Editor’s note: Adoptees like me born during the era of closed records are effectively in a kind of witness protection program. We are typically not allowed access to our original birth certificates but instead get amended birth certificates, which list our adoptive names and the names of our adoptive parents. It is against the law to know our true identities, but slowly that is beginning to change.
As DNA testing and social media connect adoptees with their natural families, laws that keep adoptee records sealed from public view have become moot. In recent years nine states have changed their laws to allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates. Other states are beginning to consider changing their laws, too. New York has taken up adoptee rights reform for years without success, and is doing so again this year. Maybe this year will finally be one that works.
The latest effort, A9959-B / S7631-B, is headed for a vote Tuesday by the Assembly Health Committee. It would provide unrestricted access to long form original birth certificates for all adult adoptees, just like all non-adopted citizens and adults who “age-out” of foster care. So when the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition asked for folks to call and write to lawmakers this weekend, I was happy to help. Here’s the message I sent:
Dear New York legislators:
I’m a 52-year-old New York-born adoptee now living in Connecticut who would like to stop living a lie. You can help me do so.
My amended birth certificate, which remade my identity, is a lie that has shaped my entire life. Spending years not knowing my true identity and ethnicity, family medical history or the circumstances of my birth has had lasting effects on how I view myself and how I interact with others. I often wonder what my life might be if I’d been able to know my true identity from the start. Would I be more confident, feel like I fit in, be able to socialize with ease rather than be someone who second-guesses everything, feels alien and keeps people at a distance rather than risk being rejected?
What would I have accomplished if I had the chance to rechannel the emotional energy I’ve spent all these years on wondering who I am?
I’ve found both sides of my natural family in recent years, despite it being illegal to know them, as a not-so-nice lady in Albany’s vital statistics office took care to remind me some years ago. Still, it’s not enough. The State of New York continues to treat me and others like me as second-class citizens, even as other states have begun to allow adult adoptees access to their records.
Others recognize that in this age of DNA testing and social media it is ridiculous to maintain archaic laws that keep people from knowing who brought them into this world. Why does New York remain in the dark ages? For the love of God, fix the law so it matches today’s reality. There are millions of adoptees like me who have wondered their whole lives who they are and where they fit. Access to our original birth certificates — that same simple piece of paper most everyone else gets to have as a matter of course — represents a validation we’ve been refused far too long.
I can’t change that I’m adopted, but I should be able to live an authentic life, out of the shadows and removed from the ridiculous secrets and lies that are a stubborn hallmark of the adoptee experience.
Here’s something to consider as you weigh the adoptee rights legislation before you:
Not long after finding my natural mother’s family, I was chatting with some of those relatives about my dismay over not having access to my original birth certificate.
“Why? What would you do with it,” one of them wanted to know.
“What do you with yours?” I replied. A long silence followed.
Now lawmakers, I ask you: What do you do with your birth certificate? What does that piece of paper signify to you?
I’m betting it helps frame your identity, grounds you with a certainty about who you are. Shouldn’t that be the case for us all? Won’t you finally please advance the “clean” adoptee rights bill (A9959-B / S7631-B)?
Terri S. Vanech