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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

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.

You might also like:

Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries
Sealed Records -- A Secret the Industry Would Like to Keep

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Money and Power Stymie Adoptee Rights Bills

Adoptee rights bills are a hard sell in state legislatures, because their main opponents come from two powerful and moneyed groups: the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and trade associations representing adoption practitioners, whose income depends on their success at "selling" adoption as a simple, win-win solution to complex societal problems.

We'll never know exactly why New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "conditionally" vetoed an adoptee rights bill last year that had been approved by both the State Senate and Assembly.  But we do know that he received considerable pressure from the NJ Catholic Conference of Bishops and the NJ State Bar Association to do exactly what he did -- replace a simple civil rights bill with an unworkable and unacceptable system of state-appointed confidential intermediaries.

Shortly before he issued his directive last June, Gov. Christie received a letter from Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, president of the NJ Catholic Conference of Bishops, asking him to "conditionally" veto the bill.  Expressing concern for "birth mother privacy," Myers wrote, "Reunion between adoptees and birth parents should only be after mutual consent."

Now to the uneducated reader, such a statement might seem logical.  But studies have shown that mutual consent registries have a failure rate of over 90 percent.  Confidential intermediary systems are expensive, obstructive and demeaning to the adopted adult, who is asking only for what every other citizen takes for granted: access to his or her own legal document of birth.

Not all adoptees search, and not all seek reunions, but most would like access to their own truth.  One would think from the Bishops' and the NJ Bar Association's position that original mothers live in dire fear that their grown offspring might someday contact them.  However, DYFS Adoption Registry statistics show that 95 percent of original parents welcome contact, and in Oregon, where adult adoptees have had access to their original birth certificates for 11 years, fewer than a quarter of one percent of original mothers have filed "no contact" preferences.

Whatever reason the Catholic hierarchy has for opposing adoptee rights bills, it would seem that "birth mother privacy" is not really the issue.  One has to wonder at this point just what it is that the Catholic Church is so eager to hide.  Is it their unsavory adoption practices of the past, which profoundly hurt so many young, vulnerable women?  Or is it their desire to shield the Church from any scandal or controversy at all costs?

Recently, I came across a most interesting website entitled "Children of Catholic Priests."  Possibly, at least some of the Bishops' motivation for opposing truth in adoption can be uncovered there.

Ronald A. Sarno, Esq., has published a paper entitled "A Legal Guide" for mothers or expectant mothers of the children of Catholic clergy.  In it, he cautions the women explicitly not to seek any help from the Church itself.

"Be wary of attorneys who represent the Catholic clergy," he writes, "who offer to tell you what legal rights you and your child have; they are being paid to help the institution and to save it as much money and scandal as possible."

Later, he explains, "There is no point in using any canonical procedure to seek help.  No matter what the canons say in theory, in practice canonical courts and/or inquiries have as their sole purpose the protection of the Church from financial responsibility, and to keep embarrassing facts out of the media."

Sarno wants women to know that the Church currently "discourages any showing of parental responsibility on the part of the 'celibate' official who has fathered children and frequently handles the situation by seeking "settlements" and transferring the father out of the state where the mother resides.

A settlement offer, Sarno explains, is an agreement in which the parties pledge not to go to trial.  "The father and the Church want secrecy," he writes to expectant mothers, "and a promise from you not to continue a lawsuit or to go to the media."

The terms of a settlement may require the Church to make regular money payments to the mother until the child is "emancipated," or financially independent.  In some cases, says Sarno, the mother may be prohibited by a court order or settlement agreement from telling her child who the father is.  If she does disclose the truth, she may be in danger of losing her financial settlement.

While none of this information is surprising, given what we know about the Catholic hierarchy's history, it does offer some insight, I believe, into the Bishops' position regarding adoptee rights.

What I would like to know is this: Why doesn't the media further explore these issues?  Why are the lame objections to adoptee rights that the Bishops and the Bar Association make year after year not subject to more scrutiny?  "Birth mother privacy" is not the issue, and these groups would not fight for so long and so hard if it were.

Truth, transparency and accountability are good values, and ones we should be striving to incorporate into every area of life.   Why should adoption be the lone exception?  The answer, sadly, is quite simple.  In the world of politics, money and power tend to speak louder than established facts.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Adoption Experts Sometimes Irk Adult Adoptees

Kudos to blogger Carlynne Hershberger for recently linking to the Psychology Today article: "Beyond Blood: Stigmas about Adoption Remain, and Hurt Families," by Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D.  To date, the article has generated 151 comments, many of them critical about the story's emphasis on stereotypes and stigmas as experienced by adoptive parents.  While a few adoptive parents and adoptees became defensive and lashed out in what I would consider a non-constructive way, many commenters had valuable information to share, and I'm hopeful that adoption "expert" Ms. Goldberg has learned a great deal as a result.

The article generated so much interest, I think, because like so many articles about adoption, it focuses on the feelings and problems of adoptive parents rather than the feelings and problems of adoptees themselves, or of original mothers who relinquished their children.

The story starts with an excerpt from the movie "The Avengers," in which a comment is made inferring that adoptees are "damaged goods."  Ms. Goldberg cites the example to support her theme, that "adoption stereotypes and stigmas are pervasive."

Those of us involved in adoptee rights movements would agree that adoption stigmas are pervasive and that they undermine our efforts to restore our right to secure our own legal documents of birth.  We hoped to see Ms. Goldberg dispel some of the most common adoption stereotypes, such as the wide-ranging belief that original mothers were promised anonymity, or the myth that open adoption has fixed all the legal inequities in the adoption system.

The article, however, quickly becomes all about the challenges of adoptive parents, what they should reply to adoption questions, and how they should educate others about the realities of adoption.  At one point, Ms. Goldberg even asks: "What can adoptive parents do to preserve their sanity?"

This focus, once again, on the experiences of adoptive parents rather than the experiences of mature adoptees who have lived the adopted life for decades, created quite a firestorm.  One commenter sent in an exhaustive list of adoptee blogs and encouraged original mothers to do the same.  "It's infuriating that more isn't known about these voices," she concluded.

That, I think, is the source of frustration.  While adoptees and original mothers struggle to get their stories into the mainstream press, the views and feelings of adoptive parents seem to be welcome everywhere.  Add to that reality the fact that the voices of adult adoptees are largely ignored in the political arena, where the decisions blocking adoptee rights bills are made, and you can see why there are some mighty angry voices out there.

In response to Ms. Goldberg's article, one commenter chastised an adoptive parent who suggested that an adoptee critical of the business side of adoption "seek counseling ASAP."  Explaining why adoptees so often feel disenfranchised, he said, "You have the entirety of a billion-dollar industry supporting everything you say and do.  You have the legal, governmental, medical, religious, and media-based systems of support at your back."

Then there is this comment from an original mother:  "This article doesn't even begin to address the myths surrounding the mothers who lose children.  As is typical in articles discussing adoption, it becomes all about the adoptive parents."

Another original mother reinforces the point: "There's another myth ... mothers were promised anonymity in regards to the children they 'gave up.'  It's a lie!  Most mothers want to be found by the children they lost.  I'm sick and tired of the industry hiding behind my skirts on this issue.  It's not about reunion. It's about civil and human rights being equal."

Naturally, the on-line conversation eventually comes to focus on the travesty of sealed records and other ethical problems in adoption.  "The issue of falsified records alone can be a monumental challenge," says one adoptee.  "We are treated as children and second class citizens while being denied our rights to our own personal birth records."

That adoption as it is now practiced has ethical problems is very clear, as evidenced in this excerpt from an adoption website by blogger Ms. Hershberger:

"The following is a range of total costs and the minimum budget we require to work with us.  It does not include your home study, adoptive parent travel costs, and some states birth mother medical expenses, but does include our fee, travel costs for the birthmother, living expenses, social work and legal fees."

Caucasian: $25K - $40K     Min. Budget of $25K
Biracial: $18K to $25K        Min. Budget of $18K
AA: $15K to $20K               Min. Budget of $15K

As you can see, babies are priced according to their skin color.  Ms. Hershberger correctly asks, "Can you read that and tell me that children are not commodities in this industry?"

How do we fix a system that is this broken and that has strayed so far from its intended purpose to serve the best interest of children?  Sealed records are perhaps the tip of the iceberg when it comes to adoption reform, but they do present a logical starting point.

Here's what I wrote in response to the Psychology Today article by Ms. Goldberg:

"Sealed records are so abhorrent that it is amazing to me that there is still so much institutionalized opposition to adoptee rights bills.  As a 61-year-old adoptee and cancer survivor, I was unable to participate in a medical protocol because I had no access to medical history.  And my story is not unusual.  The response in the legislative arena seems to be, "Oh, well."  Or "We'll let some of you have access to your own legal certificate of birth if your natural mother approves," or "We'll let a state-appointed intermediary search for you," etc., etc.  Such treatment is demeaning, discriminatory and unethical.  When year after year, decision-makers, the adoption industry, and some adoptive parents refuse to listen to what original mothers and adult adoptees are saying, people get angry.  You can only keep the truth bottled up for so long.  Ms. Goldberg, we need adoption "experts" to focus more on the adoptee voice -- it has been ignored in the world of power for decades, while adoptive parents have had plenty of spokespeople all along the way."

The subject of adoption engenders a lot of anger, and understandably so.  That's what happens when the voices of those affected by adoption are routinely ignored by those in positions of power.  Sealed records are an abomination and a stain on all of adoption.  They are indefensible, and there are so many of us who can tell you why.  It is time for all the "experts" and for adoptive parents too to take note and to make the issue a top priority.  Surely we can all agree and speak with a unified voice about the clearly unjust practice of sealing an adoptee's birth record for life.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sealed Records are Wrong. Period

Raising an adoptive child is not the same as raising a biological child.  It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different, and it requires from prospective adoptive parents a prepared and educated mindset.  Why is this simple truth so hard for some people to understand?

I suppose it boils down to the fact that people really want to believe the simple concept that "love conquers all."
Certainly the adoption industry and attorneys who place babies for adoption want to promote that concept -- it's good for business to present adoption as an uncomplicated and "beautiful way to build a family."

Adoption can be an appropriate way to build a family, if all other options have been exhausted, and if all members within the adoption circle are treated fairly and with respect.  But adoption is rarely simple, and someone is almost always treated unfairly and without respect.  It is all too easy to strip identity rights from infants, who cannot speak for themselves.  And it is all too easy to placate the desires of adoptive parents, the paying customers, without educating them about the psychology of adoption in a responsible way.

Adoption is a complex process that demands extra empathy and understanding, and for adoption to become a respected institution, free of the scandal and controversy that now plague it, that complexity and the inequities of the system as it is now practiced must be acknowledged.

First Mother Forum just ran a beautiful commentary on this issue from adoptive mother Gale Thompson.  Many adoptive parents in her church, Thompson relates, do not want to face the fact that raising adoptive children presents some unique challenges.  Thompson says her views are too often discounted when she attempts to share what she has learned as the mother of two older, adopted youth.  Other adoptive parents, she finds, want to believe that "their kids won't have issues because their love will be 'enough.'"

The myth that "love conquers all" in adoption dies hard.  As Thompson so eloquently explains, "An adoptive mother has to accept that her child's desire to reconnect with his or her birth mother has nothing to do with her personally."

This is a key point that every adoption practitioner should be addressing.  But instead many practitioners -- the National Council for Adoption and state bar associations representing adoption attorneys -- continue to advocate for sealed records, to "protect the privacy of birth parents," they say.

Many original parents have come forward to say that they were never promised anonymity from their own children and that they do not desire it.  A thorough academic study of the history of sealed records has revealed that the sealing practice began to protect the adoptive family from "unwarranted intrusion," not the original parent from later contact from her offspring.  In states that have released original birth certificates to adopted adults, fewer than one percent of original mothers have signed contact preference forms saying they prefer to remain anonymous.

Yet business professionals in the adoption field continue to use the privacy argument as their rationale for denying adopted adults access to their own legal documents of birth.  Their real motive, I think, is this:  They want adoptive parents to believe that adoption is an uncomplicated and beautiful way to build a family.  They want them to believe that if they love the child enough, the identity of the original parents will never be relevant or important.  They want them to believe that in adoption, "love will conquer all."

What a disservice such attitudes render to everyone affected by adoption!  For those of us who have been denied access to our medical history and the most basic information about ourselves, love has not conquered all the inequities of the adoption system.  The adoption industry has not served my "best interests" well.  And it hasn't served the best interests of adoptive parents, either, when it has insisted that raising adopted children is just the same as raising biological children.

As adoptive mother Gale Thompson writes, "Knowing that your love alone isn't 'enough' can strike at a woman's core values (as a nurturer) and sense of identity."  Why set adoptive parents up for a sense of failure by refusing to inform them that adopted people will most likely want to know who gave them birth?  Why not share that that desire is perfectly normal and in no way diminishes a child's love for her adoptive parents?

Sealed records throughout an adoptee's lifetime are demeaning, discriminatory and wrong.  Period.  All the love in the world can never undo that basic fact.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Media and Adoption Issues

Usually, I am deeply disappointed with the media's coverage of adoption issues.  Editors and writers often repeat the claims of those who would continue to seal birth records without challenging their logic.  After all, a number of states have restored the civil rights of adult adoptees to know their own identities, and we now have public records to show the effects of such laws.   The data clearly shows that there was never any legal guarantee of anonymity for original parents; it clearly shows that very few original parents desire anonymity, as well.

The same is true for that emotional red herring: the abortion argument.  Not one coherent fact has ever been produced in support of the contention that abortions will increase if a woman cannot be guaranteed secrecy.    Plenty of evidence has been advanced, however, to show that more openness in adoption actually decreases the likelihood that an expectant mother would choose abortion over adoption.

Unfortunately, the data that supports the right of adult adoptees to have access to their own original birth certificates rarely shows up in the mainstream media.  While it loves to tell sentimental reunion stories, the media seems to be most reluctant to cover the factual and more complex issues about discriminatory adoption law.

The 2010  ABC News article entitled "Graying Adoptees Still Searching for their Identities" was a welcome exception to the rule, in that it covered the history of why records were sealed in the first place and how the continuance of that practice has impacted the people  directly involved.  Some of the comments to the article were so illuminating and perceptive that I'd like to repeat them here. (I have highlighted key points on my own.)  Here is powerful testimony from an original mother who placed her son for adoption:

"Of course I, in the 1960's, did not want the secrecy forced by agency and law when I gave up by baby son for adoption  It was simply the only way I could, I -- believing another social fantasy -- thought, give him a chance for a good family life.  For years I felt loss so much that I could not even recognize its source, and it was many years before I had another child.  When my firstborn son grew up and searched and found me was one of the happiest times of my life.  And for him too this was joy -- for both of us the beginning of a firmer wholeness, though he grew up well loved by his adoptive parents.  I think we all need to recognize it is criminal to prevent people from knowing who and how their mother or child is; and we need to remember the effects of not knowing extend beyond mother and child to siblings, partners, and on and on.  Open the records; not to is pointless and hurts people."

Also offering thoughtful commentary on the article was this adoptive parent:

"I adopted my son at birth, and am in an open adoption with his first mom.  We know each other's names, extended family members, have been in each other's homes, e-mail one another, are Facebook friends, etc.  But still, because of the law, my son will never be able to access his original birth certificate.  It is a document that is his, and relates directly to him and his birth, but he cannot have it.  Instead he has a birth certificate that says, in effect, he was born to us.  Seems a little silly, doesn't it?  All of that 'protection' of all of us going on.  I know that is not the case for everyone, but it does seem that there are a whole lot of people being 'protected' that don't want to be, there are a whole lot of people with great reasons for wanting to find information about their family history, and something needs to happen so that people, ADULTS, are able to do so (contact one another) if they need to or even want to."

Here is a grown adoptee's perspective on the lack of logic that promotes the practice of sealing records:

"To keep a little perspective on this matter for those who see the release of original birth certificates as putting adoptees at risk for disappointment -- or worse: Over half of marriage licenses issued to 'happily-ever-after' in-love couples will one day share courthouse archives with divorce papers, which spell out every imaginable maltreatment between the parties.  Does this mean we should ban access to marriage licenses?  Or ban divorces?  Or take it upon ourselves to decide who should get marriage licenses or divorce decrees?  Terrible things happen in marriages -- case in point, the O.J. Simpson murder.  Our laws don't obliterate the identities of the brides when they become part of a new family.  But when a child, born into one family, becomes part of another family, states take it upon themselves to obliterate his identity and create falsified documentation to support it.  Not only that, but he will be forbidden to see, much less obtain a copy of, his authentic document of birth.  This atrocity is totally out of synch with all other aspects of our democratic system."

Here are a few more words of wisdom from mothers who relinquished their children and grown adoptees:

"Adoptees who want to know the truth should not be kept from their own truth by a handful of people that think they know what's best for everyone.  How dare the government think that they have any say or part to play in people's personal history or birth records."

"Never did I want to be anonymous to my own child.  I am so sick of the 'experts' (churches, ACLU, NCFA) speaking for me and other birthparents, trying to protect our privacy, privacy that we never asked for!  For the 1 or 2 percent of birthmothers out there that truly do not want contact, then just say 'no thanks.'  But this subject is really not about contacts and reunions!  It's about the civil rights of a portion of US citizens who are treated as perpetual children, never being trusted with growing up and making their own choices regarding what is truly theirs; their truth about who they are."

"No one has the right to make an agreement on behalf of a child that they will be bound to past the age of majority that will violate that person's civil rights -- NO one.  Adoption is not another 'form of abortion,' it is not the witness protection program."

"This legacy of secrecy and shame has cost us so much.  We've lost the right to heritage, history and quite possibly to know our natural families.  And what's worse: we the 'graying' adoption generation are largely ignored as important, experienced voices in shaping today's adoption best practice."

I encourage all legislative decision-makers to read both the 2010 ABC News article and the 68 comments that follow.  Of the nearly 70 comments, just five were negative, and several of those writers were clearly misinformed.  For example, one commenter opposing adult adoptee access claimed: "More people are protected than they are punished by current adoption law."  What a nonsensical statement considering the fact that in Oregon, which has allowed adult adoptee access since 2000, fewer than 1 percent of original mothers have indicated that they would prefer to have no contact with their relinquished children, now adults.  Other states that have reinstituted adult adoptee access have similar results.  You can see the data  here.

Legislators, editors and writers have a responsibility to be better informed about adoption issues than the general public.  Too many decision-makers and media professionals are relying on biased lobby groups -- groups that have  idealogical agendas or that profit financially from placing children for adoption -- for their adoption information.

ABC News Writer Susan Donaldson James is to be commended for her article spelling out the realities of adoption law.  Her piece and the responses should be required reading for anyone involved with the adoptee rights movement or considering the merits of an adoptee rights bill.

For further information, see:

Graying Adoptees Still Searching for their Identities

American Adoption Congress Statistics on Adult Adoptee Access

Thursday, June 7, 2012

ACLU-NJ Misses the Mark on Adoption

Deborah Jacobs, the executive director of ACLU-NJ for the past 13 years, is leaving her post in early July for another job opportunity. We can only hope that under new leadership, the New Jersey chapter of ACLU will come to better understand the adult adoptee movement for equal rights and equal access.

Under Ms. Jacobs' leadership, ACLU-NJ's disrespect for adopted people has been nothing short of stunning.  Its consistent opposition to Adoptee Rights Bills has not only contradicted the decisions of district and state court judges in Oregon and Tennessee; it has even contradicted the national ACLU position statement on maintaining and releasing government data.

Perhaps the NJ chapter's misguided stance stems from the views of the late Jeremiah Gutman, a former ACLU director, who wrote this in 1999:  If a birthmother "cannot rely upon the adoption agency or attorney, or the law to protect her privacy and to conceal her identity for all time, her choice to go the abortion route may be compelled by that lack of confidence in confidentiality."

Gutman's opinion is just that -- an opinion.  It has not been supported by any factual data.  In fact, statistics suggest just the opposite, that with more openness, abortion rates tend to decrease, yet ACLU-NJ has continued to disseminate this information.

ACLU national's inability to relate to the adoptee perspective can also be seen in the dynamics of its most recent membership drive.  For donating $35, a contributor  can receive a T-shirt embroidered with this noteworthy slogan: "Sue the Bastards."  In some states, the ACLU rejects the use of words like "Indians" or "Redskins" to describe sports franchises for fear of causing offense to minority groups.  Yet it has no problem using the word "bastard," which according to one dictionary means (1) an illegitimate child, or (2) something that is spurious, irregular, inferior, or of questionable origin.  Since some adoptees are indeed bastards, you would think that the ACLU might fear causing some offense in this area.  But unfortunately, the feelings and rights of adult adoptees aren't yet on its radar screen.

The ACLU's use of the word "bastard" in its marketing campaign is nothing compared to the hypocrisy of the New Jersey chapter's recent positions on adoptee rights. It insists that adult adoptees be treated differently than all other Americans.  They cannot apply for their original birth certificates like any other citizen.  They are a special class, and special rules must be devised just for them.  They must pay extra fees and employ state-appointed confidential intermediaries to try to secure what rightfully belongs to them: their own documents of birth, ancestry and genetic imprint.  It would seem that in ACLU NJ's view, adoptees really are inferior to all other people, as the label "bastard" suggests -- because in its opinion, they are not entitled to the same rights as the rest of the population.

ACLU-NJ claims that a birthmother must have an absolute right to privacy, even from her own child, even though recent court decisions say clearly that no such right exists.  The ACLU's 2005 Draft Policy on
Adoption Records reads: "Birth parents should be able to choose whether to keep their identities confidential when relinquishing their children for adoption because that choice is one of the panoply of intimate personal decisions about marriage, family and reproduction protected by the right to privacy under the US and NJ constitutions."

You would think that when the ACLU states there is a constitutional right to privacy, it would cite some pertinent cases.  But it doesn't, most likely because the courts have ruled otherwise.  Here's what the Oregon State Court of Appeals decided in 1999, after a small group petitioned the courts to overturn the law that would grant adult adoptees equal access to their original birth certificates:  The state may release original birth certificates to adoptees "without infringing on any fundamental right to privacy of the birthmother who does not desire contact with the child."

If that decision isn't clear enough, the U.S. Court of Appeals (6th Circuit) said this in 1997, after another group petitioned the courts in Tennessee to overturn the law that would grant some adult adoptees access to their own birth certificates:  ..."If there is a federal constitutional right of familial privacy, it does not extend as far as the plaintiffs would like."  The Sixth Circuit Court further explains:  "A birth is simultaneously an intimate occasion and a public event -- the government has long kept records of when, where, and by whom babies are born.   Such records have myriad purposes, such as furthering the interest of children in knowing the circumstances of their birth."

So according to several court decisions, there is no constitutional right to privacy for original parents, yet ACLU-NJ has consistently insisted that there is.  The ACLU's opposition to adult adoptee access is also difficult to understand in light of ACLU national's views on the management of government data.

In its Policy #272 on Government Data Collection, Storage and Dissemination, ACLU states that "personal information should not be collected from individuals without their informed consent." What adopted individual has ever given her permission to have her true and legitimate birth certificate amended by the state and then sealed for all time?

Later, the ACLU policy paper reads: "The ability of an individual to exercise control over the collection, maintenance, and use by the government of his or her sensitive personal information is central to personal integrity and human dignity."  Exactly!  How is an adult adoptee expected to have that sense of "personal integrity and human dignity" when she is not even permitted to view her own legal certificate of birth?

And consider this statement by the ACLU:  "Government should not use data privacy rights as a pretext to prevent data access; ..."  Doesn't the ACLU constantly cite "privacy rights" as its justification for preventing adult adoptees equal access to their own legal documents?

A final example demonstrating the inconsistencies in ACLU's position towards adoptee rights can be found in this ACLU statement:  "All persons should have equal rights of access to information maintained by public agencies. The identity or status of the party requesting disclosure should not affect the decisions as to what information is actually disclosed."  We adoptees agree!  We deserve equal access to our legal documents and do not understand why we must be considered a special exception, particularly in light of the fact that original parents were never granted an absolute right to privacy from their own offspring.

In her public appearances and communications, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Ms. Jacobs has shown a profound misunderstanding about the complexities of adoption.  In a position paper urging Assembly members to reject an Adoptee Rights Bill last year, the Coalition in Defense of Privacy in Adoption, in which ACLU-NJ participated,    said: "In many cases, the right to confidentiality was at the crux of the (woman's) decision to choose adoption."  I would like to see the data supporting this assertion, since original mothers have told us again and again that they didn't choose confidentiality -- rather, it was forced upon them.

And then this troubling statement by the Coalition:  "More women may choose to keep babies that would be best cared for by an adoptive family."  Is the Coalition saying here that confidentiality is the key that encourages women to relinquish their babies?  If so, the data screams otherwise.  And who are they to say that a child would be better served in an adoptive rather than in an original family? 

Before claiming that a confidential intermediary system is the answer to the adoptee rights dilemma, Ms. Jacobs in another advocacy letter makes one more deeply problematical statement:  "Our coalition members have statewide and national experience which shows that a non-confrontational approach is an essential element of successful reunions."

Here, Ms. Jacobs makes the leap that the Adoptee Rights Bill was all about reunions, even though it was a carefully-crafted civil rights bill that simply granted to adult adoptees the same right that every other American citizen enjoys -- the right to apply for and receive their original birth certificates for a nominal fee.  By using the word "non-confrontational," Ms. Jacobs seems to imply that those adoptees who search on their own will use confrontational methods.

This assumption is insulting and unfounded.  We adoptees have plenty of experience tip-toeing around other people's feelings, and in my experience, tend to be more sensitive than the average person.  Ms. Jacobs also seems to imply that coalition members are better suited to navigate the complexities of adoption than I myself am: a mother, grandmother and educated professional who has lived for 61 years as an adoptee.

I can assure you that coalition members -- the NJ Catholic Conference, State Bar Association, Right to LIfe, National Council for Adoption, Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry of NJ, and ACLU-NJ -- are not better equipped than I am to manage my own life.  They are better equipped only to defend their own ideologies and business practices.

We in the adoption reform movement are not sorry to see Ms. Jacobs move on, as her stance on adoptee rights was not grounded in data or adoption reality.  We hope that her successor will be open to the facts and will come to the same conclusion that the Florida chapter of ACLU reached long ago:

..."Careful scrutiny of adoption statutes and practices has indicated that legal changes are necessary, and that civil liberties of adopted adults are being violated in the absence of any state or national policy on this matter, and with the belief that adopted persons should be treated no differently than other citizens, the Southwest Florida Chapter Board has voted to endorse the following policy:

Numerous states have laws or procedures which impede the ability of adopted adults, their birthparents and other relatives to ascertain each others' identities.  The ACLU believes that as long as state and/or local governments choose to maintain birth records, such records must be maintained and accessible without discrimination by virtue of adopted or non-adopted status."

Equal rights and equal access for adult adoptees -- such a simple concept, and one that the ACLU, of all entities, should be embracing nation-wide.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Where do Family Ties and Adoptee Rights Intersect?

I've been doing a lot of babysitting lately, so not so much blogging.  Memorial Day week-end my husband and I had all six of our grandchildren down at the shore along with one set of their parents -- the other set was attending a wedding in California.  This past week-end we were in charge of our two-year-old grandson while the rest of his family were off on a camping trip in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  I watch three of my grandchildren every Wednesday and Friday from 7:30 A.M. until 4 P.M. while their mother teaches school in Philadelphia.  I see all of my grandchildren often, a fact for which I'm extremely grateful.  In the long run, what really matters except for our love for each other?  Pictured above are five of my grandchildren -- I couldn't get all six to cooperate for a family photo!

Here's the other little guy -- he's 17 months old.

The two oldest, Grace and Emma, are eight and seven.

Unlike many adoption bloggers, I am not in reunion with any of my original family.  When I approached my natural mother ten years ago, she did not wish to meet, although she did share medical and some family history with me.  Her decision hurt, but I've moved on.  She is 87 now and lives in a continuing care facility.  I have a great family, and I feel as if she has missed a great deal by not electing to meet them.

One of my daughters is a physician, and I am proud of all she has accomplished, but even prouder of the type of person she is -- compassionate and family-oriented, quick to laugh and fun to be with.  My other daughter is a high school teacher at a city magnet school for talented kids.  She too is a giving soul, sensitive and talented.  Both daughters are happily married, and their children and families are the center of their lives.

My husband is my best friend.  We have lived many years together now through happy and sad times, and we feel blessed to have each other.  I believe that my original mother would have been proud of the person I've become, if she had been able to open herself up.  But we are both adults, adoption is what it is, and I have to accept that she relinquished in a different era that presented different challenges.

I often think I am a good one to speak out about adoptee rights because there wasn't any Norman Rockwell-type reunion in my case.  From my perspective, that's not the point.  I had loving adoptive parents and a stable upbringing.  For people looking in from the outside, I'm sure my adoption story looked like a total success.

What was always missing, however, is the fact that I had no control over the most basic elements of my life.  I wasn't entitled to know who gave birth to me or how I spent  my first few months.  I never thought that this was a fair scenario, and I felt so much more empowered once I knew the truth about my life and history.  Whether or not a reunion is successful has nothing whatever to do with a human being's civil right to know the truth about her own personhood.

In the future, I will have other decisions to make, but at least they are my decisions, and no one else's.  My original mother had another daughter, five years old, when she relinquished me.  For now, out of respect for my natural mother's wishes, I have elected not to contact this half-sister.  My original mother is in fragile health and does not want to disrupt her life.  She never told anyone else about me except for her own mother.

When my natural mother passes away, however, I may contact my half-sibling.  She too has grandchildren, and we may have something in common.  We may not.  But I am proud of my family, and I think she has a right to know that they exist.