Sunday, December 26, 2010

Records need to be unsealed

First published: Monday, November 29, 2010

Thousands of adults who were born and adopted in New York now live in other states. Some write to state legislators to ask them to open New York's sealed adoption records and may have received replies. However, some feel they have no representation in Albany and should not waste their time. Meanwhile, some adoption agencies indicate that most of the requests they receive from adoptees seeking to know the basic facts of their birth are from those living out of state.

The Bill of Adoptee Rights -- A2003, sponsored by Assemblyman David Weprin , and S1438, sponsored by Senator Velmanette Montgomery -- has gained support and activists continue to lobby.

New York's adoption policy is slow to catch up to accepted practice that advocates for openness and honesty. Its policy that no one should search, when search and reunion have been accepted for many years, is a "Father Knows Best" paternalistic policy. It is extremely unfair.

Many of the old beliefs about adoption have been disproved and social mores have changed. The shroud of secrecy surrounding adoption was a social more'. There were no confidentiality laws for birth parents, nor a right to privacy. Adoptees were not supposed to search because they would upset their adoptive families and find unpleasant truths about their birth families. When these outdated mores collapsed, thousands of adoptees and birth parents began searching for each other; thousands continue to do so every year.

Searching is now seen as a necessary step in adoptee/birthparent healing.

It is the old, discriminatory sealed records law that is in the wrong. November is National Adoption Month, and New York adoptees still have no right to the most fundamental information about themselves.

Joyce Bahr

President Unsealed Initiative

New York City

Sunday, November 7, 2010

David Phelps Letter to Speaker Silver

Dear Speaker Silver,

My name is David Phelps. I am a New York adoptee. I was adopted in Rochester in 1960. I was placed through the North Haven agency. I am writing to you today in support of A8410/S5269 , the New York Adoption Records Reform bills. I feel that the time has come, indeed is long past, for New York to open its adoption records.

The question of opening New York’s adoption records is an important one for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there is the matter of basic human dignity. All human beings have a birthright, a right to know their origins, the circumstances of their birth. Happily, this is the case in Western Europe, Australia and six U.S. States.

Second, one must realize that not having vital information about oneself is actually harmful in many ways. May I tell you about my adoptive brother Doug? Doug passed away this summer. He died of a heart attack at the age of 51. This was the second heart attack he had had, the first coming in his early forties. At the time of his first heart attack, his doctors of course asked him if he had a family history of heart disease. What could he say? He was adopted. He had no legal right to any family medical history. All he could say was “I don’t know.” In fact the doctors told him that he must have had a family history of heart problems because he wouldn’t have suffered an attack at that age without a genetic predisposition. Now imagine if Doug had known this from an early age. Don’t you think he would have taken precautions? Don’t you think that knowledge would have made a profound impact on his medical treatment and lifestyle choices? I firmly believe that Doug would still be alive today if he had had this vital knowledge. Did the sealed records system kill him? Is that too strong a word? It certainly was at the very least an unnecessary obstacle to his health and well being.

Doug never searched for his birth family, though he wanted to. The sealed records system that we both grew up with conditioned us to think that searching was a sign of maladjustment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only in the last few years was he becoming aware of the great injustice New York has foisted upon an entire class of its own citizens. Imagine if the state decreed tomorrow that all newborn females or minorities were forbidden to know their original identities. It sounds ridiculous, yet this is exactly what New York has done to those born out of wedlock and placed for adoption within its borders. Why?

In 2005, I searched for and found my original family and identity. No one has been harmed by my doing so. I have wonderful new relationships with my birth siblings, though my birthparents have both passed. These are relationships I should have had for decades. I have missed the chance of knowing by birth parents because New York has diligently maintained its closed adoption system of secrets and lies. I am sure that if the records had been open I would have searched much earlier. Try to imagine for one moment being prevented by law from knowing your own flesh and blood, the very people from whom you sprang. For the non adopted, as one adoptee has said, it is like asking the sighted to imagine the darkness of the blind.

So the cause is just. History is on our side. Just this month the state of Western Australia issued a public apology to birth mothers and adoptees for the harsh practices of the past. Indeed, I believe the closed records system is a barbarism of the 20th century which sadly still lingers on in some places in the 21st. Please support A8410/S5269 .


David Phelps

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Out of State Adoptee/Activist Jim Clevo gets mail

by Joyce Bahr

Cleveland adoptee Jim Clevo has received mail in response to his letters to legislators. I've known Jim for many years and have the pleasure of speaking to him from time to time and am happy to receive a copies of letters he receives. Why is it that Jim receives response letters and others do not? This past week I communicated with David an adoptee from Washington D.C. and Bob an adoptee from Colorado. David is a professional writer and must send some excellent letters and Bob, he's one hell of a genius. But neither have received even one letter. Well, wait a minute because everyone receives a letter from the Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver. The Speaker opposes A8410 but hopefully our lobbying is leading him to reconsider.

Recently Mary Cook an adoptee from Florida received a nice letter from the Chair of Health committee stating A8410 would probably be reported from health committee in the 2011 Albany session. For those of you who don't know A8410 was first reported from health on 6/6/06 and was the assigned to Codes committee also known as Hell where bills go to die. In January of 2011 it will return to health again until the chair decides to put it on the agenda for a vote. A8410 is expected to pass by a vote of 26-0 and reported out of committee to Codes. Our goal is to move it to the floor for a vote!

I'm in touch with many out of state adoptees and just the other day heard from Ann Pelto an adoptee from California. She asked me what else adoptees living out of state could do other than contribute. Since Jim is proof that letters do work I have to say keep them going and don't give up! Ann has been in our movement for a number of years and is familiar with the struggles we've had to endure.

I have to commend Jim for his writing efforts especially because he has been through some tough times with his health and keeps at it!. In 2009 he drove from Cleveland to Buffalo where he was born at Our Lady of Victory in Lackawana, New York and then on to Albany where he joined us to lobby. Kudos to Jim!

Good idea to highlight bill nos. A8410/S5269 and have the bill number right up front in your letter. Most legislators are familiar with our legislation and know we are asking for birth certificates to be unsealed, not records. The few who may not are those we've been advised not to bother with by my legislators or some others. They are a waste of time.

Of most importance at this time is a unified front and solidarity. We've come a long way and have not just a good bill but a very good bill. We can move our bills to the floor for a vote!

Thanks to all living out of state including birth parents. I'm happy to hear from you from time to time and know that you are not giving up!

Carole Whitehead on National Adoption Month

November is National Adoption Month and soon we will be inundated with the names of all the famous people who were adopted along with their happy smiling faces. Some of them were adopted by strangers and others by family members. Why aren’t these celebrities who surrendered their children shown as well with their not so happy faces? Both famous mothers and fathers have been in the media as being the biological parents, i.e, Rod Stewart, Roseanne Barr, Joni Mitchell, David Cassidy, Andy Kaufman, Kate Millgrew, Dirk Benedict and Albert Einstein to name a few, even though some are deceased. These are the people who acknowledged their past and should be out there supporting the needs of the adopted to obtain their original birth certificates. While we cannot rely on them to use their celebrity, we can be the ones who speak up for our children. We are the ones who support our children being treated as equals. We offer them their identities, health history, heritage, knowledge and fulfill their needs as only we can. We do this as a gift of love. We will not stand behind the opposition’s insisting that we want to remain hidden because at one time our society said that we must. We are neither afraid of our children nor the discontented legislators who say that our surrendered children must be afraid of us. We can make change and so we shall continue our love, support & whatever it takes to fight the fight. We need to contact our legislative people continuously or else vote out those who refuse to change their stance from day 1.

Get active. Stay active. Participate. Our children whether they have been found, or a reunion exists, deserve equality and not cast out as not being entitled to being respected as an adult and not just an “adopted child” forever and ever.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Studies finding for adoptee access to Original Birth Certificates

2009 -112 pages- Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute: “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation for Adoptees.” The broadest, most extensive examination of adult adoptive identity to date. (Entire study published on Institute’s website).

2007 – 50 pages –Professor E. Wayne Carp: “Does Opening Adoption Records Have an Adverse Social Impact? Some Lessons from the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia 1953 to 2007.” (Study available from or from Unsealed Initiative).

2007 –31 pages—Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute: “For the Record: Restoring a Legal Right for Adult Adoptees.” (Entire study published on Institute’s website).

2008 --33 pages---Cleveland State Law Review: “The Only Americans Legally Prohibited from Knowing Who Their Birth Parents Are; A rejection of Privacy Rights as a Bar to Adult Adoptee Access to Birth and Adoption Records. (On line copy available from Unsealed Initiative ). Cleveland State Law Review. Volume 55 issue 3.

2001—59 pages- Professor Elizabeth J. Samuels: “The Idea of Adoption: an Inquiry into The History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records.” Study concludes confidentiality was for adoptive parents. Some birth parents signed surrender papers agreeing to stay away from the custody of the adoptee and adoptive family. But no birth parent was given confidentiality or a right to privacy. This study is published in the Rutgers law review#367, 2001. (3 page conclusion available from Unsealed Initiative).

1997---Cornell University study sponsored by the New York State Citizens Coalition Children: “Adoptive Parents Are Overwhelmingly in Favor of Opening Sealed Adoption Records.” (Available at

1973—New York Law Forum study concludes adults adoptees should have access to identity and birth records for psychological health reasons. (Available from Unsealed Initiative).

Survey Finding for Access

2003 –Survey conducted by FindLaw finds an overwhelming majority of Americans believe adopted children should be granted full access to their adoption records when they become adults. (Survey findings published on ).

Convention on the Rights of the Child

1989 –UN Resolution (44/25 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 8). Section 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. Section 2 states where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, state parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view of re-establishing speedily his or her identity.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bill will give adoptees access to their birth records-Albany Legislative Gazette June 1, 2010

Top Stories
bulletDown on the derrick: A visit to a Pennsylvania natural gas well
bulletNY pols react to Cuomo announcement
bulletAuditors, OTBs agree action is needed
bulletBreeders keeping an eye on Albany
bulletBrennan Center issues voter disenfranchisement warning
bulletDemocrats are behind lt. gov. pick
bulletGreen Party solidifies ticket
bulletLawmakers say VLTs are key to future of racing
bulletMalpass: Don't put our children in debt
bulletPols respond to Cuomo candidacy
bulletRice picks up Albany County endorsements
bulletGroups seek greater safety for pedestrians
bulletNYC students, parents await final decision on MetroCards
icone-mail this article link to a friend
iconletter to the editor about this article
iconprint this article
May 27, 2010
Members of the Unsealed Initiative, a group that is working toward adoption reform, are hopeful that a proposed "bill of adoptee rights" will be passed this legislative session.

The adoptee bill of rights (S.5269/A.8410) would grant people who are adopted the right, upon their 18th birthday, to obtain an original or certified copy of their birth certificate and learn who their biological parents are. The legislation would also ensure adoptees have access to their family's medical history, if such records exists, as well as any other information birth relatives might choose to provide.

The bill would also allow birth parents the option making know their contact preference. Birth parents could either chose to allow contact, allow contact through an intermediary or indicate their preference not to be contacted. Birth parents would be able to rescind or revise their contact preference at any time.

"Way too many people out there who have been adopted need information. And they're not getting it," said David Koon, D-Perinton, the Assembly sponsor of the adoptees bill of rights.

Koon said he is concerned that adoptees who are unable to view a complete family history are at higher risk for developing genetic conditions. If an adoptee is allowed to view their family's history then they might be able to prevent illness, "especially with today's technology," he said.

New York sealed adoption records in 1935 due to social stigmas attached to being an adopted child. This subsequently sealed all records of the adoption process to all parties involved. All adoptees thereafter were unable to view their own birth certificates or receive any information regarding their family's medical history.

"The whole climate has changed because our issue has become more mainstream. We're more accepted," said Joyce Behr, president of the Unsealed Initiative. According to Behr, the adoptee bill of rights was first introduced in 1993. Since then the bill has been introduced in both houses of the Legislature but has seen little movement.

Though New York adoptee records have never been unsealed, in 1983 the state created an Adoption Information Registry that allows adoptees to obtain nonidentifying information about their birth parents.

The nonidentifying information that adoptees can obtain includes general appearance, race, education and occupation. An individual can only receive indentifying information if both parties have registered with the Adoption Information Registry and both have consented to the release of their information.

Birth parents can also supply medical and psychological information to the registry. That information can be obtained by an adoptee who registers with the registry. Any medical updates must be certified by a licensed health care provider.

The registry cannot provide adoptees with their original birth certificate or adoption records.

Several states have recently opened adoption records including Delaware, Tennessee and, most recently, Maine, according to a statement prepared by Unsealed Initiative.

The legislation was referred to the Senate Health Committee at the beginning of the year, and reported to the Assembly Codes Committee on May 11.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Unsubstantiated Claims Unsealing Birth Certificates for Adult Adoptees Will Increase Numbers of Abortions

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 values

“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 NCA 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!


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blind Songwriter's quest for family reunification hindered by outdated adoption laws

Dennis H.R. Sumlin - A New York Adoption Story
A Blind Songwriter and Artist Recruiter's Long Journey Home
Share Article |

Feb 25, 2010 Donna W. Hill
Dennis H.R. Sumlin finally met his brother after 20 years. Their story demonstrates the enduring value of family and how laws thwart efforts to renew these natural ties.

Do you know your parents' names, where they grew up, what they like or their medical histories? Most of us do., For people like Dennis H.R. Sumlin and many other adopted Americans, however, ordinary tidbits about birth families are precious gems, which often take years to unearth. In states like New York, things that could help, such as original birth certificates containing birth parents' names, are sealed.
A Rough Start for a Talented Kid

Sumlin (32, Manhattan) is a talent recruitment specialist for the Visionary Media Company, president of the nonprofit Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind (PAD, NFB) and an R&B/Pop songwriter. A mentor to teens and active in the New York State Adoption Reform Lobby (NYSAR), he was elected president of the Westchester chapter of the NFB of NY in January, 2009.

Dennis, who spoke with Suite 101 about his experiences, was given up for adoption when he was six months old. His mother, who was living on the streets of New York, had drug problems and couldn't look after him. Born with glaucoma, he lost his sight at 12 and ultimately dropped out of high school. His adoptive father died when Dennis was 16; his mother when he was 21.
Longing for Acceptance and Family

His adoptive parents, the Holston's, were almost 50 when Dennis came into their lives. Their natural children were grown with families of their own. Though Dennis has warm memories of them and their life together in a Brooklyn brownstone with his aunt and cousins, there were problems the Holston's couldn't fix.

Age was one of them. Normally uncles are older than their nieces and nephews. In Dennis's case, since the children of his adoptive siblings were older, Dennis was their younger uncle. Also, The Holston's daughter resented the attention her mother was giving to Dennis, and he never felt accepted by that side of the family.
Ads by Google
Rights of a Birth Father
We Help Fathers Gain the Rights They Deserve. Call Today.
CT Adoption/Foster/Mentor
You Don't Have To Be Rich To Adopt A Connecticut Child

There was also his brother. The Holston's, who didn't change his birth name other than adding their last name, were always open with him about what they knew about his birth family. He had a younger sister and an older brother. The brother had also been adopted.

Until age seven, Dennis occasionally visited his brother. He doesn't remember those early meetings, but the Holston's kept those memories alive, and he longed to find him. What he didn't know was that his brother was looking for him too.
Technology for the Blind Enables Dennis to Search for His Birth Family

Although Dennis wanted to reconnect with his brother, he didn't know how to proceed. A high school teacher, knowing this, gave him Oprah Winfrey's contact information, but he didn't use it. At 24, he learned about a New York state form for adding his contact information to a registry in case his relatives were looking for him. Again, he didn't act on it.

Dennis's search began in earnest at age 26 when he learned to use a computer with text-to-speech software, which removed blindness as a barrier to web-based research. Profiles he posted on several ancestry sites led to distant connections. An act of selflessness, however, gave him his big break.
A Family Reunites

No stranger to the foster care system - his aunt took in foster kids - Dennis joined a mentoring program matching adopted adults and teens. His first kid was a 16-year-old in NYC's foster care system. At an end-of-year gathering, '80s rapper Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C., who was also adopted, and his private investigator Pamela O'Brien talked to the group, showing a documentary about Darryl's quest to find his birth family.

Dennis had just learned that New York adoptees can't get their original birth certificates. He wanted to change the law. Darryl, who was trying to change a similar law in New Jersey, connected Dennis with NYSAR's Unsealed Initiative.

In March, 2007, Dennis received a call from another mentor. He had Dennis's brother's adoptive mother's phone number. She had been waiting for his call. Dennis spoke with his brother the next night. A month later, Dennis went to North Carolina to see his brother for the first time in twenty years.

Since then, other leads have materialized. Dennis found his younger sister living right near him and learned that their birth parents, who never married, had died in the '80s. He has connected with many cousins and other siblings. He hopes to find his youngest brother.

"I'm a believer in lineage," says Dennis, who recently changed his name to reflect all of his parents (Holston, Richardson and Sumlin), "I like to know where I came from and represent that in everything I do."
The Ongoing Legal Struggle

Dennis and NYSAR continue to lobby for the unsealing of birth certificates. Bills are in both houses of the New York legislature.
Share Article |
[Recommend Article!] Recommend Article!
The copyright of the article Dennis H.R. Sumlin - A New York Adoption Story in Law, Crime & Justice is owned by Donna W. Hill. Permission to republish Dennis H.R. Sumlin - A New York Adoption Story in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
Unsealed Initiative Activist Dennis H.R. Sumlin, John Sumlin Unsealed Initiative Activist Dennis H.R. Sumlin

Sunday, March 7, 2010

New York Post article: new fight by adult adoptees

Please note the description of our bill in this article is not accurate. Our bill gives all adoptees at age 18 the right co a non certified copy of their original birth certificate and has a contact preference option for birth parents. A medical history update form is mailed to those birth parents who do not want contact. It is not mandatory for them to fill it out and return it but hopefully they will.

New fight by adult adoptees

Posted: March 7, 2010

All he knows about his mother is that she was a 19-year-old art student when she gave birth to him on New Year's Eve in 1966. Now, 43 years later, David Bandler is desperately trying to find the woman who gave him up for adoption because he's in a constant state of limbo over his murky origins.

"On a subconscious level, it's always sitting there -- you wonder, 'What's my backstory?' " Bandler said. But New York state keeps adoption records sealed, making it often impossible for children to find their birth parents.

Currently, adoptees must prove to a judge they have a psychological or medical condition that requires they learn the identity of their birth parents. Bandler's lawyer, Bert Hirsch, says he's filed a "steady trickle" of adoption lawsuits over the years, and they are generally unsuccessful because the state Court of Appeals tends to protect birth parents' privacy.

But Bandler is hopeful his search will be fruitful. His psychiatrist filed an affidavit stating that Bandler's life will be greatly improved by a reunion with his birth mother.

Joyce Bahr, whose heads a group that advocates to unseal records for adoptive children in New York state, says keeping them closed makes little sense now. She has a bill before the Legislature to allow adopted children to contact their birth parents at age 18 via an agency, and the parent has the option of meeting the child or not. "It's the only humane way," she said.