For many people, a birth certificate is one more piece of clutter in a forgotten drawer. But for adoptees, it is the missing link, the key to resolving the fundamental human question: Who am I?
Answering that question now should be a little easier for adopted adults in New Jersey. On Tuesday, Gov. Christie signed an amended version of the Adoptees Birthright Bill that streamlines the process for adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates.
“It’s a huge relief that the truth finally won out. We felt for so long that people were not hearing us,” said Morristown resident Pam Hasegawa, an adoptee who has spent more than three decades spearheading this crusade.
At a signing ceremony in Trenton, the Governor said the measure “is bringing a new open approach to adoption and birth records by removing the lengthy and burdensome requirement of obtaining a court order” to access those records.
At the same time, he said, the bill protects the privacy of birth parents while creating a mechanism for sharing critical health information. Noting that his sister was adopted, the Governor said “it’s important that we don’t diminish the joy felt by families experiencing adoption.”
The new law, which kicks in for all New Jersey adoptees in January 2017, could affect upwards of 150,000 residents whose birth records have been sealed, Pam estimated.
Passage of the bill, which had bipartisan support, makes the Garden State the 14th state to give adoptees access to their birth records, according to the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJ CARE).
“This bill will free so many people who may have otherwise felt that they had no right to know where they came from and to whom they are connected,” Peter Franklin of NJ CARE said in a statement.
State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) were prime sponsors of the bill. The legislation:
- Enables adoptees to apply to the state Registrar for copies of their original birth certificates; previously, they had to prove “good cause” to a judge, a lengthy and expensive process.
- Gives birth parents until the end of 2016 to file a non-binding contact preference form, indicating whether and how they wish to be contacted by the children they relinquished for adoption.
- Requires birth parents to file a family history form with medical- and cultural details.
Sponsors rejected a compromise–technically called a “conditional veto”–offered by the Governor in 2011 that would have required adoptees to return to their adoption agency and seek permission from their birth parents to obtain their original birth certificates.
“No other adult in New Jersey would need their parents’ permission to get a copy of their birth certificate,” Pam said.
The conditional veto signed by the Governor on Tuesday, and accepted reluctantly by the sponsors, enables birth parents from adoptions prior to August 2015 to remove their names and addresses from birth certificates. They have until December 2016 to make these redactions.
One area not addressed by this bill involves children given up for adoption under the Safe Haven Act.
That law allows parents to leave infants anonymously at police- or fire stations or other safe havens if they cannot care for them. After such children are adopted or placed in foster homes, they will face a hard time determining their biological parents, Pam predicted.
But the simplified procedure for requesting birth certificates and the medical history provisions of the Birthright Bill outweigh the compromises, she said.
“This is a huge step forward. That’s why we had to do it,” said Pam, 71.
The Catholic Church, which has provided adoption services for more than a century in New Jersey, has opposed opening adoption birth records.
“People – mostly mothers – will be vulnerable because of this change in our long-established law,” Patrick R. Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said in a statement.
“The key principle upon which we operated was that a birth parent’s identity should remain confidential, and anonymity be preserved unless the birth parent agreed to have their identity revealed,” Patrick said.
The Church now has a two-fold moral obligation, he said.
“First, we must enlist partners to establish a robust educational campaign to alert birth parents that New Jersey’s law has been changed… Second, we must make available counseling and other services for birth parents who will be impacted by this significant change in law.”
Pam, a photographer, does not know her family medical history or cultural background. She thought she finally had tracked down her birth family, but a DNA test last year crushed her hopes.
“It’s like walking into a movie 15 minutes after the film started, and wondering how it started,” she said last year, when adoptee rights advocates unveiled a plaque in her honor at Morristown’s Woodhull Park. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) called Pam “unshakable” and said he was proud to know her.
Pam’s efforts were not triggered by her own identity crisis. She took up the cause because of Karen Ann Quinlan, an adopted young woman whose coma touched off an epic right-to-die legal battle in 1976. Pam said she could not stop thinking about how many women were wondering if Karen Ann was their child.
The irony of Tuesday’s signing is that the Birthright Bill won’t solve Pam’s puzzle.
“I was born and adopted in New York,” which lacks a comparable law, she said. “So this does not apply to me.”