Law to Link Adoptees and Birth Parents Passed in New Jersey

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April 29, 2014; Star-Ledger

Sometimes nonprofit advocacy campaigns take years to see results. In the case of the legislation in New Jersey that will allow adopted persons to gain access to their original birth certificates—and, in doing so, learn who their birth parents were—it took nonprofit advocates more than three decades.

Governor Chris Christie announced this week that he will sign a bill that will lift the ages-old “insurmountable barrier” between adoptees and their birth parents. Three years ago, Christie rejected a similar bill, acceding to the opinions of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, New Jersey Right to Life, and the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that birth mothers had been promised and therefore relied upon lifelong anonymity. In signaling he would approve the legislation, Christie acknowledged that society had changed on this issue, and so he had to.

“The nature of adoption has transformed over the last half-century from a path of last resort to a life-affirming partnership between birth parents, adoptive parents and their children,” according to a statement released by Christie’s office. “Adoption is now properly regarded as a natural choice for parents seeking to grow their families and a supportive and loving pathway for parents who reach the mature decision to provide their child with the opportunities of a new home.”

Eleven other states provide adoptees access to birth certificates: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee. New Jersey’s law will go into effect in 2017, before which time birth parents can tell the state whether they want to allow contact or prevent contact and have their names on the birth certificate redacted.

According to a statement released by the organization, NJ CARE—the Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education—reports that the campaign for this legislative change began 34 years ago, predating the establishment of the coalition in 1991. The mission of NJ CARE is straightforward:

“NJCARE believes that adult adopted persons should have the right:

  • to know the truth of their origins
  • to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate
  • to have access to updated family medical, cultural, and social information upon request

To know the truth of one’s origin is the right of every human being.”

The advocates appeared to understand what Adam Pertman, the president of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, said were the findings of a 2006 study by his organization, which concluded that 95 percent of birth parents wanted their children to contact them. “We found the single biggest healing factor for women who relinquish a child for adoption is knowing the child is okay,” Pertman told the Star-Ledger. “The single biggest thing we can do to help them is to release these records.”

Facts and studies, however, sometimes don’t result in advocacy wins when the interests on the other side are powerful and well financed. In this case, NJ CARE appears to have been successful in mobilizing birth mothers, who testified in droves to the fact that they had never signed confidentiality agreements, as suggested by the right-to-life groups, and actually wanted to be found by their children. By mobilizing the people—birth mothers—most affected by this controversy, NJ CARE lifted the voices of the people whose concerns should have meant the most.

Reading some of the testimony of the birth mothers, some of whom at ages of 16 or younger signed agreements that they didn’t understand or felt pressured to sign, is tough and emotional. “If you read this, there is no way you could tell it was protecting Betty Lou’s confidentiality,” said birth mother Betty Lou Pedone, referencing the confidentiality agreement she signed at the age of sixteen—45 years earlier—that severed her connection to her baby boy. “It was like I was scum. It’s really harsh and upsetting for me to read that I will never look for him.”

Valerie Drabek, now close to 70, was forced by her mother to put her child up for adoption after she got pregnant at the age of 19. Angrily asking Valerie, “How could you do this to me?” and announcing, “I’m not raising another baby,” Valerie’s mother made the decision for her daughter, who obeyed not only her, but her priest who told her to never tell anyone, even her husband, about the pregnancy and the adoption—because, he said, “no one will want you.” Thirty-eight years later, Valerie told her husband and began the efforts to reunite with her lost son.

There is undoubtedly a great case study lurking behind this legislative victory, with plenty of byways over three decades of work. However, one thing is clear. Nothing takes the place of the authenticity of the voices of the people directly involved in and affected by the issue. Many nonprofit advocacy organizations can use the reminder.—Rick Cohen

  • Jimm Mandenberg

    It’s nice to see New Jersey move into the twentieth century – to recognize that the adopted ADULT’s desire to have a copy of their own birth certificate does not infringe upon anyone’s rights and to acknowledge the truth that the vast majority of birth parents do NOT wish to remain anonymous to their offspring regardless of what the priests and attorneys say and are willing to bribe for.

    Let’s hope the remaining states which mandate discrimination for adopted persons follow this line of rational thought and quit being pathetic scourges upon the civil rights history of the United States.

  • Peter Franklin

    thank you Rick Cohen! I know all the members of NJCare very well and they deserve this tribute. An amazing David vs Goliath story that should be a movie. A grass roots, non-profit gets something fabulous done against the most powerful lawyer and religious special interest groups in what may be the most corrupt state.

  • Patricia Martinez Dorner, MA, LPC

    Thank you for your story regarding this very important issue that affects millions of people throughout our country. As you have so beautifully pointed out “nothing takes the place of the authenticity of the voices of the people directly involved and affected”. Well said! Now let us hope that other states take notice. This will offer the healing potential for so many. I have provided search assistance and support for over 30 years and it’s those voices that keep me fueled!

  • Eunice Anderson

    Just to add another voice in this birth certificate lobbying. We adoptive parents voices are ignored most of the time when we also champion this law. I assisted my three children in their searches and reunions because knowing where they came from was vital to their adult lives. And we are the ones who put our kids lives back together again so why not include us in this legislation activity? Like this story.

  • Laurel

    Only 11% of adoptees requested birth certificates in Oregon. 2.5 % in Ill and less than 800 in RI. It is not the majority of adoptees who feel they are losing out on something. The law is changing that is taking choice away from women. A choice that if wasn’t available one of the adoptees working to get a birth certificate might not be here.

    My sister is a birth parent she would have chosen abortion if she new her identity would be know 30 years later. Her belief is the new family is the child’s family. We saw what happened when an adoptee in our family reunited with her birth family. The only of 8 adoptees in our family. After her adopted parents died and then a sibling she contacted her birthparent. She was thrilled when she found they had married and she had siblings. After spending most of her inheritance (that her adopted family left her ) traveling back and forth to another state and helping her birthparents out financially, almost losing her marriage she ended up coming back to NJ where her “real family(adopted) welcomed her home. Ten years later she is still struggling financially. Our family says her adopted parents are turning over in their grave. The adoptee didn’t want to listen to anyone in her family she had new friends. The ones telling her she was entitled, that adoptees want to know. An elderly aunt died thinking she failed her sister by allowing her niece to lose all her inheritance.

    Taking choice away is no different than 50 years ago when closed adoption was the only option. Open semi open and closed adoption should be the options available to a women. Then mutual consent. The majority of birthparents chose semi open. No one size fits all. We are doing to women and adoptees exactly what we did to them 50 years ago telling them what is the best.

    Our state supports women who have an abortion allowing women privacy,

    A women who doesn’t get medical attention has a child in a hotel room then brings the child to a safe haven gets privacy.

    But a women who would choose a chance at life for a child get the help from an adoption agency then places the child in the loving arms of adopted parents nope not for her she doesn’t get a say. We punish her but not allowing her to choose privacy.

    No one should choose adoption as an option with out being aware that 5 years 10 years or 30 years from now the law can change. That no contact or veto can be taken away at any time. Just as the law can change and birth certificates can be sealed. What you sign up for today can be different in the future… You just may find you will be paying child support or having to help with college payments. You just don’t know. That 80 year old who used the law as it was intended ( unlike the women in this article who unfortunately wasn’t smart enough to know what she was doing and just did what her mother wanted), the women who followed the law as it was intended where the child gets a family while she gets to move on with life, with the promise that birth certificates would be sealed never thought years later her identity would be known. Never knew that she would have to sign a veto ( many will not know the law has changed) and then give medical information out every 10 then 5 years. Something no other mother in America is forced to do. Beware the law can change and you don’t know how it can change.

    Times have changed we should have learned that taking choices away doesn’t work.