Law Would Permit Adoptees to Find Birth Parents

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Paul Dinberg and his birth mother Carol Whitehead. It was Carol who sought Paul out ahead of their 1985 reunion. She is an advocate for a law that might have allowed Paul to instead find her.

courtesy Eric Levitz

Paul Dinberg and his birth mother Carol Whitehead. It was Carol who sought Paul out ahead of their 1985 reunion. She is an advocate for a law that might have allowed Paul to instead find her.

Carole Whitehead was 18 when her parents sent her to the Lakeview Home for Unwed Mothers in Staten Island.

"They had only one goal there, which was to get the baby away from the mothers," said Whitehead, now 70. "They told me if I truly loved my baby, I would give him up."

When Whitehead surrendered her son, she requested that her confidentiality be waived, so he might one day find her. She was told such waivers were "contrary to the laws of New York."

In 1963, it was against state law for adopted children to ever view their original birth certificates. It remains so in 2015.

On Jan. 12, State Senator Andrew Lanza (R-24) and Assemblyman David Weprin (D-24) renewed a push to change that. Their "Bill of Adoptee Rights," would grant all adult adoptees born in New York access to their birth records. The bill would apply retroactively.

They introduced a version of the bill last summer*. At that time, advocates for unsealing the records were optimistic, their hopes buoyed by the passage of similar reforms in New Jersey and Connecticut. But the bill was amended to give Surrogate Court judges discretion over whose birth records could be unsealed and whose could not, and advocates withdrew their support.

Members of Unsealed Initiative, the state's largest lobby for adoptee's rights, plan to travel to Albany the first week in February, aiming to turn newly elected legislators into co-sponsors of the bill. The group members believe they have the votes to pass it, if they can get the legislation past longtime opponents in the leadership of both chambers. They see the recent arrest of one of those opponents, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as a potential godsend.

The complexities of anonymity

Birth mothers occupy a strange place in the debate over adoptees' rights. Opponents of reform argue that opening records would violate promises of anonymity made to such women. But since those who wish to remain anonymous are unlikely to identify themselves publicly, the only birth mothers actually speaking out on the issue are those like Whitehead, who support open records.

Roughly 40 percent of Unsealed Initiative's 200 members are women who gave children up for adoption. Like Whitehead, many of these women feel they were coerced into surrendering their children, the decision less a product of personal will than social stigma. Most have reunited with their children later in life.

At a State Assembly hearing last year, Surrogate Court Judge John Cygier contended that passing the bill would mean "giving the adopted child the unilateral right to come in and say, ‘We're doing away with that promise that the judge made to you and the lawyer made to you, when you gave up the child.'"

Bahr believes that despite the rhetorical focus on the concerns of birth mothers in the contemporary debate, political opposition to open records is driven by the anxieties of adoptive parents, and always has been.

"We believe confidentiality of the birth parent is a smokescreen," said Unsealed Initiative President Joyce Bahr, 66, who gave up a son for adoption in 1966. "A lot of adoptive parents still oppose this legislation."

She argues that birth mothers were never promised lifelong confidentiality, and that anonymity wasn't offered as a right, but as a demand of the adoptive families.

A 2013 paper by Elizabeth Samuels, of the University of Baltimore Law School, backs Bahr's contention.

Samuels reviewed 75 adoption contracts drafted between 1936 and 1990, in 26 different states, and found that none offered a legal promise of birth-mother anonymity. Some 40 percent of the documents, however, explicitly forbade the birth mother from seeking out her surrendered child.

Bahr believes the vast majority of birth mothers would waive their de facto anonymity if they could.

"We went through postponed grief, and post-traumatic stress," said Bahr, who reunited with her son in 1985. "It doesn't matter what kind of reunion you have, it helps heal the grief."

Adam Pertman, of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency*, testified at last year's hearing that 95 percent of birth mothers want information about the wellbeing of their children, and that such information is often critical to their own emotional health.

A reunion

Whitehead found her son in 1985, with the help of a private investigator. She calls the day they met "the plateau of my self-esteem."

For her son, Paul Dinberg, the emotional consequences of their reunion were more complex.

"The parents I grew up with were fearful of Carol. They felt a sense of impending loss," Dinberg said. "I got caught in the middle."

Dinberg supports open records. He believes the state "overpromised" when it guaranteed his adoptive parents that Whitehead would maintain lifelong anonymity.

Dinberg says he is ultimately grateful for her presence in his life.
"It filled in a lot of blank spaces in my life and history, things I didn't know to ask," he said. "It changed me for the better."

Dinberg had yet to think seriously about seeking his birth mother at the time Whitehead contacted him, but believes her identity would have become a greater concern later in life. Many adult adoptees begin their searches in middle age, when concerns about their health, or the health of their children, spark curiosity about their family medical histories.

Whitehead knows her experience isn't universal, and recognizes the bind faced by birth mothers who wish to remain anonymous. "Those who do want to maintain confidentiality, who can they talk to?" Whitehead said. "As soon as they talk, they've lost their confidentiality."

Women 'cowering'?

The bill passed in New Jersey established a two-year redaction period, allowing biological parents until Jan. 1 2017, to remove their names from records before they are opened.

Unsealed Initiative opposes redaction.

"Whether or not women are cowering in the closet is immaterial," said Lorraine Dusky, who surrendered her daughter in Rochester in 1966. "It is immoral to keep the truth from a whole group of people."

Lanza and Weprin's bill would allow biological parents to state whether they are open to direct contact with their child, contact through an intermediary, or no contact at all.

Aaron Britvan, co-chair of the New York State Bar Adoption Committee, said opponents of the legislation feel the contact clause is necessary but insufficient.

"It's only a preference, it's not a mandate," he said. "So there's nothing in the bill to prevent an adoptee from searching for the birth parent."

At present, adoptees can petition the courts to release their birth certificates, but must convince a judge that they have "good cause." This process is designed to allow adoptees access to their family medical histories, in cases where the need for access is most acute.

The state also provides a mutual consent registry, which connects adoptees to their biological parents, once both have independently declared a desire for contact. Bahr says that such matches are rare.

Moving toward openness

For now, Bahr is cautiously optimistic. The long-term trend in adoption has been towards greater openness. Fourteen states have granted access to birth records for most adult adoptees, 10 since 1999.

Today, the vast majority of domestic adoptions allow for contact between children and their birth parents. To advocates, this makes their bill no less urgent: It means the people who need their legislation most are those who can least afford to wait.

While Whitehead was able to find her son, she knows many women sent to homes like Lakeview never were.

She believes that when those women die, their children lose more than the chance to know their birth mothers.

"Everyone deserves to know who they are. And that includes medical history, but so many other kinds of history," Whitehead said. "You can't have a future if you don't have your past."

* The story was corrected to indicate that the bill introduced last summer was not the first of its kind, and that Adam Pertman is no longer the president of the Donaldson Adoption Institute but of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency.

  • C. Swett

    The proposed legislation is about Civil Rights not reunions (which happen or not anyway without legislation). This article disregards that countless of New York State born who were adopted were removed after allegations of abuse and neglect. No person, whether surrendered or removed, should be denied the State Record of their birth.

    As Assembly Sponsor David Weprin said “I look at it as a human rights issue. Why should people who, to no fault of their own, happen to be adopted, have less rights to their existence? It’s really a piece of the puzzle people should be entitled to. In this day and age, there is no reason why there should be a restriction to an adoptee having access to their original birth certificate.”

  • http://www.adoptionbirthmothers.com/musings-of-the-lame-an-adoption-blog/ Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy

    The NY “Bill of Adoptee Rights’ was not just introduced ‘last summer’; a version of this bill has been in Albany nearly every year for decades now. If the bill was a person, it would be well above drinking age now!
    Also, we are not talking about “adoption records”, but the right of adopted citizens in NY to have restored access to their legal documentation; their birth certificates. The NY law now, based on the 1930’s sealing, treats adopted people differently based on the circumstances of their births and THAT is discrimination. It’s not about reunions. Reunions happen anyway. People search and find all the time. It’s about civil rights and equality.

  • jillauerbach

    I too was given no choice but to allow strangers to adopt my newborn. I grieved that loss for 43 years before finding him to give lifesaving medical information to him. He was out there MIA and I had no idea how he faired, was he loved, and safe, etc? I looked for his face in the crowds. Now, I can die in peace.
    Adults have the right to decide who they want in their lives, NYS must stay out of this. None of us had choices and the face of adoption has changed. It is talk of movie stars now, not of shame!
    Jill Oppenheimer Auerbach
    just a mom

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  • Kimberly Saxen

    It is a Civil Rights issue period. Additionally, I am a 47 year old woman. I am no longer an adopted “child.” The fact that we are still referred to as “children” is disrespectful, inaccurate, and offensive. No one is seeking to have a “child” be given their original birth certificate. We are seeking for equal rights, as guaranteed under the law, for ADULT adoptees. “In 1963, it was against state law for adopted children to ever view their original birth certificates. It remains so in 2015.”

  • Tree Hugger

    No one promised me anonymity and I NEVER asked for it. When will the government ever realize the truth about why the original parent information is so secret??

  • gayetannenbaum

    “So there’s nothing in the bill to prevent an adoptee from searching for the birth parent.”

    He needs a dose of reality. There is nothing in current law that prevents an adoptee from searching and finding. Many of us already know what’s on our original birth certificates anyway. He wants to penalize everybody in order to offer some dubious “protection” to some tiny minority that might actually want it.

  • Adam Pertman

    Important story, ultimately about achieving equal rights for everyone, irrespective of how they enter their families. Quick note, please: I am now President of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency — i.e., no longer with the Donaldson Institute. Can the story be corrected with that update? Thanks. Adam Pertman

  • Carol Strano

    This is about adults finding out their medical history! I am 52 with no medical history to pass on to my own children! Noone has the right to keep MY medical history from me!

  • Lois Bodian Pollaci

    My issues aren’t so much as meeting a birth mother it’s the whole thing of who I am and what is my medical history. I am a 55 yr old adopted child and have medical issues that would be nice to know where they came from and if there are others. I would love to know where I came from, what nationality I am so my children don’t have to guess as well. I don’t care if I ever meet my birth parents, if it happens than that’s OK as well I’m just looking for some simple answers that’s all. I had a wonderful childhood and up bring but there was a part missing. It would be nice to be able to fill that missing piece.

    • Caroline Clarkson Hall

      I wonder when people are going to begin considering their “Nationality” = American…. unless, they were adopted from another nation.

      • gayetannenbaum

        My nationality may be American but my heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, German and who knows what else as I’m still researching my paternal side. That whole family tree is “who I am”. For too many people, the tree begins and ends with them.

  • Kathy Johnson

    If everyone is not clear on what we (I am an adoptee) is asking for it is the original birth certificate issued by New York State and later sealed away and replaced with a ‘doctored’ form with adoptive names.

    That’s all. Likely you have one if you are *not* adopted. It is the *only* reason you can’t get one. Any state worker can hold that piece of paper, read it and know what it says. But I can’t.

    Many adoptions were done through “homes,” orphanages, private attorneys, and so on. There are more than a few reports of questionable activities in the babies for profit area.

    I would wonder if the state of New York would like to step out from between natural parents and adoptive parents in some cases or from between adoptees and natural parents or….. It is a rather tricky position for state to stand, given the Constitutional mandate to provide the best protection for all of it’s citizens.

    Give me my unfettered birth certificate. Please.

  • Tarasia Schaller

    july 8, 1953….lackawanna new york…our lady of something orphanage…..
    as i am getting more seriously unhealthy as the years go on, it would be nice to
    pass on SOME information, for the sake of my children, and their’s to come.
    is that fair to withhold important, what could be life or death, information from
    not only the “adoptee” but their progeny??!!
    (if you know “me”, please contact me with any info…birth name was POSSibly colleen ann mccarthy)
    thanks…and God help us…cause we humans have sure messed up an awful lot

  • Joanne Pagnotta Currao

    This is a simple question of equal rights, civil rights, and basic human rights. Adult adoptees are a special created class under the law because every other American born citizen has unfettered access to their true and factual birth information. To only provide a falsified document is discrimiminatory and a violation of their civil rights under the Constitution of the United States. Furthermore, no other mother has a guaranteed right of anonymity from her own offspring. NY state is granting a privilege to one group (a privilege most of them neither asked for nor want) to the detriment of another group’s civil and human rights. The era of secrecy must end and equal rights restored. People’s well being is at stake

  • Robert Crim

    Reading down the list of comments, all I see is “my” and “me.” What about the anonymity of the parent(s) who put the child up for adoption? Don’t THEY have any basic human rights? If they wanted you to KNOW who they were, then why is it a sealed document? There is an option for those putting children up for adoption of revealing their parental identity after the child is 18 yrs old. If folks are truly wanting to do this bc of medical history, the process needs to be revamped to include any significant medical history or any familial anomalies. Otherwise, the parent(s) rights need to be protected as agreed to upon signing the adoption papers. Many of these folks chose adoption over abortion and their wishes should be honored regardless of someone’s feelings. I’m sorry if you were adopted and need answers, the parent(s) chose life and you should be grateful for that. For whatever reason, they felt they could not care for you and chose what was right at that time in their lives. If you approach a parent who did not want to be revealed and was done against their wishes, how hurt are you going to be if rejected as an adult by a parent you have a million questions for? Unfortunately, you will be hurting even more and that’s not really a weight anyone should have to carry around for a lifetime.

    • Ephraim Ayala

      I am an adult adoptee who is 47 years old now. I have heard your type of perspective all my life (ie – be grateful you weren’t aborted, be grateful someone “chose” you, etc). My distilled response regarding the rejection aspect is that nothing is more hurtful than learning that what is not a direct lie about your existence (like having an identity superimposed by the court and, in my case, my birthdate was changed), is the hidden truths about yourself that everyone seems to have a right to have, but you. If you want to know the importance? I have a life-threatening, congenital heart condition that cardiologists refuse to address without knowing my health history. In my 40’s, the State says I have no right to them, because it would violate the privacy “rights” of my biological mother and the sanctity of my adopted family. Do you honestly believe that “gratitude” and “privacy” should extend to the point of allowing an adoptee to die a preventable, premature death?

    • schrodie

      In refusing to allow adopted people access to their original birth certificates, the states with closed records are also denying an adoptee’s right to have a passport, a driver’s license, and access to other governmental services that are available to citizens who DO have an original birth certificate. Many of us are doing this in order to have the SAME ACCESS to governmental services as every other citizen.

      Some of us probably would HAVE been aborted if abortion was legal at the time of our birth. Roe v. Wade became law in 1973. Many of us were born before then, so please spare us the ‘be grateful you weren’t aborted’ garbage.

      Oh, and having been a BIRTH MOTHER as well as an adopted person, I assure you that I was NEVER promised ANY privacy or protection. Indeed, the new Adoption Registry had just opened up a month before my son was born, so I knew that there was potentially a way that he might try to find me. My heart was OPEN to that possibility, as are the hearts of probably the MAJORITY of birth mothers. You have bought into a line of tripe, fed to you by closed-records advocates, and it’s BULLSHIT. Plain, unvarnished bullshit.

      If you need ANY more reasons as to why adoption records are sealed… do a Google Search for Georgia Tann. Here ya go: https://www.google.com/search?q=georgia+tann&oq=georgi&aqs=chrome.0.69i59j0j69i57j0l3.4204j0j4&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=0&ie=UTF-8

      THERE is the REAL reason why records got sealed… not to protect the parents or the children, but to protect the State and Ms. Tann (at first) from scrutiny, and to HIDE the illegal and immoral activities that were going on with adoptions. The Catholic Church was a BIG player in keeping things quiet, because Catholic Charities is a HUGE adoption placement agency.

      Before all of this, adoption records and birth certificates were usually OPEN, and parties to the adoption had access. It was only during and after the so-called Baby Scoop era that records were automatically sealed. This means that adopted people ONCE had a right… but then it was TAKEN AWAY from us, but not from other American citizens. This is not about ‘just us’; it is about JUSTICE and equality for ALL Americans.

      Let me ask you this… how did you feel before gay people had the right to marry, and how do you feel about gay people ‘winning the right’ to marry the person of their choice? If you cite ‘Yay, equal rights for all’– then how do you feel about adopted people being denied THEIR rights? If you are against us having the same right as other Americans to our original documents, but for gays having a marriage license (remember… BOTH are issued by the State, the similarity) under ‘equality’… then please explain why it’s wrong to deny gays or any other Americans a ‘freedom and right’, but it’s okay to deny freedoms and rights to an adopted person, without due process.

    • Desdee

      Wow, you are really a throwback, Robert Grim. And uninformed as well. During the closed era, women did NOT choose for their records to be sealed. Also, they were not sealed to protect birth parents. They were sealed to protect “bastards” from the “stain” of illegitimacy and/or to protect adoptive parents from “interference” from the “ne’er do wells” that gave up (or, in many case, were forced to give up) their children. Think that sounds like old-fashioned thinking? That’s because it is. Final thought: Please read The Girls Who Went Away before you spew any more misinformation.

      • Robert Grim

        I stand by my statement…

        • Desdee

          And I am already happily in reunion, as is my sister. After long, emotional, and expensive searches, we were reunited with our families, only to find out that my sister was taken by force from her mother as were many babies during the closed era. If my sister hadn’t searched, her mother would have died never knowing the daughter she pined for all those years. You can make whatever statements you wants, sure, but you are not a part of the triad so you will NEVER what we live, or what our birth mothers live. And, yes, I have a right to reply to such statements because you are directly addressing MY civil rights.

          • CP

            I am totally disgusted with everything about NY rules and liberal policies. Apparently Robert was not an adopted child, nor are/were any of the other folks that have this stupid rule in place. I see and hear lots of talk about “me/my” vs the birth parents rights. Well, it comes down to that fact that everyone has a right to know who they are. PERIOD. Denying someone the right to know who they are and where they came from is basically telling all of us to @(*# off, and we don’t really exist. Perhaps if ROBERT had been adopted, we could start calling him a non-person. But in fact he probably knows his parents, and his medical background, and his roots. And even if he WAS an adopted child, he still probably, by some stroke of luck, still knows his background. So, I guess all of us that are being denied a basic human right to know who we are just supposed to sit back and say its ok that the rights of the parents should be honored. I am 58 years old. Thats a long time to “stew” on who you are, where you come from, do I have any siblings, are my real parents dead or alive, what is my real families medical history, where is my REAL birth certificate (not the fake reissued one that we get from the state). Even the woman who raised me was unable to tell me anything about who I am because she was denied the information during the adoption process. It must be real nice and comforting for folks like you Robert, to have a family and know who you are. Perhaps it is time for someone to get into office that will start denying non-adoptees from information, services, and THEIR civil rights !!! See how fast things change when the mainstream is denied anything. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but NOBODY has a right to deny others from who they are. PERIOD. End Story.

          • Robert Grim

            Actually we adopted 2 children, both were raised to not let ANYONE validate their existence. They don’t whine, complain or become emotional abt it bc they are sure of who they are. They have also been taught what real “Civil Rights” are.

          • CP

            With great respect I say congratulations to you and your family for having adopted. I am happy for the children who now have a good home. But if they should ever ask you someday, again with respect I would say please tell them as much as you are able to satisfy any unanswered questions, and if they should change their mind and someday want to search “outside of the box”, help them if you are able. That is really the foundation of most of our frustration. Without going into details, those of us in this situation have had something happen in our adopted families that raised many unanswered questions, and we are being denied the answers.

            To my point, you yourself are not adopted and will never personally understand the feeling of what it is like.

            Being fed up with the system as I and many others have been, is not an automatic ticket for anyone to say or incinuate that we are whining, or complaining, or trying to ‘validate” our existence. I am sure most of us are fine in that department. And I am sure you know the difference when we say “who we are” is referring to our bloodline in the family tree and blood-relatives. Unless someone is personally in our shoes, you can never possibly understand what it is like, and it is completely unfair for ANYONE to make statements about it or ANYTHING because as they say, unless you walk a mile in my shoes, you will never know what I have been through. You don’t know my situation, or anyone else’s.

            My wife, 15 years ago, had a family member in a similar situation and through some family discussion and the help to get access to records, the family member found my wife and her real mom. From that time, the newly found sibling gained three sisters, many new uncles and aunts, cousins, parents, and many family events since that time. Her adopted parents had passed many many years prior and never really had a family other than her husband and own children. Finding her “REAL” family made such a huge difference in her life, and ours. So when you are judging people and situations, think about those who may have been adopted but have no family left, or were denied any possibility of having a family if there were no adopted siblings, or lived in situation where there was no “family group” to speak of. Maybe, just maybe, a good number of us are looking for our real families because we have had nobody else to speak of in our lives. And yes, it might be a phenomenal let down if we never find them or find something we regret, but that should be our cross to bear, and not the government or anyone else’s.

          • Robert Grim

            Oh yes.. it’s ALL about you and what YOU want. This is why we have laws bc it is NOT all about you and your civil rights. smh & lol

          • Desdee

            Yes, darlin, I do believe everyone is entitled to their civil rights. 100%! But please read what I wrote completely. Birth mothers in the closed era were not given a choice when they relinquished and the majority wish to know their children. Their rights also have been trampled. I will fight for their rights too, absolutely. For the small minority that choose privacy, they enjoy the same laws that protect privacy as all other American citizens and I would never wish for that to be changed.

          • Robert Grim

            … and I will continue to fight to keep them sealed. It is NOT a Civil Right.

  • Cindy Medina-Weinberg

    I was adopted in 1958 through the Spence-Chapin adoption agency. They have told me that my file is sealed and I can not know who my biological mother was. Chances are she is deceased by now and I pose no threat to her or her children. As the mother of two, I would like to know where I come from as well as my medical history so I can pass that information on to my children.

  • Crazybutterfly

    Are Adoptees kittens from a litter? We are supposed to be Human Beings with detailed deep emotions. The sealing of the records leaves deep wounds that influence Adoptees future families. I know it happened my Father’s children. A selfish self serving law. I wonder if someone in government doesn’t want the truth to be told?

  • CP

    I am completely run down and tired of NY policies and politics. It seems to me the officials in charge are NOT adoptees, and more interested in protecting their own positions and job security. Since they have not been, or will ever be in our position of being denied our basic civil and human rights to know who we are, I guess this fight will be going on for a very long time. 58 years old, and have been trying to find out my real identity since I was 15. Long time to fight, and research, and come out losing. I hope NY officials are happy that they can stick out their thumbs and crush anyone they want to. They say the more power you have, the more you abuse it. congrats NY, for you have won that prize. And Thank you NY for letting us know that we will never know who we really are. And Bless you NY for all the mental anquish you have put all of us through, denying access to know our birth families. And Praise to you for denying us the right to know our family medical history. And thank you for making all our decisions for us, as if we had no brains of our own or common sense. I am sure you are dancing in the streets saying “we’ve won, we’ve won”. But all of your bull#$%% politics and denials have only made us adoptees stronger and more united, and the fight will continue, even until we are in our graves. Oh, and for those NY officials that have adopted your own children, remember you MUST deny THEM access as well. Wht will you tell them when they grow up and they ask you about it? We are not allowed to tell you? Right. See how well that goes over.

  • T.brooklyn

    PLEASE SIGN MY NEW PEITION TO RESTORE THE “CLEAN’ NY BILL OF ADOPTEE RIGHTS!
    https://www.change.org/p/david-weprin-restore-clean-version-of-ny-bill-of-adoptee-rights

  • T.brooklyn

    NOW 1,000+ SIGNATURES! HELP! PETITION TO RESTORE “CLEAN’ NY BILL OF ADOPTEE RIGHTS!
    https://www.change.org/p/david-weprin-restore-clean-version-of-ny-bill-of-adoptee-rights