Friday, May 24, 2013

Lobbying for adoptee rights--how to write to a legislator

Lorraine
In these last few weeks, First Mother Forum has focused somewhat on legislation, because now is the time when bills get passed. People sometimes ask how to write to a legislator because it seems to daunting the first time. But it shouldn't be. 

So how to begin? First, let the recipient know your connection to him, especially if you are writing your legislator--you vote for him, or her, she is going to pay attention to what you have to say. Sometimes this information may be obvious from the return address on the stationary, but in email you need to say it. 


Explain why you want this legislation passed: You are adopted, you are an adoptive parent, you are a first mother, or a relative or friend of any of the above, and there exists a need or deep desire that the sealed records thwarts.  In no more than a paragraph or two, tell your personal story. Imagine that in these few words you are able to convey why the unsealing of the records is important to you.  Don't get the reader lost in details that are not germane; summarize your story.

Know the number of the bill that is up for a vote. This is good, but if you can't find out, explain what the bill does.

If you have other data that you think might sway the person reading the letter, include, but normally, brevity is best. What counts is the number of inquiries and letters they receive from different people, because that indicates how much interest there is in fixing a bad law and giving adoptees their original birth certificates. However, if you have specialty information that the legislator may or may not know about or already have from other sources, include it. 

Keep the letter brief--one page is great, one and a half is not terrible. 

Letterhead stationary is great, but what matters most is that you send it. 

Some legislators have told us they actually prefer email to cut down on paper, but when there is time and you can do it, a letter in the mail is the best. Right now in New York, we need whatever you have time for. 

Now having said that, I am going to say that sometimes, but not always, when I write I do write long because of the information I carry around in my head about stinkeroo laws and adoption reform and because I can present myself as an expert, having written the first memoir about first mothers, back in 1979, and been called on to lobby in Albany as far back as 1977, and later in Washington, DC before a Senate subcommittee. So sometimes I do cram information in my letters. Other times I pare them down to a single page. I am going to share here an email I have been sending to New York assemblymen in whose district I do not live. My own assemblyman, Fred Thiele, signed onto the Adoptee Rights Bill several years ago.

LETTERS NEEDED FROM NEW YORK ADOPTEES, FIRST MOTHERS
The push is on in New York because it is just possible--we got some good news the other day--that our CLEAN bill--a contact preference, not a veto, may actually come to the floor of the New York Assembly this year. This would be huge, for while we have been working in New York for two decades to get a bill to the floor for a vote, we have encountered powerful opposition from a handful of legislators with a great deal of clout. New York's legislature is a pit of corruption, and oddly enough that might work for us this year as passing this bill as it would allow some good news to come out of Albany, rather than just another corruption/sex scandal. 

Unsealed Initiative, the group in New York spearheaded by first mother Joyce Bahr, has made three trips to Albany this session to speak to legislators and get them behind our bill. At last tally, we had 81 sponsors or co-sponsors on our bill in the Assembly, and 22 or so in the Senate, and we are busy contacting those who have doubts and may vote against us. Nothing is certain. If any readers have relinquished in New York, or were adopted in New York, or are connected to someone who is and believe all individuals should have the clear, unrestricted right to know why they are, please take the time to write to Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly; Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Sen. Dean Skelos, speaker of the Senate. (Contact information on right sidebar).  In New York, one house is Democrat; the other is Republican. We are equal opportunists! Since I have already written these people, over the Memorial Day weekend, I will be contacting a list of uncommitted Assemblymen and woman. If you live in New York, of course add your own assemblyperson and senator to the list. However, right now we are reaching out to all uncommitted people in the Assembly. List on request!  We need you: 

DATA TO SWAY HEARTS AND MINDS--AND VOTES
A sample email/letter from me:

I write to you as someone who passionately believes right is on the side of a bill which will not affect me personally. I refer to a bill that would give adopted individuals the right to their original birth certificates. I am a mother who relinquished a child many years ago, and I ask you to sign on as a co-sponsor of this bill, or at least, let it be known that you support its passage. 

The most common objection to unsealing the original birth certificates to the individuals to whom they most concern--the adoptee himself--is the supposed "promise" of anonymity made to the first mothers at the time of relinquishment. But look at the experience of a state that opened its records by referendum.

In Oregon, where the records have been available to the adopted since 2000, more than 10,500 adopted people applied for their birth certificates in the first decade after passage; 85 birth parents asked for “no contact,” a number which had been stable for the last few years of the decade. This is .008 percent of the birth parents when compared to the number of adoptees who asked for their original, unamended birth certificates. The law sustained court challenges; most of the early “no contact” preferences were filed immediately after the law passed by a small, united group of women. Mothers certainly have a right to do this, but note that the Oregon law did not prevent the release of the information, and thus no adopted individual was denied the truth of their origins as it is contained on a birth certificate. A good law. A909a would do the same. 


Not undoing the law that dates from 1935 when the birth certificates of the adopted were sealed keeps in place a law that in many respects is akin to slavery. The adopted were never asked if they agree to having their true identities wiped clean in return for being adopted, yet that is what the law does.

When I relinquished my daughter in 1966 in Rochester, the sealed records statute was forced upon me. Though desperate to keep my pregnancy secret, I rebelled against never being able to know her eventually. My social worker finally said, if you insist on knowing her one day, we can't help you. With nowhere else to turn, I submitted to this heinous law that became a yoke around my heart as much as a vise would be. It felt like further punishment. However, the law never “promised” me anonymity, as the records were not sealed until she was adopted, and thus there could be no legal guarantee of secrecy.  To allow birth mothers the right of refusal about this is to value the supposed rights of a small group of individuals over the rights of the adopted. That is patently inequitable as well as morally wrong.

SEALED RECORDS MAY LEAD TO CORRUPTION

In 1981 I paid someone more than three months’ rent and within days had my daughter's name, her parents' names, their address and phone number. Obviously sealed records allow for rampant corruption. My daughter and I had a relationship for more than a quarter of a century until her death in 2007. I miss her dearly, but the pain of losing her a second time was not as great as losing her to an unknown future and total strangers as when I relinquished her.

Consider what the law does: The adopted can never have complete and fully up-to-date medical information, cannot know their true family history, or know their siblings, or anyone who looks like them, all facets of life that the rest of the world takes for granted. Is one Jewish? Or Catholic? Irish or Polish? Did my mother ever love me? Who is my father? Why was I given up? Who am I?

At the time the law passed in New York at the behest of (adoptive father) Gov. Herbert H. Lehman, the head of the New York Foundling Home at the time, Sister Dominica Maria, wrote to Lehman asking that the records not be permanently sealed. Her reasons:

“(1) It legalizes the falsification of permanent public records.

“(2) It nullifies the inalienable right of a person to know the actual facts of his birth.

“(3)” Any special provision for illegitimate children which will single them out from the group of legitimate children is bound to be a cause of embarrassment to them in later years…. Sister Dominica Maria, Superintendent, New York Foundling Hospital. April 25th, 1935” 

All that she wrote is true today. No one should be denied his identity because it will embarrass someone. 

In 1980, after holding numerous hearings of relinquishing mothers, social workers, adoptees and other experts around the country, the then U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare crafted a Model Adoption Act that contained these words:

“There can be no legally protected interest in keeping one’s identity secret from one’s biological offspring; parents and child are considered co-owners of the information regarding the event of birth….The birth parents’ interest in reputation is not alone deserving of constitutional protection.” -- It did not pass Congress. Its main opponent in the Senate was John Tower of Texas, an adoptive father. Yet today surveys of adoptive parents show that they overwhelmingly support the release of this information to their adopted children. The chief sponsor of such a bill in New Hampshire that passed in 2004 was adoptive father Lou D’Allesandro.


Let New York join the seven other states that have given adopted individuals the clear and unrestricted right to obtain their original birth certificates. With this bill, birth parents who do not want to be contacted can let this be known. There is no vehicle for this now; the understaffed and unpublicized registry for adoptees and first parents is largely useless to most. Time is running out for the adoptees and first mothers who will die before another session is held, and time is running out on this session. In the Assembly, we have 81 sponsors, co-sponsors and supporters. A909a may be on the agenda before the session is out. The chief sponsor is David Weprin. In the Senate Andrew Lanza is the chief sponsor. With your help, this is doable this year, and I ask that you join the right side of history on this and co-sponsor this bill. My Assemblyman Fred Thiele is a co-sponsor.  

S2490A and A909 Summary:
Enacts Bill of Adoptee Rights clarifying language and procedures for obtaining birth certificates and medical histories of adoptees; allows adopted adults to learn who their birth parents are when they reach the age of 18, subject to a contact preference filed by the birth parents. (This kind of safeguard for first mothers in the closet has worked without incident in other states.)


If you have any questions, or would like more information, please do not hesitate to call me. I write an active blog with another women, First Mother Forum, and am a former state representative of the American Adoption Congress. I am also the author of numerous magazine articles on sealed adoption records, as well as the first memoir from a woman who relinquished a child, Birthmark. (When I write a short letter, I cut this last graph past...please call on me.)

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Cordially, 
Lorraine Dusky
___________________________

 

 From FMF
Opening birth records: States of fame (OR, OH) and shame (WA)
Opening court records to adoptees and first parents
UPDATE: NY Adoptee Rights

The Adoption Reader: Birth Mothers, Adoptive Mothers, and Adopted Daughters Tell Their Stories  "Adoption has always been a woman's issue. With eloquence and conviction, more than 30 diverse birth mothers, adoptive mothers and adoptees tell their adoption stories and explore what is a deeply emotional, sometimes controversial, and always compelling experience that affects millions of families and individuals."--Amazon


15 comments :

  1. This information should go to all NY newspapers and to the Governor. If adult adoptees in NY State had the clout of the LGTGB community he would listen. For the speaker of the assembly, however I fear this is an emotional issue, and until he is out of power, it will not be taken seriously. Shame on!

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  2. Actually, Anne, we do have good news from the Speaker of the Assembly! I cannot talk about it publicly.

    And that is precisely why we need support right now.

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  3. Oh, I have written to the Governor.

    More is better than less, as the young girl says in that very amusing ad.

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  4. This is a terrific letter and really good advice, Lorraine. I think it's also a good idea to take the added step of printing a letter on good letterhead and send it via snail mail to legislators as well as by email. Additionally when a bill is scheduled to be heard by a committee, address the same or similar letter to the entire committee and staff prior to hearing and request that staff add it to the bill file, otherwise it can be round filed and won't necessarily be part of the official record.

    I hope you succeed in getting a clean bill through this year! Governor Inslee signed WA HB 1525 this week. While the bill is flawed, it was touch and go. He was scheduled to sign the bill originally on May 8th, but instead announced in a private meeting with the bill sponsors that he would veto the bill. Old opponents of open records had worked him over. After being assured that the legislature had the votes to override a veto he finally signed the bill on Tuesday.

    Most surprisingly, and this ties to your last post re: basic need to know origin, I confirmed that it was another Senator, an adoptee, who accompanied Senator Hargrove to the Governor to personally ask that the Governor veto the bill. After finding this out, I pulled the voting records and re watched the floor debate and vote and sure enough she was a "quiet no". At first I thought it was because of the veto provision in the bill...apparently that is not the case...as you've stated before it only takes one legislator to kill a bill, in my experience its rarely the out front and vocal members of the Legislator who do so. I hope that you are able to get your bill passed successfully. Please keep us updated!

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  5. Powerful, well-crafted.... spell-binding letter, Lorraine.... thought I knew something...now a whole lot more... hard to believe someone would not take the time to read all that information..... I have been writing and calling as well and wish to continue.....

    any guidance as to who in particular (I follow the Initiative and what I read on facebook)... for more than one contact (is that a bad idea?).... would be appreciated.... I remember being willing to protect someone's reputation..... but fully believe in my responsibility to pursue the OBC law so that I might hold *my* birth certificate before I die....

    Thanks so much... Kathy J

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  6. Kathy, if you can get through to everyone on Unsealed Initiative's list of uncommitted, and the Guv, and Silver and Skelos, you will do good. I would hold off on multiple calls and emails until until it is on
    the floor.

    I won't believe this is happening until it is.

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  7. A clean bed, and a good meal? As the Mother of two adult children, who came to us by way of adoption, I find that statement beyond offensive.

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  8. Adoptive Mother: You know of course I mean more than that. Please take a moment to look at the video in the upper right sidebar. He thought he had a "forever family" too but didn't, it would turn out, when the couple had four children of their own-- biologically.

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  9. "Lorraine wrote "I am however flabbergasted by the lack of interest from so many adoptees about their roots."

    Actually, tons of adult adoptees are searching for their roots. Tons of adoptees are active in working to get open records in their states. Many adoptees have petitioned the court to get their records. We are not responsible for being in this situation in the first place. We need more first parents, mothers especially, but also fathers, to come out of the closet, as well as adoptive parents to help us in the fight for access to our OBCs.

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  10. You are right, Robin, that more first mothers need to join this fight, but it is not their records that will be opened; it is the children they gave up. Many indeed are involved, but millions of adoptees are out there still with sealed birth certificates. In any state, it is a passionate few who fight for unsealing the original birth records. Unsealed Initiative in New York--where certainly there are hundreds of thousands of adoptees who were born after 1935 to the present--has at best thirty to forty, (at best) fully engaged active members, which includes first mothers as adoptees. That is a pitiful number considering how many must be adopted from New York.

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  11. Lorraine,
    I stand corrected. Perhaps I should not have written that tons of adoptees are active in the fight to open our records. But I do believe that a large number are interested and are actively searching for their roots. As you wrote in your comment about MLK, Jr., we do not have all the time in the world to wait for the laws to change. Any of us could be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow. So we must do what we can with the resources we have available to us now.

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  12. What I meant was: Unsealed Initiative has as many first mothers as adoptees.

    It is spearheaded by Joyce Bahr, another first mother who relinquished in 1966. A number of mothers who have remained very active in adoption reform relinquished in that year of the Fire Horse in Chinese astrology. The Fire Horse year comes around only every 40 to 60 years. The next is between 2026-27, as the Chinese New Year starts in late January and the year ends in early February.

    That aside, unless the first mother is herself a legislator, adoptees themselves are whom legislators want to hear from. Our presence is important in the movement, but when we lobby, the legislator wants to know who the adoptees are. They listen to us about the confidentiality issue, but to make the case for not including a provision which allows birth parents to file a dreaded veto, legislators need to hear from adoptees.

    Birth mothers supposedly made a decision about whether to relinquish or not, adoptees never were asked if they agreed to such a ridiculous provision. Thus their voices carry the most weight because it is their lives that will be directly affected by this change of the law, not first parents. Any affect on first parents (because adoptees will search and find) is seen as secondary. This is in spite of the fact that in those states with sealed records, we mothers did not have a choice to opt for openness.

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  13. What if the biological parents are known to be deceased? Does the adoptee still obtain their original birth certificate under this legislation?

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  14. What if the biological parents are known to be deceased? Does the adoptee still obtain their original birth certificate under this legislation?

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  15. Under the bill in New York, the original birth certificate will be released upon request of the adoptee. Period. This bill does not contain a parent veto.

    A contact preference does not prevent the original birth certificate from being issued to the person to whom it concerns: the adoptee. Original parents, living or dead, will not interfere with the release of the OBC under A909a and S2490a in New York.

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