(This story was updated on 11/11/16 with comments from readers. They are included at the bottom.)
Tomorrow’s general election may bring some new faces to New York’s state legislature, and additional support for opening New York’s sealed adoption records.
Tim Monti-Wohlpart, a 45-year-old Windsor Terrace resident and New York City public high school teacher, has been a major force behind a statewide effort to change New York adoption law, which currently does not give adult adoptees open access to their original birth certificates — and the names of their birth parents.
As the law stands currently, if you were placed for adoption in New York State, your ability to identify your birth parents is highly limited. An adoptee’s birth parents must have registered with New York State’s adoption information registry and indicated that their names and addresses could be released upon request by the child they gave up for adoption. (If only one birth parent signed the papers surrendering the child, the consent of both parents is not needed for the release of information.)
If the birth parents have indicated consent, their contact information is released to the adoptee after he or she reaches eighteen and applies with the state adoption registry.
Birth parents in New York State also have the ability to release their medical history through the registry, even if they decide they do not want to be identified. Adoptees can apply through the registry to obtain this information.
Adoptees can obtain some information without consent, such as the general appearance, religion, ethnicity, race, education, and occupation of their birth parents, along with the name of the agency that arranged the adoption, and the relating circumstances.
But the fundamental reality — that New York State adult adoptees do not have a legal right to learn who their parents are — must change, says Monti-Wohlpart, who was placed for adoption in New York in 1971.
State legislatures across the country are steadily moving in this direction. According to the Unsealed Initiative, nine states — Alabama, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Alaska, Kansas, and most recently Hawaii — now provide adult adoptees with unrestricted access to their original birth certificates.
Last year, Connecticut passed a law granting unrestricted access to adult adoptees whose adoption was finalized on or after October 1, 1983. Another 11 states, including New Jersey, provide limited access, i.e., the birth parent can veto access.
Will New York Be Next?
Legislation to provide unrestricted access to birth certificates in New York State has significant support from lawmakers in both the Assembly and Senate but has yet to make it to their respective floors for a final vote.
Robert Carroll, a Democrat from our area, who will be running tomorrow for the 44th District’s seat in the State Assembly, told us that he is in favor of unrestricted access to birth certificates for New York State adoptees.
(The 44th District, which was represented by Jim Brennan for over 30 years, includes sections of Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Victorian Flatbush and Midwood — stretching as far north as 6th Avenue, and all the way down to Avenue I.)
“Providing adult adoptees with access to their own birth certificates is not only common sense but the right thing to do in today’s day and age,” said Assemblyman David Weprin of Queens, who has sponsored legislation that gives adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates.
“Adoptees in New York State often lack crucial information about their own lives and background,” Weprin continued, “placing them in confusing and unfair situations where they might not have access to their medical records or family history.”
The legislative effort has hit road blocks. In 2015, the bill that Monti-Wohlpart and other advocates supported was stalled in the state Assembly’s codes committee. In 2015, and again in 2016, a “compromise,” and more limited bill passed the Assembly but still has not passed the State Senate.
“Our goal remains simple,” Monti-Wohlpart told us recently. “Genuine human and civil rights reform so all adoptees can gain unrestricted access to original birth certificates, as in nine other states…We continue to petition officials and New York State legislature candidates for a return to the ‘clean’ (2015) adoption reform bill in the Assembly.”
Monti-Wohlpart compares the fight for adoption law reform in New York State to battles for marriage equality and a $15 minimum wage. A petition he has circulated locally in support of legislation granting adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates has now garnered over 1,800 signatures.
The Question of Anonymity For Birth Mothers
This article cannot speak to all the perspectives on this important issue, but it does appear that efforts to change New York State adoption law have been impacted by those citing concerns for the privacy of birth parents, especially mothers, who may have given up children in traumatic circumstances.
In response, advocates for unrestricted access point to testimony made to the State Assembly by Elizabeth Samuels, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Samuels, who specializes in adoption law, told the Assembly’s health committee in 2014 that “the law has never guaranteed life long anonymity for birth parents…birth mothers have not been offered confidentiality.”
Samuels said she came to this conclusion after reviewing sealed adoption records from 26 states, including New York, dating from the late 1930s to 1990.
“The evidence is that birth mothers who sought confidentiality sought it from either their own families or from members of their community — not that they were looking for being forever unknown from the child that they bore,” Samuels continued. “The overwhelming majority of birth mothers, some ninety-five percent up, are even open to contact with their now adult children.”
In states where access to an adoptee’s original birth certificate was never restricted, or where it has recently been granted, “access has really proved to be beneficial and has not been harmful,” Samuels said.
Access to basic records about one’s own identity is a “basic human right,” Samuels stated, adding that “a birth is a public [not private] event.” The state intervenes when birth parents renege on their responsibilities, such as compelling fathers to pay child support, she pointed out.
Samuels observed that the “social history [of adoption] is very complex.” In the 1940s, experts actually recommended open records for adult adoptees, she said. As late as 1960, original birth certificates were available to adoptees in half the states.
Manhattan Assemblywoman Deborah Glick agrees that the social history is complex. In light of the enormous difficulties and social stigma faced by unwed, pregnant women, especially prior to the legalization of abortion, Glick argued that birth parents should be left alone if they have not indicated on the state adoption registry that they want their identity and contact information released.
“Sometimes they were minors [at the time of giving up their children for adoption],” Glick said. “The forms may not have guaranteed privacy but people thought they had it…they thought they were closing a chapter in their lives.”
Glick stressed that she was aware of the “pain and searching” of adoptees, but maintained that privacy for New York State parents who gave children up should be respected as a matter of principle. For adoptions going forward, Glick said, new policies can be considered in light of changing social mores.
We asked Monti-Wohlpart if he could ever imagine a scenario in which it would be reasonable for a woman to give up a child and wish to remain unidentified.
“No,” he responded. “While a birthparent can surrender a child for adoption, they cannot relinquish the moral responsibility to support the adoptee, who becomes an adult, [and seeks] to know their origins, ethnicity and medical history.”
“There is no circumstance,” Monti-Wohlpart added, “in which the state can ignore its legal obligation to honor the basic human and civil right of unrestricted access to original birth certificates, and records, to facilitate that process.”
An Adoptee Hesitates
We spoke with a Brooklyn adult adoptee, who wished to remain unidentified, who was given up by her mother in upstate New York in the late 1960s. She told us that she had begun to seek information about her birth mother through the state adoption registry, but hesitated after initial information caused her to believe the circumstances of her mother’s pregnancy were not positive.
Now a mother herself, the adoptee told us that she was uncertain about a law that would provide unrestricted access to birth certificates for adult adoptees. “What if a birth mother was raped or abused?” she asked. On the other hand, she said, having access to her birth parents’ medical history would make a tremendous difference for her — and her child.
Another perspective came from Linnea Nelson, who recently adopted a one-year-old child in the state of California. She told us that she “absolutely supports” the national effort to provide adult adoptees with their original birth certificates.
“Everybody wants to know where they came from,” Nelson said, “it’s a humane thing to let people pursue that.” Legislation providing unrestricted access makes the well-being of the child the focus, she said, and tackles the question “what is the best thing for the child, rather than guessing what is best for the birth parent.”
Do most birth parents want to remain anonymous? Advocates cite the experience of states like Illinois, which offered birth parents the option of redacting their names after the state began to release original birth certificates to adoptees in 2010.
Of the 10,421 original birth certificates issued between 2010 and 2014, only 53 were redacted at the biological parents’ request, Illinois officials told The New York Times in 2014.
“Compromise” Bill Passed By Assembly This Summer
On June 7th, the New York State Assembly again passed the “Adoptee Rights Bill” (A2901C) with a final vote count of 112-28. A matching version of the legislation (S05964B), is currently pending passage in the State Senate.
This compromise bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Weprin, would “allow an adopted person who is at least eighteen years of age to request from the court from which the order of adoption was made, or from the Supreme Court, a certified copy of his or her original (long form) birth certificate and/or a medical history form if available.”
(If the birth certificate cannot be located, an adult adoptee can request whatever information identifying the birth parents is available.)
According to the compromise bill, the state Department of Health must then “make a reasonable and good faith effort to contact and advise birth parent(s) that the adopted person has filed an application to receive their original long-form birth certificate.”
If the parent has already consented to a release of information or does not respond within 120 days, a certified copy of the long-form birth certificate, or other “appropriate” identifying information is provided to the adoptee.
Weprin indicated his disappointment with the compromise, saying in June that “adoptee rights are human rights and although I prefer a clean bill…with full access to an unredacted birth certificate, I am glad that we have taken a step towards providing adoptees with their full rights in New York State.”
Monti-Wohlpart called the compromise legislation “unacceptable…. they [the amendments to the original bill] do not honor the human and civil rights intention of the reform. They create new ways for judges…to deny adult adoptees the information they deserve upon demand. So, it is not a ‘first step’; it is an expensive scheme that changes the way the veil of secrecy is arranged.”
Weprin Says He Will Continue Fight For Unrestricted Access
On Friday, Sumeet Sharma, Assemblyman Weprin’s communications director, told us that the most immediate challenge is to ensure that the State Senate passes the compromise bill. “We need to move the needle on this issue,” Sharma said, “and will work our way toward a clean bill of adoptee rights.”
Senator Andrew Lanza of Staten Island is the sponsor of the compromise bill on the Senate side. We made repeated attempts to speak with Lanza, but were unsuccessful.
Weprin’s office told us that they will return to the fight for unrestricted access “as soon as the compromise bill becomes law.”
The journey taken by the “clean” bill, which provides adoptees with unrestricted access to their original birth certificates, provides an interesting window on how a bill becomes a law in New York State.
The “clean” bill had over 80 sponsors before it stalled. In order to pass, a bill needs votes from a majority (over 75) of the Assembly’s 150 members. But the clean bill was unable to make it out of the Assembly’s codes committee in 2015, however.
Outgoing Assemblyman Jim Brennan was a member of that committee and we made several attempts to speak with him about his position but were unsuccessful.
On the Senate side, Andrew Lanza was also lead sponsor of the “clean” version of the adoption reform bill (S3314). In the Senate’s last session, the clean bill had 28 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, along with Senators Kevin Parker, Diane Savino, Martin Golden, Daniel Squadron and Liz Krueger.
Monti-Wohlpart argues that there is potential for the Senate to pass the clean bill now, and then send it to the Assembly.
“After 81 years of sealed records, and 23 years since the bill was introduced, New York is long overdue to get this done,” he said.
Writer’s note (11/11/16): We’ve received additional comments on this story, including one, from an adoption lawyer, that Weprin’s “compromise” legislation has the unintended consequence of adding an expectation of privacy for birth parents in New York which never existed before. According to this lawyer, if the compromise legislation passes, birth parents will have the ability to actively assert their right to privacy, which did not exist before.
The adoption lawyer who contacted us also maintained that most adoptions in New York State are between people who know eachother (e.g., step parents who adopt a step-child), and the scenario in which a birth parent gives up a child to unknown adoptive parents does not represent the majority of adoption cases. We do not know if this is the case but wanted to post the comment.
Another reader took issue with our headline, saying that Monti-Wohlpart is simply an active member, not a leader, of the adoptee rights movement; and that our story should acknowledge the Unsealed Initiative, an adoptee rights advocacy organization, along with Comptroller Scott Stringer, who introduced adoptee rights legislation when he was a New York State Assemblyman.