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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What drives the myth of confidentiality in adoption?

In early October, I wrote a blog post detailing how NJ Governor Chris Christie managed to thwart an adoptee rights bill that had been approved by both the State Assembly and the Senate.  In response, a commenter who calls herself MamaGina wrote the following:

woman gives birth
adoption is chosen
pain ensues
the deal is made
privacy promised
records are sealed
life goes on
years roll by
baby becomes adult
enter adoption reform
privacy be damned
do I have this right?

The viewpoint expressed here is one we hear often among adoptee rights opponents.  What amazes me is that MamaGina apparently chose to overlook and/or dismiss some of the most pertinent facts shared within the post.  For example, I shared the Oregon statistics,  which show that fewer than a quarter of one percent of birth mothers have filed "no contact" preferences since an adoptee rights bill enabling adopted adults to secure their own original birth certificates was enacted in 2000.  Would this statistic not indicate that the vast majority of original parents do not live in mortal fear that their offspring might someday find them?

And even more astounding is that the NJ legislation that Gov. Christie opposed provided a one-year window during which those few birth mothers who may not wish to be found could remove their names from the birth document.  This compromise was one that many in the adoption reform movement were unable to support, and I can't blame them.  Legal decisions have determined that no birth parent has ever had a legal right to anonymity from her own child, and I believe that every adopted person has a right to know his or her own birth information with no exceptions.  The fact that opponents to adoptee rights would oppose a bill with such a concession shows me that they are not reasonable people; they are "true believers" who are unable to accept any fact that contradicts their predetermined world view.

Most readers here know that adult adoptee access is not a new and untested concept.  England opened its birth records to adult adoptees in 1975!  The states of Alaska and Kansas never sealed adoptees' birth records.  Alabama reinstated access in 2000, having only sealed records from adoptees in 1991.  New Hampshire's access law took effect in 2005, Maine's in 2009, and Rhode Island's just this year.  Data collected from all these states is reinforcing the findings from Oregon:  most original parents do not desire anonymity, athough they understandably may wish for privacy.  There is a distinct difference between the two concepts.

The myth of birth parent anonymity is just that, a myth.  It is estimated that up to 40 percent of adoption decrees contain some information about the original family.  For example, both my and my brother's adoption papers contain our original birth names.  As those who are familiar with adoption history know, records were sealed to protect the adoptive family from "unwarranted intrusion" and the adopted child from the "shame of illegitimacy."  They were never sealed for the protection of the birth parents.  Similarly, many credible research studies show that adoptee rights bills do not increase abortion rates, nor do they decrease adoption rates.  Yet the opposition continues to insist or imply that they do.  It is this willful ignorance of the facts that is so infuriating.

Here is my reply to MamaGina's comment:


Your viewpoint is based on false assumptions. The first false assumption is that privacy was promised. Several legal decisions have determined that birth parents were never promised privacy -- records were sealed in the mid-twentieth century to protect the interest of adoptive parents. If you're interested in the history of sealed records, I suggest you read the work of law professor Elizabeth Samuels. The second false assumption is that birth parents want anonymity from their own offspring. The data from states that have allowed adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates clearly shows that a tiny minority of birth parents say that they wish to have no contact with their surrendered children, now adults. In Oregon, where adult adoptees have had access to their original birth certificates since 2000, fewer than 1 percent of birth mothers have said they prefer to have no contact, and over 10,000 adoptees have received their birth records. Many, many birth mothers have come forward to say they were never promised anonymity -- rather, it was forced upon them. When birth mothers prefer to have no contact, they can simply say no, just like any other adult. My birth mother, for example, preferred to have no continuing contact, and of course I have honored her request. We did have a letter and phone exchange, however, that provided a great deal of closure for both of us. I think you are confusing privacy and anonymity. Obviously, I have a vested interest in knowing something about my birth parents, because they are part of me. My birth mother and I share a private past, and that past is nobody's business except for our own. Many myths about adoption have been propagated by agencies and attorneys who in their own financial self-interest work primarily to assuage the fears of adoptive parents. They are unfortunately less interested in the welfare of the relinquished child or, for that matter, the welfare of the surrendering parents.

Another adoptee, Renee, gives us this perspective:

"When I found my mother (a very positive, happy reunion), I asked her why she had never looked for me. She answered that the agency had made her promise she wouldn't, and she'd always felt that she had to keep her word. I answered, "Well, it's a good thing I never promised jack-sh*t to anyone, isn't it?!?"

No one's ever been able to produce a document showing any relinquishing mother was promised privacy. Ever. Not one. Because they weren't. It may have been implied to some, but it was never promised, certainly not in any binding way.

Records were sealed to assuage adopter insecurity and for no other reason."

And finally, I'll share this response from Gaye Tannenbaum:

"Based on several DOZEN women I know (including my mother), it actually goes more like this:

woman gives birth
has few options
is told adoption is better for baby
pain ensues - goodbyes are said
is warned not to search
your child is dead to you
she belongs to someone else now
baby is given a new identity
records are sealed
life goes on but memories linger
years roll by
baby becomes adult
I must be patient
will she search for me?
despite people telling her it's wrong to search for me?
despite few clues and doors slammed in her face?
found - reunited - happy tears flow
does the government have the right to keep us apart?
do you have the right to keep us apart?"

Original parents commented too.  Priscilla Sharp asserts that original parents have "the same rights accorded to every other citizen of the United States; that is, to hang up the phone, shut the door, write back and say, 'Please leave me alone.'"  What they do not have, she says, since they have imprinted the child with their own genetic material, "is the right to perpetual anonymity."

A human being has the right to his or her own basic identity.  That fact should not be controversial.  In the realm of adoption, as in all other areas of life, it is time for the government to back off and allow adults to navigate their private business on their own.

For more information, please see:

The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Adoption Reform and Political Games

Long-time member of the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJCARE) Carol Barbieri recently wrote a powerful op-ed piece for the Newark Star Ledger entitled "Christie's 'compromise' on Adoptees' birthright bill unfair."  I encourage you to read the article and the many comments that follow.  The comments commending the piece are balanced and factual, and they often explain the history of adoption and the discriminatory nature of current adoption law.  The few comments disparaging the article are emotional and dramatic, and no facts are ever presented as supporting evidence.

Welcome to the world of adoption reform in New Jersey!  The comments written in response to Barbieri's op-ed closely mirror deliberations as they occur during public meetings.  Members of the adoption reform community appear with indisputable facts that have been gathered from states that have enacted adoptee rights bills allowing fully-grown adopted people to apply for and secure their original birth certificates just like any other citizen.

The statistics show that (1) abortion rates do not go up in states that have enacted adoptee rights bills, nor do adoption rates go down; (2) birth mothers do not live in dire fear that their offspring might someday find them -- in fact in Oregon, where adult adoptees have had access to their original birth certificates since the year 2000, fewer than a quarter of one percent of birth mothers have filed "no contact" preferences; (3) for those few birth parents who may not want to be found, the bill Gov. Christie rejected provided a one-year window during which those birth mothers could remove their names from the birth document.

This last compromise on the part of adoption reform advocates is particularly difficult for many of us in the adoption community to support.  Birth mothers have never had an absolute or constitutional guarantee to anonymity from their own offspring, and we are loathe to provide them with a legal provision that they have never had.  We believe that every adopted person has a right to know his or her own birth information, and that no adopted person should ever be left behind.  The only reason we reluctantly agreed to this provision is that we felt it would finally -- after more than 30 years of lobbying -- get us to the place we need to be.  After one year, the provision would disappear forever, and every adoptee going forward would have the same rights as every other American citizen to secure his or her own birth document.

Now reasonable people can disagree over whether such a provision should ever be made in the interest of moving the adoption reform movement forward.  Other states have successfully passed "clean" bills (Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island), and it sickens me that some adoptees will be hurt by a concession to the fears of some legislators.  Many more adoptees will be helped, however, and after that first year, the culture of adoption will thankfully begin to change.  But we realize this compromise is unacceptable to many and hurtful to some, and after making such a huge and difficult concession, we are deeply offended by some of Gov. Christie's remarks, such as "Adoptees want everything" and "Some adoptees won't compromise."

But back to the comments section in response to Barbieri's op-ed piece.  Read through what some of the opponents to adoptee rights have to say.  In most cases, they are repeating myths, the same myths that opponents to adoptee rights bills propagate during every legislative cycle.

The lobbies that have consistently opposed adoptee rights bills include the New Jersey Catholic Conference of Bishops, New Jersey Right to Life, the New Jersey Bar Association, the National Council for Adoption, and NJ-ACLU.  The myths that they put forth in direct opposition to collected facts are (1) Adoptee rights bills will increase abortion rates and decrease adoption rates; (2) Adoptee rights bills will violate a birth mother's right to privacy  (Remember the Oregon statistics?  They are supported by data from every other state that has enacted an adoptee rights bill.); (3) Adoptee rights bills may have "a chilling effect on adoption."

Instead of alluding to any established fact, Gov. Christie once again repeats the opposition's myths in the language of his "conditional" veto.  He claims, in direct opposition to studies showing that most birth mothers neither asked for nor desired lifetime anonymity from their surrendered child, that "for many birth parents, the protections of anonymity are a significant consideration when choosing adoption."  This statement is patently false -- most birth mothers today insist on some degree of openness, although such agreements are not legally enforceable, and birth mothers of the past simply had no choice.  Anonymity was forced on them; they did not choose it.

Gov. Christie also claims in his veto that "I also strongly empathize with the adopted child, and adoptive parents, who may long to know the identity of the birth parents."  Huh?  The bill that Gov. Christie rejected had nothing to do with adopted children -- it was concerned only with the rights of adopted adults.  One begins to wonder at this point whether the governor even read the bill.  Finally, Gov. Christie says he cannot support the adoptee rights bill as approved by the Assembly and Senate because it may have a "potential chilling effect on adoption."  Now where have we seen that language before?

Instead of simply restoring the right of adult adoptees to know the truth about their own lives, a right that they once enjoyed, Gov. Christie proposed that we create a massive bureaucracy that would require  adult adoptees to employ a state-approved "confidential intermediary" to locate birth parents and secure their approval for any level of contact.  So now Gov. Christie, the spokesman for less government, wants to micro-manage any potential relationship that might occur between two fully-grown adults, even though the vast majority of adults involved do not wish to be yoked to such an intrusive, expensive and ultimately unworkable system.

Here is what Gov. Christie actually did in his "conditional" veto:  He simply resurrected a bill that had been introduced by Assemblywoman Joan Quigley as a last minute "alternative" to the bill that was about to be approved by the Legislature after months of deliberations.  Quigley had refused to meet with adoption reform advocates, and her bill was a direct response to the concerns (acutally "myths") expressed by the powerful Catholic lobbies and the New Jersey Bar Association.

Quigley's alternative reflected the demand of the lobbies that the only acceptable path for adult adoptees to access a copy of their own birth certificate was a confidential intermediary system, a program that is demeaning and disempowering for adult adoptees, who are simply asking for the freedom to manage their own lives.

In his "conditional" veto, Gov. Christie deleted nearly every word of the bill that had been approved 27-10 in the Senate, and 44-26 in the Assembly, and inserted in its place the Quigley bill, which never received any public input at all.  For those who think Christie's action was any kind of compromise, please note that adoption reform advocates were heartbroken, while long-time adoption reform opponents were elated.  A fair compromise?  I don't think so.  And people wonder why we in New Jersey tend to be cynical about politics.

Here are the facts: Adult adoptee access is not a new and untested concept.   England opened its records to adult adoptees in 1975.  The states of Kansas and Alaska never sealed adoptees' birth records.  Alabama reinstated access in 2000, having only sealed records from adoptees in 1991.  Oregon approved an access law in 1998, which took effect in June of 2000.  New Hampshire's access law took effect in 2005 and Maine's in 2009.  Rhode Island's governor signed an access bill into law last summer.

Here's what the collected data tells us:  By 2011 in Oregon, 10,410 adoptees had applied for and received their OBCs.  Eighty-five birth parents requested no contact during that time period, and not one complaint was issued about an adoptee approaching a birth parent against his or her will.  In New Hampshire, 1,315 adoptees received their OBCs from 2005 through 2011, while just 12 birth parents requested no contact.  In the two years after Maine enacted its bill, 848 adoptees received their OBCs, and eight birth parents requested no contact.

By every standard, these "clean" adoptee rights bills are working well.  And yet Gov. Christie has the nerve to continue saying that "adoptees want everything" and "adoptees won't compromise."  New Jersey Assembly and Senate members are to be commended for considering the facts and voting accordingly.  Gov. Christie should be questioned and criticized for his hypocrisy and inconsistency on this issue.  His "conditional" veto was a cynical political maneuver that completely ignored the facts even as it elevated the "myths" that adoption reform opponents continue to spread in their efforts to maintain the status quo.

You might also like:

Gov. Chris Christie, Adoptee Rights and Political Games

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

ACLU-NJ Misses the Mark on Adoption

Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries