Birth Mothers, Adoptees Have Right to Records
By Lorraine Dusky
Many women who surrendered their children for adoption hope to be "found." As one of them – now thankfully reunited--I'm celebrating Jan. 1 as the day when New Hampshire joins those states with open birth records.
Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.
Lorraine Dusky (WOMENSENEWS) – On Monday, Janet Allen plans to walk into the Division of Vital Records Administration in Concord, N.H., and ask for a copy of her original birth certificate. It will be the first time she can legally obtain it.
Allen, 51, a state legislator, was adopted as an infant. In New Hampshire, where she was born and adopted, Allen has been denied the right to that singular piece of paper that contains the answer to one of life's most basic questions: Who am I? The change in the law occurs two days from now, New Years Day, 2005. As one of the people who worked for the bill's passage, Allen will be first in line.
"I am no longer a child and am delighted to finally have the same rights as non-adopted adults," she says. "The law now guarantees that no one will ever again have to go before a judge to beg, plead and be humiliated for a piece of paper that belongs to him."
Why does it matter so much to her and thousands of other adopted people in the state? Because her original birth certificate--not the amended one she's had most of her life--contains the names of her birth parents, and thus the key to her identity and origin. With the names, adopted people can search out their natural parents and perhaps obtain not only answers, but also updated medical information as well as the possibility of an ongoing relationship.
New Hampshire Joins Six Others
With the law's passage, New Hampshire will joined six other states--Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, Tennessee and Oregon--that allow individuals adopted as children the right to their original birth certificates.
Some states had open birth records until the 1960s and even into 1980s. But as adoption became more common following the sexual revolution of those times, most of the states left with open records closed them, sweeping aside the rights of adopted children, no matter their age, to investigate their origins.
The bills to modernize the laws encounter stiff opposition and intense lobbying in state legislatures everywhere from adoption agencies and attorneys, local Catholic charities, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Against these well-funded organizations, the impassioned pleas of adoptees asking for open records are nearly drowned out, even though they are the ones whose rights should be tantamount.
In numerous states, bills to open the records have either languished in committee or died at the end of a legislative session. The opposition always hinges on the supposed anonymity that the women who gave up their children 30, 40 years ago were promised then, and are said to fervently desire today.
I Did Not Want Anonymity
I am one of those women, and I was not "promised" anonymity from my daughter. It was forced on me like a pair of manacles. The relinquishment papers gave me no opportunity to confirm or deny whether I might want to know her one day. There were no boxes to check marked either "contact desired" or "no contact." The papers merely stated that I was turning over my daughter to the state. The document promised nothing, not even that she would be adopted.
Our forced anonymity is a by-product of laws that seal the original birth certificate from the adopted person, designed to give adoptive parents the feeling their adopted children are really "theirs." Love was expected to quell curiosity. We birth mothers were supposed to "get on with our lives."
I protested to my social worker because never to know my own child sounded like living death. But I felt I had no choice; I signed the papers.
I am not alone. The vast majority of us desperately want to know our children. We pray for the knock on the door, the phone call that will begin our healing.
How many of us are there? Probably between 5 million and 6 million, given the best estimate of "stranger" adoptions, those in which the baby is not given to a family member. How many of us seek reunion? There is no accurate way to know. But data from Oregon, which has allowed adoptees access to their original birth certificates since 2000, is as good an indicator as any.
Few Check 'No Contact'
As part of the new law, Oregon gave birth mothers, as well as fathers, a chance to file a "no contact" preference. Near the end of 2004, nearly 8,000 adoptees had requested and received their original birth certificates. Eighty-three birth parents had asked for no contact, just a smidgeon over 1 percent.
In New Hampshire, the group of adoptees and birth parents who fought for open records has sent an e-mail alert that has been bouncing around the Web for the last month, trying to ferret out New Hampshire birth mothers, assuming most will want to update their names and addresses so their children can find them.
Of course, there will be some who ask for no contact.
I try to sympathize with those women who want to hide from their own children. Perhaps they never told their husbands or their other children. Perhaps they have buried the secret so deeply--because it hurts too much to do otherwise--that they can not even imagine dealing with a flesh-and-blood person who asks "why?" Perhaps they are too guilty to face the child, now grown.
If You Knew Me
If you knew me when my daughter was born, in 1966 in Rochester, N.Y., you might guess I would be one of them today. The father, a married man with a public life, had to be "protected." For his sake, and yes, mine, I operated in deepest secrecy. A Catholic girl a year out of college, so deep was my shame that I hid my pregnancy from my family in another state.
But times and attitudes change. As far back as 1980, after holding numerous hearings around the country, the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare proposed a Model Adoption Act that would have opened the records.
"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," it stated. "The birth parents' interest in reputation is not alone deserving of constitutional protection." But while some provisions of the act became national policy, this did not.
I am no longer the terrified young thing I was back in 1966.
Years ago, I decided I couldn't wait for Congress, or New York's legislature, to act. I paid a searcher $1,200. Within weeks I had my daughter's name and phone number and made that scary phone call to her other mother. Our daughter was still a teen-ager. I met her and her family in a matter of days.
That was more than two decades ago.
At my daughter's wedding, I stood next to her other mother during the ceremony. Yes, I was the one who didn't know a lot of people there, but my brothers and their wives, and some of their kids, were there too. It was a happy event for everyone. It was as it should be.
Lorraine Dusky is the author of the controversial 1979 memoir about surrendering her daughter to adoption, "Birthmark" and is the former New York state representative to the American Adoption Congress.