Wednesday, May 19, 2010
What's better: A contact veto or no reform at all?
I've been involved in this fight for nearly four decades now, and time is slipping away. More people will die without the right to their original identities. Might it not be better to accept a compromise and let most adoptees have their original birth certificates, with the names of the parents who conceived and bore them?
When I was involved with adoptee-rights pioneer and flame-thrower Florence Fisher in trying tochange legislation in New York in the Seventies, Richard Gottfried, now chair of the Assembly Committee on Health, and others suggested that we could have a bill that would open adoption agency and court records only to adopted persons who turned eighteen after the passage of the law. In other words, a bill passed in 1976, when this was proposed by a commission on child welfare, would affect only those adoptees born that year and after; meaning: they would get their records on demand in 1994, or eighteen years after the bill passed. For the rest, a system of confidential intermediaries was proposed.
Florence, as founder and the life behind the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), turned down that flat. It was all or nothing; she did not want to leave a whole group adoptees out of the loop. The following year ALMA filed a class-action federal lawsuit against New York's sealed adoption and birth records. That did not go so well, and here we are today, with the nearly the same archaic sealed-records stupidity that New York has held adoptees in thrall since 1935. A passive registry, underfunded and not publicized, connects only a tiny percentage (something less than four percent) of the people who apply. One can read about the legal case in detail in E. Wayne Carp's excellent book of the history of the adoption reform movement, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption.
Yet Florence and I today talk about how if that bill had passed, at least people born back then would have the right to their records today, period. It is a bothersome thought.
I personally know many adoptees whose decades-long searches have led no where. So does Florence. In my files I have letters from people in their Seventies who are likely to die without ever having the answer to the question that has haunted them most of their lives. Many searchers do not take cases where the information is so scant that the search is likely to lead to a dead end. New York, unless you were born in one of the five boroughs of New York City, is a particularly hard nut to crack. A woman I wrote about earlier here has tried to search--by herself, with a searcher I put her in touch with--but to no avail. It's clear she needs either her original birth certificate or her agency file.
I found my daughter Jane in the early 80s, when the still-anonymous Searcher located her; in fact, as I've said here before, he had her name and family and address before from the clues I put in my 1979 memoir, Birthmark.
However, he did not give them to me until I paid $1,200. So it goes. I was glad to get the information, relieved to find my daughter. I think he must have worked for the government himself--perhaps he or she was a judge, or social worker, or adoption-agency director who could simply call up Albany and all the other vital-records departments in the country and ask for the information, and it was given. We birth mothers who used his services eagerly paid the fee and subsidized his vacation home in the Adirondacks.
But those days are over. While the Internet has made searching more available to many, thousands more still will not find out who they are without getting their hands on their original birth certificates before they were amended and the names of one's original parents locked away. I'm not going to dismiss them because others--even a great many--will be able to search anyway with the clues they have, even without their original birth certificates. While the pure issue of an adopted person's civil right cries out for justice for all--no birth mother vetoes!--I am left with the haunting sense that this leads to hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of adopted people whose quest for their original identity will have no end, whose lives will have no answers.
So while I totally understand how incredibly annoying and wrong these bills are, for they let a very very small group of birth mother deniers strip the rights of another group of people whose rights should be paramount, I have my qualms about what to do. Somewhat reluctantly, Jane and I have supported such a bill in New Jersey, which has a limited (one year) window in which birth/first mothers might file such a cruel veto, to deny their own children the right to know who they are--but yet it bothers us. At bottom such bills, as the one in Rhode Island, and the one is Illinois, are wrong headed. The states that pass them (Delaware,Tennessee) do not go back and "fix" them. The states that have a "contact preference" instead of a veto (Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire, Alabama) report no problems with the law as is. A contact-preference is just that: mothers and fathers can state they do not wish to be contacted, but the adoptees still gets their original birth certificate. (Alaska and Kansas also give adoptees their records for the asking.)
Yet we get bills that contain these noxious poison pills in the form of a contact VETOES. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union, on a state-by-state basis, is generally against giving adoptees the right to their original birth certificates without this "secrecy protection" for birth mothers, seemingly and wrongly assuming that most of us want to languish in birth-mother-protection programs, living anonymously among the rest of the non-birth parent population. It totally baffles me how they can ignore the rights of the adopted to have the same rights as the rest of us. All I can think is that like NOW in Michigan (which was against a bill which was pretty bad to begin with), the people who run ACLU are under the influence of adoptive parents who hide their fear in the skirts of birth/first mothers, whom they imagine do not want to be found, revealed, whatever.
One can understand the opposition of the Catholic Church because not only have they listened to the tearful confessions of women years ago who had children conceived outside of marriage (though not mine, even after 12 years of Catholic schools), the Church is also protecting scores of priests who fathered children. From all accounts, there are many such children. However, a few dioceses do individually support legislation to give adoptees their rights, such as that of Albany. Lobby organizations such as the National Council for Adoption (FOR Adoption says it all) do not even like these bills with contact vetoes; they only want passive registries. They want to keep business as usual--and it is a big money-making business--going strong.
So once again, as more than thirty years ago, in 1976 when I testified in Albany to unseal the birth records, I'm left with a quandary--do we accept a mediocre bill because it is all we can get? Since it will help so many adoptees get their original birth records on demand, is it worth accepting the poison pill of a birth-parent veto? The American Adoption Congress backs the Rhode Island bill. A group in New Jersey has been working hard for a bill with a limited-time birth-parent veto. Bastard Nation is adamantly opposed to all such bills. Posting this rumination will cause many to denounce me as a sell-out.
In one sense, this is not my fight--except that I have chosen to fight for adoptee rights--but it is not for me to oppose these bills that will affect so many. I am not adopted. I have always had my birth records, and except for a fleeting moment or two when I was five, I always knew whose daughter I was, where I came from, who my grandparents were. I've always been securely grounded in my self-awareness. But hell, I support giving not only all adoptees their original birth records and agency files, but giving birth parents the names of the people who adopted their children. Adoption as it has been practiced is a heinous crime against nature and common sense.
Yet back in 1976, if we had accepted the compromise bill offered, all people born and adopted in New York State since then...would have the unassailable right to their original birth records. What about all those people born and adopted in New York since who have been denied their records because we thought we could get more, way back in 1976? What about them? What about the people who will not get their original birth records if Rhode Island and Illinois pass no bill at all?
Today, I don't have an answer for them.--lorraine