On Jan. 1, 2017, a new adoption law will go into effect in the State of New Jersey. It allows adult adoptees, and others, access to adoptees’ original birth certificates, which had been sealed under New Jersey law for more than 75 years. The unsealing of the certificates means adoptees will have access to information like their birth parents’ names and their social and medical history.
Laura (who asked that her real name not be used in this story) found out about the upcoming change in the fall of 2015, when her mother mailed her a clipping from a New Jersey newspaper. Laura currently lives out of state.
Now 68, Laura placed a child for adoption in 1969 when she was a 20-year-old college student in New Jersey. She and her family assumed when she signed the papers that she would never hear from her adopted child again. The change to the law came as a total surprise, reopening a decision she thought she had left in the past.
“I had a few options open to me at that time, which were to have an abortion illegally, to put the child up for adoption, or to quit school and try to go it alone,” Laura said. “I made the best decision I could — better for the child, better for me, better for my family. I couldn’t look back, and I didn’t. I finished school and I went on with my life.”
Laura’s parents supported her in her decision but her brother and sisters never knew about the pregnancy — she lived anonymously in a Catholic home for girls until giving birth. She went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college. To this day, no one in her family except her husband and mother know about the adoption.
“It’s hard to imagine today just how different the times were in 1969,” Laura said. “Back then ‘unwed mothers’ had ‘illegitimate children.’ Just to say those words out loud today sounds barbaric. But that’s what they were called.”
At the time, Laura said, raising a child alone was almost unthinkable. Equally unthinkable was the idea that one day she or her family might be contacted by the child. Laura understood at the time she signed the adoption papers that she forfeited her right to ever make contact with her child. She had no reason to think that her own privacy might one day be compromised.
When the law goes into effect in January, adoptees will be able to file a request to receive their original birth certificates, which will allow them, among other things, to learn their birth parents’ names. The state is already accepting applications for these documents in order to stay ahead of the demand come January. Information and forms can be accessed and filed at www.state.nj.us/health/vital/adoption.
A provision to the law allows birth parents who wish to maintain their privacy to redact their names from the birth certificates, but redaction forms must be submitted to the State of New Jersey by Dec. 31 of this year.
New Jersey will become the 20th state to grant at least partial access to adoption information that had formerly been sealed. The change came after years of advocacy by adoptees who argued that access to their birth certificates is a civil right. The New Jersey Catholic Conference (NJCC) was among those who advocated against the bill, arguing that it didn’t do enough to protect the privacy of mothers who wish to remain anonymous.
Those skeptical of the law are concerned that the information on the unsealed certificates could open the door to difficult situations and complicated family dynamics. Adoptees who gain access to their birth parents’ names could potentially make contact with them or a family member, particularly given the easy access to information in the internet age, without the birth parents’ consent to the contact or knowledge that the contact is coming.
Laura’s situation illustrates this concern. She now lives out of state and wouldn’t have known of the change to the law had it not been for her mother mailing her that newspaper clipping. Her mother is 92 and lives in the house where Laura grew up. Laura’s siblings also live in the vicinity. Although she has filed to redact her name, the adoptee’s surname on the certificate still matches her own since the father was unknown. The name, she says, is uncommon. A simple search could reveal her mother or siblings’ identity and whereabouts.
“My main concern is for my mother and her wellbeing. I don’t know how this would affect that,” Laura said. “There’s nothing she can do to protect her name or her identity. My need to protect her is probably stronger than my need to protect myself. This would just hurt her so.”
Laura is left to wonder if she should tell her siblings about the adoption that took place almost 50 years ago, just in case one of them is contacted.
Prior to the change, adoptees could attempt to reunite with a birth parent by going to the agency where their adoption took place and requesting information. At many Catholic Charities agencies, for example, an adult child can initiate a search for his or her birth parent and then the agency reaches out to the birth parents, if possible, to see if a reunion is desired. If so, the agency acts as an intermediary during the process until the reunion takes place, providing counseling and support for both parties along the way. (A birth parent can initiate a similar search for an adopted child.)
The process requires fees, takes time, and doesn’t always lead to the desired outcome. The adoptee is not granted identifying information about her birth parents without the parents’ consent.
“I’m conflicted about the change,” said Sylvia Loumeau, director of Adoption Services at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden. “On the one hand, adults can manage relationships on their own and I can see the frustration of an adult adoptee who just wants to know more about herself without needing to go through an intermediary.
“But on the other hand, there is so much potential for hurt or disappointment. We strongly recommend counseling for anyone who is attempting a reunion with a birth parent, just to think through all of the possible scenarios that may not be expected.”
Under the current law, adoptees; a direct descendent, sibling or spouse of the adopted person; an adoptive parent or legal representative of the adopted person; or a state agency can all file for a copy of an original birth certificate.
Birth parents have the option of filling out a contact preference form, where they can indicate if and how they wish to be contacted by an adoptee. There are three options: direct contact, contact through an intermediary (which can be a relative, friend or agency appointed by the birth parent), or no contact.
Those who submit a contact preference form must also submit a medical, social and cultural history form. The birth parent must update this form every 10 years until they are 40 years old and every five years thereafter. Birth parents who choose to redact their names from their children’s birth certificates can still submit this form so that the adoptees have access to their medical history.
Although not required, Laura chose to submit the medical history form with her redaction request. A primary concern for her is that other birth mothers in her situation, who wish to maintain their privacy, may not know that the change is coming.
“A lot of women my age don’t live in New Jersey anymore,” she said. “The law has changed with the times, but it did so without taking into account laws that were effective and that were appropriate in different times. You can’t go back and change history.”
Forms and filing information are available at www.state.nj.us/health/vital/adoption. The New Jersey Catholic Conference has instituted a helpline that anyone can call to get more information about the changes to the law: 609-989-4809. More information is available on the group’s website: www.njcathconf.com.