|From left: Carla Rupp, Mike Schoer, Joyce Bahr, Marsha Raffloer and Dennis Sumlin|
|(L to R): Lavine, Borelli, Gottfried, Weprin|
As before, this hearing was chaired by Richard N. Gottfried, (D, Manhattan). The sponsor of our bill, David Weprin (D, Queens) told the NY1 reporter: "A basic human right is that everybody that's adopted, when they become an adult, should have the same rights as any non-adopted citizen of New York State, which is to have access to their original birth certificate." Agreed.
Our voices as first mothers, adoptees, social workers, and adoptive parent Adam Pertman were vigorous and heart-felt with emotions ricocheting around the room. Everybody's blood pressure was amped up by the first speaker, Suffolk County Surrogate's Court judge, John M. Czygier Jr., who argued strenuously against unsealing the birth certificates because of...the little old natural birth mother in the closet. (BTW, "birth mother" was used throughout the hearing by the four men holding the hearing.) I wasn't taking notes like a reporter and so the only words I have written down next to his name are these: unsealing the birth certificates would have "devastating consequences" because of the women who were promised, promised, promised anonymity. I wish I had counted how many times the word "promised" was spoken at the hearing; the number would go around rosary beads. Czygier spoke for quite a long time, and the four men at the hearing questioned him way beyond my patience. What does he know? about first mothers now I wanted to ask. What does he know of adoptee pain? He made it seem like it was easy and not really difficult for adoptees to find out their information through the courts, but still he knows about the..."devastating consequences" that will befall us mothers if our lost children find us. To make it more personal, this guy is from the county where I live.
THAT FAKE 'PROMISE' ON ANONYMITY
Two other rather officious males from officialdom spoke at length against the bill, all because of the supposed awful consequences of adoptees getting their birth certificates, and honestly, it was hard to follow their arguments because other than keep on the hobby horse of the anonymity "promised" us first mothers, they had nothing else to offer. One was Peter Kelly of the Surrogate's Court in Queens County who made some cockamamie argument that the birth certificate was somehow under joint ownership of both the birth mother and the individual whose birth certificate it is. The panel of Gottfried, Weprin, Joseph Borelli (R, Staten Island)--who is adopted--and Charles Lavine (D, Long Island) spent way too much time questioning Kelly because he had his facts wrong. Sitting directly behind him, I had a hard time not emoting at some of the malarkey he (and Czygier) was spouting. Nonetheless, he is indicative of the opposition we face from non-adopted attorneys and judges.
Then there was one of my arch-enemies, Aaron Britvan, adoptive father, adoption attorney and chair of the Adoption Committee of the Family Law Section of the New York Bar Association. Britvan and I have sparred in print over the years. Before the hearing began he came up to me to introduce himself and stuck out his hand for me to shake, and I almost did but recovered quickly enough to say that since we were enemies, I saw no reason to shake hands.
He then told me that he had changed his position, and the problems with the bill has to do with the attorneys appointed for the birth mothers and children; his rambling testimony was about the technicalities of the bill--a lot of stuff I could not follow--but he did get in before he got off the stage that he was not against the bill, more or less, but it needed to have a veto in place. But he was not an effective speaker against the bill because he threw in his comment about whether the birth certificates ought to be unsealed almost as a throw-away. The judges were more worrisome. Britvan, by the way, also said that his first child, a girl, was adopted, and she became attorney like him, and has no interest in finding out who she is. Who would, with a parent like that, I thought? How could you ever even think to be curious? about the most important thing in your life? He added, that after he and his wife adopted, they were blessed with two natural children. Typical, ran through my mind. With an undeniable attitude of lawerly superiority, he represents those who will be against giving adoptees their rightful due of their own, original birth certificate until the day they all die.
|At the hearing|
The rest of the testimony that I heard ( I had to leave before the very end) was all in favor of the bill. Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Donaldson Institute, spoke early and effectively countering the specious arguments put forward by the judges and lawyers who spoke against us. Most interesting was this comment: that the Donaldson Institute is a think-tank, the research is the research, and that sometimes as an adoptive parent he personally finds it uncomfortable, but still, they report on what the research shows. Adam is a controversial figure to some adoptees and first mothers, but I found his honesty refreshing--and his support for our bill is all the more important because of the Institute and yes, like it or not, because he is an adoptive father. He is our staunch advocate, and with the Donaldson Institute behind him, he is listened to. Years ago when I gave a keynote address at the annual conference of the American Adoption Congress in Atlanta, whatever I said--a history of the opposition as I had known it--upset most of the adoptive parents in the audience, who, I was told, spent the afternoon talking rather heatedly about my speech. Not Adam. I didn't know who he was when he grabbed me in the hall afterwards and planted a big kiss on my cheek. Since that day, Adam and I continue to have a friendly relationship with a certain amount of frisson. No matter what, we are on the same side.
|Legal scholar Elizabeth Samuels|
Others who spoke out eloquently included Nancy Horgan, a first mother from Rhode Island; Joe Soll of Adoption Healing Inc., who ended with the story of finding out who his mother was after 32 years of searching, and learning that she had been searching for him at least as long; adoptee and psychotherapist Leanne Jaffe; Michelle Wasdowski of the Manhattan Birth Parents Support Group; clinical social worker Doris Bertocci, who works with students at Columbia University. I didn't hear everybody so to those whose names I missed, please forgive me. Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy drove down all the way from Kingston but sadly because of a birthday party for her daughter later that day, had to leave before she got to speak.
THE TURMOIL OF TRYING TO FIND OUT WHO YOU ARE
But the adoptee who brought the house down was Judy Acton who herself broke down talking about the cost and difficulty she had finding out who her parents were. Okay, I cry easily but I was not the only person in the room trying not successfully to stifle our tears. The judges who spoke earlier made it seem that it was all so easy for anyone to get their birth certificates by simply petitioning the court or using the so-called normal routes. Judy, adopted from Washington, DC., talked about the endless waiting, the requests for payment from Catholic Charities, the emotional turmoil all this entailed. Her teenage daughter, Elsa Chung, also wearing a red jacket, then spoke and talked about being the daughter of an adoptee. Together they were so powerful. How I wish those pontificating judges and lawyers who were long gone had been there to hear their testimony--as well as everybody else's.
|Lorraine at hearing|
LORRAINE'S TESTIMONY ON YOU TUBE
My written testimony follows. What I actually said veers somewhat from this. If you want to join our effort in New York, please email me as firstname.lastname@example.org. All hands needed on deck!--lorraine
Testimony submitted to the Chair of the New York State Assembly Health Committee, Richard Gottfried, and other members of the committee regarding the Adoptee Rights Bill, A909. Submitted January 29, 2014 by Lorraine Dusky
“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 hearing of the New York State Senate/Assembly on April 28, 1976.* The hearing was called: Sealed Adoption Records and Identity. Assemblyman Gottfried was the co-chair of that hearing, held for the same purpose we are here today: to consider giving the adopted the right to learn their true identities.
That was 37 years ago. Today I have arthritis and Chairman Gottfried’s beard is gray, and thousands more adoptees in New York State have died since without the legal right to answer a question that most of consider fundamental and uncomplicated: Who am I?
What are we still doing here?
A MISSED CONNECTION WANTED BY BOTH PARTIES
In 1976 I did not know who or where my daughter was. When I signed the relinquishment papers ten years earlier in Rochester, I objected long and hard over never being able to know who my daughter was. The social worker finally told me that if I kept insisting to do the adoption a different way, she “couldn’t help me.” I had no choice; object or not object, it didn’t matter. I had no power. The state had taken that away. And in a strange city, I had no idea how to arrange a private, and open, adoption.
Over the years, I wrote to the agency three times, and in response each time was told my daughter was “fine and happy.” In fact, that was not true. She was not fine and happy. She had grand mal seizures and her parents were trying to reach me—through that same agency—to learn whether I could tell them something that might help her. By 1981, I gave up waiting and for the price of four months rent, I was given her name and address. She was 15. Her adoptive parents were thrilled. My daughter Jane was thrilled. Because of the epilepsy, her adoptive mother wanted to know if I—or anyone in my family—had been in a mental institution. Epilepsy seems to come out of nowhere--Dostoevsky was an epileptic—but still her mother, a nurse, wondered if her daughter’s other mother was damaged goods. Not surprisingly that attitude found its way to our daughter, and by the time I came on the scene, her self-esteem, quite frankly, was near zero.
Surely this was not intended when the law was passed in 1935—that someone who needs medical information is denied it, especially when the other party is more than willing to give it. Now think about this happening over and over again; think about the harm sealed records have done, and are still doing today.
According to the American Pediatric Association, healthy individuals need to know not only who they are—their true identities, that is—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 all the necessary psychological tools they need to grow up to be healthy, fully integrated individuals. My daughter, for instance, would have grown up wondering if I were institutionalized—and what did that say about her? Might she end up in a looney bin herself one day? That is what the law would have forced her to live with had I not “broken” it.
I was not in a mental institution. Oddly enough, months after I gave birth I was one of the first women covering the state legislature. A decade later I was a magazine editor and writer in New York. But underneath what seemed like a sophisticated Manhattan life, I hid my depression. I sought psychiatric help that did not help. At times, I was even suicidal. And then, I was back in Albany testifying in front of Mr. Gottfried.
Today I speak not only for myself but for the millions of mothers who had no choice but to agree that our children be issued new and amended birth certificates, and that our identities would be locked up in some dusty vault somewhere. To say this is cruel and unusual punishment for our “sin” is to diminish the true scope of what this 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 ourselves without knowledge of who they are today. We are always looking in the face of someone our children’s ages and wondering: Could that be her? Is that him? For most of us, it never ends until we are reunited. A great many woman like me—I’d say most, in fact—want those records opened so their children can find them.
Researchers have documented the overall devastating impact of relinquishing a child by querying first mothers decades later: “While only an insignificant proportion of birth mothers had been diagnosed with a mental health problem before adoption (three percent), in the time between the parting and contact, 24 percent had psychiatric diagnosis, mainly for depression.” Another study from the Donaldson Adoption Institute, reiterates these findings: “a significant portion of women who placed children…[in closed adoptions] have experienced chronic, unresolved grief.” 
That was me until I broke the law.
Despite the damning effects of sealed records on most first mothers, the opposition touts out the woman in the closet: that woman who has never told her husband, her other children, that woman whose life will unravel if her lost child emerges. But sheer embarrassment, no matter how mortifying—is not reason enough to deny anyone his identity.
Data from those states that have open records prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these women are a truly a small minority. Looking at data from six states that have opened their records since 2000, only 579 birth mothers have requested “no contact” while close to 30,000 adoptees have asked for the original birth certificates. The bottom line is that 1 out of 1,429—or seven one hundredths of one percent—asked for no contact. This means the vast majority of first mothers are hoping and waiting. There is no reason to assume that women and adoptees in New York are any different than the women and adoptees in Alabama, Oregon, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode island.
It is so ironic—when we gave up our children, we were the pathetic young women who had no power to stop what we knew was wrong. Now we are held up as those who must be protected from our children, as if they are hunting us down like prey to shoot and serve for dinner. Now we are the supposed reason that New York cannot, or will not, repeal this archaic law that comes out of another time, another sensibility.
But this law was not designed to “protect” us; our names were not obliterated if there was no adoption. Our welfare was not the law’s intent. It was to reinforce the notion that adopted children had only one set of parents and to “protect” adoptive parents from birth parents. The needs of the children who would grow up to become adults and the women who bore them were patently ignored.
No matter how sorry a group we women were once, we and the times have changed. We deserve no special treatment that comes at the expense of a whole class of people, separated from the rest of us only by adoption. The state affords no such protection to any other group. People can’t hide their previous marriages or prison records; men who don’t want to be named in paternity suits are given no such cover; and nor should the state be in the business of “protecting” birth mothers when it comes at the cost of trampling the basic rights of others. I repeat: Simple embarrassment is not reason enough to prevent anyone from knowing his true identity.
Today most adoptions have some degree of openness, but still do not grant the adopted the right to think and act fully for themselves. Many of those adoptions are semi- or half-open, and still leave the adoptees in the dark about their ancestry.
NOT DESERVING OF CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTION
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, with input from adoptees, adoptive parents, social workers and birth parents (including yours truly):
“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.”
These words, written decades ago, echo a similar opinion reached by an Oregon court when the open-records law was challenged there: Just as there is no fundamental right to adoption, the court decided, there is no fundamental right to privacy between mother and child. Closed records were wrong when they were conceived, and they are wrong today.
It is time to right this wrong, it is time to give everyone access to their original birth certificates, it is time to leave behind this relic of the past and pass the Adoptee Rights Bill. Neither Chairman Gottfried nor I have another 37 years left to fight for this. This year, I hope you can find the heart and the will pass the Adoptee Right Bill, A909, with no caveats.
Thank you for your time today. I hope, Mr. Gottfried, when we meet again it will be under happier circumstances.–Lorraine Dusky, Sag Harbor, NY, 11963
Lorraine Dusky is the author of Birthmark (1979), the first memoir from a mother who relinquished a child. Having received hundreds of letters when Birthmark was published, she became an immediate expert on their issues. She has written numerous pieces on adoption issues and particularly on the effect of sealed birth certificates for several national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Parent’s, Town & Country. She is the founder and main writer at the blog First Mother Forum.
 Triseliotis, John, Julia Feast, & Fiona Kyle, The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of Adoption, Search and Reunion
(2005), p. 91.
(2005), p. 91.
 Smith, Susan. “Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being in the Adoption Process”, (2006) p. 6.
 This refers largely to mothers since on most unrelated adoptions, the biological father is not named. Chart of comparative statistics from Alabama, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Rhode Island attached to written testimony. (I'll post the chart later.)
VIDEO RECORDING OF THE HEARING: http://assembly.state.ny.us/
VIDEO RECORDING OF THE HEARING: http://assembly.state.ny.us/