Monday, October 17, 2016

Unsealed Initiative's Bill of Adoptee Rights Amended in the 2015 Legislative session

by Joyce Bahr

Just now the exact same amended bill was introduced again by Assemblymember David Weprin. He is telling us he may make some amendments to this bill but, we are aware he may not want to rock the boat with any such changes He may be fearful any change could prevent the bill from passing again in the assembly.  After many years of serious lobbying by UI's lobby team members our bill was amended, making it no longer a Bill of Rights in the 2015 legislative session. Our bill of rights gave all adult adoptees the right to a copy of their original birth certificate with a contact preference option for birth parents. A law on the books in several other states for several years with no problems.This amended bill which we opposed passed in the assembly in 2015 and 2016 but luckily, never made it to the floor for a vote in the senate.  This legislation has not only a redaction  which allows a birth parent to remove his or her name from the original birth certificate but, gives judges decision making authority in releasing an original birth certificate to an adoptee. This is unfair, outdated and discriminatory legislation. Adoptees who are tax paying citizens  should have the same right as non adopted persons in accessing a copy of  their own birth certificate.

Assembly sponsor David Weprin was hopeful in the 2015 session when the new Speaker Carl Heastie, a democrat from the Bronx, announced all bills with high numbers of sponsors would go to the floor for a vote.
We were let down again as we saw Mr. Heastie's favorite bills go to the floor but, not ours. We were hopeful until two surrogate court judges showed up at our Assembly Health Committee Hearing in 2014 to testify against our bill. Now why on earth would any judge testify against us? Was it they were prompted by the Chair of the powerful and influential Judiciary Committee Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, a democrat from Brooklyn? If there ever was a promise of confidentiality, where is it?

It's been a number of years since high courts in Tennessee (1997) and Oregon  (1999) and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (2000) decided to uphold new open records laws in these states. Opponents were unable to present even one written proof of confidentiality or a right to privacy for birth parents because there was none.

Adoptees and birth parents can legally search because there is no right to privacy. 

With objection not only from the powerful Chair of Assembly Judiciary Helene Weinstein but, Senator Kemp Hannon, Chair of Senate Health Committee one may ask why we are not giving up on succeeding with passage of our Bill of Rights? Why we are standing strong for a new law fair and consistent to all? The truth of the matter is we have no other choice, when we look at other states and see how long their new laws have been on the books with no change. There have been no  further lobby efforts by advocates.

We believe in the inalienable right to know for all adult adoptees and we won't give up!


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Who are the violators of human rights in the adoptees quest for equal rights?

by Joyce Bahr

There aren't too many states recognizing in law the adult adoptees fundamental right to a non certified copy of their original birth certificate. Just nine states Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire ,Oregon and Rhode Island. Several states have pending legislation and there are several with new limited access laws meaning a birth parent  can file a contact veto.. Just seems so wrong that natural;/birth parents would be able to prevent the child they gave away, and is now 18 or older from this basic human right. It is wrong, the sealed record law is in violation of the adoptee's human rights and is a violation of the tenets of governance of human rights. What kind of people are these natural/ birth parents who would want to violate another person's human rights? How many birth parents were aware of the change in the law allowing them to prevent an adoptee from  access to the original birth certificate?  How many were elected to serve in state legislatures when these laws were passed? The answer is, hardly any or none.

Very likely adoptive parent legislators who don't want there adult children, regardless of how old they are, to know or reunite with the natural/birth parents, were present in committee meetings or hearings at the Capitol. This  is because adoption has not changed from being what it's always been about,"protecting the adoptive parents." Since adoption is a service it would seem surveying natural parents and adoptees for their opinions would be in order but, not the case. Surveying adoption attorneys, of course.  Surely the New York State Women's Bar association gave their opinion.

Who was behind changing the law in New York so natural parents would no longer be known as natural parents in law? How many natural parents were notified to see if they agreed to it? How many natural parents support groups were notified about pending legislation to make them known officially in law as birth parents? The answer is none, because adoptive parents and adoption attorneys know best, and they have the money and power.  How many adoption attorneys support open records legislation for adult adoptees in New York ? The answer is one or two.

Surely there are a small number of adoptive parents in legislatures who want their children to know the basic facts of their life and share it with their spouses, families and friends, but the truth remains, natural/birth parents have always been neglected when it comes to getting information. Women like myself had, no information, no options and no support at the time we signed our children away years ago. There was no attorney to represent us. No one asked us our opinion about anything. Some of us were drugged and/or verbally abused.

This is also a women's rights issue, and we look to Australia as a world leader in adoptee's and women's rights in adoption. Recently Australian natural mothers were successful in a recent federal senate inquiry into forced adoptions, and in receiving apologies from maternity homes, religious organizations such as the Catholic Church and state governments. The federal senate inquiry resulted in an official apology in Parliament from the Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Parliament pledged $5 million in support services for victims of forced adoptions and $1.5 million for a special exhibition in the National Archives.

Australian women are never referred to as birth mothers and they've had the support of the national women's movement since they came out in the 1970' suffering from grief and shattered from the injustice of forced adoption.. Both adoptees and natural parents in Australian have had the right to know for many years along with the following countries: England, Holland and New Zealand .

A few years ago Oregon legislature miraculously enacted a law making it easier for natural parents to go through the courts and obtain information to find the surrendered child now 18 and older. Women in the U.S. have not come a long way but, there are a few other states offering them assistance.

Natural mothers in the U.S. first  became empowered in the 1970 with the women's movement and the adoptee rights movement. thousands have searched and reunited.  They have become known as birth mothers in New York and all over the country.  If they were asked their opinions on changing the old sealed record law in New York by our state government many of us would fall off our chairs. Why would  our government  ask?

The truth of the matter is birth/natural parents are being given power over adult adoptees not only to deny rights but, violate their human right to know the basic fact of their birth by filing a contact or redaction veto and most aren't aware of the new laws.  A contact veto means the birth parent can prevent the adoptee from access to the original birth certificate while, the redaction veto allows the birth parent the right to remove their name from the original birth certificate. Legislators often feel they cannot move a bill unless a veto is included in the legislation.

Does anyone feel adoptees and birth parents should determine the laws or have more input?



Friday, July 20, 2012

Adoptees Up Against Backward Laws Protest at National Conference of State Legislaturers

 by David Phelps and Joyce Bahr,

Members of New York’s “Unsealed Initiative,” having ended a legislative lobby session in Albany for the Bill of Adoptee Rights, are in solidarity with protesters at the National Conference of State Legislatures annual conference in Chicago, Illinois in August 2012 . Exasperated with outdated laws dating back to the 1930’s which sealed original birth certificates forever, advocates for change and reform in adoption  want legislators to know they will no longer tolerate unfairness, discrimination and disrespect. Why in the twenty first century are there laws nullifying a person’s right to know the basic facts of their birth?

The United Kingdom opened adoption records more than three decades ago in 1975.  Some countries throughout the world never sealed their adoption records and others that did have changed their laws since the 1980’s, providing adopted people their long overdue rights. American adult adoptees have also had some success in changing antiquated adoption legislation. Recent legislation in Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire&nbspOregon and Rhode Island has restored legal recognition of their full human dignity.

Archaic and false adoption myths, the adoption industry, some adoptive parent legislators and legislators fearing that opening records will necessarily lead to an increase in abortion have all conspired to impede legislative progress in the U.S.  Adopted persons have been made to feel shame and fear simply because they want to know who they are and where they come from, a foundational human need that non adopted people take for granted.  Adopted people have begun to speak out against this discrimination.  They ask:  who do sealed birth certificates actually protect and serve?

The legislation which sealed original birth certificates never codified or even touched upon birth parent confidentiality, which many legislators believe was promised to these parents as a condition of surrender.  Recent research conducted by Professor Elizabeth Samuels of the Baltimore School of Law, entitled The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry into the History of Adult Adoptees Access to Birth Records which was published in the Rutgers Law Review, concludes that laws closing records to the parties were not enacted as a shield to protect birth parents, but rather as a sword to prevent them interfering with adoptive families.

The confidentiality of birth/natural parents has been a bone of contention in the struggle for adoptee rights and has been used as a smokescreen for other reasons to object to legislative reform.  It is said for example that adoptive parents desire to keep the status quo.  However, a 1997 study by Cornell University found adoptive parents overwhelmingly support adoptees’ right to know. It is not surprising to find that there are adoptive parent legislators who support reform.

Many unproven fears retard the movement to grant adult adopted people their birthright.  Some fear an increase in abortions, some fear a decline in adoption placements, some say birth mothers were given confidentiality.  None of these fears have been justified in the histories of those states which have opened their records.  Abortions have not increased.  Adoptions have not decreased.  These days a small percentage of birth mothers reject contact with their children.  At the time of surrender, they signed only a surrender paper terminating their parental rights and confidentiality was not given.  In any event, advocates say that those who are the most concerned, namely adopted people themselves, should have the same right to access their original birth certificates as everyone else. They should decide, without interference from the state.

A comprehensive study conducted in November 2007 by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the foremost think tank on adoption issues, concluded that adoptees behave with maturity and respect when contacting members of their natural families; the lives natural/birth parents have not been ruined.  This report urges all states to open their adoption records. A follow up study by the Donaldson Institute was released in 2010. The study For the Records II an Examination and Impact of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Certificates and the 2007 study can both be read on the Institute’s website.

Times have changed and thousands of adoptees and birth/natural parents search for each other every year.  Several states have pending legislation and several states have partial open records, meaning adopted people born in certain years have access.  Do birth/natural parents have access?  Four states have enacted laws giving them search assistance, but not access.  These are Hawaii, Illinois, Georgia and Tennessee.

The August 2012 protest in Chicago, Illinois organized by members of the Adoptee Rights Demonstration is a demand for legislators to vote on Adoptee Rights legislation, not to table it or to assign it to a committee known as “hell where bills go to die.” Protesters are asking legislators to think hard about an adoptee’s inalienable right to original identity and their need to know.  Advocates describe sealed records laws as unfair, discriminatory and unenlightened, as relics of the past. Legislative change has been exceedingly slow and painstakingly difficult.  It is past time for our laws reflect current research, the norms of the civilized world and to recognize the full humanity of adopted persons!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Discrimination is prohibited, anything less than the inalienable right to know is unacceptable

by David Phelps,

When we think about adoption reform legislation, one fact must be kept uppermost in our minds and that is the unalienable right of all people everywhere and always to know who they are and from whence they came.  Knowledge of one’s origins is so basic, so vital to the human condition that it is impossible to imagine human life in the normative sense, let alone liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without it.  Surely the formation of a healthy human identity necessarily includes such data as who one’s mother is, who one’s father is, some information about one’s ancestors, knowledge of one’s ethnicity, religious affiliation and the like.  For people who have not had their original identities stripped from them at birth, it may be extremely difficult to see how not having such information affects every facet of life.  They are as Betty Jean Lifton has said, like the sighted trying to see into the darkness of the blind.  So accustomed are they to knowing where they grow on the human family tree that their position becomes perhaps assumed and part and parcel of who they are.  A Brooklyn born Italian-American pasta maker knows very well who he is and his identity informs him daily.  An Irish-American New York City policeman, who is perhaps a second or third generation cop, doesn’t he too know exactly who he is?

The first step in reforming New York’s adoption laws must be to give adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates.  It is not only a question of equal rights for those adopted in New York, it is also vital to their well-being.  New York must face the fact that the adoption practices of the past were wrong, hurtful and discriminatory.  The scope of the state’s discrimination becomes clear if we imagine the children of some minority group being systematically denied knowledge of their origins and being given by the state a false identity.  This is exactly what happens in a closed adoption.  What if the children of Greek-American New Yorkers where so denied?  What if the state decreed that all Native-American children born there would henceforth and forever be denied the knowledge that they were Native-American?  What if the state decreed that all African-American children born there would henceforth and forever be denied the knowledge of who their parents were?  These actions are unthinkable and barbaric, yet they are exactly what happened to thousands of New York’s citizens who had the misfortune to be adopted in the state.  

We believe any restriction or veto to access to the original birth certificate would be contrary to Article I Section S11 of the New York Constitution.  Furthermore, as the appeal of the Oregon open records statue shows, there are no impediments in Federal law to the passage and implementation of a clean, veto free bill which would at long last give New York’s adopted citizens and those adopted but no longer living there, equal rights.  Such a law in no way fully addresses the inhumanities foisted upon adopted people and first parents in New York.  But it is a start. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Promise of Adoption: Not a Promise of Confidentiality

by Joyce Bahr

I recall hearing attorney Harold Cassidy speaking at an adoption conference in 1989 in Manhattan. Mr. Cassidy was a litigator in the Mary Beth Whitehead surrogacy lawsuit in 1988, a case which received a great deal of media coverage. At the conference he spoke about The Promise of Adoption. I knew what he was talking about because I heard the phrase very often in the media in the 1960’s before I became pregnant. I would think that many here would recall hearing of this so called promise: that if a baby was put up for adoption he would live happily ever after with loving adoptive parents. Many of us were influenced by this message which we have since found to be dubious at best.

Mr. Cassidy spoke of the promise of adoption saying that if the promise was not fulfilled then there would be a problem. And certainly there is a problem. Social mores and adoption practice have changed greatly in recent decades, but very few changes in the law have taken place for adoptees and first parents. The New York Adoption Registry, for example, has reunited very few adoptees and first parents. In fact, it is more or less reunion proof. Funding for post adoption services has been slight and has also helped very few. Adoption as it was practiced in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s caused great harm to those it touched. Even today adoption is fraught with difficulties.

One further noteworthy aspect of Mr. Cassidy’s presentation was how closed adoption, as it has traditionally been practiced in this state and country, assigns qualities to adoptees as if they were slaves. This idea may come as a shock to many, but an examination does reveal certain similarities between the legal position of the adoptee and the slave. First, neither the slave nor the adoptee has had any say whatsoever in whether or not to enter into his condition. Second, in both cases parties other than the slave or adoptee have complete control over his legal identity. In the one case the master exercises such authority and control, giving the slave his names both Christian and sir. In the other case the state and the adoptive parents collude not only to keep the adoptees’ birth identity a secret, but further to give him a new, false identity as if he were born into the adoptive family. Finally, for both the slave and the adoptee, there is for all practical purposes no appeal from what has been done to them by the law. The slave may be granted freedom by his master or he may not. His only other remedy is to run away and seek to live in the freedom of his own identity in some conducive place. The adoptee is utterly dependent upon his adoptive parents until he reaches the age of maturity at which time he will still find in New York that his birth identity is under lock and key, forbidden to him and sealed forever. For both slave and adoptee others “own” that person’s very identity. To own someone’s identity is in a very real way to own him.

The era before Roe v. Wade was one of secret pregnancies, homes for unwed mothers, forced adoptions, trauma for both adoptees and the first mothers and the creation of a whole class of citizens who were prevented by the state from knowing who they were and where they came from. Accepted social mores and the religious consensus at the time branded unwed mothers with the stigma if illegitimacy, leaving the fathers mostly unnamed and unpunished. Adoptees were conditioned to be grateful for having been separated from their natural families and for being forbidden from knowing their original identities. Indeed, it has been said that adoption is the only trauma where its victims are expected by society to be grateful. Adoptees and first parents were sometimes punished for searching for each other. Searching itself was frowned upon and discouraged which is sadly ironic because today the universal consensus in the adoption therapeutic community is that search and reunion are indispensible to healing for both first parents and adoptees. Through the whole course of the post war period before Roe to today, the voices of the two groups most qualified to speak about the effects of adoption, adoptees and first parents, have been consistently ignored and marginalized in adoption law.

Social workers in the 1890’s did not speak the word confidentiality when they forced unmarried, pregnant women to surrender. In the 1960‘s some women heard: You will have confidentiality after being strictly warned not to interfere with the adoptive family. I know this firsthand because my social worker did tell me I would have confidentiality and I had to ask her what it meant. She said it meant that they would not tell anyone I was there. It was strange that she did not speak of confidentiality in the presence of my mother who by law, because I was a minor, had to be a witness. However, my mother spoke about it with her later and what the social worker said didn’t mean anything; it had no legal force. For years, first mothers have stated that confidentiality was imposed on some women and many never heard the word. We sinning, pregnant, unmarried women were told what to do by society, our parents, attorneys and social workers. We were victims of the times with their strict codes of morality that pertained only to women and not men. Men did not have to endure the punishment and the stigma of illegitimacy. Also, we were told to go home and forget this ever happened. We were not promised we would forget, we were told. The surrender paper signed by many stated that they agreed not to interfere with the custody, control and management of said child. Professor Elizabeth Samuels from the Baltimore School of Law concluded in her study The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry into History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records that confidentiality was for adoptive parents so there would be no intrusion by the first mother who was commonly considered to be an inferior person. Neither the word promise, nor the word confidentiality were contained in surrender papers because they were social mores, not legal terms.

Setting the record and history straight is pertinent as this pertains to women’s history. I have listened to the stories of many, many first mothers in a support group I led in Manhattan for twelve years: The Manhattan Birth Parents Support Group. We all agreed that we were told what to do and had no information or options presented to us. None of us received a copy of the surrender paper terminating our parental rights and none of us were given confidentiality or a secrecy guarantee. I’ve often thought how odd it is that in 1966, when I was subjected to Victorian social mores and forced to surrender my son, Hugh Heffner was opening the Playboy Club down the block from the office in the Chicago Loop where I signed the paper terminating my parental rights.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Claims that unsealing birth certificates for adult adoptees will increase numbers of abortions are unsubstantiated

By Joyce Bahr

Anti adoptee rights opponents of the 1996 Tennessee open records legislation claimed the new law would increase abortions and decrease adoptions. They argued women would rather abort than bear children and place them for adoption if they knew the children could later find them. A court battle ensued and the open records statute was upheld by both the Tennessee Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The claims of the plantiffs were disproven.

Proponents of open records were able to show statistical comparisons of adoptions and abortions over time and between different states, proving open records do not increase the number of abortions. Data recorded in states with open records also indicate that the number of adoptions has not decreased. Current data from states that have opened their records since 1997 demonstrate no increase in abortions.

A recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives” concludes that the decision to abort is typically motivated by multiple, diverse and interrelated factors. The themes of responsibility to others and limitations such as financial constraints and lack of partner support recurred throughout the study.

Many Christians are concerned about abortion and its relation to poverty, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times entitled “One More “’Moral Value’: Fighting Poverty.” Glen E. Stassen, a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, said his students who were largely conservative, agreed poverty should be a part of the moral value discussion.

“A lot of Christians who are worried about abortion see poverty as a pro-life issue, because if you undermine the safety net for poor mothers, you’ll increase the abortion rate and the mortality rate”. Dr. Stassen said, “We’ve seen this happen since welfare reform, just as the Catholic bishops predicted.” The welfare reform Dr. Stassen is referring to was enacted in the 1990’s and was referred to as a “Baby Cap” by the Catholic Bishops.

Dr. Stassen, like most Christian leaders, does not explicitly link unsealing birth certificates to an increase in abortion rates among poor women. Yet the National Council for Adoption, an anti adoptee rights opponent of unsealing birth certificates, continues in its unsubstantiated claim that providing adoptees unfettered access to their original birth certificates will necessarily result in more women choosing abortion. The NCFA also claims birth parents were given a right to privacy which they were not. Women signed only surrender papers terminating their parental rights and no court ever afforded them a right to privacy.

Not all Christians oppose abortion and many Christians support adoptee rights to original birth certificates. The National Council for Adoption mistakenly conflates abortion with adoptee rights and thereby arrives at a false hypothesis that denies adoptees their birthright. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany supports the New York Bill of Adoptee Rights which gives all adoptees at age eighteen a right to a noncertified copy of their original birth certificate and has a contact preference option for birth parents.

Historically, many churches have been insensitive to the needs of adoptees and birth parents. A birth mother’s breach of the Judeo-Christian norm in having a child out of wedlock was seen, prima facie, as requiring the permanent separation of the mother and her baby. It was not understood during this dark time, now referred to as the “Baby Scoop Era,” how this separation caused profound harm to both parties. Even today, religious organizations operate adoption agencies that perpetuate the closed adoption system, hindering reunions and withholding basic information from adoptees about their birth.

Adoption is not a reproductive issue and the abortion issue is irrelevant to the adoptee’s quest for the fundamental right to know who they are and where they came from. The evidence is in. Unsealing adoption records does not lead to an increase in abortion. In fact, those states which have opened their records enjoy a lower rate of abortion than those where records remain sealed! It is simply not the case that adoptees are causing abortions by demanding their birthright. It is past due time to unseal birth certificates!


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Gail Jerson's letter to the Governor

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224

Dear Governor Cuomo,

As an adoptee born in New York, I ask you to support NYS Adoption Reform legislation S1438/A2003. Please help move this bill to the floor for a vote. It is paramount that all adoptees are given the same basic human rights and ability to plan a secure future, as any other non-adopted human being. But at this point, we cannot do that without knowing if our health is in jeopardy or the health of our children and grandchildren. Our origins and heritage are kept secret because the government keeps this information sealed from the adoptee who has committed no crime. So why are we not able to ensure the health of our families, the way all other citizens of this country can do?

Unrestricted open records for adult adoptees is the norm in most of the rest of the free world. Adoptees should have a right to access the records of their birth in the same manner as any other citizen of this nation. Why do we have to continue living with the unknown simply because we were adopted and are governed by antiquated laws that desperately need to be changed? New York's sealed records law dates back to 1935 when Governor Herbert Lehman signed it into law, perhaps believing it was in the best interests of his three adopted children. However times and attitudes have changed. We all have a moral obligation to look at historical judgments and correct them if they were made in violation of personal rights.

For many, the future is blind without sight of the past. Everyone needs to know where they came from, their origins, their history, their racial and ethnic background, who their mothers and fathers are, and of paramount importance, potentially life-saving medical information. Denying this information is not only an injustice and a denial of a basic human right, but it is immoral and unconscionable.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 ½ years ago. That diagnosis fueled an already burning flame in me to seek out information about my history and birth family. I knew from ‘non-identifying’ information given to me by the adoption agency that my maternal grandmother had passed away at a very young age from a serious undisclosed illness. Did she die of breast cancer? Did my mother also have breast cancer during her life? I would never know because there were no updated medical records available to me. I have 2 children who deserve to know if there have been THREE generations of breast cancer before them.

After countless years of utilizing every available means that NYS had to offer to try and locate my biological information, and $4,000 later, I was still left with major unanswered health issues and frustration for a system that I felt had let me down. Eventually I learned that my birthmom had died 9 years prior, at only 69 years old. She never had any other children, and all her 4 siblings were also deceased. If the records hadn't been sealed and I had been able to search sooner, I could have found her before she died. I felt saddened, cheated, deprived, and angry due to a system that should have been changed years ago. Sealed records robbed from me something I will never get back. My injuries will always be as fresh as the day I was relinquished, and as fresh as the day I realized the injustice when I began my search 12 ½ years ago. My wound thrives on being kept fresh by those who deny me my rights as a human being. The passing of NYS Adoption Reform legislation (S1438/A2003) addresses that violation of human rights.


Gail Jerson