' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Gov. Cuomo: Right the wrong of sealed birth certificates THIS YEAR

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Gov. Cuomo: Right the wrong of sealed birth certificates THIS YEAR

In New York, we watched our neighbor New Jersey pass legislation that allowed a time period for mothers to request that their names be removed from the original birth certificate. We understand that the legislation, after more than three decades, was the best that Gov. Chris Christie would sign, and yesterday he did. In New York, we have the promise of nearly all the votes we need--if we could get our legislation to the floor.

But a few powerful legislators have been able to stymie the legislation year after year by preventing it from coming to a vote. They are Dean Skelos, Kemp Hannon, Helene Weinstein and Sheldon Silver. They are Republicans and Democrats. They are all from New York City or Long Island. They drive me crazy. Gov. Cuomo has not revealed his leanings, but he is so political (and clearly wants to be president) that it seems likely that if he sensed pushing the legislation would help him reach those ends (and he is running for re-election this year), he might do something.

Unsealed Initiative, the group in New York working on this legislation, has been tireless in their efforts with press conferences and several lobby days in Albany. But time once again is slipping away. The current session will end in a few weeks. Let the governor hear from you. Below is my letter--copy, quote, use at will if you like, adding a few details about why this legislation is important to you. Gov. Cuomo's address is below.

Dear Governor Cuomo:
As the legislative session winds down, please use your influence to end the decades-long logjam preventing the adopted from obtaining their original birth certificates. A few legislators have been able to block such legislation in the past, and without your support, it appears bills (A909 and S2490a) giving the adopted their original birth certificates will die again, even though with 80 sponsors and supporters in the Assembly we already have the votes we need there. We are almost there in the Senate. With Democrat David Weprin as main sponsor in the Assembly, and Republican Andrew Lanza in the Senate, we have bi-partisan backing.

Support for allowing adoptees to know their true heritages--and obtain their original birth certificates--comes from many quarters: the Donaldson Adoption Institute; the American Adoption Congress, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League, New York State Citizens Coalition for Children, Catholic Charities of the Albany Diocese, the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, as well as numerous adoption agencies and other organizations. A Cornell University survey found the vast majority of adoptive parents in support. 

The opposition appears to stem from the skewed perception that first mothers must be "protected" from their own children. Not only do the vast majority of mothers desire no such "protection," most fervently wish to be reunited with the children they relinquished to adoption many years ago. Researchers have documented the overall devastating impact of relinquishing a child by querying first mothers decades later. No one has a baby inside them for nine months and then forgets. Unresolved grief lingers on.

The law as written never granted permanent anonymity to first mothers when they relinquished their children. While anonymity at the time may have been presumed--allowing first mothers to keep this reality locked up inside--the law actually was designed to preserve the integrity of the adoptive family without interference from the natural mother. But the children themselves were never given a voice as to what was in their best interests. They grow up into adults with all the rights and obligations of the rest of us, but they are denied basic facts about themselves.

Some may even see first-mother anonymity as a twisted extension of a woman's "right to choose." But that "right" to a woman's self-determination surely and logically ends when she gives birth to another human being, who will have needs and desires of his own. A woman's right to "choose" should not extend to the next generation. Only in a Kafkaesque hell would someone grant anyone the right to erase the past history of another and ban him to genetic ignorance indefinitely. Yet that is precisely what the law does. We give no other group such carte blanche control over any other.

The laws sealing the original birth records of the adopted in New York date from the 1930s. The adopted were supposed to be as if they had no beginnings, no ancestors, no heritage that belonged to them alone. Life was to begin on the day they were adopted. We now know that is not in their best interests. Decades ago the American Pediatric Association wrote in a position paper that healthy individuals need to know not only who they are—their true identities, that is—but also who their ancestors were. The testimony of thousands since then bear this out. You and I who have always known who we were cannot imagine what it would be like to know--nothing of our past, our ancestors, how we came to be.

Yesterday Gov. Christie signed a half-way measure in New Jersey, allowing a lengthy period for first mothers to remove their names from the information given adoptees who request their original birth certificates. From data collected in other states, very few women will remove their names. No matter how great or how small a number do, the NJ bill is a slap in the face to all adoptees for it allows someone else to continue to exert unwarranted control over the lives of others. Forever.

We can, we should, do better in New York. These words from 1980 eloquently explain what is wrong with sealed birth certificates:
“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.”
This was the conclusion of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare decade ago. Adoptive parents then squelched proposed legislation that would have given all adoptees the right to know who they were when they were born. More recently, an Oregon court stated that just as there is no fundamental right to adoption, there is no fundamental right to privacy between mother and child. 

I write as a first mother who "broke" the law in 1981. After paying an unknown searcher the equivalent of four month's rent, I happily was reunited with my daughter, who had planned to search for me. Not everyone will be so fortunate. Closed records were wrong when they were conceived, and they are wrong today. Please end the injustice of the sealed birth certificates of the adopted, and join the growing list of states making adopted individuals citizens in the full sense of the word. Please do not let another year go by without righting what is so clearly a wrong.

                                               Lorraine Dusky
If you have any connection to New York--you were adopted there, you relinquished there, you adopted from there, or you simply live in there, please take the time in the next week to write the governor. WE NEED LETTERS NOW. The legislative session will end in another three weeks.  If not now, when? If not you, who? 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo 
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
"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. In these pages, which are sure to provoke controversy among adoptive parents, birth mothers repeatedly insist that their babies were unwanted by society, not by them. Fessler, a photography professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, is an adoptee whose birth mother confessed that she had given her away even though her fiancé, who wasn't Fessler's father, was willing to raise her. Although at times rambling and self-pitying, these knowing oral histories are an emotional boon for birth mothers and adoptees struggling to make sense of troubled pasts."--Publishers Weekly

I am so damn tired of hearing anyone call our own recollections about what happened "self-pitying." So many of us had absolutely no choice, or voice. If I say, Giving up my baby was the worst thing that ever happened to me, I never got over it, is that self-pitying



  1. Lorraine said: 'I am so damn tired of hearing anyone call our own recollections about what happened "self-pitying."'

    I think there are so many strategies people use to try and diminish our experience and humanity. Dismissive words or phrases are one example of this, as is the the use of disrespectful similies or a condescending tone etc... - all built to undermine and therefore ignore our record of what it's like, living with this profoundly painful experience.

  2. "Only in a Kafkaesque hell would someone grant anyone the right to erase the past history of another and ban him to genetic ignorance indefinitely. Yet that is precisely what the law does. We give no other group such carte blanche control over any other." <--- CHILLS. Absolutely perfect. Lorraine, you are eloquent, brilliant, and amazing.

  3. Beautiful letter, Lorraine. Thank you.

  4. That was the sentence that jumped out at me, Lo--but I knew you'd catch it. Which you did.

    Women's difficult experiences that are hard for other people to listen to/read about/hear about very often are called "self-pitying." Especially if they are something totally outside of the realm of understanding of the person who calls our accounts "self-pitying."

    Then in the next breath, or sentence, we may be asked, "But what did you DO in order to make X happen...?"

    I grow old. I grow old.

    1. ...I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.
      Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
      ...will all those people who would preach
      roll up their tents and fold themselves into the murky night?

  5. This is a great letter, Lorraine. I wish I could say I was filled with hope for this bill to get passed and for Cuomo to sign it....but that it not what I am feeling. A few months back, when Unsealed Initiative held a rally outside Gov. Cuomo's Manhattan office, his spokesperson said that he was "not aware of this issue." I imagine he is aware of it now, but will he do anything? I don't know.

    Gov. Cuomo, my husband, and I were all born in the same year. Obviously my husband and Cuomo have their birth certificates. I do not. Cuomo and my husband both have VERY obvious traits inherited from their parents. I do not. Will Cuomo understand any of this? I can't predict.

    Just as a side note, my husband and Cuomo went to Catholic High school together. Right in beautiful Jamaica, Queens. They went to the Catholic boy's school, while I took the same bus and went to the Catholic girl's school. Our schools were considered "brother/sister" schools.

    I have written the Governor. I put this little bit of personal history in the letter, and tried to address him as someone from my generation and similar background. I have only gotten the form letter response that (I guess) everyone gets.

    The bill in NJ that Christie finally signed is really a crummy bill. Cuomo may be looking at that as a guide. His Catholic upbringing may enter into any decision he makes. I can't get a feel for where he might go with this, if it ever gets passed. The session ends soon. I am on pins and needles, wondering what will happen here.

  6. My paternal biological grandfather was born in NYC in 1914 and never was able to find out his origins. When I read the letters that he wrote the Foundling Hospital from the time he was 9 or 10 on, asking about his family of origin, the pain of not knowing showed through and broke my heart. He died without ever knowing anything. Now, after some digging, the only things we know are that his mother's first name was Gertrude, she was 19 and there is some connection to the surname Russell but what, we don't know.
    No other group in society has to endure living being denied the knowledge of their origins except adopted persons and it is just wrong.

    1. Are you referring to a Foundling Hospital in New York?

      I visited the one in London, and saw the tokens - little embroidered pieces of cloth, a coin, a brooch - that the mothers left with the child so that he/she could be identified as hers once she was able to come back and get him/her.

      I couldn't understand, then, why the children were renamed (alongside all sorts of other things which removed their identities - heads shaved, placed in a uniform) - how would their mother find them?

      I emailed the Foundling Hospital asking about why the name change but never got a reply, though they acknowledged receiving it.

      Often, children would die and and the mother would not know.

      It's all so heartbreaking.
      I'm so sorry for your grandfather.

    2. You got me thinking about this too! I don't full understand the reasons for the name changes although I can guess at a few. I'm sure they were believed to be good at the time the Hospital was founded..
      About the tokens and mothers who reclaimed their children, this is interesting - as well as sad. It's from the wonderful Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/history/orphanages/coram2.html
      "As well as being baptised with a new name, children admitted to the Hospital were given a number. Along with their age, the clothes they were wearing, and any other “marks” on them, these numbers were carefully noted in the Hospital’s registers, which can still be consulted in the London Metropolitan Archives. But there was something else as well. The charter presented to the first president of the Hospital, the Duke of Bedford, stipulated that those who brought in children should "affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known hereafter if necessary" (qtd. in Brownlow 38). The token might be a message, or a small item like a ribbon, brooch, locket, little carving or even a bottle tag. A verse left with one baby explained: "Not either parent wants a parent’s mind, / But friends and fortune are not always kind" (qtd. in Brownlow 52). Among the tokens still kept at the Foundling Museum are a little ivory fish, several heart-shaped tokens, and one pretty piece of coloured enamel, with the name "Ann Higs" beneath the chubby face of winged cherub. Any such "token" would help to identify the child if the mother was ever able to return for it. A few did come back. At first, such parents were expected to repay the money for their child’s care, but many were unable to do so. In 1764, this demand was withdrawn, and forty-nine children were quickly reclaimed. But the number soon declined again. For the overwhelming majority, what happened at the entrance to the Hospital was "the sudden and final separation of mother and child" (Compston 109), in itself the most questionable aspect of the process. Despite the care taken in providing identification for each individual child, noted by Alysa Levene as a proof of the Hospital's efficiency (24), the children almost invariably remained in the Hospital's care."

      Plus ca change, in so many ways.

  7. IF YOU LIKE THE LETTER, PLEASE SHARE ON FACEBOOK. There are other New York-connected people out there we need to reach.


    1. We are leaving this year, but Please post your comment at the current blog. Link:

      UNJUST Sealed Birth Certificate Laws



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