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Thursday, March 14, 2013

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

Many of us in the adoption reform movement are encouraged by the fact that both Ohio Right to Life and the Catholic Conference of Ohio, both long-time opponents of adoptee rights bills, have now endorsed pending adoptee rights legislation.  Apparently, both groups have come to realize  that granting adopted adults access to their original birth certificates and treating them equally by law to the non-adopted has no effect on abortion rates.  They have also come to see that such bills allow original parents an opportunity to register their preferences for contact, an opportunity that they currently do not have.  These bills restore the civil right of adopted adults to access their own birth documents, while acknowledging the boundaries that original parents might prefer.  They are the best and fairest antidote to the considerable pain and to the violation of adoptee civil rights that the sealed record system perpetuates.

We hope that Right to Life and Catholic Conference chapters in other states will take note, and that they too will come to see that granting civil rights to adoptees does not weaken, but in fact strengthens the institution of adoption.  Catholic bishops and Right to Life groups have been a formidable obstacle to adoptee rights in the past; unfortunately, so have some state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  In New Jersey, we have battled the ACLU for years.  In the past, the organization's leadership seemed to think that denying civil rights to a grown adoptee is acceptable because doing so enables a woman to make private reproductive choices.

The ACLU stance is logically inconsistent with its mission statement, and we are hoping that with new leadership in New Jersey, it will reevaluate its position on this issue.  After all, if Ohio Right to Life and the Catholic Conference of Ohio can admit that they have been mistaken about adoptee rights, so can ACLU-NJ!  Here is my open letter to Mr. Udi Ofer, the new executive director of ACLU-NJ:

Dear Mr. Ofer:

I am a member of the legislative team at New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJCARE), and I am writing to express my strong opinion that ACLU-NJ has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to restoring the right of adopted adults to access their original birth certificates.

The states of Oregon and Alabama restored this right in 2000, and in the past decade, the states of Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have likewise restored this right.   The states of Kansas and Alaska never sealed original birth certificates from adoptees, and Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Washington all have pending bills.

At its very core, this is a civil rights issue, because adopted adults continue to be treated differently by law in New Jersey than every other American citizen.  That is institutional discrimination, and it continues to exist for no good reason.  If the document that records my own birth does not belong to me, we might ask, “Who does it belong to?”

The history of adoption reveals that records were never sealed to protect original families, but to protect the adoptee from the “stigma of illegitimacy,” and the adoptive family from “unwarranted intrusion.”  Even the courts have ruled that original parents could never have been granted legal anonymity from their own offspring.

Adoptee rights legislation is about civil rights; it is not about reunions.  There is a profound difference between knowledge about one’s own history and relationship.  Obviously, it takes two to agree to have a relationship, and how two adults decide to conduct their own very personal affairs is frankly no one’s business except for their own.

ACLU-NJ in the past has shown a shocking disregard for the rights of adopted people, and it has wrongly assumed that the rights of original parents and adoptees conflict.  Adoptee rights bills are just and effective, and the data from open access states and from those countries that are far ahead of us in restoring adoptee rights is easily accessible.

I implore you to study the facts before the ACLU takes a position on any pending adoption legislation in New Jersey.  I am including for you an article published this year at numerous adoption reform sites that outlines how illogical the ACLU’s position has been.  I write in the hope that you will study it with an open mind.

I and other members of NJCARE would be happy to meet with you to discuss this issue at any time.  Please feel free to contact me at the number below.


Susan T. Perry
Member, Legislative Team
New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJCARE)

To those of you reading this blog post, you can read my article about the inconsistencies in ACLU-NJ's position on adoptee rights here.  Please feel free to use any or all of it in your own lobbying efforts.  Let's carry on with renewed effort.  Progress is slow, but the facts are on our side!

You might also like:

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

The Ethics of Adoption and Reproductive Technology

Adoptee Rights and a Woman's Reproductive Choices

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ohio Right to Life Embraces Adoptee Rights

My husband and I have just returned from three glorious days of skiing in Vermont with two of our granddaughters.  For us, it was like history revisited, since Vermont's Sugarbush is where we introduced our two daughters to big mountain skiing many years ago.  Genevieve, on the right, looks just like her mother, and Grace, on the left, acts just like my older daughter did -- protective of her little sister as they looked for hidden trails and little jumps together.  My time on our I-Pad was limited, since Grace had downloaded about 30 games for the long car ride up, but I did check up on the news occasionally.  

How encouraged I was to see that Ohio Right to Life (ORTL), in a dramatic turn-around,  had actually testified in favor of an adoptee rights bill that would allow adopted adults to secure their original birth certificates (OBCs) just like any other citizen.  For years, influential Right to Life groups have testified in opposition to such bills, fearful that they would discourage adoption and perhaps increase abortion rates.  Finally, Ohio Right to Life has come to understand the facts -- that treating adopted adults equally under the law will not encourage women to choose abortion over adoption.

Here's what Stephanie Krider of ORTL told Ohio's House Judiciary Committee in support of the bill that would permit people who had been adopted in Ohio between 1964 and 1996 to secure their OBCs: ..."for faulty reasons for decades, Ohio Right to Life opposed opening adoption records to adoptees born/adopted between 1964 and 1996" because they believed birth mothers had been guaranteed rights of confidentiality and the measure would protect adoptees from potential embarrassment about the circumstances of their birth or from unwanted contact from birth parents.

"Frankly, these are outdated concerns. ..."

She went on to explain that "cultural values have changed" and that being an adoptive parent or relinquishing a child for adoption no longer carry the stigma they once did.

"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.

Krider also emphasized that Ohio Right to Life encourages adoption instead of abortion for women who may be facing an unwanted pregnancy. "If we had any reservations about this bill and the effect it would have on chances of women choosing abortion over adoption," she said, " I would not be standing before you in support of the measure today."

Like Krider,  Jaime Miracle of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, also 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 desire 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."

Both Krider and Miracle have expressed the truths here that adoptee rights activists have been presenting for years.  Allowing adopted adults to secure their OBCs does not discourage adoption, and it does not encourage abortion.  Statistics from the states and countries that have opened up access prove that this is so.  Original mothers were never guaranteed confidentiality from their own offspring, as every state always had some mechanism by which the records could be opened.  Adopted people find their original families every day, using social networks, and often information from their own adoption decrees.  Without adoptee rights bills, original parents have no way to indicate their desires -- whether they are open to contact, they would prefer not to be contacted, or they would prefer to be contacted through an intermediary.  Most adoptee rights bills, like the one proposed in Ohio, give the original parents the opportunity to express their preferences.  

Data from open access states indicates that the vast majority of relinquishing parents are open to contact.  What a breakthrough that Ohio Right to Life has finally come to recognize this reality.  We can only hope that other Right to Life chapters will follow suit.  The way to promote adoption is not to deny equal rights to adopted people; it is to treat adopted people with the same respect that we afford everyone else.

You might also like:

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

Adoption Reform and Political Games

Adoptive Parents and Pro-lifers who Cannot or Will Not See the Realities of Adoption

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lifetime Secrets and Their Effect on the Adoptee

As an  older adopted person, I've come to terms with the fact that there are many things about my background I'll probably never know.  While I've had a sweet, but brief conversation with my first mother by phone, I've never laid eyes on her, and she did not wish to meet face to face.  I don't know the name of my original father, although social workers at the agency that placed me in 1950 do.  My first mother said that she couldn't tell me anything about him "because he was a married man."  As  a woman in her eighties, this was still her thinking, I suppose, that she did something terribly wrong by becoming entangled in an improper relationship.

My understanding from my "non-identifying information" is that my first father was a family friend from Denmark -- both my original parents are Danish -- who was separated from his wife at the time of his relationship with my first mother.  My original mother, I am told, hoped for a long-term commitment; my original father, quite a bit older at the time of my conception -- age 53 -- was apparently unwilling to commit.

There was some talk, I'm told by an agency social worker, of me going to live with my first father's son and wife before I was placed for adoption.  I still have no idea where I was during the first three months of my life, or who cared for me during that time.  I realize that I know a lot more than some adopted people do.  I know my ancestry, I know my first father lived into his eighties, and that my first mother is still alive at the age of 89.  I know I have a half-sister five years older than I am, and at some point, I'll probably contact her.

I believe that I have all the information about my first mother that I am going to get from her -- she made it clear that she did not wish to talk again.  She was able to tell me in that brief phone conversation that "she loved me in her heart," but she has lived her entire life not acknowledging my existence to anyone else except for her own mother.

It irritates me no end that I can't learn more about my first father, as he sounds very interesting.  He was raised in Denmark, trained as a pilot, and loved the outdoor life, just as I always have.  He is long deceased, as is his son, so just what risk there would be in the agency releasing his name to me is hard to understand.  And that is the injustice and the ludicrous nature of sealed record laws -- in this case, they afford more rights to the dead than they do to the living, and they bind the adopted person to a lifetime restraining order in which he or she had no voice.

Although the sealed record system encourages denial as a standard coping mechanism, I think both my first mother and my adoptive mother were just starting to understand the complexities and the hidden nature of adoption as they both approached their old age.  My first mother picked up the phone and called me after we had exchanged letters and medical information, I believe, because she came to realize that in protecting her own secret and rejecting my offer to meet, she was hurting me at a core and primal level.  She wasn't able to open up completely, but she was able to say "I love you," and I appreciate the fact that she was at least able to reach out a little.  She relinquished, after all, in a very different era from the open society in which we now live.

And while my adoptive mother didn't like to think about the fact that I had an original family, she did say to me as she grew older, "If you ever want to know more, the files are right there in that drawer." She herself knew nothing about sealed records, and my adoption decree included my original birth name.  My mother only knew that  adoption had worked extremely well for her -- it had given her the family she so badly wanted -- but she felt deep inside, I think, that there was an underlying, hidden aspect.  She just didn't want to go there.

One thing I do know for sure is that my adoptive parents truly did love me, and that love and support has helped to make me the person I am today.  My genes have helped to make me that person as well, of course, and it is only natural from my perspective that I should want to know more about the people who passed them on to me.  I am motivated to write about adoption issues because I believe strongly that sealed records are unjust, and that they are truly damaging to many, many people.  They encourage unhealthy thinking, repression, and denial as the means for coping with life.

Sealed records were the reason in my case, I think, that it took me too long to grow up and assume total responsibility for my own life.  In a way, sealed records imprisoned me, because I didn't feel free to express my innermost feelings about adoption.  Although I seemed to be successful in my personal and professional life -- I did well in school, earned graduate degrees, married happily, had children, and worked as a teacher and public relations professional -- I did not feel empowered to take charge of my own story until I was well into my forties.

Every adopted person's journey is unique, of course, but I know that my story is not atypical.  I just cannot understand why, as a culture, we would continue to shackle adopted people to an institution that is governed by such archaic and repressive laws, when the data tells us clearly that most first mothers are open to contact.  Those who are not, like my original mother, can simply say no.  This is an emotional subject for sure, but all of us affected are adults now-- we do not need outside agents supervising our own, very personal business.

The repressive laws set the tone for the either-or thinking we often see in on-line responses to adoption articles.  The kind of thinking that assumes those adoptees who search are expressing disloyalty to their adoptive parents, or that the adoptee should just "be grateful" and move on.  These attitudes are really very hurtful and dismissive of many adopted people's experiences, when the reality, obviously, is that an adoptee does have two sets of parents, and like every other human being, is a unique mix of her DNA and her upbringing.

Telling adoptees that they are not entitled by law to access their own original birth certificates is belittling and unfair, when every other American citizen can apply for and secure hers for a nominal fee.  It is institutional discrimination, and it exists for no good reason, as we have plenty of evidence to show that adoptee rights bills work for the benefit of the greatest number of people.

I do not know whether these essays I post are making a difference or not, but I feel compelled to share my experience.  If I don't, as an older adopted person, who will?   It is probably too late for me to learn much more about my personal history, but it's not too late for many others.  I write in the hopes that my voice, along with so many others, can play some small part in advancing the cause of adoptee rights, so that other human beings affected by the sealed record era will not be made to feel guilty just for attempting to discover the truth about their own lives.

You might also like:

Adoptee Rights, DNA, and the Opposition

An Open Letter to Adoptive Parents

Sealed Records are Wrong.  Period

Why does America lag behind on adoptee rights?