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