Total Pageviews

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:

You might also like:

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