ALBANY — Larry Dell of Brooklyn was rummaging through some old boxes of papers and clothes after his mother died when his daughter, Amanda, came across a document that said her father was born Louis Roth, and that he was adopted.
That was 11 years ago. Dell, now 70, still knows little about his birth parents and the four siblings he had, except for the bits and pieces he’s gathered over the internet and through advocates for adopted kids seeking their birth families.
“I was shocked when I was found out I was adopted, but stunned when I found out I couldn’t get any information,” Dell, now of Easton, Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “It’s like getting hit in the head twice.”
A bill making its way through the State Legislature would change that. It would give anyone who was adopted the right to obtain their original birth certificate once they turn 18. Obtaining an original birth certificate is routine for people who aren't adopted and their families. But adopted kids end up with a different document that provides little information about their past and none about their birth family.
The bill passed the Senate June 3 by a 53-6 margin, then the Assembly Health Committee on a 22-3 vote and now sits in the powerful Codes Committee, from where it could be sent to a floor vote. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he would review the bill if it passes.
Original birth certificates provide parents’ names, their relationship, their hometown and some critical health information that could point to hereditary diseases.
New York is among 19 states that still seal the original birth certificates of children offered for adoption, a practice that dates to 1938. Experts in the field say it was based on a concern at the time, often fostered in local houses of worship, to provide anonymity to young, unmarried women who had children.
Women like Carole Whitehead. In 1963, she was 18 years old, halfway through her studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, and pregnant. Her parents dropped her off at a Staten Island maternity home — “the worst day of my life” — and there she stayed for three months, alone, until her son was born.
“In those days, that’s what you did,” she said. “I couldn’t come home with a baby and without a husband … inside I’m still that 18-year-old kid and it still hurts me just as much.”
She promised herself to wait until her son turned 22, in 1985, to try to reconnect. Then she hired a private investigator and did some digging of her own until she found her son, Paul Dinberg, who was living in Westbury, 5 miles from her home. It was, naturally, a shock to him, at first. But now they have a rich relationship even after she had her own family and Dinberg moved to Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two children.
“When I found him, it was so unbelievable,” she said. “I dedicated the rest of my life working to help other people find their children, or just enjoying the knowledge that they could," said Whitehead, who works with several national groups to help children find their birth families. "These people have a right to all their original birth certificates.”
Whitehead said the political opposition and remaining stigma surrounding young, unwed mothers makes her pessimistic the bill will be approved. Compounding the conservative social view is the fear that children who were put up for adoption eventually would confront their birth parents with anger or embarrassingly reveal a hidden past of the family, years after they had sought to move on with their lives. Some families just let adoptions drift into untold history.
“People thought I knew, but no one ever told me,” said Dell, an artist and father of two daughters. “ She wanted to keep it a secret because, as an only child, she was afraid I would break away and become more involved with my birth family.”/
Several adoption groups that had opposed previous versions of this measure have since eased or ended their opposition, legislators said.
“I look at it as a human rights issue,” said Assemb. David Weprin (D-Queens), who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly. “I think the law is a little archaic. The good outweighs the bad … including a chance to reunite with siblings and birth parents.”
Cuomo vetoed a similar bill in 2017 as too cumbersome. That bill would have required the Health Department to contact birth parents to gain their consent to release their names to their children. Cuomo directed a work group to fine-tune the bill, and the current version is a result of that.
“We are supportive of increasing adoptees' access to birth records, but it has to be done right," said Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall. "Many advocates, including adoptees, had significant concerns with the previous version of this bill and, in fact, requested that it be vetoed in 2017. We will review the bill."
About 2 percent of the population nationwide is adopted. Adopted children who have discovered their birth parents in New York have had to spend money for researchers, private detectives, genetic analysts and lawyers — if they could afford it. Twenty-five states still require a court order to release the original birth certificate to an adopted child, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alabama, Alaska, Maine, Oregon and the U.S. Virgin Islands allow adopted people access to their birth records without a court order and without consent of their birth parents.
“Adult adoptees deserve access to their own vital records just like any other individual,” the bill’s Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn), said. “They deserve the right to seek answers about their health, their family history and their heritage.”
Weprin said he has 89 supporters in the 150-seat Assembly.
The legislative session is scheduled to end Wednesday.
Until the bill is law, adopted New Yorkers such as Dell will have to wait, do some digging on their own, or go through life not knowing their birth parents’ names that are locked away in some government office.
“We set off on a quest to reunite me with my birth family,” Dell said. “Using that information and my birth name, we sort of pieced together the likely family. Six months ago I connected with somebody who is a cousin, and little by little we are just getting close to 100 percent confirmation of my birth family.”
Still, “It’s very frustrating,” he said.