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

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Changing Face of Adoption

by Gail Jerson

According to research by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and data from the Child Welfare League of America, the number of adoptions from other countries had hovered around 20,000 per year for about a decade ending several years ago; it has been falling ever since and was around 12,000 last year. The number of domestic infant adoptions has been around 14,000 or so annually for a long time and remains there. The number of adoptions from foster care (i.e., also domestic) has been rising steadily and has been the biggest type of adoption throughout this period; last year, it was at about 60,000.

1. Reasons for decline in foreign adoptions
Foreign adoptions have been on the decline, especially from countries such as Guatemala, China and most recently, Ethiopia, which was the number two source country for children adopted by Americans, (2,513 Ethiopian children were adopted by Americans in 2010). The number of foreign children adopted by Americans fell by 13 percent last year, reaching the lowest level since 1995 due in large part to a virtual halt to adoptions from Guatemala because of corruption problems.

Ethiopia just implemented changes that could reduce the number of foreign adoptions by up to 90 percent. According to the State Department, Ethiopia's new policy calls for its Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs to process no more than five adoption cases per day — about 10 percent of the caseload it had been handling.
China has already tightened rules for adoption, barring people who are single, obese, older than 50 or who fail to meet certain benchmarks in financial, physical or psychological health, from adopting Chinese children, according to adoption agencies in the United States. China had in recent years been the No. 1 source of foreign-born children adopted by Americans.
The revised guidelines included a requirement that applicants have a body-mass index of less than 40, no criminal record, a high school diploma and be free of certain health problems like AIDS and cancer, or any psychological issues, anxiety, depression. Couples must have been married for at least two years and have had no more than two divorces between them. If either spouse was previously divorced, the couple cannot apply until they have been married for at least five years. In addition, adoptive parents must have a net worth of at least $80,000 and income of at least $10,000 per person in the household, including the prospective adoptive child.
Guatemala has suspended the adoption process since 2008 in order to create a Central Authority to process adoptions, which will make Guatemala Hague Compliant.

2. Increase in domestic adoptions
As a result of the above decrease in foreign adoptions, and the availability of more babies in this country, domestic adoptions have increased. People are choosing open instead of closed adoptions, married couples are opting for open adoptions, and there are more open-adoption agencies. Many adoption agencies report that open adoption is being embraced by pregnant women who previously might have been reluctant to consider giving up a baby if it meant no chance of contact later in life. Also Christian social workers have been conducting outreach programs throughout the country and have been suggesting adoption over abortions, thus making more babies available.

3. Why Open records?
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. However, 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. Times and attitudes have changed. For many, the future is blind without a sight of the past. Everyone needs to know where they came from, their origins, their history, 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.

4. Open Record States
Eight states have recently opened records to adoptees in years before records were sealed. States with contact preferences, such as Oregon, Alabama, New Hampshire, and Maine, have had no problems since enacting legislation to open records. Delaware, Massachusetts, and Tennessee also have opened records without incident. Kansas and Alaska never had closed records. Illinois, the most recent state to open records, has had thousands of adoptees who have gotten their records already. All adoptees in Illinois will eventually be able to get their original birth certificate/

5. Results of open records
During the last decade, more than a half-dozen very diverse states in terms of geography and politics, from Oregon to Alabama to Maine, have done what the skeptics warned against, and two states, Alaska and Kansas, never sealed these documents, as most of the country did in the last century. Guess what fallout there has been in these states. None.

Have the predictions by open-records opponents come true? Has there been a decrease in adoption and an increase in abortion, caused by pregnant women's fear that the children they surrender to adoption might find them decades later? An increase in the divorce rate for women who'd never told their husbands about the child they surrendered to adoption? Have adoptees stalked parents who don't want contact? No.

If openness had any effect, it has been to increase adoptions and decrease abortions, according to Fred Greenman, board member and legal advisor to the American Adoption Congress, who has studied adoption and abortion rates in places that allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. States with open records have not seen a decline in numbers of adoption placements. There have been no verified reports of divorces caused by adoptee reunions with birth mothers or fathers. And mothers who've made clear they don't want to meet their surrendered children have not been harassed. This isn't surprising: few adoptees wish to experience rejection firsthand.

It is also true that the number of birth mothers who don't want to meet their children is tiny. Surveys show that the great majority of them welcome, even long for, contact. Even the few mothers who don't want contact with their children are better served by open adoption records. States that have granted adoptees access to their original birth certificates have built in vehicles enabling birth parents to let their children know whether and how they want to meet. No violations have been reported. In states with closed adoption records, on the other hand, parents who prefer not to have contact have no means to make their wishes known. And though it's hard for people who have been adopted in states with closed adoption records to find their families, it's not impossible.

6. Conclusion
States and countries with open records have not seen a decline in the number of adoption placements, but rather an increase. Additionally, abortion rates are not higher and are in fact lower in open records states than in states with sealed records.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

NY bill summary-bill has a contact preference

Bill Summary- A2003/S1438 An act to amend the health law and domestic

relations law in relation to enacting the bill of adoptee rights. The public health law is amended by adding a new section 4138-e

The legislature hereby states its intention to acknowledge, support and encourage the life-long health and well-being needs of adults who have been and will be adopted in the state of New York. The legislature further recognizes that the denial of access to accurate and complete medical and self-identifying data of any adopted person, known and willfully withheld by others, may result in that person succumbing to preventable disease, premature death or otherwise unhealthy life, is a violation of that person’s human rights and is contrary to the tenets of governance. As such, the provisions of this section seeks to establish considerations under the law for adopted persons equal to such considerations permitted by law to all non-adopted persons. This section does so while providing for the need of privacy for that adopted person and his or her birth and adoptive families. Allows all adoptees when they reach the age of eighteen the ability to receive a non certified copy of his or her original birth certificate provided they have proper identification and pay a nominal fee,and to receive an updated medical history form submitted to the health department by the birth parent, if available. The medical history form shall be prescribed by the Health Department.

A birth parent may at any time request a contact preference form that shall
accompany a birth certificate issued under this title. The contact preference form shall provide the following information to be completed at the option of the birth parent.

(A) I would like to be contacted

(B) I would prefer to be contacted only through an intermediary

(C) I have completed a medical history form and have filed it with the department

(D) Please do not contact me. If I decide later that I would like to be contacted, I will submit an updated contact preference form with the department.

The sealed envelope containing the contact preference form and the medical history

form may be released to the person requesting his or her own original birth

certificate under this title. The contact preference form and the medical history

form are private communications from the birth parent to the person named on the

sealedbirth certificate and no copies shall be retained by the department. Where

only a medical history form is requested the birth certificate and the contact

preferenc form shall not be sent., but may be requested at a later date.

When it shall be impossible through good-faith efforts to provide a copy of the birth

certificate (as in the case of an adopted person born outside of, but adopted within the

state of New York), the adopted person shall have the right to secure from a court of

competent jurisdiction or the adoption agency true and correct identifying information.

This act shall tack effect on the first of January next succeeding the date on which it

shall become a law, provided however, that effective immediately the commissioner of

health is directed to promulgate such rules and regulations .

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Press Conference March 6th City Hall Manhattan

Join us! Unsealed Initiative and Assemblymember David Weprin will be on the steps of City Hall in Manhattan Sunday March 6th at 12:30pm for a press conference. This press conference will bring attention to the struggle for passage of the Bill of Adoptee Rights pending in the state legislature. We are not giving up the fight! Take the 4, 5 or 6 train to Brooklyn Bridge City Hall stop.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

N.Y. must open its adoption records

Letter to the Editor - Albany Times Union, Saturday January 29th

I write in support of A2003/S1438, the New York State Adoption Records Reform bills. I was adopted in 1960 in Rochester.

Because I am a white, middle-class male, it may be difficult to see me as a member of an oppressed minority group. Yet, that is exactly what New York adoptees are.

What other term can describe a group of citizens prevented by the state from knowing who they are and where they came from?

How is it possible that the state can maintain a veil of secrecy between a human being and the most basic information about himself?

How can one participate fully in the human condition when one is cut off by law from even knowing the identity of those who are responsible for one's life?

Of course, there was another group of people so denied. They were by law and custom expected to live without this vital, human knowledge. These were the slaves of the antebellum South. They were not viewed as men, rather as property. Are we adoptees human beings?

Let New York leave behind the barbaric practices of the past so well described by Ann Fessler, author of "The Girls Who Went Away."

Let New York treat all born there with full human dignity.

Let New York open its records as a step toward redressing the misery caused by its closed adoption system.

David Phelps

Fairfax, Va.