Adoption & Original Birth Certificates

Not too long ago, a friend responded to a post I shared on Face Book regarding an adoptee’s right to his/her original birth certificate. This friend cited problems with sharing confidential information, including:

• Birth mother was guaranteed sealed records

• If not sealed forever, she may have had an abortion

• Birth mother has no desire to have contact

• Fear of discovery by subsequent children, husband, extended family • Other avenues exist for a birth mother to contact the child she placed for adoption

• Re-traumatization

Numerous myths and misconceptions persist. Those who do not work in the field of adoption or whose families do not include an adopted child, it is difficult to understand the complexities of being adopted; it is difficult to grasp the complexities of being part of the adoption triad.

Today, agencies in New York State are able to provide adult adoptees with non-identifying information limited to genetic information (birth parents' height, weight, eye and hair color), relationship history (if known/recorded), interests, education and medical information at the time of the baby's birth. This information is but a piece of the puzzle. A birth mother's health information at the time of placement is usually of little value to the adopted person 20, 30, 50 years later and health information is rarely updated through the years. Secrecy and confidentiality were never guaranteed; certainly implied given the social mores of the day, but there was never a legal document guarantying lifelong secrecy. For those women seeking information on a child they placed for adoption, there are no avenues for birth parents to reach out to the child (adult) they placed - birth parents are only entitled to their own medical information, not their child's. Surely, there are women who placed babies in secrecy and shame. Some truly do want to remain secluded and secret. I've talked with them myself. However, in 25 years work in adoption, the vast majority of women I've spoken with who placed babies do want to know how their child has fared - is he/she still alive? happy? angry or ashamed in regard to the adoption or birth mother? These women have a strong longing and desire to know, sometimes to have a relationship, sometimes just to feel the comfort that their choice did not harm their child.

The adopted person is so often at a loss as to understanding his/her own history, life story, and beginnings. Very few, in my experience, are seeking to replace their adoptive families; rather they have an innate, human need and desire to connect with their roots. I understood that feeling more fully when I traveled to Italy last summer and visited the home town of my paternal grandparents. It was quite powerful to be in the place where my roots began.

Adoptees are the only citizens in the US who are not allowed to have their original birth certificates; this is a civil rights issue. Additionally, having access does not mean automatic contact or relationship. Relationships cannot (should not, in my opinion) be legislated. The legislative bill that Hillside supports includes a contact preference clause: a birth parent can say they do not want their child (adult) to receive the original birth certificate with identifying information (mother’s name). This is protection for women whose lives would truly be devastated by that contact.

Regarding the question of abortion rates - in states where legislation has passed giving adoptees access to their original birth certificates (OBC), there is simply no statistical (or anecdotal) correlation between abortion and access to OBC. For one thing, we are talking about children (adults) who are already born! And adoption practice today is open for the most part and considered best practice. Secrecy for adoptions occurring today is by and large a non-issue. Women are choosing adoption because of this openness - they are choosing control and choice, and it is proving to be good for all involved. It is not co-parenting and it is not confusing (except to those not involved in adoption!).

I sincerely appreciate that a friend took the time to express concerns and ask to be educated. With knowledge comes freedom and growth. Some may still disagree, but I hope to impart a better understanding of the issue. My friends at the Donaldson Institute for Adoption created a fabulous paper on the subject: http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/publications/7_14_2010_ForTheRecordsII.pdf.

Connection with Family, with History

I am Italian. My family traditions included sauce on Sundays at midday, large gatherings for special occasions such as communions, confirmations, weddings, funerals and holidays. I grew up in a neighborhood with friends that were for the most part Italian, and with families quite similar to mine. Mostly, as a child and young adult I took my heritage for granted.

I have two Korean-born children, now young adults. As they were growing up, I made sure they had ample opportunity to learn about their birth culture and birth history. We participated in festivities at the local Korean church, they attended Korean summer camp, I bought books in English and Korean, and Korean fairy tales and fables. We were very active in the local Korean adoption support group and sent letters to the Korean adoption agency to keep them up to date with how my children were progressing through the years. We made several attempts to find their birth families in Korea, to no avail. We discussed travel to Korea through the years with varied interest from my children. We (they) have yet to return.

Somewhere in my late 40’s I became more aware my Italian heritage and began to claim it. I went back to the family tradition of sauce on Sundays and started a process to obtain dual citizenship for Italy, a new opportunity for me. I reconnected with extended family on my father’s side. Still, I never felt a longing to travel to my roots other than to experience Italy and European culture and see the world, much like my desire to visit Paris, London, Prague, South African, Greece and Spain; none of which held a personal connection for me.

I had the good fortune to travel to Italy in June of 2012. As we were planning the trip, I wrote to my paternal uncle and aunt for advice on how to manage all I hoped to see in one two-week trip to Italy; Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Pompeii, the Amalfi coast. They made very helpful suggestions and then asked when we were traveling. We discovered our trips to Italy would overlap, and they generously offered to host us for 2 days in Gaeta, the birthplace of my grandparents.

I fell in love with Italy as soon as we landed. Our first 9 days were spent in the Tuscan valley. There, I felt peace, deep relaxation and a sense of grounded energy that I never before experienced. The countryside is gorgeous, the language musical and passionate, and the people the same. There is something magical about walking through the stone streets of towns that are more than a thousand years old!

We then traveled down to Gaeta to visit my aunt and uncle. My father had died more than 30 years ago, and we lost touch with his siblings and my extended paternal family. I did not know my uncle and aunt very well prior to our visit, so I was somewhat apprehensive. I didn’t want to impose, and worried a bit about how we would all get along. They were so very warm and loving, and welcomed us into their home in Italy (although they have lived all their lives in the US, they visit Italy for several months each year). They shared the local history and lore. We spent time on the beautiful beaches of this small fishing village and swam in the warm Mediterranean Sea, ate locally grown foods and enjoyed the inexpensive yet delicious local wines.

On the 2nd day in Gaeta, my uncle took us to the see the homes where my grandmother and grandfather were born, roughly six blocks from each other on the same street. Born 16 years apart, the families did not know each other in Italy. But my grandparents found each other in New York. At 16 my grandmother married my grandfather, 32 years old.

All we could see of the homes in which they were born was the doorway and wrought iron balconies of each apartment. Yet, to stand in the street below my family origins was a profound experience. I felt that my feet had roots in the very earth. This is where I am from, I thought.

Later, upon reflection, I thought about those who know nothing of their roots, who can never know their birth history or stories. With no connection to any biological family members, my children have an incomplete story – their birth mothers were unmarried and it was unacceptable to be an unwed mother in Korea when they were born. We were told (and believed) that had their mothers raised them, they would have no social standing, no access to education and no prospects for gainful employment in Korea. At that time, their birth mothers each felt they had little choice but to place their babies for adoption so that they may have opportunities in life. The extent of their knowledge is pretty obvious in their own faces – physical descriptions of their birth mothers (dark hair, dark eyes, and fair complexion).

My great fortune in the adoption of my two amazing children is no doubt a painful fortune for their birth mothers, as it sometime is (or may be) for my children in the future. With little information and little ability to communicate and or access to more, how will they ever experience that sense of connection, rooted to their origins, understanding and knowing from whence they came?

The same is true of the thousands of adopted individuals in the U.S. who don’t know their story, who don’t know their origins, who were placed with adoptive families and feel as if they were dropped onto the planet, uprooted and un-rooted. Most love their adoptive families; and at the same time, most do feel a complicated sense of belonging and not belonging. Many have a hunger to know their origins, to hear their family stories, to feel the power of their birth history.

The great cloak of secrecy shrouds their stories. Sealed records ensure a lifetime of not knowing for adopted people in most states. The Geneva Convention (1949) recognized an individual’s right to know their origins, yet more than 65 years later, adopted people are still denied this right.

I grew up in my original family. Although I had little interest for quite some time, I could ask questions whenever I wanted of any one of my dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, and such. I have my original birth certificate; I am able to trace my grandparents’ travel from Italy to Boston, MA, to Rochester, NY. I can conduct a genealogical search because I have names, knowledge, and connection to my ancestors.

Shouldn’t we all?