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.