Yesterday I was supposed to be a plane at 7:15am with Susan. We were going to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the annual conference of the American Adoption Congress. I’m using past tense because on Tuesday I had jury duty, and I was selected to serve on a two-week trial. So our trip was cancelled for us by a judge. Thanks, your honor.
Even though I was incredulous that I was selected (“Your honor, I have plane tickets and a non-refundable conference fee, as well as a pretty important diagnostic medical test related to my heart next week”), I also work well within constraints. And I don’t do regret.
Here’s why, as of today, I’m kind of glad we’re not going to the AAC conference after all:
- The AAC has historically supported adoption records legislation that includes contact vetoes, redactions/disclosure vetoes, and confidential intermediaries. I strongly oppose all these half measures, instead favoring 100% unfettered, unconditional access by adoptees to their birth records.
- The AAC conference attendees will be as likely as not to be celebrating the recent Ohio law allowing most adoptees access to their records. Most, but not all.
- I would have a hard time attending open records conference sessions I was interested in and simultaneously politely shrugging off the joy and enthusiasm for a law I don’t support.
- I was hoping to hook up with activists from Virginia (which is one of the strictest, most closed states), but knew that some of them would happily settle for an access bill.
- Many sessions focused on support while searching, or the tactics of searching, which I don’t need.
What is a contact veto?
This is a term used to describe a provision in adoption records access laws. It refers to a unilateral prohibition on one adult contacting another adult. It’s usually written such that a birthparent may unilaterally and pre-emptively forever prevent an adult adoptee from contacting him or her.
Why I’m opposed to contact vetoes
It’s unprecedented in our society and our law. There is no other situation in which one adult may pre-emptively FOREVER legally prevent another adult from contacting him or her. What makes adoptees such a dangerous class of people that we can’t be trusted to conduct our personal affairs with the same agency non-adopted adults do? The reality is that most adoptees, when faced with a first contact that includes rejection, don’t keep coming back for rejection over and over again. Secondary rejection is a risk we all fear. It’s what keeps so many adoptees from searching in the first place.
But my main objection is a legal one. There are already laws in place to handle harassment, stalking, and assaults. There is nothing endemic to adoption that means existing laws can’t handle people who can’t take a hint and continue contacting someone after a first rejection.
What are redaction provisions and disclosure vetoes?
If you redact something, you cut or block it out. Think of the government reports released by Snowden. Or of my own adoption records. Even my non-identifying information had literal holes cut in it with an X-acto knife:
Redacted adoption file
This is a (blurry) redacted file from Virginia, a closed records state. It differs from redacted files in open records states in one key way:
My non-id record above is available to me at any time after age 18. There is no involvement by the birthparent in my getting this record. In fact, they’re not told about it. Adoption records in states that have “open records” provisions but with disclosure vetoes/redaction provisions are vetted by the birth parents for optional redaction.
What can birthparents redact in these states? It depends on the state. In Ohio, only the name can be redacted. The birthparents’ names. Their addresses at the time of relinquishment remains unredacted and visible to the adoptee. How asinine is that? I could still find out who the person is with maybe a half hour of searching online.
A disclosure veto is very similar in that the birthparent is given a chance to tell the records holding agency “I don’t want my name (and sometimes other identifying information such as address) disclosed to the adoptee.” Forever. Without provocation. Before first contact.
Why I oppose disclosure vetoes and redaction
For me it’s a legal matter. There was a contract signed in 1969 between my birthmother and the agency. Under pressure from her family, the maternity home, the hospital staff, and the adoption agency, Susan relinquished me to the agency.
There were two parties to that contract: Susan and the Children’s Home Society. I was not involved. There is no ethical ground on which anyone could assert I was a party to that legal contract, since I was an infant at the time. I was not able to understand or consent to my eternal future rights to contact another person being signed away that day.
In addition, at the time Susan relinquished me, my identity was not made secret. It wasn’t until after I stayed in a foster home, was subsequently placed with my parents, and then they finalized my adoption, that my name and original identity was forever sealed away.
The final adoption agreement included my official legal name change. It wasn’t until that day that my original name and identity was sealed under lock and key. None of this paperwork has my signature on it, because I was an infant unable to understand or agree that I would never be able to have this information.
I should not be held–and do not agree that I am beholden to–contracts signed by others stipulating my identity would forever be a state secret. I wholeheartedly reject that this law even applies to me.
What is a confidential intermediary?
You’re 56. You were adopted as an infant. You apply for any identifying information about your birth family. The state where you live assigns a social worker to your case, someone you’ve never met and never heard of. That social worker receives your entire unredacted adoption file, including your original birth certificate, your adoptive parents’ home studies, and any identifying information about your birth family. But you’re not allowed to see it.
The social worker calls you and asks you why you want to have this information. What do you hope to get out of having this information? Do you plan to contact your birthparents? Are you hoping to have a relationship? What do you hope to gain from such a relationship? How do your adoptive parents feel about your wanting this information? What will you do if your birthparents don’t want contact? And on and on. What you’re dealing with is a confidential intermediary system—in which the social worker is the intermediary between you and birthmother, and the social worker keeps all the info confidential from both of you.
After asking you these invasive and infantilizing questions, the social worker calls your birthmother. You have no idea what the social worker tells or asks her, because you’re not privy to that conversation. You have no assurance the social worker asks questions that might spook your birthmother, or that might offend her. You are kept in the dark about your birthmother’s voice, her motivations, and any subtext you can ordinarily hear in a live conversation.
The social worker reports back to you. Such confidential intermediary programs usually have one of two outcomes: 1) Your birthmother does want contact, but she wants to take it slowly, using the social worker as a go between. Or 2) your birthmother doesn’t want contact at all.
Option 1 is like being set up on the most important blind date of your life. You entrust everything to the confidential intermediary: Her empathy, her ability to read between the lines, her ability to push a little when there’s resistance, her ability to coax, and comfort, and reassure. Option 1 is the most nerve wracking limbo to live in, because you’re starting from less than zero. Not only do you not have a name, but you also are trying to build a relationship right off the bat. And if the birthparent breaks off contact with the intermediary or says no, then your limbo becomes the worst kind of purgatory. To add salt to the wound, you are, in some states, legally bound by existing harassment laws from contacting the birthparent after an unsuccessful intermediary process.
Option 2 is a dead end before things even get off the ground. And, as in the previous paragraph, you’re now forever bound by existing harassment law in some states from contacting the birthparent.
Confidential intermediaries aren’t better than nothing. They’re worse than anything. You’re entrusting your entire information searching process and your reunion–all together at the same time–to a total stranger. Whose only qualification is the fact they have a social work degree.
Ohio’s new law
Last week Ohio’s new adoption records access law went into effect. More than 400,000 adult adoptees were granted the right to apply for identifying information from the state. This was, no doubt, a huge boon for those 400,000.
But the law also provided for redaction by birthparents of their names. And only their names. How irretrievably stupid.
The new law in Ohio gave birthparents until the day the law went into effect–March 20, 2015–to redact their names. After that date the possibility to keep secrets was forever forfeited.
Only 115 birthparents took advantage of the redaction option. 115 out of 400,000. A testament to truly how few birthparents ever wanted secrecy in the first place. About 250 people showed up the first day to apply for and receive their original records. You can see some video of that here.
But there are 115 Ohio adoptees who are now forever forbidden from making first contact with another adult. The adult who happens to have given them birth. All because of contracts signed when those adoptees were infants and unable to understand or consent to the legal proceedings taking place concerning their futures. I find this shameful, deplorable, and inhumane.
Those 115 people were left behind because the supporters of this law thought the collateral damage was worth it. I disagree. It was not worth it. Even despite the emotional reactions of the adoptees receiving their records in the link above.
The activists in Ohio should have demanded a clean bill–one that respects the rights of ALL adult adoptees to have the same rights as non-adopted people. The right to know their original identity, without shame or secrecy. But once again, legal documents signed decades ago are abrogating the rights of people who were too young to understand or consent what was happening. Shameful.
American Adoption Congress
Back to the AAC. I’ve known for years that the AAC includes a large contingent of people who help author and testify for legislation such as that which just passed in Ohio.
In fact, in the 1990s I testified in Maryland–where I’d just moved–in favor of proposed legislation including similar provisions. The proposed Maryland law ended up being passed, and now in Maryland there is a confidential intermediary system. One that I now wholeheartedly oppose and am ashamed to have supported at the time. I wish I could go back to that day in the Maryland State House in Annapolis and instead testify against the proposed law. I would have said abrogating the rights of some adoptees in favor of giving others what they’ve always longed for isn’t worth it. I would have said they were not a party to the legal documents signed when they were infants. I would have said infantilizing adoptees is a shameful, harmful practice that continues to tell us we’re not worth of the same protections under law as other people. I would have said I am not ashamed of who I am or how I came to be in the world, and if you are, then that’s on you.
Good people disagree on these issues. I have adoptee friends who disagree with me. But I can’t back down from my position: The AAC and other organization that help author and testify in favor of proposed compromise legislation such as that which contains contact vetoes, disclosure vetoes, and confidential intermediary systems are not true reformers. They are harming and continuing to infantilize adoptees by admitting that we are not capable of acting with the same maturity and agency as other adults.
Until the AAC stops supporting compromise legislation, I will not support them. And so I’m glad the judge called my number on Tuesday and ruined my travel plans by empaneling me on a two-week jury trial.