' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Emotional toll of searching for birth parents via sealed records

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Emotional toll of searching for birth parents via sealed records

People today talk about the internet as a powerful tool in getting around sealed birth certificates and make it sound as if that pesky little problem of "sealed" doesn't really make a lot of difference. That is  true only for some. The current Beacon from the American Adoption Congress has the story of an Indiana woman, Elizabeth Boys, who found her biological family 36 hours after she posted her information on Facebook. That's got to be something like a record.

But it is unusual. At the recent public hearing for the bill (A909) in New York to allow adoptees the right to their original birth certificates, one of the more moving testimonies was about an arduous journey through the labyrinth of Catholic Charities, and the emotional toll it took on a bright, educated, adult
woman. The location shall be unnamed because her adopted sibling is about to undertake the same path,  with the same agency, and she does not want to jeopardize his search in any way.  She is a long-time resident of New York City, where she is raising a family. Her adoption occurred in an place with laws similar to New York's. Her testimony has been edited for the sake of brevity, and amended for clarity in places. This publication is with her approval.--lorraine

"My record of birth could only be opened by a judge in the court of jurisdiction of the adoption for “good cause." In my early twenties I was told by Catholic Charities that “good cause” was for a medical reason (a medical problem, that is, not for the purposes of taking pro-active measures for my health), but little else. I spent decades wondering what other reasons “good cause” could be. I tried various reunion registries, to no avail. 

Registries are not a solution. My first mother was sent away to a location which she has never returned to and does not associate herself with that state, so registries and “contact preference” requirements cannot be held as solutions to births having occurred decades ago. People move, people die, young women leave behind the far-away geographical location where they were sent away to give birth.

As I entered my forties, my [adoptive] mom kept talking about how important it was for me to obtain my medical, genetic and ancestral information for myself and my children. She encouraged me to move forward to petition the court because she loves me and wants me to be healthy and knowledgeable regarding who I am and where I came from. She also nursed my father through many bouts with cancer until he passed away, as did two of his brothers from the same disease, so she understood the need for medical history. 

When I received the Superior Court’s petition form, the “reason for petition to break seal of adoption” was an optional field!  In the end, my petition was approved by the judge with no reason for “good cause” needed. It was obvious to this judge at least that adoptee access to this information is, in itself, good cause. It also is reflective of the number of cases now flooding courts across the country. Without standards defining "good cause," adopted individuals’ ability to obtain their original birth certificates result in arbitrary and inequitable treatment.  There is no need for this layer of government intervention when there was nothing to judge, and no explanation of “good cause” to be given.

Although the court to which I appealed recognized “good cause” as natural without explanation, according to the law in that state, as it is in New York, I was forced as an adoptee to use a “confidential intermediary” to access this information.  The court required a search be conducted through the organization that facilitated the adoption, which in my case was Catholic Charities.  I then had to pay Catholic Charities a hundred dollars for “non-identifying information” on my biological parents. 

What I received was a single page of four short paragraphs, containing two major errors. What was odd was that the physical description of my natural father exactly matched that of my mother, down to eye-color. Furthermore, the description of her father matched verbatim the heritage of his father and his heritage.  It was odd, but I had no way to know what was correct and what was not.  I was completely at the mercy of this large, impenetrable and opaque organization. 

If I wanted more than those skimpy four paragraphs, I had to pay Catholic Charities $500 to conduct a search to locate my biological parents and see if they would agree to contact.  Again, everything was completely out of my control. Personally, I have problems with the Catholic Church.  I was educated in Catholic schools during a time when pedophiles were knowingly being assigned to our schools and parishes where I grew up. I did not want to spend this significant amount of my money to this organization, despite the many good works that they do, but the system gave me no choice. 

As part of their required protocol I had to provide evidence of my psychological well-being.  I had to find a licensed social worker fill out a form attesting to my mental health, but this person did not need to be someone familiar with the issue.  I am a very private person, but I phoned a friend from college who is a licensed social worker, and explained the issue.  He completed the psychological evaluation form and it was acceptable to Catholic Charities--but I had to involve yet another person in  my personal affairs, which seemed like an invasion of my privacy.  Furthermore, as the searching adoptee, I was the only one required to be psychologically evaluated, and not the found first parents.  What is the correlation between the human need to know one's roots and psychosis?  Searching for ones medical history and genealogy is natural and sane. The paranoia lies within the system, not with the searcher. 

My materials for Catholic Charities were completed by in late spring.  The person I spoke to said they would call my biological mother right away. All summer I worried out of concern for her since I had heard nothing back from them. I wanted to give her time and space.  I called Catholic Charities near the end of the summer, and I heard now that no one had tried to reach my first parents yet. She said something along the lines of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease."  They said to call again in a week’s time if I didn't hear from them first.  I asked how many cases like mine they had, and she said 10. That represents $6,000 in fees, but she couldn't make the phone calls in a timely fashion? 

A week passed, I called, but no one had yet reached out to my parents.  But after this last phone call--several months after I had paid the fee and turned in my psychological evaluation--the worker at Catholic Charities finally made the call.  Apparently her brusque manner managed to spook my first mother, and she hung up.  However, my first mother then immediately called her local Catholic Charities to make sure the call was legitimate, and she reconnected to the individual who had called her, and asked for my phone number. 

We have since been reunited and now the rest of this important journey for me can begin.  I have since learned for instance that my father's data was completely missing on the non-identifying information, and the information for my mother had just been replicated for my father.  My roots and ethnicity should not be held hostage to a bad--and incorrect--cut-and-paste job.

Public policy as it now stands assumes adoptees will do something harmful and inappropriate with information to which other citizens have access to.  This is not only wrong, it is offensive. I would have handled my own personal search in a far more sensitive and professional way than the agency social worker did under this archaic structure.  Statistics in states that have restored adult adoptee access to their true identities prove this point.  No one should have the power to subject a person to a lifetime restraining order that bars her--and her children--from knowing their own personal history.  Adoptees are forever treated like the infants they were decades ago.

The simple access to the original birth certificate allows adoptees the same rights that the majority of New Yorkers have, and prevents the inane hoops and obstacles that I have been through.  When speaking with each family I did not even need to ask about my medical history--they know the obvious importance of this and both provided it right away without my even having to ask, after first asking me if I have been happy and healthy and safe. 

First mothers at the time they relinquished their babies were focused on getting through day-by-day. They were not thinking about their children's access to medical history, or informed of the emptiness children and grandchildren would feel in being unable to know their true ethnic background. Here in New York the ethnic/immigrant experience is such an important and cherished part of the New York City story. These issues were not discussed with mothers at the time.

Because I am adopted, I was forced to submit to the power of others concerning the most personal details of my life.  I am not a child, yet the intermediary process placed me and all the adoptees of New York forever in this child-like position. This bill--A909--would provide fair and equitable access to personal information for all citizens born in the state.  Adult adoptees should be treated just like any other citizen, not subjected to unnecessary obstacles and needless third-party involvement merely to obtain the right to know our true identities. We should be able to apply for and receive ourr own legal documents of birth at the age of majority without restriction, a right so many other citizens take for granted.

Lost Daughters: Writing Adoption From a Place of Empowerment and Peace
Taken in one gulp these writers remind us that being adopted is the singular aspect of their lives out of which everything else flows—just as it is the opposite side of the coin is for first mothers like myself: birthdays, family trees, motherhood, familiar traits, loss. These are brave, strong essays written from the heart by talented, courageous women who pull no punches. 

Anyone not already familiar with the inner ramifications of being adopted to the adoptee will be surprised with the truths revealed in these pages. In a perfect world, I would make every legislator who has not voted for unsealing original birth certificates, every adoption facilitator who makes their living off adoptions, and every adoption attorney, every clergyman or woman who has ever suggested "adoption" to a desperate pregnant woman, every parent who pushes adoption on her child, every adoption worker read the book through in one sitting. Quite simply, it would change out world.



  1. I relate to the feelings described in this testimony. I was very upset watching her speak at the hearing, because I feel exactly the same way.

    Why are we adoptees still being treated as children?

    I have been in contact with the famous NY Registry for years. This is the registry that the judge from Suffolk County thinks is the great solution. I have 3 identical form letters from them, nothing more. No one, after all my letters, seems to feel that I deserve some kind of answer to my questions. No personal response of any kind. They just don't care.

    I can not spend money to find out information that is supposed to be mine. And I also would not pay anything to the Catholic Church. They are making money off of this, as outlined in the testimony. They are not getting any of mine.

    But I shouldn't have to pay any more than the average citizen. I just want my birth certificate. That's all I want. The opponents to this bill have it confused with search. I can't search, but I can read, and I would simply like to read my own paperwork about the beginnings of my life.

    Why is this such a battle? Why are we still trying to get the powers that be to understand simple common sense?

  2. As someone from the UK, I'd love to know if there is any way I can help, from here, to add to the pressure for records to be unsealed.

    JuliaEmily wrote: 'Public policy as it now stands assumes adoptees will do something harmful and inappropriate with information to which other citizens have access to. This is not only wrong, it is offensive.'

    From the moment my son was disappeared behind the walls of a closed adoption, I felt I was regarded as a potential criminal, with absolutely no information whatsoever allowed to reach me about him, or him about me. I felt very much that the assumption was that I would do something 'harmful and inappropriate with the information', just as you say.

    How come we are all treated this way? Adopted people, relinquishing mothers - all treated like untrustworthy, unpredictable people who may not have information about the most personal elements of their lives. I know it is not the same, but that phrase above really struck a chord of remembrance.

    Please let me know, as a UK resident, what I can do to support adopted persons efforts to get what is rightfully and justly theirs.

  3. Excellent, excellent testimony! I had a similar experience working with a confidential intermediary, which I outlined in this blog post: http://nanadays.blogspot.com/2012/05/why-i-oppose-confidential.html. The problem is this "solution" sounds reasonable to people who know nothing about the issue and the inherent biases of adoption agencies. We are so close in NJ. Gov. Christie remains our biggest obstacle.

  4. Are they treating us like children, or are they just changing the rules of the game as they go?

    When we were babies, our b-parents were told to do what was in our best interest. That was the game. Those were the rules.

    Now that we are adults, the rules of the game have changed. It's no longer about what's best for us. Now, it's about what's best for the a-parents and b-parents.

    Sure, the side effect is that we are permanently infantilized by the government. But, it's really about keeping the adoption machine shiny and untarnished.

  5. HDW: I fear it never was about what was best for the adoptee. Maybe it was supposed to be, but it was not. We were a product. To my mind, it was always about the adoptive parents. They got the beautiful new baby that they wanted. And they got the "promise" that birth parents would not interfere in their lives. It was about them. And the whole thing is still such a mess.

  6. Julie Emily,

    That's exactly what I am saying. I should have used quotes around best interest.

    The rules are constantly changing to keep the adoption machine well-oiled and untarnished.

    Our b-parents were told to do what was in our "best interest".

    Then, when we are old enough to take control of our own lives, the rules change, and it's no longer about what's in our best interest. It quickly changes to what's in the "best interest" of the b-family. Again, who is determining best interest? The adoption machine.

    Was adoption really in our best interest? And, if so, shouldn't all decisions thereafter related to adoption be viewed through a lens of what's in the best interest of the adoptee? Why do they change the rules once we are adults. It's no longer about what's in our best interest. It's about the "best interest" of the b-family now.

    Best interest. Ha! It's about the adoption industry. They purported to be concerned about us, but it was really about needing a supply of babies to meet the demand.

    Then, it becomes about shutting us out as adults because they don't want anything to tarnish the lovely image of adoption. If they give us access to our original families, it blows the lid off the "as if born to" mythology.

    It's all about keeping adoption pretty.


  7. I agree that adoptees and their mothers are criminalized in adoption. It is an an attempt to severe the relationship.

    “No one should have the power to subject a person to a lifetime restraining order that bars her- -and her children--from knowing their own personal history.” (I want too want to know my relinquished son….and his future children. But then again I am the first mother so I have no right.)

    But in the eyes of the world it is assumed that the adoptee has a new history with their adopted families. That is how it has been packaged. Ahh, the power of words!

    Just like Julia Emily stated, "They got the beautiful new baby that they wanted. And they got the "promise" that birth parents would not interfere in their lives. It was about them."

    I think that is the bottom line... that they are trying to keep "the family nucleus" intact. The fight is against peoples perceived realities. About the adopted parents perceived reality. Oh, and let me add….money.

    When your trying to change a societal perception I believe there is going to be an emotional toll.

    Dare I say it is like integration?

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