It is hard to believe sometimes that in this year 2012 we in New Jersey are still fighting a political battle over the access of adult adoptees to their own birth certificates. For so many years now, social workers and psychologists have been telling us that an institution rooted in secrecy and lies is not healthy for any of its participants, and especially for the adopted person. As I mentioned in another post, the directors of Catholic Charities' Maternity and Adoption Services in all five Dioceses of New Jersey supported the right of adult adoptees to their original birth records back in 1992, 20 years ago! Their rationale is just as valid now as it was then -- even more so since today we have reliable data from states who have changed their laws to reflect best adoption practice.
Here are the reasons the Catholic Charities directors cited:
1. "We believe it is a human right to have access to the knowledge of who gave birth to you."
2. "The secrecy surrounding the institution...has produced an atmosphere of shame and consequent detrimental psychological damage to the people involved."
3. "Our experience as agencies is that the majority of birthparents do not desire confidentiality. This bill allows the birthparent the right to indicate their desires re: contact. We do not feel it is just to thwart the many in order to protect the few."
4. "We find this bill to be the most cost-efficient way to meet the needs of the people involved. We are besieged with requests from adult adoptees and birthparents for intermediary search services."
The Catholic Charities personnel are right on, of course, and their conclusions are supported by many other front-line professionals. While I was searching for their letter, I stumbled upon a 1995 correspondence to then NJ Governor Christie Whitman from Child Welfare Supervisor James L. Gritter, MSW, an employee of Catholic Human Services, Inc. in Michigan.
His letter advocating for unsealing records is one of the most moving I have ever read. Here are some excerpts:
"There is honestly nothing in adoption that puzzles and saddens me more than the support of the Pro Life Community for sealed records," Gritter begins.
"There is no way around an obvious fact. Closed records turn adoption's boldest and most honorable claim -- that it serves the best interests of children -- into a flagrant and vile lie. Any system that denies people fundamental information about themselves cannot in good conscience claim to serve them."
"We will touch the people we seek to serve when we carry a hopeful and positive message to them that lets them know that they are good people and that there is a better way. When we offer secrecy, whether we realize it or not, we are telling them that they are dirty and ought to hide their foul deeds. Is choosing life a dirty deed to be hidden? If that is the message, the cause is surely lost."
"I raise a perspective not often heard in the Pro Life movement, but that does not mean it is rare. It means, unfortunately, that this movement is too often closed to new ideas. What could be more obvious than the fact that times have changed? How can we in good conscience blindly assume that rote answers from fifty years ago are pertinent in the current reality?"
"The Pro Life community must rethink its odd affection for secrecy in adoption, for there is not a doubt in my mind that the secretive system of adoption powerfully repels families struggling with untimely pregnancy and drives them to abortion for lack of a palatable alternative. If all we can offer to pregnant women is confirmation of their shame, there is no joy, hope, or love in our work. If we cannot stand tall for children and honor them with truth, we do not speak for life."
In spite of such compelling arguments from people who work in the field everyday, and in spite of the fact that there have been no adverse effects reported in the states that have restored the rights of adult adoptees to their own original birth documents, the opponents of adoptee rights bills in New Jersey and other states keep advancing the same specious arguments year after year.
Today, since the alleged link between abortion and adoption has pretty much been disproved by the statistics, opponents hone in on the "promise of privacy" given to surrendering mothers. Yet no legal document guaranteeing an original mother anonymity from her own offspring has ever been produced and entered into evidence, while there has been plenty of evidence advanced to show the original intent of sealing records was to protect the adoptive family from "unwarranted intrusion" and the adopted child from the "shame" of illegitimacy.
It is beyond frustrating to watch legislative decision-makers ignore the data and bow each year to well-funded trade lobbies that profit from the business of adoption, or to Catholic lobbies that are operating from inflexible and misguided premises. That frustration, I think, is the reason many adult adoptees become so angry. The powers-that-be, the decision-making folks, are not listening to what they and other members of the adoption circle are saying. Someone else always has the upper hand, whether his or her position makes any sense or not.
While the culture of adoption is slowly changing, the laws continue to make no sense, and they perpetuate the myths and stereotypes about adoption that are still so prevalent. It is well past time to bring the practice of adoption into the twenty-first century. Unsealing the birth certificates of adult adoptees would be a good place to start.
For more information about the history and intent of sealed records, see:
The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records. by Professor Elizabeth J. Samuels
FOR THE RECORDS II: AN EXAMINATION OF THE HISTORY AND IMPACT OF ADULT ADOPTEE ACCESS TO ORIGINAL BIRTH CERTIFICATES, Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute