tactics ever could?

    on the question of records: although i am sad to learn about families who have suffered because of their contents, i don't think that's reason enough to fight against their release.
    reporters and genealogists learn early on not to trust every
    official document; records are only as accurate as the humans who created them.
    does that render them useless?
    since they exist, and probably will be released in some way, whatever we do or don't do today, since given a long enough passage of time that's what tends to happen to most documents -- maybe it makes more sense to view them as another serious flaw of the closed system.
    maybe shining a light on all the inaccuracies, providing our own real stories, is a better service to our children and grandchildren than fighting to parse out which records are worth releasing and which we'd rather stay hidden.

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  12. "However, where the agency files access are concerned, I do not support the 'right' of adopted people nor their adoptive parents, our grandchildren or other relatives to have access to "any family medical, social, and cultural history" that is in the agency file. "

    @kitta -- I got that info 12 years ago as part of my non-id -- including medical info about fmom's father who wasn't even biologically related to her. Weirdly enough, he gave it to the agency knowing it was going in my file. So as far as I know, the medical and psychological info has been available for quite awhile... My fmom was 'well adjusted' and had a "good" relationship with her mother....

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  13. I'm not sure this went through If it did, just nuke this one.

    I am very disheartened that you are supporting this abomination. I know that people like Pam have worked hard, and I understand the desire to get something passed after 30 years, but it's still wrong.

    The 12-month veto opportunity is only part of the access problem. All "safe haven" victims are denied access by default, although NJ has admitted that most SH babies are born to identified mothers/parents in hospitals. IOW, NJ is folding its border babies into safe haven catches. As if this isn't bad enough, NJ like other states is actively educating and encouraging women to use SH as the "easy" alternative--rather than making an adoption plan--or even getting assistance to keep. SH, particularly in NJ if this law is passed, with be the new sealed records with no recourse to appeal.

    Oregon has a contact preference. It is not enforcible. Contact is not disclosure, yet NJ conflates the two.

    The Aus vetoes have a weird story. At this last AAC I learned that various governments simply decided not to honor the contract they'd made with the parents who filed them. "It's bad law." Apparently Aus is not so in love with lawsuits as USians. Once a DV law/DSV is in place it stays. And if states try to remove it, they'll get their tail sued off.

    By supporting vetoes, so-called adoptee rights advocates agree with the enemy that parents need protection from their own offspring and that adoptees are not full citizens.

    And don't get me started on medical histories. Nobody is entitled to some one else's medical history. NJ should be prepared to be sued under HIPAA. I don't know how NJ pols think they can coerce them out of women and get away with it.

    NJ is a key state and if this bill is passed it will be a harsh blow to real rights.

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  14. I can understand how people get worn down and susceptible to compromise, but any legislation that includes disclosure vetoes has to be bad, no matter how long or hard people have worked.

    Check out for yourselves what happened in Ontario:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Access_to_Adoption
    _Records_Act

    2500 vetoes filed in eight months.
    That's a damn sight more than 1%

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  15. kitta here:

    "-- I got that info 12 years ago as part of my non-id -- including medical info about fmom's father who wasn't even biologically related to her. Weirdly enough, he gave it to the agency knowing it was going in my file"

    Elaine, I am aware that NJ has had a non-identifying information law for a long time. Most states do.Many were passed later in the 70s and 80s, even the 90s.

    However, S799 expands upon that law.Obviously, "someone" thought that more medical and family history information "needed" to be released from those mothers' files.

    Mothers were given confidential counseling, by law, and that also would be protected under HIPAA in the same way that a psychistrist's patients sessions are protected.

    If your step-father knew he was supplying information..strange as that situation is...then at least he was aware....but of what...

    However, many mothers were *not* told that what they said in counseling sessions would ever be released. Some, like me, were told that the sessions were private and the only information released would be a physical/social description.(appearance, ethnicity, education, religion,age,) health condition at the time was released and I was healthy. Period.

    Medical records are also submitted by ob/gyns to be placed in those files. No one's grandchildren should have access to the information in those records..but S799 will give it to them.

    If people wish to submit updated medical information they should do that, but with no liability attached. If parents and children already are re-united, they can tell each other directly, as my son and I did, and now my granddaughter and I do.

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  16. kitta here:

    "on the question of records: although i am sad to learn about families who have suffered because of their contents, i don't think that's reason enough to fight against their release."

    I do. In fact, releasing records that result in harming someone can be cause for legal action. Slander and libel are crimes.That is why the agencies wrote(new section) 7a into S799. They knew that adoption workers had been lying and making up stories about people, as well as releasing confidential counseling file information.

    It is easy to be cavalier about other people's problems. But when it happens to you or someone you care about, the reality comes home.

    Doctor-patient confidentiality is a right, as is lawyer-client privilege. Confidential counseling and records are not a joke.

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  17. Not here to blast anyone, we just have a difference of opinion. I feel as bad for Pam who is a lovely person I have known for over 35 years as any of you, but as BD said,that does not make this legislation right.

    I have been involved in NJ legislation almost as long as Pam, and have been to Trenton many times to testify for clean bills. I dropped out of the NJ legislative group when they started compromising badly, as did some others here. This new and convoluted legislation has not been universally supported by long-time NJ activists. much as we would like to continue working for real reform here.

    I know the frustration and am sympathetic to those like Pam I consider friends no matter what our political differences, but legislative support can't be about friendship or frustration or pity.

    I feel this is a bad bill. I do not feel those who sincerely support it are bad people. I am just saddened by it.

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  18. "2500 vetoes filed in eight months.
    That's a damn sight more than 1%"

    One of the very interesting points, to me, is that it says it's 50/50 between adoptees and birth parents... I wish it broke it down further and gave an overall # of requests.

    I also wonder why over 1,000 adoptees would block their info. I mean, their birthparent would already know the info -- could it be adoptive parents filing on behalf of minors? I don't know a thing about Ontario Bill... Anyone from Canada that may know this?

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  19. Much of that figure can be attributed to the unscrupulous campaign run by Ontario's Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian whose main objective was to scare the hell out of adoptees and first parents throughout the province, which she did by seeding tales of first mothers who would be driven to madness and even suicide if they were to be revealed. There was even talk of honor killings.
    I'm sure you, of all people, understand the kind of tactics I'm talking about.

    Another factor was that the Ontario newspapers published large ads (paid for by the government) warning adoptees and first parents that if they wanted to save themselves from the wrath to come, they needed to file vetoes ASAP.
    Of course, they neglected to mention that there was also a perfectly reasonable contact preference form available, because that would have undercut their objective.

    About the breakdown, I just don't know. Wish I did. I too would love to know more about the status of the individuals who filed these vetoes.

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  20. Elaine, I don't know if this might have swelled the numbers, but it's hard to imagine it would have made that much of a difference:

    http://www.ontario.ca/en/residents/111872

    Former adoptive parents have the right to file a disclosure veto if the adoption was finalized before September 1, 2008. Alternatively, they can file a no contact notice or a notice of contact preference. They are also eligible to apply for other types of Adoption Information services. See Birth Parent forms and supporting guides for how to apply.

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  21. it seems like, for me, anything that has to do with adoption, I end up with more questions than answers...

    it's very sad how fear is used to try and control people... I don't even know what in the world my maternal source fears because she's been 'out' for 12 years. I've never spoke with her nor showed up anywhere -- never saw her in person -- yet, she acts like I'm the boogey man going to jump out at her... I don't get it.

    And sadly, it seems like as long as there is an adoptive parent who is afraid of an fmom 'stealing' "their" child back or there's a firstmother who is afraid of her family finding out that she had a child, there are going to be big forces against the adoptee rights movement...

    Fear, power and money...

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  22. kitta here:

    note to Jane, yes, I see that the OBC will be given to the adoptive parents as well as the descendants of adopted people...but not to the mothers who gave birth to the adopted people. Nor do the mothers have equal access to the identifying information on the adoptive parents, or our children's new names, or our grandchildren.

    This bill is unfair and violates natural parents under the 'equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.".

    S799 seems to say that we are "related" to our children when the approach or request for information comes from their side, that is, the adoptive side. But when we want to know who they are, or even to search for them, we are no longer considered to be "relatives."

    If what S799 did was only to give OBC to adopted people, at least that would be giving them what is rightfully theirs.

    But it violates the confidential records of mothers, and hands over our names and medical records to a number of people while denying us the right to even know who our children and their adoptive parents are.

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  23. Kitta here"

    I have a copy of the 1977 medical history report to be filled out by the mother in NJ. I have never seen such a bold intrusion into the mother's privacy and even her rrelatives privacy.

    The medical questionairre asks for how many stds the family has had in the past 5 years.....yes, the family...not just the mother..the entire family STD history? I guess they expect us to know,And they do want to know about sexual partners, and history, and if we had any abortions.

    They ask about all drugs, illegal and legal, that we have used in the past 5 years.All prescriptions, too. It doesn't matter if we were pregnant or not.

    They ask about every bodily system of every relative. The information is so detailed it would require a doctor to answer the questions.

    No wonder some mothers are using the Safe Haven laws instead..

    The one good thing is the disclaimer at the end. Adoptive parents sign it admitting there may be information left out. Now if the mothers could also sign such a statement we would be getting somewhere.

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