Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why should adoptees' original birth certificates be unsealed? A first mother's perspective

Lorraine
At the end of the month, the Health Committee of the New York State Assembly will be holding a hearing on proposed legislation that would give adoptees the right to their original birth certificates. Along with other members of Unsealed Initiative, I will be testifying.

The below is a working draft, and I would appreciate comments. 

“If I had known that someday I could meet my daughter it would have been so much easier to sign those papers. My social worker and I went over this point again and again and again. Never, never, could I see her, not ever, time heals all wounds, she would say. It does not heal this one….”


I said those words at a Joint Public Hearing of the New York State Senate/Assembly on April 28, 1976.* It’s on line, you can look it up. The hearing was called: Sealed Adoption Records and Identity. Assemblyman Gottfried was the Assembly chair of that hearing, as he is today. It was held for the same purpose we are here today: to consider giving the adopted their original birth certificates in New York State.

Thirty-seven years have passed since that day in Albany Chairman Gottfriend and I met in 1976. Today I walk with an arthritic ankle and Chairman Gottfried’s hair is now gray, and thousands more adoptees in New York State have died without the legal right to answer a question that most of us here today consider fundamental and uncomplicated: Who am I?

What am I still doing here?

A MISSED CONNECTION WANTED BY BOTH PARTIES
Other speakers today will talk of the adoptees need to know the truth of their origins. I will contain my comments to that old bugaboo that legislators bring up when we discuss this issue as if there were no need to question it: the adopted individual’s first mother and her right to “privacy.”

I am one of those women. In 1976 I did not know where or who my daughter was, and if we would ever reunite. She was born and adopted in Rochester, NY, in 1966, after which she disappeared into the nether for indeed I had given in—despite arguing with my social worker about the anonymity issue--and signed the dreaded papers that forced lifelong anonymity on me. I had no choice because in a strange city with few friends, I had not the slightest idea of how to go about arranging a private, and open, adoption. But by the early Eighties, I was offered a lifeline--for the price of four months rent, I could have my daughter's name and address. And that is what I did in 1981.

She was 15 when I called her home; her adoptive parents—who had been trying to find me because of our daughter’s epilepsy—were relieved. They had reached a dead end dealing with the agency who would give their doctor no additional information about me—at the same time I was trying to find out how my daughter was by contacting that same agency: Hillside Terrace in Rochester. Just as in the movie Philomena, I was contacting the agency while she--through her parents and her doctor--was trying to doing the same. But because of the law in place, we were not connected.

However, less than a week after that first phone call, I met my daughter and her other family in Madison, Wisconsin. They welcomed me into their home for the weekend.

I tell this story not because it’s like the plot of a made-for-TV movie, but because it dramatizes what is wrong with sealed adoption records. My daughter had a special problem, that is true, and she specifically needed me to come on the scene to give her self-confidence the boost it needed. Because of the epilepsy, her mother--a nurse--wondered if I, or anyone in my family, was in a mental institution. Surely she conveyed some of that negative attitude to our daughter, certainly our daughter's image of herself suffered.

I was not in a mental institution. Months after I gave birth I was one of the first women covering the this very legislative body (on health issues) for late The Knickerbocker News in Albany. And ten years after that, I was back in Albany testifying for unsealing the birth certificates of the adopted.

I repeat: What am I—and Chairman Gottfried still doing here?

Today I speak not only for myself but for the thousands of mothers who acquiesced to the legal requirement that our children be issued a new and amended birth certificate and that our names be erased from their lives. By this means, we were supposed to stay forever hidden and unknown to our children. To say this is cruel and unusual punishment for having signed a paper--a paper incidentally that never promised us anonymity--is to diminish the true scope of what that means to the vast majority of us.

THE LAW WAS NOT DESIGNED TO 'PROTECT' US
We do not forget; we do not go out and make new lives for ourselves without remembering our lost children; and we are lost without knowledge of who they are today. We are a band of wondering sprites, always looking in the face of someone our childrens’ ages and wondering: Could that be her? Is that him? For the vast majority of us, it never ends until we are reunited with our child.

But the opposition to opening up the sealed birth certificates comes back and says: But what about that woman in the closet? That woman who has never told her husband, her other children? What about the woman whose life will unravel if her lost child emerges?

I am sorry for these unknown women still living in the shame of the past, but they cannot, must not, prevent a whole class of people from the right to know their true identities. It is so ironic—when we signed the surrender papers, we felt like society’s lowest without a voice able to say, this is wrong. Now we are held up as those who must be protected from the specter of our children finding us, as if they are hunting us down like prey to shoot and serve for dinner. Now suddenly, we first mothers hold all the power; we are the supposed reason that New York cannot or will not repeal this archaic law that comes out of another time, another sensibility. I am sure that when Gov. Herbert H. Lehman, and adoptive father, forcefully pushed this legislation into passage, he thought he was doing the right thing.

But since the 1935 law did not seal the original birth certificates when we relinquished our children, that law was not specifically designed to ever meant to “protect” our anonymity; it was to dictate the issuing of a new birth certificate and the other to be forever sealed from the party to whom it most concerned: the adopted. That amended piece of paper would allow adoptive parents to pretend the children they adopted had no other families, no perhaps sketchy background from "before" adoption, no history or ancestry from birth and before adoption.

Yes, I grant that some women do wish to remain anonymous to their own children, but they should not dictate public policy. Every single survey and data from those states that have open records prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are truly a small minority. Oregon has had open records since May 30, 2000; according to the Oregon Center For Health Statistics website, as of May 31, 2013, Oregon Vital Statistics has received 11,547 requests for original birth certificates, and issued 10,990. In all that time, only 86 people have has for no contact, and 80 of them did so in the first year (2000) when an 18-month court case blocked  the opening of the records. 

NO FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO ANONYMITY FROM HER CHILD
The Oregon court asserted, that since adoption is a legal creation, the supposed privacy rights surrounding adoption cannot be considered fundamental. The court summarized its holding about “privacy” rights of first mothers by stating, “Because a birth mother has no fundamental right to have her child adopted, she can also have no correlative fundamental right to have her child adopted under circumstances that guarantee her identity will not be revealed to the child.” Certainly this would apply in New York.

How has this law worked out in Oregon? Of those adopted individuals who received their original birth certificates, a mere .007 per cent were told their first mother wanted no contact. There is no reason to assume that women in New York are any different from women in Oregon.

Or a broader stage,  the American Adoption Congress in 2011 compiled from five states that opened records to adult adoptees in the past decade. In those states, 196 birth parents filed forms saying they wanted “no contact” and 1,103 birth parents filed forms saying they “wanted contact.” In those states, nearly 19,000 adult adoptees asked for their original birth records. 

What we have to remember here today is that the adopted were never asked if they wanted forced anonymity, yet that is what the state imposes on them with the yoke of injustice that sealed birth certificates are—and the woman in the closet has become the enforcer. Adopted people are not children all their lives. They grow up and need not only updated family medical information, but they need and desire to be whole and integrated individuals. As far back as 1971, the American Pediatric Association issued a position paper stating that healthy individuals need to know not only who they are but also who their ancestors were. And yet, I, as a mother, and the other mothers like me, have become the reason that our children cannot have the equipment and information they need to grow up to be healthy, fully integrated individuals. My daughter, for instance, would have grown up wondering if I were someone institutionalized for mental incompetency--and what did that say about her?  That is what she would have had to deal with.
The first 'first' mother memoir 

All of us--adopted or not--need full and complete information about who we are, who we were at birth, and what our particular story is. This basic self-knowledge is what all of us who were not adopted take for granted as a birth right. How can the state, in good conscience, deny adoptees seeking no more than the truth of their life stories, a reality that begins with the names on their original birth certificates?

How can a state deny them simply because of a few women in the closet?

Consider that no matter how sorry a group we women were at the time we gave up our children, we and the times have changed. We are different now, and we deserve no special treatment that comes at the expense of our children. The state affords no such protection to any other group of people. Many people wish to bury their past and hide their previous marriages; men, including priests, do not wish to be named as fathers in paternity suits, yet the state does not take it upon itself to offer the protection of “privacy” to them; nor should the state be in the business of “protecting” a minute number of birth mothers from embarrassment, especially as it comes as the cost of trampling the basic rights of others.

THE TIME TO RIGHT A WRONG IS NOW
New York is a leader in some legislation, but on equality for adoptees it is falling behind. Last year Rhode Island unsealed its birth records to adoptees; just a few weeks ago the Republican governor of Ohio signed legislation that gives nearly everyone in the state the right to their original birth certificate. In addition to Oregon, Alabama, Kansas, Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island allow the adopted copies of their original birth certificates without restriction, the age at which that is possible varying from state to state. Pennsylvania’s House Committee on Children and Youth passed a bill that would allow thousands of adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates a few weeks ago. I am not going to include the crazy quilt of laws in other states that allow first parents to redact their names on the birth certificates because those laws are bad laws. They are like the Emancipation Proclamation that freed some slaves and not others. Let us not do that in New York.

In conclusion, consider the words of a Model Adoption Act that the then U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued in 1980, after holding numerous hearings around the country: “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.”

And yet Chairman Gottfried and I are here again today. Neither of us have another 37 years left to see this legislation passed. What are we still doing here today?

It is time to make right this wrong, it is time to give everyone access to their original birth certificates, not merely the non-adopted, it is time to leave behind this relic of the past. It is time for the adopted to have their original birth certificates and claim their true identities.–Lorraine Dusky, author of Birthmark, the 1979 memoir about relinquishing a child and journalist/blogger at First Mother Forum.
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http://web.archive.org/web/20081109045659/http://www.bastards.org/activism/local/ny/hearings.html


We are each allotted approximately ten minutes speaking time. Though I could be more personal and angry, make arguments that would put the opposition on edge, it is best to be calm and cool, and mention one's personal story only briefly to give the listener the basic background that connects you to the issue. The hearing is scheduled for January 31. Please email me at forumfirstmother@gmail.com and see Unsealed Initiative's Facebook page. Supporters most welcome to attend, we will be wearing red.

BOOKS
Birthmark Yes, my story. The one I wish I had never had to write. 
"I cherish this book. i cherish the bravery of the author to speak out about her feelings and experiences. I have been searching for my natural mother and family for over thirty years. Knowing that mothers like Lorraine also yearn and search gives me hope and motivation to continue searching. Perhaps it was written many years ago, but don't let that deter you from reading it, these issues are timeless."--an adult adoptee at Amazon

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep the baby," says Joyce, in a story typical of the birth mothers, mostly white and middle-class, who vent here about being forced to give up their babies for adoption from the 1950s through the early '70s. They recall callous parents obsessed with what their neighbors would say; maternity homes run by unfeeling nuns who sowed the seeds of lifelong guilt and shame; and social workers who treated unwed mothers like incubators for married couples. More than one birth mother was emotionally paralyzed until she finally met the child she'd relinquished years earlier. --Publisher's Weekly

ORDER EITHER BY CLICKING ON PHOTO OF BOOK OR TITLE. Thank you. Anything ordered through the portals of FMF will be appreciated.

16 comments :

  1. "What am I still doing here," indeed?! It is inconceivable (pun intended!) that original birth certificates are still being hidden from those who need them most, in this age-- the "information era." Let's just cut the bull; closed adoption records shield no one other than those that did adoptions in a manner that gives them something to hide.

    It is egregious that our government continues to participate in this charade, but even worse, that we (as the adoption community) continue to permit this to go on. Far too many adoptees, birthparents and, yes, adoptive families have been harmed by this archaic practice.

    Heartfelt thanks to those (like Lorraine, et al) who continue to battle the system to inspire change, but they cannot do it on their own, it's going to take all of us (agencies, attorneys and adoption professionals included) to reform this mess! It's time for change, and we need it NOW! Aging adoptees and their parents who have waited an entire lifetime to know their own truths cannot afford to wait, and we cannot afford to inflict the damages of the existing system upon yet another generation of victims of adoption secrecy!

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  2. OneWhoHasBeenThereJanuary 13, 2014 at 6:37 AM

    Lorraine,

    I think that if you affirm that even one in-the-closet-and-is-never-coming-out first mom exists, then this measure is doomed. Certainly, a few do exist. They don't need our help to stay hidden. The adoption industry's goons will advocate strongly on their behalf, just to keep their own skeletons safely in the closet. We both know this.

    If you support open records, your job is to advocate for the hundreds of thousands of first moms who welcome ccontact.You are the 99%, and the legislature needs to see that.

    I say this not to be critical, but to help. I understand your background in journalism, but you are there to advocate, not to report.

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  3. The reason is;
    I have a right to know who I am, how I came to be, just like everyone else. If I choose to have my birth parents in my life, that is my decision.

    I am who I am, because of my birth parents, and my adoptive family.

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  4. Pretending these women do no exist will turn the legislators completely off. At least one of them has a sister in the closet, which he revealed to our lobbyists. Head-in-the-sand advocacy never works and is a lie. We hear from the children of those mothers here at FMF and in messages we get. But they cannot be the reason the birth certificates are still sealed.

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  5. I am not suggesting that you pretend they don’t exist. Nor am I suggesting that you lie. Far from it. I am suggesting that you focus. Perhaps my early morning comment needed some editing of its own. Take it for what it's worth. Good luck.

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  6. All right, today I am going to look this proposed testimony carefully and see if I should emphasize the mothers who want reunion more. Maybe I did get too caught up journalistic detail.

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  7. My biggest issue is that the original birth certificate is MY certificate of birth.

    It's my government-issued statement of life.

    My mother's name is on it, but it isn't her document.

    It is ludicrous for legislators to weigh the right to access our OBCs against the right of our mothers (and fathers) to privacy. It's not my parents' document to seal or redact. It is solely my document.

    I have my OBC, and I found my mother. She is in the closet, and I respect her choice. I allow her to remain in the closet.

    I obtained my OBC. And, my mother was able to maintain her secret among her family and circle of friends.

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  8. '...now history or ancestry from birth and before adoption...'

    Did you mean 'No history...etc' ?

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  9. Cherie: Yes, fixed that. But my final testimony is still a project in motion and I am continuing to change it and see how much I can say in ten minutes. I will submit longer testimony in writing, as we are asked to submit 10 copies.

    Whew! Do they think we have a xerox at home??? I don't.

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  10. Lo,

    you were not the only "unwed mom" to be thought mentally ill.

    It was the thinking of the time that women who had "premarital sex" were mentally ill. I remember hearing those comments, and here is a quote from a book that I own, that might interest you.

    "Practictioners of mental healing today, therefore, are concerned not only with the grossly disturbed patient, but with delinquent children, unwed mothers, alcohlic, persistent marriers-and-divorcers, job-hoppers, and numerous others. some laymen might still regard such persons as "weaklings" but professionals see these mentally ill persons as suffering from a broad range of psychological disorders, unable to end their troubles simply by an act of will or the decision to "do right."
    Chapter 21, Emotional and Mental illness,Felix, Hunt,p.707 Better Homes and Gardens Family Medical Guide,edited by Donald G Cooley, 1964,1973.

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  11. Lo, your opening section is dynamite, "what am I still doing here 37 years later?" indeed! That should both catch their attention and let the new legislators know how long this has been going on and how tenacious we are.

    It has been my experience with legislators that shorter is always better, both in spoken and written communications with them. They mostly do not read the long letters or submitted papers or emails, and I have seen them nod off, walk out, and whisper in a rude and impatient way to each other during verbose testimony.

    I think you should cut your personal story to the minimum, and stress the concept that adoptees should have a right to their own birth certificate regardless of what natural mothers want or do not. You are a mother who supports adoptee human and civil rights, as do many others, but that is not the main reason to support the legislation. Plus when it comes to us open mothers, "frankly Scarlett, they don't give a damn."!
    They always pull out that one pitiful hiding anonymom, no matter what we say or how well we say it.

    Legislators have the attention span of hyperactive fleas, so going into depth and eloquence is lost on them. I know as a writer how hard it is not to go on and on and tell the whole story, but have learned that cutting to the bare bones and simple concepts is the only way that they listen at all.

    Good luck to you and Unsealed Initiative in this seemingly endless battle in one of the toughest states.


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  12. Hi Lo!

    I really like the theme of "what are we still doing here". I think it illustrates your points well.

    A few suggestions from a lobbyists POV:

    1) 10 minutes is WAY too long. You risk losing your audience or in a crowded agenda can get cutoff entirely. I would try to get it down to no more than five minutes. With a couple of well planted questions you can hit some points in Q&A.

    2) Use the bill number and title of the bill in your opening.

    3) Conclude with a strong "ask"..."In conclusion, I urge each of you to vote YES on Assembly Bill _______ and ask for your help in getting this important piece of legislation to the Governor's desk this year."

    4) I don't know how far you are from Albany, but I would recommend that your group try to meet with as many committee members as possible prior to the hearing. Draft bulleted talking points and leave them with each legislator so they can think about questions to ask. If you divide up the meetings and try to match constituents to their legislator, it shouldn't be too much of a burden.

    5) Ask your prime sponsor to make moving the bill through the process a high priority. Check in often and get to know your sponsor's gatekeeper. A legislative assistant can be invaluable to keeping you in the loop.

    Let us know when the hearing is so we can send good vibes your way!!!

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  13. A few points: This hearing is not being held in Albany, but in NY, and will be before the Health Committee, where we have several supporters--including the chair, Assemblyman Gottfried, so I am speaking to interested parties who almost certainly are going to vote for the bill--including Gottfried. He is our friend. So I am not speaking to an unfriendly, or even mixed, audience. They need material to use themselves. Thus we are being asked to submit ten copies. I am practicing to make sure that I do not go over ten minutes or have to leave out stuff that I really want to say.

    2) I think length depends on how well you speak and how much you can command attention. I have added some material about long-lasting grief and am cutting other material, some of which is in this version. (I'll post the final draft later.) And I have seen legislators use some of the material that I and other members of Unsealed Initiative have written. I have actually gotten letters from legislators (in other states) thanking me for letters I have written--and they weren't short. So as for length...it all depends. I have read all of my testimony from 1976 and I found that it was too short. The lawyer from Louise Wyse, Shad Polier, spoke at greater length and went after me like a rabid dog and I did not have the opportunity to rebut. But I am taking everything I hear here seriously. I do have to talk about those damn "mothers in the closet" because that is what they are hanging their entire opposition on.

    Kitta: Holy shit, unwed mothers were among "these mentally ill?" By 1973, if you counted everyone who was having unmarried sex Mentally Ill, you would have included 70 percent at least of the population, and certainly a higher percentage of people in their twenties and thirties. Just making a raw estimate here, but an informed one.

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  14. I have never commented on this blog before, but have been reading the posts for quite some time. I am following this upcoming hearing very closely, as an adult adoptee from what was probably the height of the Baby Scoop Era, in NY. My adoption was and is as closed as it could possibly be. I have no information whatsoever about my heritage or medical history. I don't even have an AMENDED BC, only a copy of the final Adoption Finalization Decree, which is a completely useless document for any legal purposes.

    I think what Lorraine plans to say at the hearing is spot-on. I was a little concerned with the mention of the birthmothers-in-the-closet at first, but it IS what the opposition is basing it's argument on. After all these years, I hope they can tell Lorraine and Mr. Gottfried why they are still testifying! There is no logical answer to this, other than to unseal the records.

    Thank you so much for all the hard work you are doing!

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  15. I am a recently-found Texas first mother (after 40 years). My daughter told me she has always had a copy of the OBC, but it has a NUMBER instead of my name on it. (My identity was reduced to a number!!). It is a miracle that she found me, as it was a closed private adoption. I believe this is called a redaction, but I never signed any such document. Looks like some pretty nasty legal maneuver. I have two questions: 1). Has any other first mother's name been removed / reduced to a number on the OBC, and 2) Can I, as a first mother, get a copy of the OBC, which I have never seen?

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