Shouldn’t Everyone Get to Know Who They Are?
Posted on February 11, 2012 in Adoption by Sandra Bienkowski
I was adopted and grew up with very little information about my background. I knew I was born at a Catholic hospital in Syracuse, New York. I knew a foster family took care of me until I was adopted at six weeks. My (adoptive) parents thought my birthmother was young, but they weren’t sure. I was named Theresa Marie. For my first 26 years, that’s all I knew. In New York state, adoption records are closed.
With the growing popularity of Websites like Ancestry.com and the show, Who Do You Think You Are?, discovering your genetic lineage has become a fun little recreational pursuit.(Ancestry.com makes a lot more sense to me than the show … not sure why anyone would waste time watching a celebrity track down her ancestral history, but that’s just me.) Ancestry.com advertises: It’s not just history; it’s your history. So start with yourself and we’ll help you find more about your heritage. When I read that I hear the Church lady voice from Saturday Night Live inside my head: “Well, isn’t that special!”
Yes, finding out more about you and your family by tracing your lineage centuries back is fascinating and cool. Who wouldn’t be curious about their family history? But here’s the thing: If you are adopted and born in the wrong state, you can’t even track down your birthparents (not without a lot of luck and hoop jumping). Only half of all states allow access to an original birth certificate when both sides (adoptee and birthparent) consent. In 36 states, adoptees are allowed to seek identifying information, if there is mutual consent, but that’s a big if.
Now don’t get me wrong. Our society has come a long way. Social pressures used to mandate that families preserve the myth that adoptees were formed biologically, leading to closed adoptions being the only option. (I only hope we have also moved beyond adoptive parents feeling societal pressure to lie to their kids about being adopted.) Today, open adoptions in all different forms are increasingly popular.
Closed adoptions have evolved too. National registries now reunite adoptees and birthparents when both sides consent. And in almost all states (except Pennsylvania where you have to petition the court), adoptees can apply for non-identifying information when they are 18. Despite these improvements, I still think we have a long way to go.
I always knew I would search for my birthparents because being adopted made me feel like my story began at chapter three. Someone out there knew why I was adopted, but I didn’t know. Other people had more information about me than I had. When I was 21, I applied to Catholic Charities for my non-identifying information. When the five pages arrived in the mail, I combed through mostly physical descriptions of my birth family for any bit of information I could use to launch my search.
I finally landed on one sentence: “The birthmother’s mother was employed as a town clerk.” Score! The names of town clerks are public information. I began putting together a list of town clerks in New York the year I was born. I searched by process of elimination, using scraps of information I had like my grandmother’s age and gender. It worked. Four months later, I talked to my birthmother for the first time. Soon after, I met my big, extended birth family. The reunion was an extremely rewarding and life-changing experience for all of us … and it continues to be today.
Yet I can’t help wondering how I would search if that crucial sentence wasn’t included in my papers. In New York, unless a birthparent signs up on the national registry, adoptees have to get a court order to unseal their records, and it probably only works if you are dying and need an organ. My birthmom never put her name on a national registry, not because she didn’t want to find me … she had guilt about putting me up for adoption and didn’t feel like she had the right to search.
People—all people—have a right to know who they are. I get that adoptive parents and birthparents need to be protected. No one wants a court battle over a child. I understand the right to privacy issues for a birthparent deciding to give up a child and wanting to start over. I know adoptive parents need to have peace of mind in knowing their child won’t be taken away. I just don’t think closed adoption is fair to the child.
Adoptees should not have to wait until they are 18 to find out their ethnicity or why they were placed for adoption. Access to information should not be a lottery of luck, dependent upon the state in which you are born. I think adoptions should be open and not shrouded in shame or secrecy. There are plenty of reminders as you grow up that you should know your genetic history—like every time you share a family history story at school, visit a doctor and need to fill out a form, or watch a news story about a health scare.
Sure, some adoptees are more curious about their backgrounds than others. Some, like me, satisfy that curiosity with a search. Others don’t know what it’s like to be genetically related to someone until they have children of their own. But I believe all adoptees have a right to know their lineage and how their lives began.
If we are going to have reality TV genealogy searches for sport, let’s get real and replace all archaic adoption laws and regulations that prevent adoptees from fully knowing who they are. Until then, I won’t get excited about people (with living genetic relations all around them) searching for dead relatives. Not until adoptees have the same basic rights in every state.