Total Pageviews

Saturday, April 30, 2016

I Feel the Need to Protect Her

Another post from Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away from malignant melanoma in April of 2014. She met her biological sisters 8 months before that. 

A few things happened today, Saturday, April 30th. First, I received a letter from my church, Sacred Heart in Camden, about the House of Charity and our parish's goal of raising $51,273. I contemplated what to do. I love that church. They have been good to me and my children. I want to do our fair share to support it. But I don't know about the larger Catholic Church. I just don't know. I put the letter aside to think about it. The rest of the day was spent with my kids. Grace, my oldest, had a
Mom and Genevieve, circa 2008. "I feel the need to protect her."
soccer game in Medford, against the Medford Strikers, Carli Lloyd's old team. Though she didn't win, her team played great, and she had a few nice attempts on goal. Watching her play always, always makes me ache for my mom, who loved watching Grace play and reminded me that what I was supposed to say after a game was exactly that: "I love watching you play" and nothing more (i.e. no criticism or post-game analysis). Can you see this, mom? I sometimes think on the sidelines, watching Grace go.  I hope she can. After the game we raced home to see Grace's younger sister, Genevieve, perform in Peter Pan. She was a pirate. Watching her, so happy, dance and sing on stage, I of course thought of my mom as well, and how she would have been there. "I don't know why but I just feel a need to protect Genevieve, more than the others," my mom told me once. She would have loved to see her so happy, so in her element.

After the second showing of the play tonight, Genevieve went with a friend to the Friendly's after party, since I had to put her younger brother to bed and her dad was away. It was while I was waiting for her to get home that I happened to open the Catholic Star Herald from yesterday. This paper goes to all the dioceses in New Jersey. First I read a nice story about the Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden. Dimitrius Eliza, the 17-year-old Senior Farmer featured, is a member of my church and a phenomenal young man. I loved reading about him. Then I turned the page. This is what I saw:

There are so many reasons that both of these articles upset me, and that they should be upsetting to any sentient human being. My reaction upon reading them was to dig out the folder with all my mom's adoption correspondence. I found her letter to the Children's Home Society in Trenton from March 11, 2003. They had just refused to forward a letter she had written to her birth mother (who had been contacted by the agency by phone and apparently indicated in a "hostile" way that she wished for no contact with my mom). I will not include the whole letter here but rather just the postscript:

P.S. You refuse to forward a single letter of reconciliation to my birthmother, who has now rejected me twice and hurt me so badly, because the action could be deemed "legal harassment"? When I have not requested a face-to-face meeting and when there was no written contract guaranteeing her anonymity in the first place? Frankly, I don't believe you could be more insensitive to my feelings and my need to heal; you are simply conducting business as usual and hoping I'll crawl back under a rock. 

What are you afraid of? That this woman, elderly and probably of modest means, will sue because she receives a single letter - and a kind letter at that - about an issue she'd rather not think about? I imagine the likelihood of my taking some legal action is quite a bit higher, since I am totally committed to my rights as a human being, I am economically secure, and I am about as angry as a person can possibly be. 

Please note that in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld two landmark decisions in Tennessee and Oregon, saying that the right of the adopted child to know her origins prevailed over the right of the birth parents' confidentiality. The legal tide is changing, thank God, even as your bureaucracy strives to maintain a safe and noncommittal position on the shore, all the while maintaining that you have compassion for the feelings of the adoptee. You can't have it both ways, and you have made it quite clear in your refusal to make any exceptions or compromises in my case that adoptees' feelings are always considered last, if at all. 
The tone of the Catholic Star Herald's articles (don't they know that in other countries the Catholic Church has apologized for its role in adoption?) has insured that I will not be giving to The House of Charity this year. It is not an easy decision for me. For as much as I am more conflicted than ever about how (if at all) I can continue to be involved in this church, I am not conflicted about my belief in God, nor my belief that God is good. Somehow, some way, my mom is with this God. Ironically, it was finding my mother's sisters, one of the greatest miracles of my life, and certainly of hers, that helped cement this belief for me. I simply felt it to be true with all of my being, even in one of the most difficult times of my life. It is because of this belief that I remain committed to keeping my faith at the center of all that I do. It is because of this that I remain committed to working for good. Whether or not I can do that as a member of the Catholic Church is something I am trying to figure out. While I work on that, I'll keep writing, and I'll keep sharing my mom's words as often as I can because ... well, just as she said about Genevieve all those years ago, I feel the need to protect her. Her and all the adoptees who are not protected at all. May God keep them close. 

Click HERE (scan of physical paper) or HERE (link to website with articles -- scroll down to second and third stories) to see the two stories in The Catholic Star Herald (4.29.2016). I plan to write more about what's so upsetting about these stories, so for those commenting, please know I will incorporate your comments. Thank you.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Life That Will Not Be Silent

My mom with our dog Ranger. 
Tomorrow, April 7th, is the two year anniversary of my mom's death. By the time I post this, it will
probably be the anniversary. It is also the birthday of my husband's mother, who passed away 12 years ago, when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. Crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge this evening, over the Delaware River that separates Philadelphia from my home in New Jersey, with my 5-year-old son in the back, chatting away, I thought about that morning two years ago when my dad called me. "Mom had a difficult night," he said, "You should probably come." I was on the bridge. It seems a fitting metaphor for my life, being on a bridge at that moment. I was crossing over -- life before, with my mom, and life after. I know my husband feels the same about his life, before and after.

My mom was many things to me, most of which cannot be summed up in words. What she was to this community, of course, was "an adult adoptee advocating for her rights." Before she died from malignant melanoma at the age of 63, she had fought for nearly 15 years for justice and truth in the world of adoption. To be honest, this was only a small part of what she was to me, but it was an important part. She asked me if I would consider continuing her blog after she died, "only once a month or so, because I know how busy you are." I said I would. I am so grateful I did, because by writing here I have been introduced to many people of great integrity. I have also learned a lot. "Jenn, you wouldn't believe some of the stuff that goes on in adoption," my mom told me. She was right. In my two years of writing, I have discovered everything from simple ignorance to big-time greed and corruption, but I have also rediscovered the beauty of truth in the face of these things. Truth is a gem. Those who work to find it, will.

Berta Cáceres, mother and activist. 
It felt fitting then, that today on the front page of the Spanish newspaper El País (which I read because of my job as a Spanish teacher) there was an essay, La vida que no calla (Life That Will Not Be Silenced), by Olivia, Berta, Laura, and Salvador Cáceres. They are the children of Berta Cáceres, who was killed last month in Honduras. (Click here to read more: New Yorker article on Berta Cáceres). She was an internationally known environmental and human rights activist, much more famous than my mom, of course, but her children's words spoke for how I feel about my mom, about Berta, about anyone who speaks for truth. (The entire article can be found here: El País article on Berta Cáceres). I was especially moved by the last paragraph:

"El dolor no nos paraliza, no nos impide soñar, pero se volverá insoportable si el mundo calla y olvida a la guardiana de los ríos, a la cuidadora de la vida, a la que también nos cargó en el vientre, a nuestra madre, Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores."

The pain does not paralyze us, does not keep us from dreaming, but it will become unbearable if the world is quiet and forgets the guardian of the rivers, the keeper of life, she who also carried us in her womb, our mother, Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores. 

Tomorrow, the anniversary of the passing of my mom, and also the birthday of my husband's mother, I will not forget, I will remember, the beauty of the truth, the beauty of all moms, and especially mine, Susan Thomson Perry. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Radical Listening and Adoption

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away in April of 2014, eight months after being reunited with her biological sisters. 

Mom and Joseph. The picture in his room for him to remember her by.
In October, adoption blogger (and adoptee) Amanda Transue-Woolston wrote a moving post called "Re-framing Searching as Radical Empathy" (Click here to read) about what it felt like, as an adoptee, to become a mother for the first time. My mom, too, wrote about how when my older sister was born she (my mom) stayed up that first night holding her and wondering about the woman to whom she was so closely tied, but knew nothing about.

I've been thinking about "radical empathy" and that October post lately as I ponder what I can possibly say about the Pennsylvania ACLU's opposition to HB162, a bill that would allow adult adoptees in Pennsylvania access to their original birth certificates. The bill passed the House in December 187-7 (though with a clause included about an adoptee having to have a high school diploma or GED in order to access her birth certificate. What?!) and now goes to the Senate, where it faces intense opposition by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania ACLU. A friend forwarded me the letter that was sent to all members of the House of Representatives by ACLU Legislative Director Andy Hoover back in December, and I have been pondering ever since what I could possibly say in response. What can I say about a letter that ignores the personal stories of so many birth parents and adoptees, including my mom, and then insults them by arguing that "The fairest process in adoption is one that respects the wishes of all parties. Current law accomplishes that"? (My mom is dead, and only by a miracle do I now know and have as part of my life her extended family, so no, no, no, current law does not accomplish that). What to say to an organization that apparently thinks it completely fine that my mom had no rights when it came to knowing her true identity? That would ignore the testimony of thousands upon thousands around the country (and world) to the contrary? After more than a month of reflection, I think the answer, really, is nothing.  If nothing that has been said thus far has moved them, then I do not think that they are really listening.  And what is needed now is radical listening.

We all know what it feels like when someone really listens to us. And we all know what it feels like when someone doesn't. I've had both experiences when telling my mom's story. Once, a new neighbor, now a good friend, came by my house and noticed a picture on the bulletin board of my mom and her two sisters. She asked about it. I told her a little (there were other people over, and I tend not to go into the whole, complicated story in social situations), but I added, "It's an interesting story. I'll have to tell you some time." The next week, as we sat on the front porch while our kids played on the lawn, she asked for the story, and I told her. I did not get into the politics. I just told her about my mom, and how she had to sit across the desk from some twenty-something social worker who had access to the truth of  my mom's life right there, in the filing cabinet at her side, but she couldn't share that truth with my mom, because one phone call, one scared no from her biological mother, meant that she couldn't. My mom had no rights to contact her mother herself. She had no rights to know her family, including her sisters , who wanted to know her.

"I can't imagine how that must have felt," my friend said. I was so grateful to her for listening, for really listening, and hearing the truth of my mom's experience, that I could have cried. When the ACLU is ready (will they ever be ready?) I will be grateful to them too. By listening, they would know that their stance is wrong, and harmful. By listening, they could understand. And by understanding, they could do what is right. For the sake of thousands of adoptees and biological parents in Pennsylvania, I hope that they do, and soon.
My mom and kids, July 2013. When her rights were violated as an adoptee, their rights to know their extended family, and their heritage, were violated as well. More than anything, though, we just wish she were still here with us. I am baffled by the position of the ACLU that "current law" (law that did not allow my mom access to her family, which gave her access to her full medical history) "protects the rights of all involved." It does not. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Nieto #119 is Found in Argentina: "Es un milagro"

Mario Bravo with Estela de Carlotto, President of the Abuelas 
Yesterday in Argentina, Mario Bravo, 38 years old, met his mother for the first time. Adopted as a baby after he was forcefully taken from his mother, who was 18 years old and being held by the military junta for her political views, he began his search in 2007. "Es un milagro haber encontrado a mi mamá con vida" he said ("It's a miracle to have met my mother alive"). My mom, too, spoke of miracles when telling of how she met her sisters after more than 60 years of separation. In the case of Mario Bravo, though, it is an even more astonishing miracle that his mother survived. Most mothers of the children stolen during Argentina's dirty war (1976-1983) were killed. Only their grandmothers were left to search for them. They have been searching for more than 40 years, and it is their hard work and advocacy that allow "miracles" like this to occur. Because of them, Argentina has a National Commission on the Right to Identity. Even soccer star Lionel Messi has filmed a spot for the Abuelas in which he encourages his fellow Argentinians to seek out their true identities if they have any doubts because "Te estamos buscando" (We're looking for you). "We" are the families searching for their lost children. ("Resolvé tu identidad ahora," Click HERE to watch). Mario Bravo is Nieto #119, the 119th grandchild to have been found and reunited with his biological family because of the efforts of this group. The Abuelas estimate that there are some 300 more to be found. "Lo que pasó es muy feo, What happened is very ugly," Mario Bravo said, "Lo que venga, es linda, What is to come, is beautiful."

It was only a few hours after reading about Mario that a friend of mine shared the following article with me: Canadian Mothers Whose Babies Were Stolen. It's about young single mothers who were told their babies had died when in actuality those babies were stolen from them and placed for adoption (see also: Forced Adoptions, National Post Article). A decade ago, a Canadian woman named Tina Kelly filed a United Nations report claiming just this. She is not some lone outlier, as the articles show. Australia, Spain, Ireland, Guatemala, and yes, the United States. All have had multiple credible stories of babies being taken from their mothers and placed for adoption when they never should have been.

This is not to say that all those who were adopted were stolen, or even that all parents are desperately searching for the children they have lost. Some adoption agencies are ethical, of course, and some children do need homes. My mom, apparently, was one of those children (though her adoption agency, which has maintained "no position" on adoptees' access to their true identities, is not ethical in my book). Still, the fact that such grave violations of human rights DO exist, and are hidden under the guise of adoption, means that perhaps it is time to have our own National Commission on the Right to Identity here in the United States. While I have great sympathy for the adopted person and what she faces as she decides to search for her biological family, I also have sympathy for those mothers and fathers who feel that their children were stolen from them. Perhaps not by a military dictatorship, but stolen just the same.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Thirsting for Truth: What I Wish the NJ Catholic Conference Had Said

This is another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan, adopted in New Jersey as a 6-month-old in 1950, first searched for her birth mother at the age of 47, when she was diagnosed with Stage II malignant melanoma. After her experience with the adoption agency, which told her that the case was closed after making only one phone call to her mother (standard protocol), she became involved in the fight for adoptee rights. In 2013, Susan was reunited with her two wonderful biological sisters a month after being diagnosed with Stage IV malignant melanoma. They had been searching for her. Finding them was one of the great miracles of her life and brought her peace "deeper than [she] ever thought possible." Susan died eight months later, on April 7, 2014, surrounded by her family. She believed that someday, though perhaps not in her lifetime, there would be justice for adoptees. 

All three of my children were baptized by Father Michael Doyle at Sacred Heart Church in Camden. They were baptized at an altar  that has been visited, through the years, by Mother Theresa, Cesar Chavez, Mairead Corrigan, Martin Sheen, Thich Naht Hahn, and many, many other admirable peacemakers, including Father Michael himself.

My mom and Joseph in July of 2013
Though she was not Catholic, my mom was the one who first brought me to Sacred Heart, years before, because she had heard of the beauty of the service, especially the singing, which she always loved. She was also there for each baptism, standing beside my family on the altar.

I thought of this two weeks ago when I opened The Catholic Star Herald and, to my great dismay, saw the headline: "Birth parents must take action to preserve their privacy." Ironically, it was right below a picture of a family next to a banner that read "Thirsting For Truth." Thirsting for truth, indeed.

Here is what, in a spirit of truth, I wish the article had said: First, the title. "Adopted Adults to Gain Access to Their Original Birth Certificates" sounds good to me. It is a statement of fact informing readers of the law that was signed on May 27th, 2014 (less than two months after my mom's passing). That law goes into effect on January 1st, 2017. In the 13 other states that have already enacted similar laws, thousands upon thousands of adoptees and birth parents (especially birth mothers, from what I have witnessed) have benefitted (For powerful insight into how this law actually helps birth mothers, see Jean Strauss' short film Four Birthmothers:

"For well over a century, the Catholic Church in New Jersey has provided adoption services." That is true. That can stay. "Throughout all those years, the Church promised to honor the privacy of birth parents and adoptees. That promise of privacy also was assured by law and affirmed by the State Superior Court." This is an outrageous lie. Birth certificates were originally sealed to protect the adoptee from the "shame" of  illegitimacy, a practice that is, thankfully, no longer needed. And birth mothers never really had any rights (see, for example, actress and birth mother Kate Mulgrew's beautiful memoir, Born With Teeth.  Her experience with the Catholic adoption agency where she relinquished her child is one I have heard echoed again and again and again: "Before I left ... there were things to do. I wanted to look [the director of the Catholic Charities adoption agency] in the eye and ask her for mercy, a sliver of mercy, nothing too untoward. I wanted to ask her if my baby was all right ... I wanted a photograph of my baby ... I pleaded, struggling to maintain my composure ... [making no progress, she then goes to speak to the director of the Catholic Home Bureau maternity services, who tells her, "You gave up that right when you relinquished your baby, didn't you?]
Me with Genevieve, now 9, on her baptism day at Sacred Heart.

"Any birth parents who wish to preserve their privacy must submit a Redaction Request Form to the New Jersey Department of Health ... the New Jersey Catholic Conference will be working to alert birth parents ... We need help. We ask everyone to spread the word that birth parents must take action to preserve their privacy. We need to notify family members, friends and neighbors that birth parents could lose their privacy. If you know a person who placed a child in adoption, please tell them that if they do not file a Redaction Request Form, their name and other information could be given to the adoptee." Oh my. Words like "alert" are so alarming! How about: "While those closely involved with adoption recognize that hearing from a relinquished child may, in some cases, be upsetting to a birth parent, they also recognize that all human beings have a right to know their identities. This fundamental right has been upheld by the United Nations, which in Article 8 of its Treaty on the Rights of the Child confirmed that "[1] State Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference [and] [2] Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all elements of his or her identity, State Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity. Adult adoptees who obtain their original birth certificates are seeking the truth of their own lives, and in thousands of cases they have been able to do this while respecting the privacy of their birth parents. Thus, we need your help. Please let anyone you know that is adopted or that has given up a child for adoption that starting on January 1st, 2017, adoptees in New Jersey will (finally) have access to their original birth certificates. Birth parents can file a "Contact Preference Form" stating whether they would like contact directly from the adoptee, through an intermediary, or not at all (in which case they will be asked to fill out a medical and family history form). In other states where records have been unsealed, thousands upon thousands of adoptees and birth parents have found peace and healing after years of secrecy. More information about this law and what it means for adoptees and birth parents is available at How about that? How about: Because the New Jersey Catholic Conference values truth, mercy, and justice, it stands by this law, despite its former opposition to it.

We are all thirsting for truth. May each one of us some day stand on the altar of those who have given their lives fighting for it and find ourselves worthy. "  And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).
A favorite moment from this summer. My son Joseph with my cousin JT (the son of my mom's biological sister) at a coffee shop in Montreal. Joseph looks just like pictures of JT when he was young. This was the day after the women's World Cup game (vs. Germany), and though we both knew the other was there for the game, our phones weren't working so we weren't able to meet up. We simply ran into each other in this city of millions. You can see how thrilled Joseph is (he loves JT). I know this would have made my mom so happy. 

Reunion in Montreal. Love rejoices in the truth... (Corinthians 13) 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Nana, My Mom's Mom (The Adoptive Parent and Adoption)

This is another post written by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away in April of 2014, eight months after meeting her sisters for the first time.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my grandmother, Grace Elizabeth Bissex Thomson. I called her Nana, which is where my mom got her name when my children were born. My Nana's mom, Josephine Hinchman Bissex (1884-1971), nearly died, back in 1914, bringing my grandmother into this world. She would never have another child, so my grandmother was an only child and an only grandchild. "It was lonely sometimes," she told me, "There is nothing like family."
My grandmother, on the right, in a 1936 picture with her friends.

Her parents loved her well, though, and she was happy. When she was fifteen years old, in 1929, her father (Paul Bissex, 1886-1973) helped build a house for the family on Chestnut Street in Haddonfield. Years later, my best friend and I spent hours upon hours playing in the woods at the end of this street. We both lived only a few blocks away. Sometimes in our games we would come upon the crumbling cement remains of an enormous swimming pool, surrounded by trees, and so reclaimed by the earth that you had to have great imagination to picture its original use. This was Mountwell Pool, created by a dam in 1913, a year before my grandmother's birth (the cement pool was added in 1937 as a public works project, and the whole thing was closed in 1971).  My grandmother spent her childhood days here. Later, as a teenager, she met my grandfather, Clarence Thomson (1911-1984), though everyone called him Tommy. "I still remember how he would run by me on his way to the pool, tap me on the head and say 'Hey shorty,' before jumping in," my grandmother told me several times, "It made me so mad! (my grandmother was especially tall). But he sure was handsome."

They married in 1938. Knowing how important family was to my grandmother, I can only imagine how she suffered as she tried to have a baby for nearly ten years. I am not sure how they came to consider adoption. She never talked about it. She only talked about how much she loved my mother and her brother, and how lucky she was to have them. That was her way. After my grandfather died suddenly, in 1984, my mom took her back to her house from the hospital. She was devastated. Still, she told my mom, "I am just going to go to bed and pretend that never happened." Years later, my mom told me this story and said, "Living that way worked for her, and I admire her for it. But it just never did for me."

But I will get to that later. For now, my grandmother. She taught first grade and was known as a "loving but firm" teacher. From what I have heard, that was her style as a mother, too. She relaxed as
"Window Box, 1995"
she aged. She loved beautiful things - her window box with its trailing vines, a collection of glass bottles in the sun, a view of the water -- and was overly proud of her family. My sister and I still laugh about the time my grandmother was in the hospital after having a stroke and a nurse walked in while my sister, a doctor, was visiting. "Nurse, this is my granddaughter," my grandmother proudly said, introducing Kate, "She's a doctor." When the nurse didn't react, my grandmother literally starting tugging on the lanyard around her neck. "Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Did you hear me? She's a doctor!" It was embarrassing and heartwarming at the same time.

Nana was in her 80s then, and eventually it was another stroke that forced her to move from her Haddonfield home on Jefferson Avenue, where she and my grandfather had raised my mom and my uncle (and where she always had an oatmeal cookie for me, held in the canister above the refrigerator, when I biked over to visit her as a child). She didn't want to go, but she handled the move with her trademark cheer and stalwart heart. The most I ever heard her complain was, "This growing old isn't for the weak." Then she would laugh.

Nana died in April of 2003, a few months before my oldest daughter, named for her, was conceived.
Grace Elizabeth, named for my Nana, looks a lot like my mom's sister
It was that daughter's picture, slipped into a letter in 2013, that convinced my mom's sister that my mom was for real. "I saw that picture and I knew, I just knew," she said, "She looks just like me."

And that knowing led to some of the sweetest moments of my mom's life, even as she battled for her life. She learned she had a younger sister, too, and then the three of them started corresponding daily, catching up on a lifetime apart. Sixty-five years of separation.

"Selfishly, I wish my mom had kept your mother," my one aunt told me, earlier this year, as we reflected on how it all unfolded. There is such sadness in the years that were lost to secrecy, and how little time they had in the end. "Yet I know that then your mom wouldn't have had the good life she had. She and your dad would never have been married. You wouldn't be here. Your children wouldn't be here. And those are all good things." She paused, "I just wish I had gotten a letter when I turned 18 that I had a sister." We were both silent with this thought.

My grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day. 
All these thoughts, of course, bring me to my grandmother. She often spoke of how she couldn't begin to imagine life without my mom and her brother. Without all of us. She was extremely grateful, and she loved us well. I can hardly imagine an alternate life for her in which my mother and my uncle were not her children, for they belong to her and she belongs to them. It is love that cements that.

Yet when you are adopted, there are also others to whom you belong, and who belong to you, even if you never acknowledge them. When, at age 47, my mother let my grandmother know that she was searching, my grandmother supported her, though I know it was difficult for her (she had once told my mom, "I just like to think that you came right from me"). And I know that if Nana had known of the humiliation my mom had to suffer in searching--then pleading-- for the truth of her life, she would have done everything in her power to help her. If she had known what it would mean to my mom to know her sisters, she would have helped her. She loved her, after all.

Yet she didn't know (perhaps because she didn't want to know, but whatever the reason, she didn't know). There is nothing that can be done about this now, because she has died. My mom has died. Time beats on. Still, those of us who are still living are left to speak for those of us who are not (and those of us who cannot speak up). The stories matter. Right now, both New York and Pennsylvania (and I'm sure others, though those are the states I know of) are fighting to change laws that seal adoptees' birth certificates from them forever. They are not having an easy time of it. Over the years, justification for sealing records have ranged from "It protects the adoptee from the stigma of being born out of wedlock" to "It protects the adoptive parents from interference from the birth mother." The current justification is that "It protects the birth mother."

I've read enough of these arguments and learned enough about adoption over the years to believe none of these. I've learned that there are other, terrible reasons behind sealed records. Sometimes, adoptive parents even side with the opposition (though to be fair, there are also many adoptive parents who support adoptee rights). I imagine those fighting for sealed records are motivated by the same fear my grandmother had; or perhaps it is a desire. "I just want to pretend you came right from me," she told my mom. And my mom loved her, so she listened, and she tried. This hurt her. In the end it may have cost her life, though of course we'll never know for sure.

I know this would have been terribly upsetting to my grandmother. It is tough now even to write it. But I also know that had the laws been different -- had society been different -- my grandmother would have followed suit. She would have done what was right. She was a good person. And perhaps then my mom would have met her sisters in her 20s, and they would have known and loved my grandmother, and she them. I would have grown up knowing my aunts and my cousins, and I would have met my uncle, instead of just hearing about what a wonderful man he was. Perhaps my mom would have learned about the family history for melanoma and been diagnosed sooner, and saved. Perhaps. For now, I'll take a page from my grandmother's book and just make the best of what I have, which is a lot. But for those adoptees still living, and for those future adoptees, there is a better way. I hope all those involved in adoption can overcome their fears, and their pain, to do the right thing and make it happen.
My Nana's parents - Josephine Hinchman Bissex (1884-1971) and Paul Bissex (1886-1973) with my uncle soon after he was adopted. Haddonfield, NJ (1949?).

A postcard from my grandmother to her parents at 312 Chestnut Street in Haddonfield (August, 1937). She was on a cross-country train trip with her friends. It reads, "Just had breakfast at Williams, Arizona. Last night as we went to sleep we were in the flat prairies. This morning we awakened in the mountains. It's beautiful. - Betty"

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

And Yet It Moves - In Support of HB 162

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th, 2014, eight months after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and seven months after being reunited with her two biological sisters. 
My mom, dad, me and family, a month before her diagnosis

And yet it moves. Eppur si muove. These were the rebellious words uttered by Galileo from prison after he was condemned by the Catholic church for continuing to insist that the earth was not the center of the universe, that it moved around the sun. Many intellectuals of the day also condemned him, so attached were they to their own world views. Galileo, a devout Roman Catholic and an intellectual, cared both about his faith and scientific truth, and it is exactly because of this that he could not be silent in the face of what he knew to be true. And yet it moves

My mom, an adoptee, passed away in April of 2014. There are two truths about her death, and I cannot be silent about them. First, she died from melanoma, a (censored) disease that not even the most wonderful oncologist in the world, with the highest level of training, was able to stop. She was diagnosed in July, still feeling wonderful, after finding a small lump in her leg. A week later, knowing what lie ahead but still feeling healthy, she awoke one beautiful Saturday morning at the beach to see that two dark, ugly spots of melanoma had now appeared, one on her toe and one on her face. It was confirmation that this (censored) disease was now coursing through her, maliciously and aggressively. It was horrible. Good people fought valiantly on her behalf. My mom fought valiantly. But in the end, it was not enough.  We lost her. 

My mom also perhaps died, and certainly suffered needlessly, because she was an adoptee. She was blocked by the state (in this case New Jersey) from seeing her original birth certificate because of an antiquated law (now changed), and thus she was blocked from her true and complete medical history (the information the adoption agency released to her was flawed, at best).  She was also blocked from being able to communicate directly with her biological family, and thus from knowing two wonderful sisters for the last 16 years of her life. Not knowing that melanoma was present in her biological family likely contributed to her physician missing the melanoma when her symptoms first occurred.  As with all cancers, timely diagnosis and treatment is crucial for survival.  When she looked into going to court to have her birth certificate unsealed, the lawyer with whom she consulted let her know that she had little chance of winning because she "already had cancer." 

Because of this -- because having her original birth certificate sealed from her was perhaps as responsible for her death as the melanoma itself, and certainly responsible for much unneeded suffering -- it is difficult for me to read about the testimony of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Administrator of Orphans' Court Services against Pennsylvania House Bill 162, which was passed unanimously by the House in October 2013, then stalled in the Senate without a vote prior to the end of the 2014 term. HB 162 would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. The ACLU also sent a letter opposing the bill, which was equally difficult for me to read. 

In past years Pennsylvania Catholic Charities has testified -- without any facts to support their arguments -- that unsealing birth certificates would lead to more abortions. The facts support the opposite. Abortion rates in states where records have been unsealed have actually decreased slightly. This year, perhaps recognizing this, the Pennsylvania Catholic Charities' testimony centers more around its "concern" for birthparent privacy. As a Catholic, I find this testimony particularly upsetting, and misleading. Many birthparents have testified in support of this law (and Catholic Charities in other states has actually reversed its position and supported similar laws). Birthparents have a right to privacy from prying public eyes, yes, and from harassment. We all do. This law provides for privacy. It just does not allow for secrecy. Adoptees, on the other hand, currently have to share the most intimate details of their life just to possibly get their birth certificates (by going through an intermediary, or petitioning the court). I have one adopted friend who has never searched simply because when she learned everything she had to go through (for the mutual consent registry), she found it all too daunting. There are many adoptees, and birthparents, like her. 

The Administrator for Orphans' Court Services speaks of "profound and grave consequences" for birthparents if this law is passed based on her "many years of experience doing search services." One only need to look at the many states that have already enacted similar legislation -- where there have been no "profound and grave consequences" -- to realize that this is not the case. As a side note, when I searched on Google for this administrator's name, to learn more about her (why would anyone, especially someone involved in adoption and claiming to care deeply about the welfare of all involved, oppose this law?), the first link that appeared was one detailing the fees charged for "Adoption Search Inquiries" ($50 for non-identifying information, $150 if you want more -- and this is only after the court approves your petition). As a non-adoptee, I could get my birth certificate easily for $20. 

And the ACLU? Andy Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania legislative director, said in an open letter earlier this month: "HB 162 upends the respect for privacy in adoption procedures. Pennsylvania law already allows adoptees' access to important medical and social information of their biological parents without disrupting the privacy of the birth parents' identifying information." No, it does not. Adoptees are suffering, and yes, even dying, because the current system does not work for them. Many, many adoptees, birthparents, and adoptive parents have testified to this. I lived it with my mom. So let me say it again, emphatically: the current system (registries, mutual consent, etc) does not work. And the law now being considered does allow for birth parent privacy (with the contact preference form). I have not once heard of an adoptee taking out a billboard to reveal to the world the identity of her biological parents. We are talking about a person's right to know his or her true identity. It is a human right, and the ACLU should know that. Instead, they defend sealed records as an extension of a woman's right to reproductive health, equating an adoptee to an abortion. I may not have a law degree, but I can see the glaring fallacies in this argument from afar. 

So shame on you, Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Orphans' Court Services, and Pennsylvania ACLU. You may talk and talk about the need for sealed records despite mountains of evidence to the contrary -- you may even believe in the sanctity of your cause --  but those who know the truth, who care about life (ALL life) and liberty (ALL liberty) will not be silent. I support them. In time, I believe everyone will.  And yet it moves. Eppur si muove. 


Acosta, Leslie (Philadelphia County, District 197)

Brownlee, Michelle (Philadelphia County, District 195)

Conklin, Scott, Minority Chair

DeLissio, Pamela (Philadelphia County -- offices on Ridge Ave!)

Greiner, Keith

Hill, Kristin

Keller, Fred

Kim, Patty

Kinsey, Stephen (Philadelphia, 201st District, went to Germantown HS)

Klunk, Kate

Lewis, Harry (Chester County)

Maloney, David (Berks County)

McCarter, Stephen (Montgomery County)

Miller, Brett

Miller, Dan

Moul, Dan, Vice Chair

Nesbitt, Tedd

Parker, David

Rader, Jack

Ravenstahl, Adam

Rozzi, Mark (Berks County)

Saccone, Rick

Santarsiero, Steven (Bucks County)

Santora, James (grew up in Drexel Hill!)

Stephens, Todd

Toohil, Tarah

Watson, Katharine, Chair (Bucks County - went to UPenn)