Bills in Pa., N.J. would open adoption records

Posted: February 24, 2014

Not knowing the identity of her real mother was always a painful, unresolved issue, but when Susan Perry was diagnosed with melanoma, finding out became a medical necessity.

Perry, 63, of Cherry Hill, began looking 13 years ago but sealed-record laws in New Jersey prevented access to her original birth certificate, the gateway to a person's genealogical, medical, and other information.

"I realized adopted people really have no rights," said Perry, now battling stage-four melanoma. "With many people, there is a real wish to know something about your genealogy and to know your roots. It's really the first chapter of your life."

Perry has worked with the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJ CARE) over the last decade for passage of the adoptees' birthright bill. The measure would allow adopted adults over 18 in New Jersey to secure their original birth certificates from the state registrar.

Seven other states have passed access legislation for adopted adults since 1999. Two - Kansas and Alaska - have never sealed adoption records.

Pennsylvania sealed records in 1925 in the interest of preserving birth parents' anonymity. In 1984, the state enforced additional restrictions on adoptees' ability to access their original birth certificates by closing loopholes in the Vital Records Code.

"Most states still treat adoptees differently than non-adopted persons," said Carolyn Hoard, 74, of West Grove in Chester County, who testified in support of an adoptee bill weaving its way through Harrisburg. "It's an inequality."

Hoard placed a son for adoption in 1964, but the two were unable to reunite before his death at 37 from meningitis.

State Rep. Kerry A. Benninghoff (R., Centre) introduced HB 162 over the summer to give adoptees who are at least 19 who were born in Pennsylvania access to their original birth record without redactions - the same access all other Pennsylvanians have.

"I want to see Pennsylvania be a leader in this area," Benninghoff said. "We celebrate all births."

The Pennsylvania House passed it, 197-0, in October. It has a hearing before the Senate Committee on Aging and Youth chaired by Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery) on March 18, and, if approved, it could get a full Senate vote and head to Gov. Corbett's desk by summer.

"I'm hopeful that the Senate will be inspired to take action on the bill after the hearing." Benninghoff said on Friday. "I'm cautiously optimistic."

New Jersey's bill mirrors laws in Oregon, New Hampshire, Alabama, and Rhode Island - that provide adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. It also gives birth mothers the option to express a nonbinding contact preference. The measure could be voted on as early as Tuesday in the Senate; the Assembly posted it for a vote on Thursday.

But a coalition with vast political sway is fighting it: the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, New Jersey Right to Life, the state Catholic Conference, and the New Jersey State Bar Association. They oppose the bill over issues of privacy. Right to Life claims compromising birth parents' privacy could lead to an increase in abortions.

Perry and other advocates say it's a matter of civil rights, in which a minority is being denied the same right as the majority. They say the bill would also bring New Jersey into the 21st century, because people now find one another through Facebook, websites such as, so-called search angels - volunteers who help birth parents find adopted children - and private investigators.

Proponents claim only a small percentage of birth parents - less than 5 percent nationally - don't want to be found.

Martha Gelarden, 60, an independent studio artist from Collingswood, said she never tried to hide from her son, Adam, whom she gave up for adoption 39 years ago.

"If I was so afraid . . . why did I keep my name?" Gelarden said. "The adoption agency had my e-mail address. I never thought I had the right to search [for my son] because I had signed away my rights."

Gelarden and her son, who lives in Chicago, reconnected five years ago after he e-mailed her. They have stayed close since, sharing a love of art.

On the proponents' side are State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson).

"More and more states are doing it," said Allen, who has sponsored the New Jersey bill for the last 17 years. "Birth parents and adopted children are finding each other through private investigators and having to pay for it. They shouldn't have to do that."

The legislation has gone through various iterations over three decades in Trenton - only to fall short of votes, get tweaked, or be conditionally vetoed, as Gov. Christie did with it in 2011.

Christie sided then with opponents who insisted that birth parents' names be redacted from birth certificates. He also sought a provision for biological parents to request not to be contacted by their adopted children, and to instead use a confidential intermediary to facilitate contact.

Advocates for adoptees say that having full access to records - with full names of birth parents - was vital to assuring a complete medical history and that redacting names ran counter to that. Some criticized Christie - a potential Republican presidential nominee in 2016 - of appeasing his party's far right and conservative wings. Christie's press office issued no comment last week on whether his position was the same.

But Marie Tasy of New Jersey Right to Life - the state's largest antiabortion organization - appeared before an Assembly panel on Feb. 10 and urged lawmakers to consider Christie's alternative of using an intermediary.

"The governor's conditional veto was a really fair balance to protect rights of all parties in an adoption," Tasy said in an interview. "There are still incidences where the birth parents are still guaranteed privacy - such as maybe with a rape victim. Not all reunions are pleasant.

"We believe that a birth parent that does not want contact should have the right to remain anonymous," Tasy said. "When you remove the option of privacy in an adoption, more women may choose abortion."

The New Jersey State Bar Association, the state's largest organization of lawyers, judges, and legal professionals, also favors using an intermediary.

But Perry, whose husband, Tyson, testified on her behalf because of her medical condition, has a different take. Her mother did not want a relationship after the two made initial contact in fall 2003, but she recently reunited with two sisters.

"You don't have a right to have a relationship with someone else," she said, "but as an adult, you should be free to work that out without state interference. I don't want an intermediary poking into my business."

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

comments powered by Disqus