Why do state bar associations routinely oppose adoptee rights bills? In New Jersey, the answer seems quite clear -- to promote the business interests of attorneys. In 1992,
the New Jersey Legislature passed bills S685 and A1418, measures that in effect deregulated the adoption industry and allowed many more privately-arranged adoptions to take place. The main advocate for the change in law was the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA).
In New Jersey, attorneys often assist in completing private domestic adoption arrangements. When mediating and/or completing such transactions, attorneys apparently feel it is in their best interest to assure adoptive parents that they need not be too concerned about birth families. Not surprisingly, they express little interest in the rights of the human beings actually being adopted.
The NJSBA has published a booklet for prospective adoptive parents entitled "What You Need to Know about Adoption." The most telling words, in my opinion, appear in this section:
"In New Jersey, all records relating to adoption proceedings, including the complaint, judgment and all petitions, affidavits, testimony, reports, briefs, orders and other relevant documents, are sealed by the court clerk, and may not be opened to inspection or copying without a court order, which almost never occurs."
So much for the testimony of NJSBA representatives in public hearings, where they have been telling legislators for years that adoptees can receive their medical records simply by petitioning the courts.
Another illuminating portion of the NJSBA handbook for prospective parents is this paragraph:
"An open adoption is when the birth parents continue to have some contact with the child after the adoption. This contact can be as minor as a simple letter or card on the child's birthday, or as intimate as visitation. While open adoption is a legal option in some states, it is not legally enforceable in New Jersey. In other words, while adoptive parents may agree to permit some form of contact between the child and the birth parents, they are not legally bound by these promises, even if they are made in writing."
If I were to paraphrase these two sections of the NJSBA handbook, I might say something like this: As prospective adoptive parents, you hold all the cards, and you need not worry about the rights or interests of the original parents, or for that matter, the rights of your child to know who she actually is and where she comes from.
Once we get the papers signed for you, you can be assured that you don't have to have any contact with the birth parents -- ever.
The only part of the handbook that refers, somewhat indirectly, to the child's best interest, is this lone sentence: "In some cases the court may choose to provide an adopted child with medical information without releasing information about the birth parents."
Naturally the NJSBA conveniently leaves out the fact that the Child Welfare League, along with countless other reputable adoption organizations, has maintained for decades that secrecy in adoption does not serve the best interest of the child. The child's "best interest," obviously, is not the NJSBA's top priority.
When they appear publicly to oppose bills that would grant adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, NJSBA representatives tell us that birth mothers have been assured of anonymity from their own offspring.
Tom Snyder, the former chair of the family law section of the NJSBA, has questioned whether adoptee rights bills are fair to birth mothers, who he says were "assured of confidentiality." And "what about the rape and incest victims?" he asked in the first minute of a 2010 National Public Radio interview with Diane Crossfield, a founding member of the Adoptee Rights Coalition.
In making such pronouncements, Snyder omits a number of key facts. (1) Historically, the promise of anonymity was made to adoptive parents, not to original parents. (2) Rape/incest victims comprise a tiny minority of mothers who have placed their children for adoption, by some estimates less than one percent. (3) A birth parent right to privacy does not exist in the NJ Statutes, as Snyder himself admitted to Senator Loretta Weinberg under questioning during a 2006 public hearing. (4) The vast majority of original parents neither asked for nor desire anonymity from their own children.
As for Snyder's reference to rape and incest victims, Pennsylvania adoptee Amanda Woolston responds, "When people use their shame-ridden arguments to further their own cause, they forget one thing -- there are adoptees and First Mothers who actually live this reality who are impacted each and every time rape/incest is brought up in a shameful context. Shame on anyone who does such a thing to these mothers and adoptees."
A product of rape herself, Woolston, an incredibly articulate mother of two, says, "I am not ashamed." For the record, Woolston's first mother is not ashamed of who her daughter is either.
In its efforts to thwart adoptee rights bills, the NJSBA has repeatedly asked for birth mothers desiring secrecy to allow their attorneys to testify on their behalf. Consider this letter sent out by the NJSBA on January 5, 2007:
"Dear Family Law Section Member:
We are once again, requesting that anyone who has a client who is a birth mother, who would be willing to let you testify on their behalf in opposition to S-1087 (an adoptee rights bill), please contact ...
So far, only one person has come forward willing to have their attorney testify on their behalf. This legislation has already passed in the Senate and is poised for Assembly vote in the near future. We desperately need others."
The letter, I believe, speaks for itself. Birth mother privacy is simply the smokescreen the NJSBA uses to promote its own agenda: to present adoption to prospective adoptive parents as an arrangement that "establishes the same relationship between the child and the adoptive parent or parents that would exist if the child had been born to them." ("What You Need to Know About Adoption," NJSBA)
While the NJSBA may just be referring to legal reality here, it's evident to me that this is the rosy picture that adoption attorneys in New Jersey want to paint. In the NJSBA literature, there is no mention about the complexity or the psychological realities of adoption.
In its handbook for prospective adoptive parents, the NJSBA comes closest to describing current adoption reality in its final sentence: "The New Jersey Legislature has been considering legislation for several decades that would open adoption records."
This sentence is not quite accurate since the adoptee rights bills under consideration would not have "opened" adoption records: they would simply have allowed an adult adoptee, at age 18, to apply for and secure a copy of his or her original birth certificate, just as any other citizen is able to do.
Of course, the NJSBA doesn't mention that during every legislative cycle, it does everything in its power to defeat these civil rights measures, opting instead for mutual consent registries, which have a documented failure rate of over 90 percent, or unworkable confidential intermediary systems, which are unfair, expensive and demeaning to the adoptee.
We adult adoptees, original parents, and adoptive parents who have educated themselves on their own, must do our best to educate prospective adoptive parents about the challenges and realities of adoption, because it is quite clear that the NJSBA is not going to do it. Their representatives will continue to "sell" adoption to birth and prospective adoptive parents, even as they oppose the very reforms that would make the practice more ethical and humane for all parties involved.
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