Mediating reunions between birth parents and children

Recent changes to New Jersey’s adoption law make it easier for adoptees to find their birth parents.

Mia Pangia was 37 when she began an official search for her birth mother.

“I had been curious my whole life,” she said. “On my birthday I would always wonder if she was thinking about me.”

Pangia loved her adoptive parents and had a happy upbringing. Both of her adoptive parents had died and, with two children of her own, she decided she didn’t want to continue waiting to find out more about herself. Her adoptive mother had told her she was adopted through Catholic Charities so that’s where she started her search, after years of looking for what information she could on her own..

Catholic Charities can provide non-identifying information about birth parents to an adoptee (or a birth parent) who is searching from his or her file, but in order to arrange a reunion, the agency needs the consent of both parties. Preparing both sides for a reunion and the many possible scenarios that could unfold takes time.

After several counseling sessions, Pangia walked into Catholic Charities’ offices in Camden and met her birth mother for the first time. Her mother had never told anyone about the child she placed for adoption as a teenager.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to keep you a secret any longer. I want to be a part of your life, if you let me,’” Pangia said.

A Catholic Charities’ therapist can mediate the first reunion and any future meetings for as long as either party wishes. But after the first meeting, Pangia and her biological mother met on their own. They took small steps, getting together for coffee to learn more about each other. Over the past year and a half, they have integrated into each other’s lives.

“It’s just nice to know where you came from,” Pangia said. “I was an only child growing up, so it’s nice to have brothers. There’s a familiarity, even though I didn’t grow up with them.”

Pangia had tried to search for her birth mother on her own, but at the time little information was available to adoptees searching without the aid of a third party, like their adoption agency. This meant she had to pay for the services Catholic Charities provides, like research, counseling and mediation, in order to reunite with her birth mother.

That will change, however, beginning in January 2017, when adoptees in New Jersey will gain access to their full original birth certificates, due to a new law signed by Governor Chris Christie in May 2014.

 

The Need for Mediation

Pangia, for her part, is conflicted about the change. She was frustrated by the lack of access she faced to her own information. On the other hand, she sees the potential for difficult situations in cases where there is no mediation between the parties.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” she said. “That kid who grows up angry then gets that information; the kid who says, ‘I can’t wait to find my birth mom,’ and she slams the door in his face; how are they supposed to deal with their feelings?”

“I think there should be some stipulation like everyone should sit down with a therapist and a counselor before they get that information,” she added.

Sylvia Loumeau, director of Catholic Charities’ Adoptions Services has similar concerns each time she conducts a search and mediates a reunion.

“I always feel a little bit of conflict. These are adults. They can make decisions that affect themselves. They can manage relationships,” she said. “But there’s also just no way to know in which scenarios support is going to be necessary and where it’s not. And so it just feels safer to have an intermediary. I recognize that if both parties want the relationship, they can negotiate it themselves, but you just can’t know what the scenario is going to be ahead of time.”

In the meantime, New Jersey is gearing up for what it expects to be a flood of requests for documents when the law goes into effect in January, according to Loumeau.

Redaction request, contact preference, and social/cultural/medical history forms can be submitted via mail or electronically. They are available online at AdoptionRecords.nj.gov.

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 also available on the NJCC website: www.njcathconf.com.

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