Opinion: Adoption laws protect - and hurt
When I surrendered my daughter to adoption nearly five decades ago, I was a fearful, teary young woman, desperate to keep my identity secret.
I'd quit my job and gone into hiding -- even my family didn't know. I was one of the millions of women who relinquished their children during what has become known as the Baby Scoop Era -- from the end of World War II to the mid-'70s -- when the shame of unwed pregnancy all but dictated that white, middle-class women like myself give up their babies.
We are the American Philomenas. We were told to forget our children and move on. Some of us were told to think of our children as "dead." But we did not forget. I was always looking into the faces of children my daughter's age -- at the mall, in the coffee shop, on television. Could that little blonde girl be her? Crazy, I know. Yet the New York law that finalized my daughter's adoption also decreed that her original birth certificate would be sealed and that she would never have access to it, no matter how much she wanted to know her true identity, no matter if she were 18 or 80, no matter what medical reasons she might have.
But change is coming. States from Maine to Oregon have revised and repealed their sealed birth-records laws in recent years without dire consequences. With some restrictions, 11 states now allow adoptees the right to their original birth certificate. New Jersey will be a 12th in 2017. Mothers who surrendered their children may file a "no contact" preference, but based on data from other states, the number who do is incredibly small.
Legislation to allow New York adoptees access to their birth records has been mired in the capital for decades. I first testified in favor of such a bill in 1976. Today, legislation sponsored by Assemb. David Weprin (D-Queens) and Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) appears to have the support to pass, with a long list of backers, many from Long Island. Sens. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) are co-sponsors of the Senate bill. In the Assembly, Andrew Garbarino (R-Sayville) and Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) are co-sponsors, and there are a numerous other multisponsors who have indicated their support, including my assemblyman, independent Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor.
But a few powerful legislators, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), Assemb. Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn), Senate Majority Co-Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) have kept the bill in one committee or another, preventing it from coming to the floor for a vote. This year it passed out of the Health Committee to the Committee on Codes, where it remains. The Senate bill is stuck in the Health Committee, which Hannon chairs.
It is within our nature to connect with people we are related to by birth. The spate of television shows about finding ancestors, the popularity of Ancestry.com and movies like "Philomena" have highlighted this basic drive. Yet the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly in Albany. In the meantime, adoptees have gotten old and died, and others search only to be reunited with a grave. The Internet and Facebook have made reunion possible for some, but not for all.
I gave up waiting for the law to change, and paid a searcher the equivalent of several months' rent to find my daughter. We reunited when she was 15. Because of her epilepsy, her parents had already tried to locate me.
Opponents of those of us who would change the state law sealing birth records are not generally adoptive parents, but adoption lawyers, judges and legislators who cannot move past the image of the trembling young women we were at the time of our greatest trauma. They insist we must be "protected" from our past, and from our children -- when the majority of us want nothing more than to be reunited with them.
The law never mentioned our anonymity. It wasn't written to offer us protection, but to "protect" the unity of the adoptive family. Now it has been subverted to give us protection that many of us do not want -- one that comes at the cost of violating the rights of the adopted.