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Friday, October 25, 2013

My o-mother passes on, and my sisters lift me up

My original mother passed away earlier this week at the age of 90.  Several weeks ago, she suffered what appeared to be a minor stroke, but all of her organs seemed to break down rapidly, and my sisters tell me that she passed peacefully and rather quickly in the hospital, saying, "I just want to go to sleep."

I was not with my sisters because my o-mother never became comfortable with the idea of publicly acknowledging my existence.  As I said to my sisters Janet* and Eileen,* she always remained kind of a ghost for me, someone I could never really get to know.  The sisters tell me that she was emotionally closed her entire life through and kept many details of her life private, even from them.  For example, my older sister Janet has no idea who her father is -- her mother told her that it was none of her business, and that she didn't need to know.

I don't know who my father is either -- my o-mother told me in a phone conversation ten years ago, "I can't tell you anything about your father.  He was a married man."  Whether she still thought she was protecting people (my o-father has long been deceased), or just protecting herself, I have no idea.  As Janet told me in our first phone conversation, "Our mother was always looking for love in all the wrong places."

My sisters had a long and rocky relationship with their mother, but she was their mother, and they remained loyal and loving caregivers for her until the end.  Following her stroke, Janet came to stay with her Mondays through Fridays, and Eileen took her to her home during the week-ends.  Both sisters and other extended family were with my o-mother when she passed.  And rather than send me an e-mail, Janet picked up the phone and called me when she died.

I admire my sisters so much for caring for their mother, even though she could be difficult and often fell short in caring for them.  They saw her limitations clearly, but they are loving souls who also see that life is what it is, not always what we would like it to be.   They recognized that their mother had some mental difficulties, and still kept sharing their love and caring, even when it was not reciprocated.  Sometimes in life, the strong must step up to help care for the weak.

                          My two granddaughters -- the sister bond can be so very strong!

I am so blessed to call these two women my sisters.  They express so much concern for me even amidst all the emotional turmoil they are now experiencing.  For example, following my o-mother's passing, Janet sent me this message late at night:

"Dear Susan,
I am lying here in bed hoping Mom has finally found peace and happiness she never found in life.  There is so much about Mom that she would never share and now we will never know.  The thing Eileen and I are most upset about is that she didn't let us make the decision to contact you ten years ago.  There was just so much that we could have shared with each other and our families.  I can't begin to thank Jenn (my daughter) enough for sending that letter (introducing herself, her children and me, and asking if Janet would be open to contact).  It was the beginning of something so special I still can't find the words.  You have a place in our hearts forever.  Please take good care of yourself and I will keep in touch.

I wish every adoption attorney, agency official, legislator and religious group that opposes adoptee rights would read this post and then tell me to my face why they think it is their right to deny me my own original birth certificate and make it difficult for me to ascertain the basic truths about my own life. How can they not see how discriminatory it is to treat an entire minority group differently by law than we treat everyone else -- especially now that we have hard data to show that adoptee access bills without restrictions work best for all concerned parties?  This is an intensely private subject that should interest only those people who are directly involved.  Adults must be trusted to handle their own affairs competently, just as they are in every other area of life.

If the naysayers had had their way, and had I not taken active steps to circumvent the archaic and completely discriminatory adoption laws now in place, I never would have experienced Janet's or Eileen's love.  In a short and poignant message, Eileen sent me this note after her mother's death:

"Thank you so much for your love and kindness.  Not knowing you was definitely our mother's greatest loss.  Praying for great results on Friday (I had a CAT scan this morning) -- love you.

Could anyone ask for more supportive and loving sisters?  What a gift they are to me, especially now, as I am facing a challenging medical situation.  They truly lift me up, and I am blessed.

*I am using pseudonyms in this post, as it contains some private communications and information that I prefer not to air publicly.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Gifts My A--Parents Gave Me

As many of you know, I had an unexpected, exhilarating reunion with two sisters recently -- a meeting that gave all of us many hours to review and reflect upon our respective lives, mine as an adopted child and theirs as the daughters growing up with my original mother.  As I pulled out photos and mementoes of my life growing up, I found myself thinking often about my a-parents' special qualities and the security of love I always felt in our home.

                       That's my brother and me dressing up cowboy style in our backyard!

I knew that my mother loved me fiercely from a very young age -- I think I was in kindergarten crossing the street with her hand-in-hand when she happened to overhear a member of the safety patrol call me "Bucky."  (I would later need several years of corrective braces to straighten  my protruding teeth!)  She really let that kid have it, and I'll never forget it.  I knew that she always had my back!

                                            My a-mother on her wedding day in 1938

My father was the outdoor guy, the adventurer, always thinking about what fun activity we might try next.  He loved boats, and he loved the seashore.  He taught me how to sail, how to body surf, and how to water ski.  He was a whiz on skis himself -- had little trick skis on which he could perform 360 degree turns and on which he could ski backwards.  I never did master those tricks, although I did become a proficient slalom skier and always loved it.

Besides teaching me how to ski, my dad taught every one of my friends who showed the slightest interest.  He would bring that boat around time after time, patiently instructing the student to keep the arms straight, heels down and knees together.  He was full of life, and he passed that enthusiasm on to all of us.  When we could, my husband and I bought a little ski boat, and we spent countless hours teaching our kids and their friends to water ski.  Now my daughter and son-in-law are taking a look at day boats.  The outdoor traditions my dad began live on!

                          My dad and my brother by Barnegat Bay off Long Beach Island

My mother lived quite a few more years than my dad, and she gave us all a great gift -- she showed us by example how to age gracefully.  I think of her so often now as I'm facing a serious health challenge myself.  When my mom turned 80 -- she lived until age 89 -- I wrote her a Christmas letter listing the qualities I most admired about her, and they are the qualities, I think, that make for a happy life.  Here are some of those traits I always cherished in her:

Her determination to keep forging ahead:   My mom had three hip operations in two years and recuperated in a hospital bed in my living room all three times, cheerfully and in a determined manner.  She suffered a stroke in her 80s, but through sheer determination and willpower, managed to recuperate in time to attend both of my daughters' weddings and preside as the proud matriarch of the family!

Her special gift for setting tables and adding just the right touch of style:  My mother always set a beautiful dinner table, decorated with flower arrangements and illuminated by candles.  She also helped us sell our first house in a day!  She arranged flowers, helped me to reorganize closets, and delivered sweet-smelling potpourri.  The house never looked more beautiful.

Her sense of humor:  My mother loved to laugh, and her laugh was infectious.  She spent years in her later life prefacing every conversation with, "When I go to Medford Leas," ... (a continuing-care community) even though she was someone who loved her home and resisted change mightily.  After a while, we all just laughed when she said it, and she laughed right along with us.  She always enjoyed poking fun at herself.

Her genuine interest in everything about her family:  We could never have asked for a mother more interested in her children, their families and her grandchildren.  She reveled in every achievement, saved every note, commemorated every occasion.  She bragged about the kids' impressive grade point averages and sports achievements, and she helped to finance my daughter's medical school expenses.

Her interest in people of all ages:  Unlike many grandmothers, my mother often invited other young mothers on the street over for coffee, and enjoyed hearing all about their challenges with the schools and their young children.  She was a people person, interested in others, so people always enjoyed being around her.

Her sunny outlook on life and appreciation for her family, friends, fine food, beautiful gardens and panoramic views:  It is a special gift to be able to see and appreciate beauty wherever you are.  My mother had that gift.

My life review as an adopted person has been so fulfilling because I am able to fill in all the blanks now.  Legal and cultural barriers to the truth of our histories remain, but I was able to circumvent them and find two sisters who could not have been more loving and helpful.  I love these sisters dearly, and I love my original mother too, even though she was unable to do more than say over the phone, "I love you in my heart."  She has had her hurts, and she has her limitations.  And how I cherish my a-parents, who have passed on to me a zest for life and a legacy of love that I am proud and honored to pass on to my own children and grandchildren.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Serendipity -- An Unexpected Reconnection with my Sisters

This past Saturday I met my two sisters Janet* and Eileen* for the first time.  What an afternoon it was: sharing heartfelt hugs, shedding a few tears, enjoying many laughs, telling family stories, and combing through boxes and boxes of photos.  To know just how this unlikely reunion came about, you will have to read my previous post.  Many seeming coincidences had to come together, and my daughter Jenn was the grand connector.  For me, this unfolding of events is a type of grace that cannot be explained, just accepted and treasured.

                                My oldest granddaughter Grace looks just like my sister Janet

In these posts, I am giving my sisters pseudonyms, because my original mother is 90 years old and in fragile emotional health.   We would not want to expose that emotional fragility, or hurt her in any way.  Like many human beings, she has her limitations, and she does the best that she can.  Although she was able to say to me "I love you in my heart" ten years ago, she did not want to meet, and like any reasonable adult, I have honored her request.

My sisters and I can go right ahead deepening and developing our relationship -- something that all three of us very much want to do -- without hurting our original mother.  We are 68, 63 and 58 years old, surely old enough to decide who we do and do not wish to associate with.  Once again, why does any state entity or adoption facilitator feel that it is his or her right to attempt to micromanage adult relationships simply because adoption is involved?

The long-time practice of sealing the original birth certificates of adopted people is outdated, discriminatory, ineffective and immoral.  Every adult should have access to her own legal documents and be trusted to behave in an appropriate manner.  It is a well-established fact that original mothers were never promised lifetime legal anonymity, and most original mothers, actually, do want to know what has happened to their surrendered offspring.  Furthermore, adopted people are not stalkers intent on upending the lives of their original families.  In most cases, they are just looking for the beginning of their own stories, medical information, peace and closure.

By some type of grace, I have received all of these things in spite of the efforts of the state of New Jersey to keep my original birth certificate sealed.  I now know that malignant melanoma, a disease I am currently battling, runs in my family line.  I know that I have inherited my skeletal structure and my blond hair from my original mother, who is Danish.  I know that Janet as a young girl bears an amazing resemblance to my oldest granddaughter Grace.  Janet loves working in her garden, just as I love working in mine.  Eileen's favorite place on earth is the beach -- so is mine.  Eileen loves nature and flowers -- so do I.  The fact is that the three of us feel a profound connection to one another.  There is truly a bond here that transcends space and time.

And in another moment of grace, this amazing reconnection has made me appreciate my adoptive family, whom I have always loved, even more.  My mother and father have long been deceased, but how they loved each other, and how they loved my brother and me!  They provided a happy, stable home for us, and my a-brother continues to be a loving and loyal friend to both me and my husband.  There was always lots of love and laughter in my home when we were growing up.

Today, as an older adopted adult, I believe I have a wiser perspective about the institution of adoption that I ever had before.  It is not the people touched by adoption who are flawed -- it is the adoption system itself.  Until adopted adults are treated equally by law and with the respect they deserve, adoption will remain a terribly tainted system.  No matter where in the world of adoption you might fit, I would hope you would come to understand my perspective, which has been gained from years of experience living as an adopted person.  Please believe me when I say that there is plenty of love to go around, and that all of our connections -- to both original and adoptive family -- can indeed be sacred.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of my original mother, who is emotionally fragile.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Life Comes Full Circle -- I Believe in Miracles!

                                 One of my sisters loves outdoor activity, just like me!

Friends, I've always had a scientific brain and have been skeptical about the veracity of reported miracles.  But after the week I have experienced, I have to report that unexplainable miracles do indeed happen!

As many of you know,  I have been diagnosed with advanced malignant melanoma, and I am participating in a promising clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.  The side effects are rather miserable, and it is difficult at times for me to keep my spirits up.

Some of you may remember that I contacted my original (o) mother over 10 years ago.  She shared a little information, but did not want to have ongoing contact, and asked that I please not write her again.  She also asked me to "please not make trouble" by contacting her other daughter, who she said did not know about me.

My long-range plan was to look for my half-sister after my original mother passed away.  Two years ago, when I was surveying public records to see if my (o) mother had died, I by chance discovered the identity of my half-sister -- her husband had just passed away, and both she and my (o) mother were mentioned in the obituary.

I wrote my sister Janet* a letter at that time, but couldn't quite get myself to send it. (fear of more rejection?)  Shortly after my diagnosis, my daughter Jenn said to me, "Well, I didn't make any promises to anyone, and I have a gut feeling that I should write your sister, if you will give me your blessing."

I told Jenn to go ahead, but if the reaction were negative, to not share it with me, as I just don't have the energy right now to deal with it.  Jenn did send the letter earlier this week, and she called me several days ago, weeping, to relay the following story:

Janet had just moments before called Jenn, very emotional and just ecstatic to have been found!  She and her sister Eileen*, a sister I didn't even know I had, had found my original birth certificate just three weeks before in their mother's apartment.  (At 90, she is still living, but not very stable.)

My sisters had no idea how to find me, although they had been looking on the internet, reaching dead ends at every turn.  As Eileen has relayed to me, "I couldn't sleep at night, wondering where you were and if you had had a happy life."

What joy for me to discover that my sisters were not only happy to be found, but that they had been actively looking for me!  Since Monday, I have been showered with love and total acceptance for all of who I really am.  This Saturday, if my health allows, they are both coming to my home to see me.

I have learned so much about my personal history so far.  According to Janet, my (o) mother is an emotionally closed, unstable and unpredictable person who "should have been on medication her whole life."  Sadly, says Janet, she doesn't believe our mother has experienced a happy day in her whole life, and "she has always looked for love in all the wrong places."  She summed up by explaining, "My mother has never been able to freely accept or give love."  She told me all of this with honest compassion.

How I would have benefited from knowing all of this when I was 18 years old!  My (o) mother's rejection had nothing whatsoever to do with me -- she had limitations which prevented her from being the mother she should have been even to the children she kept.   Both of my sisters had pledged to themselves that they would not be our mother in their adulthoods, that they would love their own children with all their hearts and souls.

I have also learned some vital medical facts, the most important one being that malignant melanoma is present in our family line, as my o-mother's brother had experienced a bout with it.  Knowing this, would doctors have been more attentive to the lesion on my toe 16 years ago, when I had my first experience with melanoma?  We'll never know, but how insane that I had no access to this information.

But what has moved me the most of all these past few days is the fact that both of my sisters are such sweet, loving souls, who had leaned on each other for support all the while they were growing up.  They are both grounded, respectful, resilient and open.  We have exchanged family pictures and loving notes, and I can say already without reservation that I love them both, and that they love me.

Some remarkable circumstances had to come together for this reconnection to occur.  I marvel at --

... the fact that two years ago, I felt a pull to the computer, urging me to see if my (o) mother had passed away.  It was during that episode that I accidentally discovered Janet's identity through her husband's obituary.

... the fact that Jenn felt an irresistible urge to reach out to Janet earlier this week.

...the fact that just three weeks ago,  Janet and Eileen accidentally discovered my original birth certificate in their mother's apartment.  They started to look for me immediately.

So readers, what do you think?  Do you think that this primal reconnection at this most trying time in my life is a coincidence, grace, or a miracle?  You know what?  I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.  Right now, I'm just soaking in a profound love that I did not know existed, and that I never could have or would have expected.

As Eileen wrote, "I have always believed that there is a bond between mothers, children and siblings that cannot be broken by separation or time."

Amen, Eileen.  I now believe in miracles, and my heart is full.

*Names have been changed to protect the fragile health of my original mother.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Facing a life-threatening illness and thinking about adoption

This past week has been the most difficult one I have ever endured.  I  had just returned from Spain, where I felt great and walked at least five miles every day.  I noticed a little bump on my thigh and had my friend, a surgeon, take a look at it.  He thought it was vascular, but scheduled an ultrasound just to be sure.  The results were concerning, so the next day I went in for a PET scan.  That day I got the devastating news that the melanoma that I had 16 years ago has returned and metastasized.

It is surreal to go from feeling just fine one day to being told that you have stage 4 melanoma the next.  I vacillate from feeling as if I am an actor in a play to feeling sick at my stomach as I contemplate what I am facing.  On the bright side, I have the best husband, daughters and extended family in the world, and I have been surrounded by caring and love every minute of every day.  My best friend can keep me laughing no matter what the circumstance.

Part of my beautiful support team -- granddaughter Grace and daughter Jenn in Spain

My physician daughter was able to schedule an appointment for me with one of the best melanoma doctors in the world within the week.  There is hope, and I am going to try to hold onto it with all my might.  As she explained to me, we don't talk of curing melanoma at this stage, but in ongoing clinical trials at Penn, they are seeing partial and complete remissions in a number of patients through a combination of standard and immunology therapy.  I qualify for the trial, and after several more procedures this week and next, will be getting started.

I welcome prayers from those who pray, positive energy from those who meditate, and good wishes from one and all.  I am working hard on mindfulness exercises, as I can see already that a major challenge in all of this will be letting go, living in the moment, and controlling the racing of my mind.

As my thoughts and emotions have careened all over the place this past week, I have been thinking about why I have been so dedicated to adoption reform and adoptee rights over these past 16 years.  I was blessed with loving adoptive parents, and I found myself feeling so very close to them this past week, as I sat on a bench looking out over a beautiful cove where I had grown up sailing and water-skiing with my parents and brother.

But like many adopted people, I feel connections to other people as well.  Neither I, nor any adoptee, should ever be forced into an either-or kind of thinking, in which one set of parents is recognized and validated, and one set is not.  Having experienced the paradoxes and willful mistruths of the adoption system, I myself have no tolerance for half truths and the masking of deep truths.

Throughout my life, I have learned that the road to peace is never through falsehood, and I think that is the reason I have always felt so devoted to truth, fairness and social justice.

It is truly misguided and so very wrong for the state to attempt to block two grown adults from knowing the truth about each other's identity -- especially when those adults share such a deep, primal connection.  We cannot and should not ever block a human being's path to truth, peace, forgiveness and love.

I was told through the agency that placed me that my original mother did not want any contact with me.    With help from several enlightened souls, I found her on my own and sent her a sensitive and compassionate certified letter, asking her also for medical history.  As a human being facing a medical crisis 16 years ago, I felt that I was worthy enough to at least ask for information.  I received it, and eventually my original mother told me over the telephone that she had always loved me "in her heart."  Not every adopted person will seek out her original parents or get even that far in the journey.  Some will get further.

But how dare the state block the possibility for that love to be expressed?  How dare they?  Let people -- adults with minds and souls of their own -- find their own way.  Facing a critical illness at the moment, I can tell you with certainty that there is nothing that is more important than love.  Nothing.  Please, let's let the light, the truth and the love overcome the misguided fears and the ideology.

There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer,
no disease that enough love will not heal;
no door that enough love will not open;
no gulf that enough love will not bridge;
no wall that enough love will not throw down;
no sin that enough love will not redeem ....
It makes no difference how deeply seated
may be the trouble; how hopeless the outlook;
how muddled the tangle; how great the mistake.
A sufficient realization of love will dissolve it all.
If only you could love enough you would be the happiest
and most powerful being in the world.

Emmet Fox

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In Life and in Adoption, History Matters

I have just returned from a three-week whirlwind tour of Spain with my daughter, her family and 30 high school kids.  Daughter Jenn, her three children, a dear friend of mine and I spent the first two weeks based in a Madrid apartment.  The last week, when all our husbands arrived, Jenn and her family stayed on in the apartment, while my friend and I with our spouses moved up a bit to a nearby Madrid hotel.  What an adventure we had visiting Barcelona, Segovia and Toledo, and touring all the highlights in Madrid -- the world-class art museums, parks, plazas, cathedrals and royal palaces.

To visit Spain is to witness the enduring aspects of history -- the aqueduct systems designed and built by the Romans, the old Jewish quarters that remain even after their inhabitants were driven out hundreds of years ago when they refused to convert to Christianity, the cathedrals and museums that house art from the Middle Ages and in some cases, artifacts that date to the time period before Christ.

                                      Grandaughter Grace by the Segovia Aqueduct

The fact is that before Christianity became intertwined with power and politics,  people from different faiths -- Muslims, Jews and Christians, lived together peacefully in Spanish cities like Toledo.  But from my perspective, the Christian faith became distorted when it was ordained the official faith of the land by powerful kings and queens.  The tolerance and understanding that had existed among different religious groups gave way to ultimatums and purges.

Today, we continue to see intolerance and a lack of understanding among some Catholic bishops in powerful leadership positions.  With all my travels this month, I haven't had time to post any articles on my blog.  But I remain dismayed that the Catholic Bishops in New Jersey continue to oppose an adoptee rights bill that would simply grant to adopted adults the same right to access their original birth certificates that every other American citizen enjoys.

While bishops in other states are beginning to testify in support of adult adoptee birthright bills, the  Conference of Catholic Bishops in New Jersey and New Jersey Right to Life continue to oppose such legislation -- and unfortunately base their stances on false information that has been disproved in every state that has restored the civil rights of adopted adults.

Even more depressing, the Conference this past spring hired Princeton Public Affairs Group,  a powerful lobbying firm, to represent its interests in the State Legislature.  The Bishops’ agenda in New Jersey includes opposing a bill that would extend the statutes of limitations on lawsuits for child sex-abuse cases and unfortunately, opposing the Adoptee Birthright Bill that was approved by the NJ Senate 30-8 on June 20 after it had passed unanimously 9-0, with one abstention, out of the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee.

The Bishops in New Jersey continue to insist that the issue revolves around “birthmother confidentiality,” even though the courts have ruled that no such legal right exists. The data from states that have opened birth records to adopted adults shows that most birthmothers -- 95 percent, by conservative estimates -- do want to know what has happened to their children.

Clearly, there is something else at stake here, that the Catholic Conference would spend an exorbitant amount of money to hire a prestigious firm like the Princeton Public Affairs Group to obstruct bills that would give a voice to those who for many years have had no voice.

According to the Newark Star Ledger, the firm’s founder, Dale Florio, Esq., is the “consummate Trenton insider.”  (The Auditor: Catholic Bishops Hire New Lobbyists, June 9, 2013)  In 2009, he was named one of the most influential people in the state in “The Power Issue” of New Jersey Monthly.  He served on the Finance Committee for Gov. Chris Christie’s successful gubernatorial campaign, and was key advisor to Christie Todd Whitman during her successful primary and general election wins in 1993 and 1997.

It is truly disillusioning to see the kind of power and money that is being enlisted to distort documented facts and promote the NJ Catholic Conference’s agenda.

Governor Chris Christie, as he campaigns for re-election and considers a possible run at the presidency, says he wants to be viewed as an independent thinker who takes action based on the truth and what is right, as opposed to what is politically expedient.

In 2011, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, president of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, wrote a letter to Gov. Christie, asking him to “conditionally veto” a bill approved by the Senate and Assembly that would have given adopted adults equal access to their original birth certificates.  Unfortunately, Gov. Christie did just what Archbishop Myers requested.  (“Gov. Christie conditionally vetoes adoptee birth certificate bill,”  Susan K. Livio, Newark Star Ledger, June 24, 2011)

The question in the coming year, as the Birthright Bill moves through the NJ Assembly, is this:  Will Gov. Christie continue to defer to the church, and its powerful lobbying group, on this issue?  Or will he respond to the will of the elected Legislature and to the evidence that has been accumulated in states that have enacted Adoptee Birthright Bills?

We would hope that there is someone in his inner circle who would counsel the latter, especially as the Catholic Conferences in states like Michigan, Georgia and Ohio have now acknowledged the facts and testified in favor of Adoptee Birthright Bills.

Representatives of Dioceses that were formerly opposed to adoptee birthright bills in states that have since passed such legislation, like New Hampshire and Maine, now say the laws have caused no problems or adverse effects on adoption.  Marc Nutty of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, says. “We know of no problems or complaints and have been pleased with the outcome.”

Catholic Charities of Atlanta, testifying in favor of a pending Birthright Bill in Georgia, stated, “We believe strongly that Georgia-born adult adoptees should have their civil right to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate restored to them.”

Gov. Christie needs to know that there is more to this issue than what he is hearing from the New Jersey Catholic Conference.  In seeking good counsel, he might start by conversing with his fellow Republican, Senator Diane Allen, who has been sponsoring Adoptee Birthright legislation and hearing testimony on the issue for the past 17 years.

Following the committee hearing on June 13, during which 17 people testified for the bill and no one publicly testified against it, Senator Allen said, “It’s a civil rights issue, and it’s appalling to me that we treat (adopted) people so poorly.  We have made them a separate class, an inferior class, because they are adopted.  How absurd is that?”

In the coming months, as the Catholic Conference and its powerful lobbyists continue to promote the myth that birthmothers were promised and desire confidentiality from their own offspring, I hope legislators will look beyond the rhetoric, absorb documented data, and remember Senator Allen’s words.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Right to Know -- Perspectives of an Adult Adoptee

                          The impact of genes -- my grandson looks just like his dad!

Recently, Deanna Shrodes on her website Adoptee Restoration interviewed therapist Karen Caffrey, LPC, JD, about the inner struggles many adopted adults have experienced. Caffrey specializes in working with adopted people, and her insights certainly resonate with me, an older adoptee who was relinquished over 60 years ago.

Caffrey says: "The longer ago the adoption took place the more likely the adoption was closed ..., and taking place in a culture when harmful adoption myths were even more prevalent than they are today. Thus most adult adoptees have grown up in a situation where one of their most important human needs, that being the need to know their origins, has been unmet. Basic, factual information is typically missing. (viz. - What is my nationality? What do my blood relatives look like? Where are they? Why am I not being raised by them? ) Even more damaging is that an adoptee’s natural need to ask questions about herself was often responded to by her adoptive parents (and others) with shaming, fear, hurt, judgment or unreality."

My personal experience reflects Caffrey's thoughts. I must have been about seven or eight years old when I asked my adoptive mother where "my real mother was."

Obviously, I didn't have the sophistication then to ask my questions in a politically sensitive tone! I just wanted to know where my first mother was and why she felt unable to keep me. My mother in her response was uncomfortable and evasive, and later that night my father came to me and said, "You know -- that really hurts your mother when you ask where your other mother is. She thinks of herself as "your real mother."

I must have internalized that lesson in a powerful way, because I never asked my adoptive parents -- who did love me, I know -- about my original family again. I didn't know exactly why, but that territory, evidently, was a place where I wasn't supposed to go.

Caffrey says that "adopted children tend to draw all sorts of mistaken conclusions" from such exchanges, such as:

“I am bad.”
“I shouldn’t ask questions.”
“I make people sad or angry when I ask questions.”
“There’s something wrong with me.”
“What I think I need isn’t important.”
“What I need is wrong.”
“My feelings don’t make sense.”

I don't blame my adoptive parents for their inability to delve deeper into adoption issues, because the "professionals" of their era counseled them that an adoptive family is just like any other, and that infants come to the parents as "blank slates."

But what I learned from the closed adoption system is just what Caffrey articulated. I learned that I shouldn't ask questions because I make people uncomfortable and sad when I do. I learned that what I think I need is apparently unimportant and upsetting to others, so there must be something wrong with me. And probably most important, I learned that my innermost feelings don't make sense in this world of adoption, so I better keep them to myself.

Unfortunately, it took me years and several bouts of depression to recognize that there was nothing wrong with my questions or my feelings -- the problem, rather, lies in the adoption system itself, a system that is still predicated. unbelievably, on amended and legally sealed birth records.

As Caffrey relates, it takes many adopted people a long time to recognize that their struggles may be adoption-related, because "simply put, they've been explicitly or implicitly told that being adopted did not impact them."

When I was growing up, no one ever talked about adoption at all. It wasn't supposed to be an issue, so it wasn't. I was always encouraged to "look forwards, not backwards." When I became a teenager, I started to experience periods of unexplained sadness, but I didn't attribute them to adoption -- I just concluded that I must be hyper-sensitive and not quite normal.

I "succeeded" in spite of these feelings. I married a man who I treasure just as much today as I did on our wedding day in 1971. We have two wonderful daughters -- they, their husbands, and their children are the light of our lives. I have had meaningful employment in the teaching and writing fields, and today, I enjoy watching three of my grandchildren two days a week.

     Genetic links -- this granddaughter looks like her paternal Lithuanian grandmother

But the fact that I am a content person today, blessed in many ways, does not mean that the institution of adoption is wonderful just the way it is. It took me far too long to become comfortable with myself and my own feelings because of a closed adoption system that denied the importance of genetic links.

I didn't reach out to my first mother until I was 52 years old and had already experienced a serious and life-threatening medical problem. Searching presented so many obstacles, and I was discouraged by legal and cultural barriers at every turn.  I would not have had the confidence to do it when I was younger.

I find it beyond belief that even today, people feel compelled to comment in response to adoption articles that "genes don't matter -- your 'real family' are the people who raise you.

Of course genes matter! If they don't, why does every physician I see ask me for a detailed family health history? Why does my younger daughter have the same skeletal and muscular structure as I do and unfortunately have a tendency, like me, to experience chronic back pain?

My younger daughter looks a lot like me; my older daughter resembles my husband and shares many of his character traits. Three of my grandchildren look just like their fathers; one looks like her paternal grandmother, and two look like their mothers. Only in the world of adoption, apparently, do "genes not matter."

    Genevieve, the granddaughter standing in front of me on the right, looks a lot like me!

I always feel compelled to add the information here -- since many people, unfortunately, equate criticism of adoption with an unhappy adoptive family -- that my adoptive parents were loving and responsible people.  No one during the era in which I was relinquished was well equipped to deal with adoption realities because the "professionals" then were simply misguided or just didn't know any better.

But today, there is no excuse for continuing the practice of amended and sealed birth certificates, and for denying full-grown adults access to their original birth certificates.  It is such an archaic and unjust system that it is amazing it continues to have its proponents.  Any institution that is predicated upon secrets and lies is not a healthy institution.  Some will argue that most adoptions are open today, so the problem has been solved.  But adult adoptees' original birth certificates remain sealed in state vaults throughout most of the United States.  Adopted adults continue to have to take all kinds of circuitous routes to obtain even the most basic information about themselves.

There are many reasons why more people don't speak out about the need for equal treatment under the law for adult adoptees.  As I explained, it took me over 50 years to develop the confidence to seek what I wanted, because of the cultural and legal barriers that remain a part of adoption in the United States today.   The laws that govern adoption need a major overhaul, and truth and justice are always values worth fighting for, especially in the complex and emotional world of adoption.

You might also like:

Ask A Therapist: What Are the Greatest Struggles of Adoptees?

Can we please stop the "real parents" adoption debates?

An adoptee's perspective on love and why truth matters

Sealed Records are Wrong.  Period

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Celebrating some positive signs in the world of adoption reform

There have been several articles and events to celebrate in the world of adoption reform these past few weeks.  On April 24, the Atlantic published a story by Emily Matchar entitled: "Adoptees Shouldn't Have to Use Facebook to Find Their Birth Parents."  It's rare to find a mainstream article that champions the rights of adopted people like this one does.  It's brief but compelling, and features promising quotes like these:

From Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy:  "Imagine a world where adult adoptees could access their birth records like EVERY other American and know the name they were given," she writes. "Then they wouldn't have to post pictures of themselves on Facebook holding signs with personal information all over. Then they wouldn't have to beg for strangers for shares in order to find out who they look like and if cancer runs in their family."

From the Adoptee Rights Coalition:  "Adult adoptees in most of the advanced, industrialized nations of the world have unrestricted access to their original birth records as a matter of right.  In contrast, adult adoptees in all but six states in the U.S. are forbidden unrestricted access to their own original birth certificates, due to archaic laws that are a legacy of a culture of shame that stigmatized infertility, out-of-wedlock birth and adoption."

From the US Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services:  "Placing a child for adoption can cause a sense of loss that is all-encompassing. Some birth parents experience longstanding grief, that is, grief that lasts a very long time and may continue to actually interfere with a birth parent's life many years later."

Matchar's story to date has generated 235 comments, most of them supportive of the adoptee rights movement.  The Atlantic story was a nice surprise.  So was the recent MSNBC coverage of Kathryn Joyce's new book, The Child Catchers; adoption corruption in Ethiopia; the Indian Child Welfare Act and why it is needed; and the urgent need for more oversight and regulation of the adoption industry.

I didn't realize that Melissa Harris-Perry would be featuring Kathryn Joyce on her MSNBC show April 28, along with Tarikuwa Lemma, a young Ethiopian woman whose family thought that at age 13, she was going to the United States for an educational exchange program, when in reality an unscrupulous agency had arranged for her to be adopted.  Other participants on the panel included Karen Moline, an adoptive mother and Board member of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform; Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians; and William Jelani Cobb, a University of Connecticut historian.

Ironically, I had just finished reading Joyce's book a few days before when I happened to tune in to the Melissa Harris-Perry show.  I nearly jumped off the couch and started to cheer when I saw one professional after another getting to air -- in prime time -- some of the profound problems with the business model that drives the adoption industry.  This is a subject that mainstream media usually avoids, partly because adoption agencies and their lobbies have driven the adoption narrative for so long.

Joyce makes it clear in her book and in person that many of the people motivated to adopt have the best intentions.  They may not, however, be aware how rife with abuse transnational adoption has been, and in some countries, continues to be.  I'll provide a link to the show at the bottom of this post.  Here are some of the most important points made by panel participants:

From Kathryn Joyce: "There is so much emphasis on and enthusiasm for adoption in the United States. When adoption agencies prey on families' desire to 'help' children they believe to be in need, there have been lies and misinformation seeded in from the very beginning."

Joyce explains that adoption agencies started to turn overseas when domestic adoption rates started to plummet.  In the US, there are many more couples wishing to adopt than there are infants available for adoption.  It costs an average of $30,000 to adopt a child from abroad, says Joyce, and there is little oversight as to where that money is going.  When countries tighten regulations, adoption agencies go out of business, so there are financial incentives for operating in locations with little oversight.

From Tarikuwa Lemma:  "I was angry and grieving when I came to understand what adoption was because I already had a family at home.  The adoption agency had given my adoptive parents false information.  They thought they were saving me from a horrible life in Africa."

From Karen Moline: "Staggering sums of money are paid to these countries, and there is no transparency."  Adoption is "an emotional process coupled with a business model," and many people just can't believe that entities who insist they have the best interests of children at heart would be dishonest or manipulative,  "They can't believe it, so they won't believe it."

Of course some evangelicals have reacted to Joyce's recently-published book defensively, immediately writing the author off as a far-left extremist, but others have had a more measured approach and have opened up discussions for further dialogue and learning.  For example, Dana, whose family includes an adopted son from China, recently posted an article on her blog entitled "Orphan Fever: Are Christians Naive?"

In it, she refers to a summary of Joyce's book that had been published in Mother Jones, that as she says, "paints a pretty unflattering picture of both evangelical Christians and the international adoption business.  Since I'm an evangelical Christian and an adoptive parent, I decided to read it," she continues, "and I encourage you to take a deep breath and read it too."

Dana cautions her readers to "resist the urge to be defensive," and instead read the article with an open mind.  "Why not give our critics a respectful hearing?" she writes.  "Why not see if there's anything to be learned?"  Like Dana, I try to enter discussions about adoption in a respectful way.  It is an emotional subject, and one that easily leads to hurt feelings and misunderstandings.  The correct questions, in my view, are "Where can we find common ground?  What can we do together to make adoption better?"  In her post, Dana asks, "How can we, as Christians, work to better serve orphans and widows and needy families worldwide?"

Encouraging us all to look at both sides,  Dana refers her readers to an article written by an adoptive dad:  "Is the Left Launching an Attack on Evangelical Adoption?"  While I thought the writer was overreacting to the points made in Joyce's book, I can see why, as an adoptive parent who dearly loves his children, he might feel defensive.  I read through the comments to his article and felt discouraged as they deteriorated in many cases to a kind of left versus right culture war.

But I had the opportunity to make several comments of my own, and who knows who might read or understand them?  At one point I said this:  " I am happy to say that I loved my adoptive parents, and they loved me, but I do not love the system of adoption that continues to treat me by law like a perpetual child incapable of managing my own affairs. My original family is a part of me, and wanting to know my own history is in no way related to the love I have for my parents (now deceased). Incidentally, when I was being treated for a life-threatening illness, I was turned down for a medical trial because I had no access to family health history. Evangelicals should be leading the way to fight for adult adoptee access bills. Instead, they too often stand in the way."

Later, I make this point: "As adoptees, our perspectives are constantly being drowned out by the prevailing narrative that 'adoption is wonderful.' Was I grateful for my parents, who I loved very much? Of course. But I am not grateful for the system of adoption, which unnecessarily prevents many adoptees from knowing even the most basic facts about their own lives. And when we become educated in the realities of adoption, we learn that sealed records are not necessary -- in fact they have been extremely hurtful to countless original mothers and adopted people -- but some adoptive parents, through fear, I'm guessing, continue to advocate for them. Adult adoptee access to original birth certificates is a no-brainer, were we just to pay attention to established data. But adoption mythology, fear, and the agenda of some adoption agencies continue to get in the way."

I am not deluded enough to think I am making a big difference here, but I welcome the dialogue, and I appreciate the efforts that Dana and many other adoptive parents are making to listen to the divergent voices, increase understanding, and make adoption better for their children.

Working to improve adoption practice is exhausting work, and one reason for that, I think, is that people want to hold on to the notion that adoption is a win-win for everyone, an idea that the adoption business happily promotes.  And the adoption business, through several influential lobbies, drives adoption legislation from the federal level right on down through the states.

 Adoption -- when it is done ethically, with honesty and transparency, can be a very good thing.  But in my view, it should be a last resort, not a first response.  For many, there are profound losses involved, and that is a reality that many people would rather not acknowledge.

Sometimes I get tired of all the rancor surrounding adoption dialogue, and I have to drop out of the conversation for a while to rejuvenate myself and focus on all that is good in my life: my husband and daughters, my six precious grandchildren, my dear friends, my garden.  Amanda over at Declassified Adoptee spoke to this need recently in a post entitled "20 Quick Tips to Better Advocate for Yourself and Others."

Amanda reminds activists for social justice how important it is to take breaks and to hold onto hope, even when legislative bills that would restore equal rights repeatedly get thwarted and defeated.  "You never know how the seeds you have planted with your message will grow," she writes.

The fact that the adoption media coverage these past few weeks has stimulated some important conversation gives me hope.  So does the fact that the Catholic Conference in Ohio and the Right to Life chapter there have recently testified in favor of an adoptee rights bill.  Maybe, just maybe, some of those seeds that so many good people have been planting for so many years are finally starting to take root.

You might also like:

Adoptees Shouldn't Have to Use Facebook to Find Their Birth Parents

Adopted against her will: One woman shares her story

Orphan Fever: Are Christians Naive?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gun control, adoptee rights and government paralysis

Commenting on the recent failure of Congress to approve even tepid gun control measures, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote:  "The story of reform in America is that it often takes defeats to inspire a movement to build up the strength required for victory."

As an adoptee rights activist, I couldn't help but relate to what Dionne is saying here.  The fight for gun control and the struggle for adoptee rights have each become so politicized that the facts are often ignored and progress seems all but impossible.

I can't even begin to imagine the disgust and betrayal that families who have lost loved ones to gun violence must feel at our government's paralysis and ineptitude.  Will they now redouble their efforts to press for legislative changes?  Or will they conclude that no matter what they do, it is simply impossible to compete with the well-funded, special-interest lobbies in Washington?

As a proponent for adoption reform in the state of New Jersey, I have felt both ways.  At times, I feel that no matter what we do, we just can't compete with the entities that have easy access to legislators: the NJ Conference of Catholic Bishops, NJ Right to Life, the NJ Bar Association, the National Council for Adoption, and ACLU-NJ.  Then later, often fueled by a dramatic setback, such as Gov. Christie's "conditional" veto of an adoptee rights bill that already contained a significant compromise, I feel compelled to keep pressing on.

Several members of the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJCARE), adoptee Pam Hasegawa and original mother Judy Foster, have been lobbying for over 30 years now for the right of adopted adults to access their own factual certificates of birth (OBCs).  Having worked with the group for 10 years now, I am awed and inspired by their hard work, perseverance and integrity.

It is truly discouraging that NJCARE's position that adopted adults should be treated equally by law and have the same access to their original birth certificates that any other American citizen has is still considered controversial by some lawmakers.  Once, as Foster was explaining to a legislator that she was never promised anonymity from the child she relinquished, the legislator responded, "Well, you should have been!"

And that, unfortunately, is the response of many power brokers to the adoptee rights issue -- don't confuse me with the facts!  Instead of listening to the people who have actually lived the adoption experience, they listen to those who facilitate adoptions and who profit from adoption transactions.

Another huge hurdle for the adoptee rights movement is that the issue has become intertwined with the ongoing political battles over abortion.  The immediate reaction in some circles is to see adoption as the win-win solution to the abortion dilemma, and the fear is that abortions will increase should we make adoption a more transparent process.

The reality, however, is that there is no link at all between abortion rates and adult adoptee access -- today, we have plenty of data compiled from open access states to substantiate the fact that there is no correlation.

We have actually been told by some NJ legislators that the facts don't matter when it comes to this issue -- it is all about politics.  I, for one, don't know exactly how to proceed in the legislative arena when facts don't matter.  I am a logical, straightforward type of thinker, and if all the data supports the right of adopted adults to be treated equally under the law, then laws guaranteeing that right should be enacted.

Instead, what I have witnessed over the past 10 years is an Assembly Speaker who refused to meet with us and who would not release to the Assembly floor an adoptee rights bill that had widespread support; an Assembly member who added such expensive and unrealistic amendments to an adoptee rights bill that it had no chance to move forward; another legislator who introduced an "alternative" bill at the very last minute when the success of a balanced adoptee rights bill seemed imminent; and a governor who "conditionally" vetoed a bill that had been discussed and debated for several years, and basically replaced it with the "alternative" bill that had received no public input at all.

To say that my faith in the democratic process has been undermined would be an understatement.  Yet when NJCARE recently held an organizational meeting in anticipation of a new adoptee rights bill, to be introduced shortly, I attended.  In spite of all the setbacks, there are a few glimmers of hope.  We have some new, sharp and energetic members.  And in Ohio, in a dramatic turnaround, Ohio Right to Life and the Ohio Catholic Conference recently testified in favor of an adoptee rights bill.

Change may be unlikely, especially with Gov. Christie at the helm, but I have to believe that it is possible, even here in the state of New Jersey.

You might also like:

Ohio Right to Life Embraces Adoptee Rights

Adoption and Abortion: It's Not as Simple as Many Pro-lifers Think

Why is honesty in adoption still a controversial subject?

Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Birthparent vetoes are compromising adoptee rights

Birthparent vetoes extending into the future seem to be the latest "compromise" that legislators are tacking onto adoptee rights bills that would give every adopted person the right to apply for and secure his or her original birth certificate (OBC).  These vetoes are totally unacceptable, in my view, because they bestow upon original parents, now and forever, a legal right that they have never had.

Several years ago, I was able to hold my nose and support the NJ legislation that gave original mothers a one-year period to white-out their names, not because I thought it was the right thing to do, but because I thought the legislation, approved by healthy majorities in both the Senate and Assembly, would finally, after 30 years, get us to where we need to be.  As many of you know, Gov. Chris Christie "conditionally" vetoed that bill and suggested an unjust and unwieldy confidential intermediary system instead.

Now it would be very difficult for me to support even the one-year, white-out concession, as I firmly believe that every human being has the right to know his or her own story and possess his or her own documents.  I suppose it is adoption mythology and reproductive ideology that makes it so difficult for people to understand that adopted adults own themselves.  Their original families don't own them, nor do their adoptive families.  If their OBCs don't belong to them, who in the world do they belong to?

These permanent vetoes, which have recently been tacked onto an adoptee rights bill in Washington state, make adult OBC access a favor that can be granted only through the preferences of another, not a civil right.  As most adoption reform activists know, adopted adults at one time had the same rights to secure their OBCs as any other citizen has.  Their birth records were sealed gradually, throughout the mid-twentieth century, primarily to protect adoptive families from "unwarranted intrusion."  Now, adoptee rights activists simply want their right of access to their own OBCs to be restored.

Many adoption reformers have written to Washington Senator Ann Rivers, who is responsible for adding the permanent birthparent veto to the pending bills that would give adopted adults the right to obtain their OBCs.  I'll share two such letters here, because they so clearly show why permanent vetoes are not a step forward.

Dear Ms. Rivers,

I was disappointed to view your testimony this year 'in support' of SB 5118. Whereas you, as a leader of this state, could have spoken to equal treatment for all citizens, you chose to promote your own special interest over common sense.

This bill does not balance the rights of adoptees and birth parents. As I understand it, any birth parent born in this state who is not an adoptee is able to secure her/his own birth certificate without obstruction. Instead, the amendment to the bill allows birth parents to obstruct an adoptee's access to their own truthful birth certificate and perpetuates society's belief that adoptees who seek out their identity are ungrateful, disruptive and villains of some mythical crime that they did not commit.

I am a human being. I am not a secret. Although, as a feminist, I do have compassion for women who are treated poorly due to unexpected pregnancies, I do not take responsibility for how these same women choose to build the foundation of past or current relationships. As in any relationship, an individual takes risks by keeping secrets and/or omitting the truth. As an adoptee, I bear no responsibility for my birth mother/father's choices.

This bill should be about equal rights. Period. As a tax-paying citizen of this state, I should be treated the same as any other citizen when I interact with government employees. I should not be treated like a second-class citizen by government employees whose attitudes and actions reflect discriminatory law. If SB 5118 passes with the non-disclosure amendment, the state of Washington will continue to discriminate against a class of people who did not choose to join the group to which they belong.

Adoptees will continue to fight discrimination in Washington as well as other states in this union. We will continue to do work to promote identity discovery and development using traditional search methods, technology and emerging science (DNA doesn't lie). We will continue to tell the adoptee story and not allow those with special interests (harboring shame, promoting secrecy) to skew reality. Your attempts to put adoptees in their 'rightful place' fuel the movement. Even if one of these discriminatory bill passes, you can be sure that you have not heard the last of us.

Best regards,

resident, taxpayer and citizen of 36th legislative district

Another eloquent letter to Ms. Rivers was penned by original mother Lorraine Dusky.  I'll share some excerpts here:

Dear Senator Rivers:

I am a first mother like you, and I am horrified at the amendment you are tacking onto the bill that would give adoptees the right to their original birth certificates, for the birthparent veto continues the yoke of bondage that the sealed records instituted.  This amendment gives all biological parents "privacy," if they so desire it, but in doing so flagrantly tramples the rights of others.  The right to know who one is, who one was at birth, surely is an inviolate right that all individuals are given simply by being born, and the state must not be a party to infringing that right.

Consider the words of the 1980 document that experts in the then U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare wrote after holding hearings of adoptees, natural mothers, social workers, and adoptive parents throughout the country. Their Model Adoption Act stated:

“There can be no legally protected interest in keeping one’s identity secret from one’s biological offspring; parents and child are considered co-owners of the information regarding the event of birth….The birth parents’ interest in reputation is not alone deserving of constitutional protection.”

The times were not right then to allow this to pass. An adoptive father in the Senate, John Tower of Texas, vigorously fought against this provision and it was deleted from the final bill that passed. Yet adoptive parents elsewhere have fought just as vigorously for the right of their children to know their true heritage, such as Sen. Lou D’Alassandro in New Hampshire who got a bill though in 2004 with a contact-preference but without veto power. Today he talks about the fact that there have been no problems since passage. He did it because it was the right thing to do. Surveys of adoptive parents show that today they are overwhelmingly in favor of the children they adopted to have the right to know their original and true heritage, including the names of their parents. 

Please reconsider your stand on this measure and do not let this bill pass with the toxic veto attached. That is like passing a bill against slavery, but adding a proviso letting the slave holders decide if they are willing to let their slaves go. You are so close to Oregon, and they have had no trouble--after lengthy court battles brought by a small group of Mormons--since they have allowed the free and unfettered right of the adopted to possess their own birth certificates. Remove this veto from the bill because it is the right thing to do. Do not be party to legislation that continues to enslave a small portion of adopted individuals. Come down on the right side of history. If this passes, it will be extremely difficult to revisit this issue and remove the veto. The harm done will be permanent. 

I am the author of the first memoir from a woman who relinquished a child, Birthmark, published in 1979.  If I can be of further assistance to you, please do not hesitate to call on me.


Lorraine Dusky

My comment to Ms. Rivers reads as follows:

Please remove the birthparent veto from this bill -- a birthparent veto going forward is totally unacceptable, as it puts the adoptee's rights to own her own documents at someone else's discretion.  Please give adults enough credit to manage the most personal details of their lives on their own, without state or agency interference.  Like it or not, I am forever genetically linked to my original mother, and I have the right to at least ask her for information in a private and sensitive way.  When I contacted my original mother by certified mail, she did not wish to meet, but we did exchange information that was beneficial for both of us.  It perplexes me that legislators think one private letter or phone call is too much to ask of original parents.  What about my rights as an autonomous human being, the mother of two, and the grandmother of six precious children?  The courts have affirmed that original parents have no legal right to anonymity from their own offspring, and it is time for legislators to acknowledge that fact and restore the civil rights of all adopted adults.

One of the strongest letters to Washington State legislators comes from adoptee Triona Guidry, who has been a victim of the birthparent veto provision that was enacted as part of an adoptee rights bill several years ago in Illinois.  What she writes makes perfect sense to me, and shows why as adoptees, we must hold out for equal treatment under the law.

Dear Washington Senators and Representatives:

I understand you are considering an adoptee rights bill, SB 5118 / HB 1525, which contains a "contact veto" clause allowing birth mothers to deny adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Before you rush to pass such a bill, I hope you will consider the inequality of restoring access to some adoptees at the expense of others.

I am an Illinois adoptee and have been denied my birth certificate because my birth mother signed the veto in this state. I am the face of that supposedly small percentage of adoptees who will be permanently denied birth certificate access under this proposed legislation.

Rep. Orwall explains the need to favor the many over the few: "How sad it would be for some adoptees to not obtain this information while a birth parent may still be alive."

What about those adoptees left behind by veto legislation? Why isn't it sad that we cannot obtain our information as well - and in fact are permanently barred from it?

What makes some adoptees more deserving than others?

I was involved in the attempts to halt a similar bill that ended up passing here in Illinois. I have heard the arguments in favor of compromise legislation before: "Well, at least this will help the majority of adoptees." The assumption is that those vetoes will be such a small percentage it won't matter.

But the reality is that no state that has ever enacted veto legislation has gone back for those left behind. There's no sunset clause, no mechanism by which these adoptees will later have their birth certificate access restored.

Rep. Orwall is worried that birth families may die before adoptees have a chance to find them. But this isn't about search and reunion. It is about access to a critical piece of identity: our original birth certificates.

With increasing security in this post 9/11 world, many adoptees are discovering that their adoption paperwork alone isn't good enough. Discrepancies in the paperwork, i's not dotted or t's not crossed, and adult adoptees suddenly find they are unable to obtain driver's licenses, passports, and other critical documents.

I had a friend walk out of the DMV because she presented her amended birth certificate. She was told to bring the original - which, being adopted in a closed-records state, she has no way to obtain.

Veto legislation consigns some adoptees to this oblivion of non-access. They have no recourse, no way to obtain proof of their own identities. They are permanently banned.

The matter of birth mother privacy is irrelevant. My birth mother relinquished all rights to me when I was given up for adoption. Why does a stranger now have the ability to come back years later and deny me access to my own birth certificate? Not every adoptee who wants a birth certificate is looking to search. Search is a matter of personal choice and has no bearing on the civil right to obtain one's documentation of birth.

The only equitable solution is to restore to ALL adoptees the same equal access to original birth certificates as non-adoptees. This has been successfully done in Maine, where everyone follows the same procedure, adopted or not. Everyone pays the same basic fee. No one is left behind.

Maine has suffered none of the dire consequences so drastically described by opponents of original birth certificate access. Adoptees in Maine can walk into the courthouse, heads held high, and be treated the same as everyone else. That is all we want. If Maine, why not Washington?

I invite you to view Maine's legislation here:

It's no less sad or unfair for vetoed adoptees to be denied birth certificate access than it is for those whose birth families age and die while legislation is being considered.

Because that "small percentage" so casually dismissed? Those are real people like me. We're not statistics. We exist. And we deserve the same equal rights, too.

Please vote no on SB 5118 / HB 1525.


Triona Guidry

Guidry's story reminds us about the real human beings that are hurt by birthparent vetoes.  In many cases, the adopted person already feels rejected once -- the veto provision ensures that some adoptees will feel rejected twice.  As Guidry reminds us, this issue is not about reunions; it is about basic civil rights.

If you would like to comment about Washington's pending bills, you can reach the two legislators responsible for the birthparent veto provision here:

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

ACLU Continues to Ignore the Facts and Discriminate Against Adult Adoptees

Just when I thought we might be making a bit of progress in lobbying for adoptee rights in New Jersey, I received an infuriating letter from ACLU-NJ "Intake Manager" A. Herrarte.  Mr. or Ms. Herrarte was responding to a letter I had sent newly-appointed ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer, along with a well-researched article that deconstructs the ACLU's misguided stance on adoptee rights.  

I have to wonder as I read the response whether Herrarte or Mr. Ofer even read the article, as Herrarte's letter contains the same canned statements ACLU-NJ has been spouting for years.  What is truly infuriating is that the ACLU position is predicated on a downright lie -- that birth parents had "a legal right to confidentiality when they placed their children for adoption."  Does the ACLU not acknowledge court precedents?  Apparently not.  Both the Oregon State Court of Appeals in 1999, and the U.S. Court of Appeals (6th Circuit) in 1997 have ruled that no such legal right exists.  Since the birth parent privacy argument has been refuted legally, there have been no court challenges to any original birth certificate access law.

It is one thing when an entity like the ACLU misinterprets the facts; it is another when it willfully ignores the facts.  Whatever the ACLU agenda is on this issue -- adoption reform groups in Washington State have encountered the same frustration from its ACLU chapter -- it does not include a desire to understand or even acknowledge the facts.  How sad for a group that insists its mission is to value the liberty of every individual.

I'll share here Herrarte's letter, then respond with a few thoughts of my own:

Dear Ms. Perry:

Thank you for contacting the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey regarding adoption records.

We sympathize with those who seek access to adoption records and recognize that the dilemma involves competing rights.

For this reason, the ACLU-NJ supports systems that reunite people separated through adoption who mutually consent to contact such as "search and consent" services that provide an intermediary to locate and contact birth parents in a confidential manner and request the release of their names.

The ACLU-NJ opposes legislation that provides for the release of the names or contact information of birth parents without their consent.

Our position is based on privacy and due process concerns relating to the release of the names of birth parents who had a legal right to confidentiality when they placed their children for adoption.  We oppose revoking this right after the fact, particularly considering that some women hinged their decisions to place a child for adoption on the fact that it would remain private.

Thank you again for contacting us.


A. Herrarte
Intake Manager

Upon reading this letter, I have to ask, "Where in the world is ACLU-NJ getting its information on this issue?"  Adoptee rights bills are not about reunion; they are about equal rights.  Some adoptees search, some don't, but every adopted adult should be able to secure the document that records his or her own birth, just like any other American citizen.  It is unjust to treat an entire class of people differently than we treat everyone else.

The ACLU also continues to insist that "the dilemma involves competing rights."  As adoptee Julie Kelly explains, "It's not about competing rights.  It's our rights vs. someone else's possible preference.  Rights triumph over preferences.  The overwhelming majority of mothers (and the rest of our families) are on our side.  They are not in competition with us.

Adoptees are not seeking anything extra that everyone else does not already have for themselves.  To make everyone equal, we are demanding restored access to our OBC's -- the same right our mothers have.  The same right that all non-adopted citizens have.  This is what will make us equal to everyone else.  Making separate laws for us makes us different, unequal, and inferior.  ACLU of all organizations should understand that."

The ACLU also conveniently ignores the history and intent of sealed records.  Elizabeth Samuels, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, has been researching adoption law since the 1990s, and has written extensively about the issue.  In testimony before the Ohio Legislature last month, she explained that records were closed gradually throughout the mid-twentieth century "to protect adoptive families from possible interference or harassment by birth parents, not to protect birth parents' privacy."

In many adoptions, Samuels said, the adoptive parents received copies of documents with identifying information about the birth mother.  Every state always had a legal mechanism by which records could be opened "for good cause," she said, and "the laws sealing court and birth records have never guaranteed lifelong anonymity for birth parents."

Samuels has analyzed 77 surrrender documents signed by original mothers from the late 1930s through 1990, and concludes that none of the mothers were promised either confidentiality or lifelong anonymity.  Many, however, did have to promise that they would not seek information about the child or interfere with the adoptive family.

When an original mother surrendered her child, said Samuels, she was surrendering all of her parental rights and was relieved of her parental obligations.  She did "not retain or acquire any rights."  In short, secrecy was not offered to the relinquishing mother -- it was required as a condition of the adoption.  And as we now know from open access states, overwhelmingly large majorites of relinquishing mothers -- "up to 95 percent," according to Samuels -- are open to contact.

Yet in the face of all those facts, the ACLU continues to insist that this issue is all about "competing interests" and "the right to privacy under the US and NJ constitutions."  "I would challenge the ACLU to provide legal evidence of this right to privacy," says adoptee Julie Gretchen Martel.  "Obviously, such evidence does not exist."

"I am really sick of being told that my birth parents had/have a legal right to privacy," says Martel.  "In Connecticut, OBCs were sealed in 1974, three years after I was born and adopted.  At the time of my adoption, my birth parents had no expectation of their identities being kept from me.  So please stop telling me otherwise."

For more facts that refute the ACLU position, we can look to the 1999 decision by the Oregon State Court of Appeals.  The state may release original birth certificates to adoptees, it concluded, "without infringing on any fundamental right to privacy of the birthmother who does not desire contact with the child."

"Although adoption is an option that generally is available to women faced with the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy," the court concluded, "it is not a fundamental right.  Because a birth mother has no fundamental right to have her child adopted, she also can have no correlative fundamental right to have her child adopted under circumstances that guarantee that her identity will not be revealed to the child."

If that decision isn't clear enough, the U.S. Court of Appeals (6th Circuit) said this in 1997, when a group petitioned the courts in Tennessee to overturn the law that would grant some adult adoptees access to their 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 clearly, according to court precedents, there is no constitutional right to privacy for original parents, yet ACLU-NJ continues to insist 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."

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."

Given the facts, it is simply impossible to understand the logic of ACLU-NJ's position.  After reading Herrarte's letter, adoptee Gaye Tannenbaum had other thoughtful questions to ask:

"How does the ACLU propose to deal with the many situations where one or both parents have already passed away?  They can't give their 'consent.'  Is the adoptee forever barred from knowing his or her name?"

"The ACLU frames the issue as one of 'reproductive choice.'  Would they support making 'open' adoption enforceable in New Jersey?  Would they go to bat for the many women who were promised an 'open' adoption that was subsequently and unilaterally closed?  Why are the records sealed in an 'open' adoption?"

"Since the classic definition of 'right to privacy' is the right to be free from government interference, doesn't a 'search and consent' program violate that right by allowing a state functionary to track down and make contact with a party who was 'promised' privacy?"

"Does the ACLU have a problem with adoptees conducting a search on their own -- including the use of DNA testing, social media, genealogy sites, and other public information?"

Like Samuel's testimomy, the court decisions, and the ACLU's own policy about data storage and access, Tannenbaum's questions reveal the absurdity of the ACLU-NJ stance.  Perhaps they haven't heard yet that both Ohio Right to Life and NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio recently testified in favor of an adoptee rights bill in their state.

Stephanie Krider of Ohio Right to Life testified before Ohio's House Judiciary Committee:  "It is our belief that supporting (this bill) ... would not be a disservice to birth mothers who have placed their child for adoption.  Legal guarantees could never have been made to these mothers to ensure their children would never have access to their original birth certificate."

Jamie Miracle of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio similarly testified in favor of the bill:  While allowing adoptees to access "important family medical information," she explained, the bill also works to protect the privacy of birth parents by allowing them to express their preference for or against being contacted by the adult adoptee.

"This system will, in fact, better protect the privacy of birth parents by creating a system where they can express their preferences for being contacted, which currently does not exist."

If both an anti-abortion and a pro-choice group can come together to support an adoptee rights bill in Ohio, how can ACLU-NJ continue to insist that relinquishing mothers have a non-existent legal right to privacy as part of their reproductive decision-making?  If you are as confused by their thought process as I am, please register your displeasure by contacting them at Post Office Box 32159, Newark, NJ 07102; 973-642-2084;  The new executive director is Udi Ofer, but don't be surprised if your response comes from "Intake Manager" A. Herrarte.

You might also like:

An Open Letter to Executive Director Udi Ofer at ACLU-NJ

ACLU-NJ Misses the Mark on Adoption

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

Adoptee Rights and a Woman's Reproductive Choices