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Friday, May 16, 2014

Adoption, Catholics, and Moral Responsibility

Daughter Genevieve at her First Holy Communion in May. Innocent and sweet. She has helped remind me of the beauty of faith, especially in a child, as I struggle with my feelings about the Catholic church's role in blocking adoption reform.

(This is another post from Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th after an 8 month battle with melanoma)

I arrived home this afternoon to find the Catholic Star Herald, the official publication of the Camden Diocese, along with my other mail. I don't always have a chance to look through this paper, but something made me open it today. Because Catholic groups (The Catholic Conference, certain Right to Life groups, the Knights of Columbus) have been among the most outspoken against adoption reform, which would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, and because my own Catholic faith is important to me, I am always holding my breath, slightly, when I encounter public expressions of the Catholic faith. My mom, an adoptee, shined the light on adoption for me, and I will never be the same. I cannot be silent now in the face of what I know to be untrue. Sealed records are a violation of the adoptees' basic rights as a human being, pure and simple, and they should not exist, anywhere.

Sealed records have also been used to perpetrate and hide horrible crimes over the past century, including Spain's stolen baby scandal (,8599,2112003,00.html),  Argentina's stolen baby scandal (, and, yes, right here in our back yard, the United States' stolen baby scandal ( Though I have not yet seen the movie Philomena, I hear that this, too, shows the scandal of sealed records, and the role of the Catholic church in promoting them. Spanish journalist Natalia Junquera, who led the newspaper El País' investigation of the baby thefts in that country, said of those who facilitated illegal adoptions: "They honestly thought they were doing the right thing." As difficult as it is to accept, I do believe that there are some who fight against adoption reform who honestly think they are doing the right thing. It's time to stop. Sealed records have never been, nor will they ever be, "the right thing."

After opening the Catholic Star Herald this afternoon I first came across a lovely reflection by Jean Denton called "Discovering God through Christ-like actions," which ended, "When we live the way of the Christ, others discover God." Amen. Two pages later, though, my heart stopped when I saw the commentary on S873/A1259, a bill to open adoption birth records in New Jersey, by Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference: "Adoption law and moral responsibility." Moral responsibility, indeed. Every Catholic, every human being, does have a moral responsibility to consider the effects of unjust laws sealing adoptees' true identities from them forever. This is partly about getting medical information, yes (my mom died from melanoma, which ran in her family, which she did not know, despite her attempts to gain "full access" to her family medical history), but it is also about more than that. It is about the state (or any institution, including the Catholic church) not getting involved in blocking any human being's knowledge of his or her origins. It is about finally reforming adoption to be, first and foremost, about the welfare of the adoptee, the "voiceless party," the innocent child. Thousands of these innocent children, now grown up, have told us what they need (access to their original birth certificates without ever having to go to court to show "good cause"), and that must be respected. And please, leave those adoptees who have said they don't feel the need to search for their birth parents out of it. Had you spoken with my mom at age 30, she would have told you the same thing. But she changed, and when she realized she had no rights, she became an activist. This is the most personal of personal decisions. As my adoptee friend told me, "Searching is the most vulnerable you will ever be." We have a moral obligation to protect the vulnerable.

Which brings me to the claim that sealed records help to protect the vulnerable unborn -- the future adoptee -- from abortion. This argument is false. And there are many people fighting for adoption reform who, despite their own pain, their own lack of rights, wouldn't be in this movement if the argument weren't false. Some evidence even points to the idea that abortions increase when records are sealed because mothers cannot face the pain of a future forever locked away from their child. Certainly, states that have NEVER sealed records (Kansas, Alaska), and those that have passed adoption reform allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates show that these fears are completely unfounded (abortion rates have either dropped, or not been affected). The claim, "Adoption, not Abortion!" (as posted on the Knights of Columbus website) is misleading, divisive, and hurtful. Choose Life! (We'll help you!) would be more truthful, more responsible, and more loving.

Yes, there is a moral responsibility when it comes to Catholics and adoption, but the commentary in this week's Catholic Star Herald is hugely misleading as to what that is. "Thousands of birth mothers placed their children for adoption, relying on the church's assurance of their privacy," writes Brannigan, "...we have a two-part moral obligation to ... establish a robust educational campaign to alert birth parents that New Jersey's law has been changed ... and [we] must make available counseling and other services for birth parents who will be impacted by this significant change in law ...People - mostly mothers - will be vulnerable because of this change in our long-established law."  In states that have passed adoption reform allowing for adult access to the original birth certificate, fewer than 1% of birth/original mothers have filed 'no contact' preferences, so we are hardly talking about thousands of women here. And, in the words of another adoption rights blogger, the women who "don't want to be found" are usually "scarred and scared" -- often from the shame heaped upon them for being unwed and pregnant, and then from the trauma of giving away their child. So yes, counseling might be a good idea, but not in the way it was presented in this commentary. The majority of birth/original mothers want to be found. Many of them have testified on behalf of adoption reform. Those who are scared and scarred (such as my mom's original mother) will not suffer by being contacted by their children. A good counselor would help them realize that.

And one more thing. Brannigan also writes, "Over the years, NJCC [the New Jersey Catholic Conference] message was consistent." This is not true. Those fighting adoption reform these days say they are doing so on behalf of the birth mother, but in the past they argued that it was for the benefit of the adopted child (to protect him/her from the stigma of illegitimacy) and for the adoptive parents (to protect them from interference from the birth parents). The message has changed through the years.

This year, as my mom, a longtime advocate for adoption reform, suffered and died while this public campaign was fought, I was saddened that the faith I needed to turn to for comfort was tainted for me by outspoken members who spoke out against reform. But my faith is strong, and the church community I am a part of is loving and beautiful. Still, it was a struggle. Often at night, cut to the core by the impending loss of my mom, I would turn to the Gospels to try to find the comfort I longed for.  I craved miracle stories, healings, signs of God's love, but I opened, again and again, to Matthew 23: the denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, speaking to the crowds and to his disciples, says: "Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them." Jesus then has some choice, harsh words for the "hypocrites," and all winter and early spring I wondered what comfort there was in that harshness.

Reading my mom's diary in her closet.
Ultimately, it was my mom's words that showed me that comfort. In the months leading up to her death, I was also preparing my daughter Genevieve for her First Holy Communion. She had retreats and classes each week, and each time I dropped her off, or attended with her, I struggled with my feelings. I did not want to betray my mom, or contribute in any way to the suffering of others (by supporting, through my presence or my donations, opponents of adoptee reform).  But I also saw in Genevieve's retreats, in her devoted teacher, and in the innocent, trusting faces of her entire class, the beauty of the church. The week before Genevieve's First Communion, just three weeks after my mom's death, my sister and I met at my mom and dad's house to go through some of my mom's things. Our hearts ached as we went through her t-shirts, her socks, her beloved bathing suits. After an hour or so, her closet nearly empty, we decided to take a break. It was then that I came across her diary from 1963. She had been 13 years old then. I sat down on her closet floor and read. Descriptions of ice-skating, dancing, visiting her Nana ... I smiled even as my heart broke, missing her. Her love of life, of family, was so clearly there. The entry for Sunday, January 6th, however surprised me. "This morning I took my first communion as I joined my church just before Christmas. To me, it was a very meaningful service and reminded me of Christ's presence with us always. I know that it is an experience I shall never forget." I could almost hear my mom laughing at this, remembering her story about the first time she doubted her faith, when a Sunday school teacher explained to her that Mary was just floating around on a cloud, looking over them, literally. But I also felt its deep sincerity. "It sounds like a boring day but really it was wonderful," she wrote. Her belief in God was real, tender, and sweet. Much like Genevieve's. It was only later that the Scribes and Pharisees got in the way (and I am not talking about that poor, well-meaning Sunday school teacher who told that story. I've said some ridiculous things myself, I'm sure).
"It sounds like a boring day but really it was wonderful"

My mom was able to make peace with her God, and she loved the women's prison ministry she was a part of for many years, but she was never quite able to shake her distrust of the "institution" of the church, which so often seemed to do exactly the opposite of what Jesus preached. She also saw what the institution of adoption, supposedly set up for her benefit, did to her and others, and she said a simple, "No thank you." I respect her for that, and I ask that all well-meaning Catholics, including those who have been outspoken against adoption reform, do her the honor of at least considering, or reconsidering, their views. You might even say we have a moral obligation to do so.

Sweet Genevieve opening the necklace we gave her for her First Holy Communion.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Simple Piece of Paper: Adult Adoptees Access to Original Birth Certificates

Tomorrow, May 7th, marks one month since my mom, Susan Perry, passed away from melanoma. She was diagnosed in July.  This weekend, for Mother's Day, my dad, my sister, and I are going to the beach together for the first time without her.  We know it will be hard.  Our families our joining us Saturday evening, and we'll have breakfast together, at the house, on Sunday.  Sunday is also the day that filmmaker Jean Strauss' documentary "A Simple Piece of Paper" debuts around the country on PBS.  As New Jersey looks forward to secrecy-free adoptions starting in 2017 and Pennsylvania awaits (hopefully) the passage of HB162, an unrestricted access bill, and as we mourn the loss of my mom, an adoptee, I am pleased to share the words of Jean Strauss about the movie and my mom.

My mom roller-blading with my oldest daughter last spring. It is hard to believe she is no longer here. I will continue to honor her memory by speaking out for adoptees' rights, and I am touched that others are doing so in her name as well. #HonorSusanPerry
By Jean Strauss, director of the documentary A Simple Piece of Paper:
Last June, as I was filming testimony of NJ-CARE members during an Assembly hearing, my primary camera failed. I was filming Susan Perry at the time, and I remember thinking – well, New Jersey isn’t going to pass access legislation while Governor Christie is in office, and Susan Perry is one of the most important voices out there so there will be lots more opportunities.

Susan taught us many things. One of them is, we can never foresee the future.

Shortly after her testimony, she was diagnosed with fourth stage melanoma.  She passed away less than a month ago.  If she had access to her own birth information, it’s quite possible she would still be alive.

And somehow, Governor Christie is finding his way to ‘yes.’  So in May of 2014, New Jersey will see the light at the end of its very long tunnel of adoption reform.  Secrecy in adoption will end – and Susan Perry will have played a significant role in that.  While I don’t think she’d be happy that adult adopted citizens will have to wait until 2017 to access their birth certificates, or that redactions were a necessary compromise for the passage, I have to believe she would be thrilled about eliminating the secrecy for future generations.  Her advocacy alongside the NJ-CARE team will save lives and provide both equality and dignity for adopted citizens going forward.

Susan and I both had cancer scares mid summer 2013.  Mine ended up just being a lot of tests and good news.  Susan’s experience was far different.  I just reread the last emails between us.  As she cheered the good news I’d received, I kept prodding her to consider doing a film. She would have been a natural filmmaker with her storytelling gifts, with her laugh, and with her wisdom.  But Susan was very clear about what she intended to do with her time: spend it with her husband, her daughters, her grandchildren – and her two newly found sisters, who arrived bearing love and kindness last fall.

Mid winter, I sent Susan and Ty the very first copy of my new film, A Simple Piece of Paper, about adoptee access in Illinois.  I don’t know if Susan felt well enough to even watch a few frames – but it made me feel good to know she was its first audience, in spirit.

The film now goes out into the ‘ether’, as it premieres in twenty states on PBS this week, and will hopefully air in every state in the Union through the summer and fall (see for the schedule).  I wish she were here so we could talk a bit more about about writing with pictures, and the impact films can have.  She had the most important gift of any storyteller: an intense passion coupled with a compassionate mind. I am imaging the films she would have made, stamped with her own special wisdom and wit.  I will always regret that I didn’t capture her testimony last June.  Her words were so powerful.  They will always be powerful…