Adoptees may get access to records, birth parents

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Associated Press

Posted on May 19, 2011 at 9:05 AM

Updated Thursday, May 19 at 9:05 AM

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Adult adoptees in New Jersey who want to find their biological parents are hoping that a three-decade battle in the Legislature over giving them access to their birth records will end with a stroke of Gov. Chris Christie's pen.

Awaiting the governor's signature is a bill that would open up state adoption records, marking a major shift for New Jersey, which has one of the most restrictive adoption records policies in the United States. The move has been fought by an unlikely alliance between legal groups who say it violates privacy concerns and anti-abortion advocates who fear it will encourage women facing unplanned pregnancies to choose abortion instead of adoption.

The bill would give future adoptees access to their original birth certificate — with the names of their birth parents — once they turn 18. Although birth parents could list their preference not to be contacted by the child they surrendered, adoptees won't be required to respect the preference. Parents who gave up children before the law takes effect would have one year to opt out and have names would be redacted from the certificate.

After meandering back and forth between the state Senate and General Assembly for more than 30 years, the bill finally passed on May 9. The governor has until June 23 to decide whether to sign it. Christie's office said he hasn't decided either way, but will give the bill due consideration.

Transparency in adoptions runs the gamut from places like Kansas and Alaska, where adult adoptees have ready access to their records, to New Jersey, where only a judge can unseal a child's original birth certificate once the adoption is complete — even if the parents grant permission.

Just over half of states require a court order, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but in recent years many states have moved toward increased access for adoptees. New York lawmakers are currently considering such legislation.

In New Jersey, the decision is likely to involve competing priorities for the Republican governor, who has an adopted sister. The most vocal opposition has come from anti-abortion groups such as New Jersey Right to Life, who maintain that more parents will choose abortion if they know they can't cloak an adoption in guaranteed anonymity. Christie, a Roman Catholic, is opposed to abortion, but he has meticulously steered clear of divisive social issues during his first term as governor.

"With abortion, there is total anonymity, but if a woman gives her child to a loving, caring family, she doesn't deserve anonymity? What type of society makes decisions like that?" said Patrick Brannigan, who runs the New Jersey Catholic Conference and opposed the bill. Catholic Charities is a major adoption coordinator in New Jersey, and prefers reunions mediated by professional counselors over surprise phone calls from long-lost children.

Despite statistics touted by both sides, there is no solid evidence linking open adoption records with a change in abortion rates. For example, proponents point to states like Alabama and Oregon, where abortions actually went down after open records policies were instituted. But overall pregnancies also declined at similar rates during the same periods.

Over the past decade, the Catholic Conference and New Jersey Right to Life joined with the New Jersey State Bar Association and the state chapter of the ACLU in an unconventional coalition of groups that rarely find themselves on the same side of policy debates.

"The people we're fighting for are the people who can't come forward and fight about this, because it would expose them as having given up children," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ.

But the bill's backers say times have changed, stigmas have faded and secrets help no one. They argue that even if parents expected privacy, their needs should be trumped by the intrinsic rights of the adoptee.

When Dee Armstrong gave a son up for adoption in the late 1960s in Morristown, N.J., she was told the records would be closed. He came looking for her when he was 29, and while mother and son eventually decided to live separate lives, she can't imagine denying her son information about who he is.

"I don't care what someone was promised," said Armstrong, 62. "Any adult's birth mother should understand that her secrecy or confidentiality are minor to the rights of a young baby that had no say in what went on around them."

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Josh Lederman can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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