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On promises, privacy and adoptees’ right to know

A friend messaged me yesterday to call my attention to a Diane Rehm program on NPR about how adoptees and birth parents are using DNA testing to try to find each other. Of course, I had to tune in, keeping the show in the background while I worked. By then it was several hours past airtime and I was listening to a recording — and the growing sound of my own blood boiling.

I’ve been at various crossroads in my adoption search — from the state of denial to the fast lane of hope I’m currently navigating. But rarely have I felt as second-class as I did listening to Kimberly Leighton, assistant professor of philosophy at American University, talk about how trivial she considers someone’s right to know about their background.

Or even their medical history. Genetics, Leighton primly explained, are not as nearly as important as one’s life experiences, diet and health-related lifestyle choices. Well! Tell that to every doctor I or my daughter visit — each and every one wants to know our family history, and, well, it takes me no time at all to fill out the forms.

Birth moms were PROMISED privacy, Leighton pontificated several times while I resisted the urge to send my laptop sailing through the office window.

I’ve met several first mothers — none of them mine … yet — and without exception, each of them describes the “privacy” they were offered as more of a threat than a promise.

Their experiences reinforce the heartbreaking stories recounted in Ann Fessler’s seminal book about adoption, “The Girls Who Went Away: The History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade.”

An overwhelming number of unmarried women in the 1950s and ’60s who found themselves in a family way didn’t CHOOSE to relinquish their children. That decision was made for them. By parents or other relatives, by pastors or other authority figures.

Pris was scolded by a nun who caught her heading to the nursery in the hopes of holding her newborn daughter.

Karen was pushed to sign the adoption papers after giving birth to her daughter, but wasn’t told she had 30 days after the ink dried to change her mind.

Lorraine wrote the first-ever book about the pain of surrendering a child. They and many others were encouraged to put the experience behind them, move on, forget.

But how is that possible? And what of those of us who are the result of those experiences? We never feel like we quite fit in. As Lorraine’s {Birth Mother,} First Mother Forum often notes: To know where we are going, we need to understand where we came from.

Pris, Karen and Lorraine later found their firstborn children. I have not found my birth mother. But I remain hopeful that I will find Patricia Clark, the then-19-year-old slight blonde who named me Jennifer Elaine Clark when I was born in Yonkers, NY, on Feb. 15, 1966. She had me baptized in the chapel of St. Faith’s Home for Unwed Mothers 10 days later — the day she signed me over to Westchester Family Services.

Leighton seemed to be saying that none of these details should really matter to me — my self-identity is quite separate from my roots.  What matters — she thinks — is privacy.

Of course none of this black and white. Some birth parents prefer to not be reunited with their children, but experience shows an overwhelming majority of birth moms are hoping and waiting to be found. They don’t search for fear of being rejected, experts in adoption search say.

It’s easy for people who aren’t adoptees to dismiss our need to know as frivolous, selfish or ungrateful. And yet, we are the only segment of the population denied key information about our beginnings.

To Leighton, adoptees must remain perpetual children.

She and others like her — including state governments in New York and elsewhere — are hell-bent on keeping us in our place: seen, but never heard.

About Terri S. Vanech

Wife, mother, communications specialist, Jazzercise instructor and recently reunited adoptee. I'm living out loud -- and trying to make it all work -- in midlife. Having a sense of humor sure helps.


27 thoughts on “On promises, privacy and adoptees’ right to know

  1. Terri, I just wrote about the same issue at firstmotherforum and linked to this blog…I could hardly believe that Kimberly Leighton was adopted when she finally stated that she was.

    When adoptees’ Right to Know becomes a philosphical debate, adoptees lose

    Posted by Lorraine Dusky | January 30, 2012, 6:12 pm
  2. Terri, one of the things I love about the blogging world is that it gives me a chance to see things from so many different perspectives. I had never thought about the medical history issue before, but that’s always the first thing a new doctor wants to know about. It must feel as though you’re swimming upstream in this effort, but I hope you have the strength to keep searching.

    Posted by bronxboy55 | January 30, 2012, 10:06 am
  3. Terri,
    I was not familiar with your blog until Amanda over at Declassified Adoptee posted a link. Thank you so much for this post — I too stewed as I read that NPR radio show transcript. I found my birth mother 10 years ago with the help of a private investigator, after facing all the usual roadblocks trying to access information through the agency. She did not want to have a relationship, but she did share important medical information and we had an illuminating, healing conversation. The medical information was important to me, as I am a cancer survivor and I had been turned down for a medical study because I had no access to my genetic links. I have been involved in the effort to amend NJ adoption law for some time now, and it just boggles my mind that the adoptees’ rights and interests continue to be subjugated to this alleged desire for privacy. I’m sorry — even to the victim of rape, it is not my job to maintain other people’s secrets, especially when those secrets impact my welfare and the welfare of my children and grandchildren. We are not out to ruin your life — we simply want information, in a private and discreet manner, that only you can provide. Of course you are not required to have a relationship, but I would think you would want to at least briefly share information that would advance the welfare of the child, who did not ask to be yoked to a life-long restraining order, and the health and welfare of his or her descendants.

    Posted by Susan Perry | January 30, 2012, 9:05 am
  4. I am sorry, but some do not wish to be found. I was a victim of rape… I don’t blame the child, but I suffer from anxiety and PTSD. I changed my name and moved, and if those records are unsealed, I would be willing to do it again. There should be a reunion only if both parties agree.

    Posted by Sarah | January 29, 2012, 2:08 pm
    • Sarah – with all due respect – what are you actually afraid of?

      Posted by Romany | January 29, 2012, 5:38 pm
    • Sarah – yours is an excellent example of why abortion should remain safe and legal. I’m an adoptee, and it was hinted that my mother become pregnant through date rape. She died long before I discovered her identity, so, unfortunately, I will never know what actually happened. Regardless, my life has been a horror, and I’m sure that in some respects, hers was as well for the reasons you’ve listed. I wish with all my heart that abortion had been an option for her in the mid-1940’s. It would have saved both of us a great deal of unnecessary and unproductive suffering. I’m so very sorry for your terrible experience, as I am for hers.

      Posted by Marcia MacInnis | January 30, 2012, 9:22 am
  5. Pat, yes you can dream, and I hope one day soon you are living that dream. I can only imagine that Eric wonders just as much about you, too. I hope you find each other.

    Posted by terrisv15 | January 28, 2012, 12:39 pm
    • Pat – I know this may be something you’ve already done but have you signed up with the NYS Adoption Information Registry? If you have, do they have your current contact information? If your son is anything like most searching adoptees, he will have signed up everywhere he knows about.

      Also – are you working with a search angel? A lot can be done with a date of birth.

      Posted by Romany | January 28, 2012, 1:09 pm
      • I am signed up everywhere! Even the agency that handled his adoption as he was told there are letters there in the file waiting for him. About a year ago, one search angel thought she was close to finding him but it turned up being a dead end.

        I will be honest with one of my biggest fears. Some of my family still lives in that area. My nephew was from Binghamton and after his education went to work in NYC and thank god was late for work when the towers went down. His office was just above where the second plane hit. In the back of my head, I can’t stop thinking……..what IF Eric worked there too? Is he is okay or was he a victim. He may very well still live in the area or anywhere else, I have no idea but this haunts me. I called the agency after it happened and she did not feel the need the contact the family over my fears. In a way, she almost made me feel stupid for asking.

        Posted by Pat LaPier | January 28, 2012, 1:32 pm
      • Like me, Pat is dealing with a Binghamton, NY adoption, and the State of NY though in my case, I am an adoptee. I have followed Pat’s search, and she, mine. At least we have the nyadoptees@yahoo.com group to help us through. There are hundreds of adoptees and birth family registered there and the registry database is searchable.

        Regardless of the lack of understanding by Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) CEO Bennett Greenspan, the FTDNA “Family Finder” test is a wonderful new tool for us to use to finally identify real relatives from both sides of our family tree. I recommend anyone searching, to do this DNA test if you can. As more people test, the opportunity for a close relative match to come up with a parent/child, full/half sibling, aunt/uncle, 1st/2nd cousin, etc., increases. I now have 56 relative matches there, and one is a predicted 3rd cousin.

        Meanwhile, it looks like there is still a lot of education that needs to be done concerning adoptee rights, the true wishes of birth parents, searching, reunion, and what is fiction, and what is fact when it comes to what is best for the affected parties.

        Posted by nolnacsj | January 28, 2012, 2:57 pm
  6. As a birth mother, let me tell you at the ripe age of 15, I don’t remember any promises of privacy, only memories that I would never be allowed to seach or see my son again. I can tell you that for the first 5 days of his life, I was allowed to hold him, feed him, name him and then on that last morning, I dressed him in the outfit I bought him, wrapped in the blanket I made for him then tucked the letter inside of his blanket that I wrote and have never cried so hard in my life as he was taken from my arms. In 1968, we had no choices. They were made for us. It was pretty much unheard of to keep a child born out of wedlock.

    I was lucky enough throughout many years to have a worker at the agency fill me in on him. In 1994 before she left New York to move to Arizona, she let me know he went into the office seeking medical information and he was a tall good looking young man. She said I would be so proud of him. He was going to enter college in upstate NY to study biology and music. She did ask his mom if she would like to set something up in the line of contact between us and she didn’t think it was the right time since he would be entering college soon. Then she left for Arizona. I called the agency again to talk to who ever the new worker was only to find out, he had sent a photo for me. I would have walked from North Carolina to New York if I had to for it! I asked if she could mail it or I would be coming up that way the following month where I could stop in. She said I will have to call you back on how to handle this as I am brand new here. After a week of running to the phone everytime it rang, I called her back…only to find she misplaced it. I was on the edge of my seat……..did he look like me, or anything like the other children……..could this be a sign that he wanted some kind of relationship with me and again, it felt like my heart had an earthquake break it in half when she said she “missplaced it”. This didn’t happen. She was told not to pass it on but why lie to me. That made it so much worse.

    On my next trip to NY, I went there and again asked about the photo or anyway to get a message to him. This woman said she had no idea about a photo for me and as she stood there with the file reading it across the counter has no idea of the thoughts racing through my head. I was telling myself………no you can’t hit her over the head to get my hands on it for just a second to get his name, how could I distract her for just a second to get his name, was I face enough to jump the counter, grab it an run???? Instead, the tears began to flow as I thought I went there in person, they would see that I am real with feelings. I never wanted to say good bye to him, but if I just had a photo to hold and love it would help so much.

    After I got back home and settled in again, I sat and wrote his mother a long letter. I thanked her for caring about him and loving him and asked her for a photo……..not to send out a search party, just to have to hold. I sent it the agency asking them to foward it, leaving it open for them to read and I have never heard another word. I have signed up everywhere thinking maybe someday, he will want to find me but so far, nothing has happened.

    Anyway for the people in the world that think that the girls who were sent away were all trash and just gave up children like they were nothing couldn’t be more wrong. We did not have a choice, they were made for us. Think we don’t have any feelings, wrong again. Every year, I bake my son a cake, blow out the candles wishing him good health and a good life as the tears roll for me. There isn’t a day that goes by that he isn’t in my thoughts. I am sure there are some mom’s out there that want this kept quiet as it was the teenage secret in the family but I believe most of us would love to be brought together. Even if its not a happy ending, it is something. I would love to be able to tell him a medical history, to have him meet my children and grandchildren and become a part of our family too. I can dream……….right?

    My hopes are that everyone that reads your blog will find children or parents and allhave happy endings.
    Seaching for Eric……..6/4/68, born in Binghamton, NY

    Posted by Pat LaPier | January 28, 2012, 11:59 am
    • I wish I could say something that would ease your heart. I know EXACTLY how you feel. I relinquished my son 44 years ago, and there has not been a single day since that I haven’t thought about him. With the help of my search angels, Pris and Joan, I was reunited with my son last Thursday evening, when we finally connected on Facebook. Both of our lives are profoundly changed, so much so that I can’t even begin to describe it. I think it will take the rest of my life to describe what this means to me, to us.

      There have been many unforeseen consequences to our reunion–all good. One of the most surprising is how it has affected my son’s relationship with his adoptive parents. I will let him tell that story if he wishes, but I will say that their relationship has been deepened and restored beyond measure. They are thrilled for him. I have an adopted son as well as two more biological children, so I know what I am talking about. My connection to ALL my biological children is ineffable, again words cannot describe. I love my adopted son very very much, but there has always been a great gulf between us. I now realize that nothing can bridge that gulf except his biological family. He is a product of the Viet Nam war, and we have no information about his origins. We are at the very beginning of this process of reconfiguration of our family, and there is and will be much to say, but I want to go on record for disagreeing completely with those “experts” on the Dianne Rhiem show. I heard that program as well, and the steam is still coming out my ears. I am 66. I have a PhD. My son is 44. He has lived an adult life with marriage, divorce, the whole catastrophe, as Zorba would say. How dare anyone else, a stranger no less, stand between us the way the laws of NY do. It is such a violation of our rights and our humanity.

      To searchers, I say, don’t give up. Take my story as a sign of hope. I feel so very, very, very lucky. There really are no words.–Pam

      Posted by Pam McRae | January 30, 2012, 11:47 am
      • Thank you, Pam. I hope I am one day as lucky as your first son … and I hope one day your adopted son can experience the same kind of joy. My hope remains strong — thanks to my parents, husband and daughter as well as the many angels (searching and not) I’ve been so fortunate to meet.

        Posted by terrisv15 | January 30, 2012, 7:37 pm
  7. I was listening as well, with reactions similar to yours. I found it refreshing (and realistic) that Mr. Greenspan listed a whole bunch of delicate situations that could be uncovered by DNA testing. At least the searching adoptee isn’t surprised when he/she doesn’t match anyone in the family tree!

    I get the concept that being matched to some first cousin of one of your biological parents would let the secret out. But how is that any different than finding out that your step-brother is really your half-brother? Is the only difference that adoptions are subject to state mandated sealed records, while adultery and other family secrets do not have the force of law to keep them under wraps? So Leighton’s reasoning has more to do with law than tact, sensitivity and discretion, don’t you think?

    I was also alternately fuming and LMAO when Mr. Greenspan came out in favor of Confidential Intermediaries – calling them “an absolute necessity”. Excuse me sir, but is Family Tree DNA going to “police” its adoptee clientele? Do I have to “out” myself as an adoptee? Will I have to hire a CI (after receiving appropriate counselling, of course) to view and correspond with my matches? Will those CI services be included in the price?

    Still shaking my head and knowing it ain’t over yet.

    Posted by Romany | January 28, 2012, 11:53 am
  8. I hope you will all help us tell the media, legislators, everyone that adopted persons’ right to know is paramount. That “privacy” (which is simply discretion and respect that everyone is entitled to) is different than “anonymity” (that we never asked for and which opponents of adoptee rights are trying to force on us in their last-ditch effort to keep adoptees in the dark ages of secrets and lies).

    Posted by Priscilla Sharp | January 28, 2012, 11:11 am
  9. Hi, I have heard Diane Rehm shows before. She is not in favor of adoptees having a voice. I think we need to call her out on it.
    I know she slants the program, and how is that PUBLIC Radio. I think we should find out why she is so bias.
    Joan of nyadoptees.com

    Posted by joannyadoptees | January 28, 2012, 10:53 am
    • Great idea! I’ll contact the show. …

      Posted by terrisv15 | January 28, 2012, 12:36 pm
    • Excellent piece Terri. And shame on Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) CEO Bennett Greenspan who was also part of the NPR interview, to say that having a Confidential Intermediary (CI) is a must. Adoptees and birth mothers do not need a third party stranger poking around in our lives. Mothers do not need to be protected from their children, and we are now mature adults, not the perpetual children that those who want to ignore our civil rights, want us to be. There are states now who changed their laws and now allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates, and it is working very well, no CI program, and no problems. Those of us who are adoptees hear from countless birth mothers/first mothers, and they want to know what happened to the child they relinquished. They have also told us that they were NEVER promised confidentuality, nor did the majority want it. Whether to reunite or not is a decision made between the mother and her adult child. We do not need a third person who is a complete stranger, tracking down our birth parents and blocking access to our own identity. If someone does not wish to have contact, they can say so directly. And the fact that adoptees and birth family searching can now use autosomal DNA testing to identify connections to our biological roots, is a wonderful thing, and it is renewing hope where there used to be nothing but closed doors and locked away secrets. Thousands of professional and amateur genealogists are now using DNA testing to identify new genetic connections to family while they research their family ancestry. It is nt different than adoptees researching their roots. It is a wonderful tool available to ALL. I cried when I first swy my FTDNA “Family Finder” results, there staring back at me on the computer screen were real names of real people that through a certain amount of shared DNA, were connected to me. It is a feeling that only a person who was adopted would understand. I now have a predicted 3rd cousin and it is a wonderful feeling. Loving the family you grew up in has nothing to do with wanting to know where you came from. As I already stated, genealogists using FTDNA autosomal DNA testing to identify missing family connections, and to help fill out their family tree, is a tool that is used equally by all. Adoptees are trying to fill in those same missing pieces. Non-adoptees are not required to hire and pay for a “Confidentual Intermediary” to contact a family member if they discover a unexpected newly found relative, and neither should adoptees. We all have a right to know where we came from. Autosomal DNA testing is helping us get a little closer to that knowledge, and for that I am appreciative, and I now have renewed hope. NPR now needs to air a segment where adoptees and birth family who have done DNA testing are interviewed.

      Posted by nolnacsj | January 28, 2012, 2:58 pm
      • Well said, Judy, and thank you Terri.

        A recent New York Times article about Adoptees and DNA quoted Elizabeth Bartholet, an expert on adoption at Harvard Law School, who said “the proliferation of testing highlights the need for broader access to adoption records. In the meantime, she says, adoptees would be better served by nurturing the relationships they already have.”

        Maybe I’m reading too much into that last sentence but it sure sounds a little like the repetitive statements of the 50’s, 60’s or even 80’s told to relinquishing birth mothers….”Forget about it…get on with your life.” We all have a right and an instinct to know where we came from, to look into someone’s eyes and see a part of yourself. Already, the resources that DNA testing provides is a whole new process in the adoption search of many people, including myself. For the first time in my life I have cousins! There is a family I am connected to and it’s an awesome feeling
        only an adoptee can understand. Eventually, I hope it will lead me to the family that gave me life in order to clean out that closet of secrets, shame, guilt and lies that hold many adoptees and birth parents hostage. THEN we will all be able to better serve those relationships we already have.

        These are so-called “experts” in adoption? A little more sensitivity on their part would better serve the adoption community. They need to walk a mile in the shoes of an adoptee or birth parent before making such assumptions.

        Posted by KCorbeil | January 29, 2012, 6:47 am
      • “Loving the family you grew up in has nothing to do with wanting to know where you came from.” One of the most profound statements I have yet encountered. It brings tears to my eyes.

        Posted by Melynda | May 30, 2012, 10:00 am
  10. I hope your agonizing search ends with a long hug with your first mom, Terri 🙂

    Posted by Mike Buckley | January 28, 2012, 4:03 am

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