I Had a Closed Adoption and Had to Learn About My Ethnicity from the Department of Health

The antiquated legal fiction of closed adoption is still preventing adoptees like me from learning vital information about our backgrounds, histories and genetic risk factors.
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Publish date:
August 4, 2015
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parents, adoption, biological family, identity

When I was four or five years old, I began asking questions about my own birth: what was I like when I was a baby? Did I look more like my mom when I was born, or more like my dad? My mother told me I had been adopted, and went on to explain that this meant that she and my father had really, really wanted me, that the day they took me home was the best day in their lives. She framed my adoption in a very positive light, and I was offered more details as I matured enough to understand them.

When I was about 10, she pulled out my adoption certificate and I learned the name of the adoption agency, Catholic Charities, and that I had been born at 6:14pm in Rockland County, NY. When I was around 12 or 13, I learned that my birth mother was 15 when she became pregnant, and 16 when she gave birth to me. I was told that she was of Italian and German descent, and that my birth father was 17 years old and Italian American. My birth mother had blue eyes. “That’s why you also have blue eyes, like me,” my mom said.

The more I heard, the more the story sounded like the typical pregnant teen saga that takes place in small towns everywhere. “Your birth mother couldn’t take care of you because she was so young,” my mother told me repeatedly. “She wanted you to have a good life, so she put you up for adoption.”

Despite my adoptive mother’s attempts to inform me about the circumstances of my birth and adoption, it wouldn’t be until I was 32 years old that I began to have a real understanding of my own heritage and identity. This knowledge wouldn’t be arrived at by a straight line or series of simple questions and answers.

Several years after my adoptive parents died, I requested non-identifying information from the NY State Department of Health . I completed the paperwork and dropped it in the mail with a sense of urgency, my head swirling with expectations.

About a year later, after having almost forgotten that I ever submitted the request, I finally received a large, mysterious envelope from the DOH. Holding my breath, I tore open the envelope while standing in front of my mailbox, keys still dangling from my pinky finger. The details provided were slim -- mostly information I had already known about my date, time, and place of birth, and my parents' ages -- but there was one piece of new information that came as a surprise: my birth mother was a citizen of Argentina, of German and Spanish descent, and her primary spoken language was listed as Spanish. My birth father was Italian American, and his profession was listed as “short order cook.”

By the time I learned these details, both of my adoptive parents were deceased and I had been estranged from the rest of my extended adoptive family for many years. There was no one I could call to get clarifying information or process my feelings, except for my friends – my chosen family members could listen and empathize, but not shed any additional light onto my uncommon situation. I registered with the NY State Adoption Information Registry which can provide identifying and medical information to adoptees, with the consent of birth parents, and can even help to facilitate reunions if both parties are registered. As of the date of this writing, I have not received any additional information.

When I was born in the late 1970s, most adoptions done in NY State were closed, meaning that the records are unavailable to the adoptee, birth parents, and adoptive parents after the adoption is legally finalized. My adoption records, containing the names of my birth parents and detailed information about them such as any medical or mental health conditions they may have had, were sealed at the time of my legal adoption and can't be opened again except by a court order. Petitioning courts to open adoption records is not particularly effective in NY State, as the law prioritizes the confidentiality of birth parents over an adoptee’s right to information. Adult adoptees’ petitions are not often successful, even if they include a doctor’s affidavit detailing serious medical circumstances.

Adoption reforms have happened in several states, but in New York, most of our records remain closed, and groups like NY Adoption Equality and Unsealed Initiative have been working for years to turn public opinion and enact legislative change.

In some states, such as Oregon, adult adoptees can order their pre-adoption birth records; in NY, all I can get is some non-identifying information and a redacted birth certificate, so it’s difficult to learn the names of birth parents or siblings. Many states maintain closed adoption records, although some have processes for obtaining confidential intermediaries who can serve as both investigator and go-between when a biological parent or adoptee want to attempt contact. NY State is not one of them, unfortunately.

For now, many adult adoptees only have our non-identifying information, the option of spending thousands on a private investigator or undertaking very time consuming (and potentially heart breaking) research on our own, and a lot of questions, hopes and fears to contend with. We are found on listservs, registries and online bulletin boards, posting updates on our own searches, turning to other adoptees with questions, and posting ubiquitous search ads just in case someone from our birth family might also be visiting these sites: “38 y.o. female, blue eyes, born in Rockland County, NY, ISO birth family members.” Maybe they are up late at night searching and pining for us, as we are for them.

Even now, part of me is hoping that someone, somewhere is reading this article and some of my history sounds familiar. Maybe I am that baby who was born to them on a cold winter evening, so many years ago. In my opinion, this driving curiosity, this endless biological puzzle, this hoping and waiting to one day be found are essential features of the experience of being an adult adoptee.

While closed adoptions protect the privacy of adoptive parents, they also prevent adoptees like me from learning whether they are genetically predisposed towards conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and others. On the one hand, I get it -- it would be dangerous for information like this to be shared with potential adopters, who might reject a child based on having a genetic predisposition towards certain mental or physical health conditions.

On the other, it prevents adoptees like me, our doctors, and adoptive parents from being able to take precautions to head off preventable diseases and conditions before they make us sick or kill us. In my case, as a diabetic, it would have been nice to know if either of my parents had a history of diabetes in their families because it would have meant earlier detection. How much healthier and safer would an adoptee be if they knew that there was a history of breast cancer among their birth relatives, since regular exams, screenings and other preventative measures are crucial for folks whose families have histories of these conditions?

If all of this is true, why does public opinion and the judgment of legal experts, courts, and elected officials skew so strongly in favor of silence and erasure under the guise of “protecting” the confidentiality of birth parents? At their core, adoption laws assume that pregnancy outside of marriage and subsequently surrendering a child for adoption is a shameful thing that must be kept secret. In previous decades, access to sexual education was very limited and there were few options for pregnant young women other than marriage or adoption. My mother's religion was listed as Roman Catholic, and abortion would have been either unimaginable or inaccessible to a pregnant 15-year-old, especially a young woman who was not a U.S. citizen and for whom English was not her native language.

Due in part to old cultural taboos surrounding women’s sexual behavior, the antiquated legal fiction of closed adoption is still preventing adoptees like me from learning vital information about our backgrounds, histories and genetic risk factors.

I began my search for my birth parents by contacting the agency that had handled my adoption, Catholic Charities/Catholic Home Bureau. I was passed around to various staff members on the phone, and told to send a letter making my request in writing. Later, I was then told that my records had been destroyed in a fire at a storage facility in New Jersey called Iron Mountain, and that no other copies existed.

I continued to investigate on my own and was helped by conversations with "adoption angels" -- folks who have already conducted their own birth family searches and assist other adoptees with such searches. I also explored genetic testing through DNA-matching research sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com. My partner purchased a DNA test kit from 23andMe and gave it to me as a Christmas present. I immediately traveled to Hoboken, NJ, to spit into the little plastic tube and mail the test kit in for analysis -- it was illegal to mail the kit from an address in New York State due to state laws requiring that DNA testing be conducted under a doctor’s supervision and come with genetic counseling. Again, I waited to the point where I had actually forgotten all about the kit, and then received an email (this time within several weeks) saying that my results were in.

Along with the test kit and analysis, 23andMe provides an easy to navigate and comprehensive website, identifying certain genetic traits including inherited risk factors for certain diseases, and their database makes it possible to find and connect with genetic relatives if they’ve also submitted a test and their results are in the database. Some adoptees have found birth family members in this way -- in my case, I’ve only found a few 3rd or 4th cousins, and no one who could provide any additional information about my birth family. According to my DNA sample, my genetic haplogroup (this is based on mitochondrial DNA, on the maternal side) was commonly found among populations in and around Northern Spain. This served as further confirmation, but the science is very young and my results still haven’t provided any breakthroughs. I haven’t yet been able to hire a private investigator due to the expense, but this will likely be my next step. I would also love to finally take a trip to Argentina.

I have never felt any anger towards my birth parents for putting me up for adoption – I’m sure it was one of only one or two realistic choices they had at the time.

If you want to know the truth though, I often feel resentful about not learning my ethnicity and basic facts about my history and personhood until I was in my 30s. I’m not even sure who to be angry with; were my parents being deceitful by giving me misinformation, or had they themselves been lied to by an industry that saw a better market for an all-American baby than one birthed by an unwed South American immigrant? I’m angry at having to turn to non-identifying government documents, genetic testing, and Wikipedia to learn about my own heritage. I’m angry at spending most of my life being deprived of my birth mother’s culture and language, which I would have given anything to connect and engage with. I’m pissed off that the information that has been kept from me, that would answer all of these questions and more, was stored in some moldy old box in a huge warehouse that literally went up in flames.

One thing is clear: If we’re going to make any progress towards enacting laws that help adoptees learn about their histories, reconnect with birth families if they so choose, and provide them with necessary health information, we need to work towards ending the shame and stigma associated with adoption itself.