By Peggy Carroll
Every year, an average of 2,400 children are adopted in New Jersey. Until two years ago, their birth certificates were placed in envelopes and stored in file cases more than six feet high.
Inside, Pam Hasegawa estimates, are about 170,000 envelopes, dating from 1940 to 2015, some of which may contain information on more than one child. Until this week, they were sealed. The only way adoptees could see them was with a court order.
Now, for the first time in 75 years, adults adopted in childhood can gain access to those records. All it takes is an application, a $25 check and a bit of patience while the massive files are searched. What they will receive in return is an uncertified copy of their original long-form birth certificate.
For Hasegawa, this is a signal victory –one she has spent decades fighting for, in what’s been a frustrating and often dismaying struggle.
On Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, Hasegawa and her allies will celebrate what they call “opening day” at the New Jersey State House.
She is a founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJ CARE), a grassroots organization which, for 34 years spanning the tenure of nine governors, has advocated for change in New Jersey’s adoption records policy.
Its efforts led to a new law – the Adoptees Birthright Bill – which was approved in 2014 by Gov. Chris Christie but became effective on Jan. 1, 2017. The reason: To give adequate time to spread the word to all the parties involved – adult adoptees, adoptive parents and especially, birth parents who were given the right to redact – block out – personal information.
But that right came with a firm deadline to do that: Dec. 31, 2016.
That door now is closed.
For adoptees, the doors are opening. They may find facts about their heritage previously unavailable, facts they have searched for – the names of parents and place of birth, perhaps the name they were given at birth.
Some may receive information on their birth family’s cultural history and even medical history. Some may find that the birth parent wants to meet them.
The law has not been without its critics. Among them: The American Civil Liberties Union and the New Jersey Bar Association.
They argue that the law breaks the promise of confidentiality the state gave to birth parents. But that, Hasegawa claims, is not the real story.
“It is said that we are seeking to ‘open records,’ a term that has been used exhaustively for years,” she said. “But it is a misnomer. What we want is to restore rights, the rights of people who were adopted, and lost their genetic identity and their birth family history the day their adoption was finalized in court.”
Hasegawa says a 1938 state law on adoption records sealed birth certificates as well adoption records from public access. Two years later, on Nov. 19, 1940, another law blocked access to the original certificate to anyone involved in the adoption, including the adoptee.
“Its intent was protect adoptive families from public scrutiny and from the possibility of birth parents returning to find out how the child was, or to make a connection with the adoptive family and to prevent an attempt at extortion,” she said.
Nowhere, she added, was there any mention in the bill of protecting the mother’s privacy from either the adoptive parents or the child. When the adoption code was revised in 1953, the first goal was to protect birth mothers from making an abrupt decision to give up their children.
“There was never anything in the law that talked about protecting parents from their children,” she said. “And if there were, and if it was anyone but adopted children, people would be horrified.”
The sealing of the records has kept thousands of people from knowing their birth roots and ,in a very practical matter, the medical history of the parents they do not know.
And not knowing one’s own family, she said, can leave scars on their lives – even when their adoptive parents are good parents.
She knows, she says, because she been there herself,
SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY
Hasegawa was born in New York City in a hospital a “long, long block from Carnegie Hall,” almost 75 years ago. She was adopted by Melvin and Mary Quayle. Her father was an acoustical engineer and his work took the small family – she was an only child – “all over the place,” from New York to Illinois to California.
From the time she was little more than a toddler, she knew she was something called “adopted.” It was not always a comfortable word.
She had good parents, she said, and she was particularly close to her father.
But even her adoptive parents could cause pain. Once, when she was little more than 10, her mother screamed at her because she had written a letter to a boy her age, a first crush. She was promiscuous (and another word related to it), Mary Quayle told her, “just like your mother.”
It was her adoptive mother who told her that biological mother was a radio singer who was not well and gave up her baby because she expected to die within a year.
“When I was in high school, I got the lead in Call Me Madam, she recalls, “and I remember standing on the sidewalk after the performance and thinking that my birth mother would be so proud that I had this part. I assumed, from what I was told, that she was dead.”
“I think my adoptive mother pulled that story out of her own mind,” she said. It proved not to be so.
Hasegawa was 12 when Mary Quayle died. (Her father was to marry twice more.)
When she was 18, her father gave her the adoption decree – and admonished her to take good care of it. It gave her the name of her birth mother and the hospital where she was born. Finding her history was a different matter.
She went to Wheaton College in Illinois and then to teach English in Los Angeles. It was here that she met she met Ryusuke Hasegawa, then a graduate student from Japan, who would become her husband.
They moved to Morristown in 1975 when Ryusuke went to work at what was then Allied-Signal.
That year newspapers were replete with the story of Karen Quinlan, the 21-year-old Morris County woman who was in a permanent vegetative state. Her parents’ legal battle to remove the ventilator they believed was keeping her alive made national and international headlines.
“Almost every story said she was adopted,” Hasegawa said. “Almost every story gave her age. But none of them said where she was born or her birth date. I could imagine birth mothers around the country wondering if Karen was their daughter.”
She wrote her first letter to the editor. She met with people who responded to the letter and she joined the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), a registry for adoptees and birth parents who want to meet.
And she began in earnest a search for her family.
She got the clearest picture of her biological parents from a letter Mary Quayle wrote to her sister, repeating the information the adoption agency had given to Hasegawa about her birth parents.
They met while studying music in Paris in the 30’s, and married. When the father died, the pregnant woman realized she had no support system. She delayed a decision on adoption, finding it difficult to give up her child.
Hasegawa searched French marriage records and queried music schools – without results. She found one woman who seemed to fit the parameters – but DNA showed she was not her mother.
In these years, she established herself as a respected art photographer, whose work has appeared in exhibits, shows and galleries. She also raised her children, Linnea and Sergei.
And she began to devote large chunks of her time to NJ CARE. In 2011, the Legislature passed a law – only for the governor to veto it.
For her, the work was truly altruistic. The law applies only to adults adopted in New Jersey. Hasegawa’s own adoption was in New York. She reaps no personal benefits.
But her own search finally has succeeded. And it was brought about through DNA testing.
“The technology has progressed faster than the law,” Hasegawa said.
She signed up with three DNA testing services – and found a cousin. That cousin in turn linked her to a welcoming half-sister.
This past New Year’s weekend, they held a family party – Hasegawa’s children and four grandchildren and her sister’s children and grandchildren.
And she will join other members of NJ CARE at Monday’s celebration in Trenton.
In both her efforts, mission accomplished.
ABOUT THE LAW
Her is how the law applies to all parties in an adoption.
Adult Adoptees: Those adopted between Nov. 19, 1940, and Aug. 1, 2015, may apply for uncertified copies (that means they cannot not be used for legal purposes) of their original long-form birth certificate. Applications are available at the Department of Health website.
The law also permits others to access those records: Direct descendants, spouse or sibling of the adoptee, an adoptive parent, legal guardian or other legal representative of the adoptee, or an agency of the state or federal government for official purposes. The original birth certificate is not open for public access.
Records of children adopted on or after Aug.1, 2015, were not sealed and cannot be redacted. Certificates will be released to authorized applicants requesting original birth records.
Birth parents: Birth parents were given the right to redact (edit) personal information from the certificates. That right expired on Dec. 31, 2016. According to the state department of health, 341 parents elected to do so.
If they have not requested editing, the record will be delivered intact.
Those who chose redaction may reverse their decision at any time.
They also may fill out a form stating whether they wish to contact the adoptee, either directly or through an intermediary, such as an adoption agency.
Or they may declare that they do not wish any contact. For the contact preference form to be accepted, the birth parents also must submit a competed family history form, which includes medical, cultural and social history about the birth parent.
About 100 birth parents have requested no contact. This decision, too, may be changed at any time.