The history of sealed adoption records in the US and the current battle in New York's legislation to open them.
Sitting in the computer cache deep in the NY legislator’s recess, is a little bill numbered 9823. It will silently wait for the coming elections and the torch or responsibility to pass from one hand to another and sessions to begin again in January. Number A9823, or its companion bill in the Senate 446, bares the name “The Adoptee Rights Bill”. For thousands of adult adoptees and their families in our state much rests on the passing of 9823 if they are ever to be allowed to have the knowledge of their medical history, know their original names, or seek out their heritage. For thousands of families separated by adoption, this is their only hope.
Many people might not care about number 9823 because it does not effect them. In fact, many people, including the legislators that need to vote on the bill, do not even understand the facts and principles behind the bill. It is actually quite interesting to see how little people really understand about adoption and it lifelong implications. It is one of those subjects that has many details and subtle nuances, plus as many different personal interpretations as there are people willing to listen and talk about it. Most of general society has only enough information about adoptees and adoption to fill in the basic plot of a bad made for TV movie or make some great tabloid’s headline. In other words, little in the way of hands on truth.
Even without having first hand knowledge of the intrinsic ins and outs of adoption, in essence, number 9823 is very simple. The bill will allow an adult adoptee over the age of 18 to have access to their original birth certificate, called in the adoption circles, the much coveted OBC. Often, people don’t even know that adoptees do not have access to their OBC or know that they are sealed. Many an adoptee has been quite perplexed and then often enraged that the state can withhold this basic piece of information from them. After all, they declare, it is within their civil rights. It is their records, with their names on it, but in this state, only adoptees and those in the witness protection program are denied access. Even New York, considered a liberal “blue” progressive area, the status quo for adoption is based on antiquated laws.
In 1935, the then acting NY Governor Lehman, an adoptive father, signed a bill making NY a sealed record state. As a portion of the estimated 6 million adoptees, our New York adoptees have two “official” birth certificates. The original one, which truthfully states the information about their physical birth, including their original names, their natural parents names, the hospital, doctor, date, time and weight, becomes forever sealed under a court of law when their adoption is finalized. At that point, the new adoptive parents are issued a new amended birth certificate which might or might not state the real birth information such as date, time, hospital and weight, and replaces the natural parents names with the adoptive parents names “as if” the child was born to them. The name of the child is also reborn and all identity from the point of finalization on is replaced. The OBC is forever more sealed under Domestic Relations law and never to be seen in the light of day by anyone. No one has access to it but the clerks that hold the keys and they are sworn to the subjective secrecy. The adoptive parents have no rights to it, not the adoptee, and not the original parents whose names are also listed. This 71 year old law continues to frustrate and mystify all to this day
Some might ask why anyone would even care. To some adoptees denied, they want it because they cannot have it. It’s the mere principle. Given that all anyone usually has to do to obtain a copy of their birth certificate is write a letter to the county clerk from which they were born, state their pertinent information such as name, birth date, mother’s maiden name, a copy of one’s driver’s license and a 10 to 15 dollar fee; being treated differently simply because on is adopted is unconstitutional and prejudicial based on the situation of one‘s birth. The adoptee had no say as to the conditions of their birth and parentage, being the innocent party in decisions made by adults, and continues to be treated like the perpetual child in the eyes of the state.
The United Nations seems to agree that children, even grown up children, do have rights to their identity. Article 8 of the 1989 drafted UN Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly states:
1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.
2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.
To date, all nations have signed and ratified the UN convention and either currently have open records or are in the process of doing so. The US seems to think us above such flim flam and unimportant drivel like a Child’s Bill of Rights. To date, the US is one of two UN nations who have not incorporated the rights of a child. At least we are in good company as the other country, Somalia, is long known for it’s fair and human treatment of it’s people. Or maybe we should be thinking why we are in the same category with Somalia. Even if the United States as a whole, which was very discouraging in the last election, wants to make that statement to the world, at least NY should declare it’s humanity and listen to the what the UN has proposed over 16 years ago.
Clearly, though, this bill is not based on just principles or an unknown UN convention as most people are not so idealistic. Violations of civil rights aside, adoptees can do all things with their amended birth certificates that all non adopted persons can do with their non alter birth certificates. They can get jobs, be enrolled in school, prove their citizenship, get a driver’s license, etc. even if the ABC looks “different” and sometimes even fake. The one thing that the OBC does that a ABC cannot do is give them their natural parents’ names. This is often the reason why the governments get all wiggy when asked to allow access. When adoptees want access to their OBCs it is usually because that would be the easiest way for them to search and find their natural parents. With internet databases galore literally at their fingertips, finding a lost family member is sometimes a quick click away, but still the search is hastened when one has the actual name of the person they seek. With the secrets of adoption and the silence of agencies swore to carry those secrets, the OBC is the clearest sure fire way to have that name. The question is: why does our government care about what family members we have contact with and why do they seek this control?
The answers are deep within adoption history. To fully understand why adoption records should be open, one needs to comprehend why they were closed in the first place. Adoption first occurs in history not as a way of meeting the needs of neither a child nor the parents who wish to raise a child, but as a legal way to declare an heir for inheritance rights. While there have always been child who have a need for a family, the formal legal relationship though adoption was not necessary. People simply took in children when they could and raised them if needed. By the mid 1800’s conditions of industrialized cities, teeming with new immigrants, poverty and diseases, left thousands of homeless, parentless children and necessitate the birth of the Children’s Aid Society. Adoption, at this point still only seemed to seek homes for children as opposed to seeking children for homes though the motivations do begin to become corrupted early on.
Around the time that NY’s records closed, down in Tennessee, Georgia Tann was beginning her evil rein as a baby stealer. Though perhaps she had good intentions in the beginning, Tann placed or sold over five thousand infants and small children under the age of six, frequently by lying to the children’s mothers, claiming still births or having them sign fraudulent paper work when they asked for help with medical expenses. Most of her victims were poor, uneducated and had no intentions of losing their children . Tann was reported to earn over a million dollars from such sales which continued on into the 1950‘s, but died before she could be held for her crimes. Many a doctor, lawyer, and social worker also received various profits from the transfer of parental rights from the poor to those who could pay for the privilege of being a parent.
Prior to 1917, all birth certificates were a matter of public records until a Minnesota act closed the first set of state records and began the current trend. New York closed early in ‘35, and by 1960, there were only 20 states where the OBC was still available. The last state to fold was South Dakota in the 90’s. Only Alaska and Kansas remained open though out history. Whether it was influenced by the corruption and needed to cover tracks of those like Tann or truly had the noble intentions that we are told of today, the closed records were originally said to be a form of protection. Our Puritanical forefathers were all too quick to pass judgment on both mother and child if born out of wedlock and adoption was thought to spare a innocent babe from the stigma of illegitimacy. There were no social services nor day care for young mother at this time and being with child and unwed was much cause for speculation and ostracized from society. Women who succumbed to love and found their fertility to be an enemy, had little hope of finding home nor employment and turned to various charitable organizations in desperate need of help. Some of these homes, such as the Florence Critteon Homes, had ethical beginnings, housing and caring for women and children together until they were able to move on. They gave them support and medical care, parenting and job placement, but changed their focus as society’s and various “professionals” views were redirected. It was during this change of focus that closed records were thought to be best for all involved. The mother could free herself from the tell tale proof of her sinful digression, the child had the stamp of bastardization removed, and the adoptive parents were free from any undue influences and interference from the original mother. Infertility was not discussed and it was common for many an adoptive mother to fake her pregnancy and then pretend to all society that she had, in fact, born a child. Closed records enabled this deception.
By the end of World War II, the adoption industry in America had all their ducks in a row. It was considered one’s “patriotic duty” to reproduce and create greater numbers of free American’s to combat the numbers born in communist Russia and China. The American dream was in full force, creating the suburban sprawl and the perfect family values we now hold dear. Coupled by war wounds and just general infertility as suffered by women, being “barren” and unable to produce the requisite 2.5 children was seen as a social flaw, but not openly addressed. Newly embracing the study of the human mind, social work become a true profession and many a social worker thought themselves more knowledgeable and infiltrated the maternity homes which were dens of social woes waiting to be ‘corrected“. With Freud as their guide, a woman who dared to exercise her sexuality was seen as “immoral” and deviant in mental nature. Rather than helping mothers and children the shift began to move to the realm of punishment: "Unwed mothers should be punished and they should be punished by taking their children away." - Dr. Marion Hilliard of Women's College Hospital, Daily Telegraph, (Toronto, November 1956)
Also popular in the day, was the concept of eugenics. While much of the studies went underground in light of Hitler’s horrors, eugenics and adoption from that time still share a similar root of thought. Past beliefs about infant development and genetic importance were also influencing the act of adoption. Children were seen as “tabula rosa”, a blank slate, from which the adoptive parents and society could shape at will, forming a better race, since the children were removed from their dubious beginnings and given to more qualified parents. Often the only prerequisite to be a “better” parent was a “Mrs.” in front of the intended mother’s name and the ability to write a generous check.. Nurture trumped Nature and it was thought that the origins of one’s birth did not need to be addressed with any differential treatments. Many an adoptive parent was handed over a child and instructed to just “love like one’s own” and, that’s just what they did. It was frequent to hide the fact of a child’s adoption from all including the child and lie about one’s true origins well until adulthood.
These thoughts provided the foundation for what is now to be called the “Baby Scoop Era”, the period in time from WWII to the passing of Roe vs. Wade, where an unwed pregnant woman had little choice at all to keep and raise her child. As self documented by the women who lived it in Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, conditions at many of the homes were anywhere from cold and uncaring to downright cruel. Sent away and paid for by their own families, mother’s were drugged, strapped down, left to labor alone with no pain medication and treated with disdain, threatened with life long shame and poverty, made to feel worthless and bad. Often they were lied to, tricked to sign paperwork and threatened with various medical repayments if they dared to desire their own children or question their rights and abilities to parent themselves. The great majority of “girls” didn’t forget their first babies and failed to “get over it” as they were told but waited in shame and secrecy, always wondering about their first born but believing that, with sealed records, there was nothing that could be done.
Truthfully, it was a social experiment gone wrong. What we have seen of human nature though time proves it. While many good adoptive homes were formed, the ideal and the reality of perfect adoptive parents has not erased the need of an adoptee to know their origins. Many adoptive parents were hurt when they found that their love alone were not enough and their adult child still wondered about their life before adoption, though this is really no judgment about the quality of love nor care. Likewise, the threats and promises made to the mothers also proved to be untrue . Women simply do not forget the babies that they cradled and natured in their wombs for 9 months. Despite removing all evidence of the birth, these women went thought the biological and emotional changes that made them mothers and they continued to walk about as exiled from their young, forever hiding their wounds. What was protected by sealed records is now accepted as normal human nature.
Slowly, our societies views on premarital sex and single motherhood began to morph, as adoptees reached legal age and mother’s began to free themselves from shame, and the need for closure, clarity, and truth has shed new light on the emotions surrounding adoption. No longer could the agencies use shame to manipulate a woman for adoption nor could the industry ignore what was so obvious, both mothers and children faired better if information could be exchanged. Plus with the ability of birth control and the legalization of abortion and the stigma lifted from single motherhood, less children were being placed. This began the new dawn of adoption as we see it today.
Though now the trend of many adoptions are “open”, sharing various information regarding identity, medical history, with shared pictures and letter, visits, and life long contact, there is still little hope for those who were born or gave birth during the times of the past. The face of adoption has changed with new advances in the nature of human responses, but the laws still remain the same, ignorant to new information and ways of thinking.
Opposing any signs of opening sealed records is the National Council for Adoption. This group is funded and complied from heads of agencies that have a vested interest in maintaining status quo. Despite it’s official sounding name, the NCFA is a lobby group and support for agencies and other adoption professionals, not individuals affected by adoption, and that is their directive. Opening records will lead to reunions. Reunions spread the truth about one’s relinquishment. Many agencies fear that the stories they told to the hopeful adoptive parents and passed on to the children, “the babies mother was just unable to care for babe so she thought it best to give the baby a better life“, can be questioned once the mothers are found and the lack of choice regarding the actual surrender of the child is brought into the light of day. What the moms remember as truth of their treatment greatly conflicts with the fairy tales that agencies have told. Possible reunions also question the agencies directive that “just love him or her as if they were your own”, when it is clear that many adoptees need what their adoptive parents do not possess, the origin of their beginnings.
The NCFA is joined by the Pro-life movement and together they attempt to connect the idea of open records to abortion. According to various propaganda, they help maintain the myth that if women were not protected by the confidentiality of adoption, then they will turn to abortion instead to keep their secrets of pregnancy. Fortunately, they cannot back any of these claims with facts. Alaska and Kansas, the two states who never closed their records, have always had a lower number of abortions preformed per state when compared to the surrounding geographical areas. When sealed adoption records were opened in Alabama, the abortion rates actually began to decline in state. The industry of adoption itself saw a marked increase in available babies and women considering adoption when the induction of no shame and secrecy created open adoptions according to the a Wall Street Journal article. Many an agency had their supply of babies almost dry up before introducing various open situations to their programs and saw a huge influx of interest. The bottom line is that a woman is more apt to look into adoption for an unplanned pregnancy, rather than abort, if she believes she will have continued contact with her child.
By far, though, the greatest resistance to any pending open records legislation, is the stigma that they still try to attach to the mothers who had relinquished. Laws that were created to provide for ease when harvesting her children and protect the new adoptive parents from her are suddenly getting redefined as there for her “protection”. The former deviant and immoral woman has become a productive member of “normal” society but with a tenuous hold on her place. She is thought to still be a scared impressionable young girl who has followed the orders of family and society and “never spoken about this again”. Hiding the secret of her shame, she has married, had other children and now managed to blend into daily life. Even our Albany politicians get very worried about what will happen to the mystical unknown “Birth” mother if her prodigal child dares to knock up her door and turn her carefully constructed world upside down.
With cries of “promised confidentially”, the opposition of open adoption records continue to ignore the facts and research. The great majority of relinquishing mothers were never promised privacy nor confidentiality and if they were, it was not something that they ever asked for nor wanted. Studies by Cornell University and the Child Welfare League state that 86 to 96% of mothers want to know their children. Often when an adult adopted person begins a quest, the real names of their parents of origins are found within the adoption paperwork held by the adoptive parents. If there were promises, many were broken long ago by the agencies and social workers who allowed the names to slip out. They had ,in actuality, not made promises to the mothers, but rather the implied promises were for the adoptive parents so they could be free from the meddlesome interventions of the unwilling and heartbroken mothers.
For the real feelings of the exiled mothers all we have to do is look into history. New South Wales has had unsealed records for over 20 years. Like all the new legislation, including New York’s bill number 9823, they have built in confidentiality clauses, called consent vetoes and preferences. The concept is simple. When an adoptee asks for their records, the parents of birth are contacted before anything is released. At that point, the mother, and father if found, may choose to allow their names released on the OBC, choose what form of contact they prefer ( phone calls, letter, another intermediary to assist) or to remain in their privacy. In this way the mother, since we worry most about her, is protected from the “horror” of having her long lost child appear on her doorstep. In NSW, during the first 10 year period less than 6% of the mothers of adoption loss used the veto option. After ten years they had to reapply, and the number that continued to warrant veto use was so small that it was less than 1%. Adoption recommendations for new NSW legislation calls for the dissolution of the veto as they just do not see a need for it at all.
The state of Oregon which televised it’s battled to open records including testimonials from a handful of “Jane Doe” mothers, released it’s five year statistics. In that time, 8,190 birth certificates were issued, only 503 birth parents filled out contact preference forms and only 83 chose "No contact" following the 1% rule. In New Hampshire, the last number reported for “no contact” was 11 out of the 701 OBC applications making the facts pretty universally clear. Exiled mothers do not fear their children and support being contacted. Despite it being technically illegal, many stopped being helpless young girls and figured out that they were never going to “get over it” and began to search themselves. Many others report that they do not care how they are contacted, as long as they are. The internet is filled with countless search and reunion registries, search “angels” who have sources for inside information, and the names and dates of millions, adoptees, exiled mothers, and adoptive parents trying to find their lost family members.
Currently the only supported recourse for searching in New York state is the Adoption Information registry under the Department of Health. The NY registry is like many of the Mutual Consent Voluntary Registries ( MCVRs) in various US states and the only means of reunion supported by the NCFA lobby group. The thought behind MCVRs is that if both parties are willing to have contact, and they both register, then a match is made. The problem is that the great majority, including NY state is grossly understaffed, under-funded and under-publicized. Passive reunion registries, where one just signs up and waits, have a success rate between 1.5 and 10%, some states can only report a handful of “found” registrars despite being in business for 15 years. A more active registry which assists in finding a family member brandishes an 80% find rate, but these are not state sanctioned nor funded. NY’s registry is also limited to those born and adopted in NY, so anyone born and adopted outside of the state is barred from the limited assistance and stuck in limbo. NY does allow biological siblings to register for an adoptee lost to the family and will pass on “non-identifying” information with out consent.
“Non-identifying” information is basic information relating to nationality, parental age, birth details, that might have been available a the time of an adoptees birth. It is suppose to give the adoptee everything but the means of finding out the identity and making contact with the parents of origins. The problem with non identifying information is it is based often on the whim of the person and the availability of the records. While some later adoptees can find enough information to really get a good picture of who they are, some might even get enough to start a successful search, many only get a generic basis: “Caucasian mother, father had blue eyes, good health” which is hardly enough to answer many questions that plague adoptees through life, but that is all the state is willing to do right now.
Adoptees have shown that they want more than just generic genetics. They wonder where they get their traits and talents from. They long to look into a face that resembles their own, a condition of biological parenting called Genetic Mirroring. They want to know to the stories of their births, not just their pick-ups. They deserve to know the stories of their ancestry, how great grandfather was a moon shiner, or nutty Aunt Betty was a dancer in Paris. Adoption’s legacy of sealed records has permeated our society so much that the National Genealogical Council’s newsletter claims that in 4 generations about half of the countries true roots and genealogy will be bogus. Grafting branches of trees onto other trees might work for hybridization and agriculture, but makes a mockery or what we know as advanced science.
Probably the most profound and understandable reason for an adoptee to search out their origins is for the obtainment of their medical history. This does not just effect the immediate adoptee, but their children and their offspring. A great majority of adoptees will enter a search in order to find out what disease and health risks they truly have inherited. Being barred from searching for this truth is in direct conflict of the advisories made by the US General’s Family Health Initiative which cautions us to do this research for our own good. While the current NY passive registry will allow for the transfer of medical history, they will not find a person no matter how dire an emergency. Also to consider that the medical information known and left by a young woman whose parents still live will be much less than the medical information passed on by a more mature adult who now knows what she, her parents, and her siblings have suffered. With the technological advances in medical sciences and genetic links to many of the ailments that plague us, denying the true medical heritage is putting a large population at risk and denying them adequate and preventative health care, causing an increasing financial drain on our already rising healthcare costs.
In the case of a true medical emergency, an applicant can put forth to a judge to get the adoption records open for “good cause”. Unfortunately, even in matters of life and death, good cause applications are rarely granted, When applicants say they need medical history for their own health crisis, requests often are denied leaving those desperate to take matters into their own hands and conduct an illegal search. There is no reason for a government to cause further strife to a person seeking a basic fundamental right.
But there are those in Albany that worry about family members getting in touch with other family members. They think that doing that causes risks. Even though in New South Wales 20 year history of open records, there was only one documented incident of an adoptee not honoring the veto request, some of our legislators still think that adult adoptees cannot be trusted to take no as an answer. Even after talking to calm, intelligent members of our tax paying society who happen to have lost their children to adoption, they still fear “what kind” of woman might be at the end of the search. And a small number still seem to get confused and wonder how “this searching stuff” will effect the “poor adoptive parents” who only wanted a baby, never mind that the babies are now thinking feeling tax payers themselves with rights and onions. Adoptees report that 96% felt that a reunion has not changed the relationship that they have with their adoptive families and that 2/3 or adoptees in reunions find it satisfactory and are “friends” with the natural parents of birth. In fact, open records is the one issue in adoption that all triad members seem to agree on. Cornell University reports that the greater majority of adoptive parents support unsealing our records and the adoptees feel closer to their parents for their support. Even when a reunion does not go as planned and expectations are built more on fantasy, most adoptees will report that :knowing is better than unknowing” and most moms are happy just to know that the babies they born are still alive and prospering as hoped for.
Some of our legislators even have tried to introduce their own version of records bills that only make a mockery of the principles and cause further unnecessary discrimination. Senator Saland of Poughkeepsie is convince that the mothers of adopted children were promised anonymity and has introduced a laughable proactive bill, S7392 which allows for a child adopted after bill’s enactment be allowed to access identifying information. It will be the only upon the consent of the natural parent’s at the time of birth and can be revoked at any time. This information and consent shall be entered into the faulty NY registry. It has nothing to do with the discriminatory action of denying adult adoptees access to their birth certificates, but will allow it to continue. The adoptee no matter when they are born will still have a sealed OBC. What it might do is allow for an ease of searching in the future, but a great number of adoptions that are happening now will have little use for searching anyway as the parties involved are opting for open adoptions. As more opt for open situations, the sealed aspect of the OBC is often moot anyway. Educated moms are requesting additional copies of the birth certificates before the adoptions are finalized and retaining copies of themselves, for the intended adoptive parents and for the child’s later use in life. Even with copies of the sealed certificate in hand, Saland’s bill will still make the government guilty in the bias of denying a basic human right and treat adoptee’s differently. It is also worthy to note that Senator Saland is an adoptive parent, so any law that helps allow only later adoptees to searching and finding their heritage will not disrupt his families existence, Though one does wonder what he might feel if, say, one of his children or grandchildren finds themselves in need of a bone marrow transplant or a new kidney.
There is hope for number 9823. This year past year, it silently moved out of a ten year stalemate in the judiciary committee where Helene Weinstein from Brooklyn sat on it. It went into the Health Committee and after extensive lobbing, passed into codes in June. The future of Codes committee looks bright with enough support for it to pass, and at one point it must journey into Ways and Means. Sponsored by Senator Larkin in the Senate who is an adoptive grandfather, and Koons in the Assembly, it keeps on gathering more multi sponsors and support. Even Ulster county’s Kevin Cahill finally got on board. With luck this coming elections and more appointments to Lobby the Albany halls of marble planned, this little bill might just do the trick.
Slipping under the radar of the NCFA, and with much needed support of The Catholic Archdiocese of Albany, New York might be able to avoid the dog and pony show that has confused the issues and made adoptees’ rights the causalities in other states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine this past year. It is hoped that New York can join the ranks of Alaska, Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Delaware, Oregon and New Hampshire and be the 8th state in the union to recognize that adoptees have just as much right to their birth certificates as any one else on the street. New York should be able to realize that adult adoptees can enter into relationships with anyone they choose even if that person happened to give birth to them.