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.
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.”
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.