Who am I? Who are my real parents? Whom do I look like? Most of us the the answers for granted. But a 40-year-old accountant recently was forced to go to court in an attempt to learn such basic information about herself.
Ann Schrap, the accountant, is one of approximately five million adopted people in this country. In virtually every state, including New York adopted persons of any age are denied the right to know who their natural parents are because the laws seal the original birth records.
New York's adoption records were sealed in 1936 on the premise that growing up adopted was enough: A court order could wipe away one's origins and curiosity. Supposedly, all the parties involved--the usually illegitimate child, the typically unwed mother and the adoptive parents--benefited from anonymity concerning the adopted person's heritage.
That presumption is proving false as increasing numbers of adults--who were never asked what was in their best interests--are demanding to know who they are. Natural curiosity is not good enough for most courts, however "good cause" must be proven.
And so one day in February, 1974, a stoic Ann Scharp sat in Bronx Surrogate's Court, where her adoption had been made final 37 years earlier, when a psychologist evaluated her Rorschach: Lack of trust, isolation, constriction of affection. And when she draws a tree, he said, she forgets to put in the roots.
Several months later, the court ruled that while Ann Scharp could examine her city records, she was denied access to her file at the Spence-Chapin Adoption Service. The judge noted that her agency file did not contain information that would reveal the identity of her natural parents. It is likely that Ann Scharp will never know the answer to a question that will not go away: Who am I?
In the last two years, two similar cases have been won for "good cause" in New York, but a larger, and constitutional issue is at stake here: Gertrude Mainzer, attorney for all three adopted persons, argues that most states unreasonably discriminate against adopted persons in violation of the equal-protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment.
If you are not adopted, you have a right to your original birth certificate and the names of your parents; if you are adopted, you do not.
Finland and Scotland have for many years revealed the natural parents' names and other identifying information. Disproving a long-held belief that such disclosure would cause greater harm than good, a 1973 Scottish study concludes that open records have immense emotional value to those who need to seek out their natural parents.
The usual argument for keeping the records sealed is that the right of the natural mother to privacy is usurped if her identity is made known. But how does one person attain such a "right" when it infringes upon the rights of another? And furthermore, research to date indicates that most natural mothers do not with to remain anonymous to their children, and have a compelling desire to know who they are. I'm one of the statistics; I am a natural mother.
True, I sought secrecy from society on the day I signed my daughter officially out of my life, but my questions showed a different concern. Could she ever find out who I was? No. Must I spend my entire life eyeing children and teen-agers and women her age and wondering: Could she be my daughter? Time heals all wounds. Not this one.
An ongoing California study of more than a thousand adopted persons and natural parents includes data on close to 100 reunions without a disaster among them. Even if the adopted individuals were disappointed, they reported the reality was infinitely better than endless fantasy.
A preliminary report of the study, presented to the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, concludes that eternal anonymity causes insoluble problems and recommends that the policy of sealed records be reevaluated.
|Testifying in New York City, 2013 at legislative hearing|
What of the adoptive parents? Surely they have rights, too. But why should the knowledge that their child might someday learn his origins be so frightening?
If the adoptive parents and adopted child have a good relationship, certainly that bond will not be broken by honesty and openness. I would hope that the love is not predicated upon the assumption that the adopted personal will never ask, Who am I?
And they are asking by the thousands, judging from the mail pouring in the two national organizations (the Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association, in New York City and Orphan Voyage in Cedaredge, Colo.) fighting to unseal the records to adult adoptees. Several other local groups have sprung up in the last few years.
Regardless of the wishes of both natural and adoptive parents, the adoptees' right must be considered first. Adopted people were never asked what they wanted. Until the laws are changed, society will seem to be insisting that an adoptee's existence began on the day of adoption. Ann Scharp was almost four years old then.--by Lorraine Dusky
That was 41 years ago today. It appeared on the Op-Ed page with a huge drawing by a famous and innovative illustrator, Jean-Claude Saures, and together they took up about half the page. The illustration (which I can't use because of copyright law) is of a child in a buggy standing up and turning around reaching backwards towards a woman's figure totally blacked out. It is extremely striking.
As for the trial, I was the lone natural mother who testified for Ann Scharp; others who testified were were Robert J. Lifton, Betty Jean's Lifton's husband and a well-respected psychiatrist and writer; a psychologist who gave Ann Scharp various tests; and Florence Fisher, who started ALMA. After the above op-ed came out, I wrote more editorials in other newspapers all over the country, numerous magazine pieces in favor of openness, and later my 1979 memoir, Birthmark. That led to media appearances where I was excoriated by adoption attorneys, adoptive parents, the occasional interviewer who did not reveal their connection to adoption, and Bill Pierce of the National Council for Adoption. At social events, I never knew when someone would start in on me. Sometimes these people practically spewed venom, so violent was their opposition to my message of openness.
I was told by one attorney in a very small Manhattan kitchen that he knew people who would like to kill me. I got nasty phone calls at night and mail from angry adoptive parents. I think part of the reason I felt compelled to divorce my first husband was to be free to pick up this cause, no matter what it led to. He was a good husband in many ways, but he (and his rather proper family) would have been vehemently opposed to my going public. They would have been horrified. We were divorced the same year I discovered ALMA and came to call Florence Fisher my friend and compatriot.
Today I am being attacked willy-nilly for not allowing a free-for-all attacks on other adoptees at this blog (true), and by being excoriated by some who would rather leave millions without their access to their birth certificates because legislators find compromise a safe-haven on unsealing birth certificates. I have been attacked for making the blog too wild and nasty and STRIDENT (and thus I must be), so others who might like to comment do not. At least at one major publisher, the "strident" content of the blog was mentioned when they turned down Hole In My Heart, as a reason not to publish the book. Whether it was the comments or the posts I know not.
Since passing legislation is a messy business, and since millions of people will get their original birth certificates because of laws already in place in 11 states that allow access with some restrictions, I cannot in good conscience actively oppose those adoptees and others who have spent countless hours working for OBC access for adoptees. Pam Hasegawa, adoptee, and Judy Foster, first mother, in New Jersey worked as colleagues with others for DECADES before they got a bill that the governor would sign, and even then they had to agree to an opt-out clause for natural mothers. For some personal reason, the people in New Jersey were not subjected to the nasty and mean-spirited opposition that those in other states have.
Some legislators will have to retire or die before the laws are changed and all men and women are given the right to have their own birth certificates, but if we can get legislation that is less than perfect--and those not included are less than half of one percent, a percentage is likely to keep going down--I have to differ from those in this same fight, even as we all work toward the same end:
So that not one single person has to wonder: Who am I? Where did I come from? What name did I have at birth? Who are my parents? --lorraine
*I wrote 1938 at the time in 1975; but it now appears that these laws date from 1936.
Link to piece in the New York Times Archive; it will not be available to everyone.