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N.J. Assembly committee to consider bill allowing adoptees access to original birth certificates

TRENTON — Every two years for the past three decades, a relentless group of people has told lawmakers their most personal stories in a plea for the most personal of details: They were adopted and they desperately want to know more about their background.

Every time, their emotional efforts have failed to overcome lawmakers’ contention that their birth mothers expected privacy. Then the legislation that would have allowed them to obtain their original birth certificates dies.

Supporters are hoping their losing streak ends Monday when the Assembly’s Human Services Committee convenes to debate and presumably approve the bill.

Unlike her predecessors over the last decade, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said she supports the legislation and will allow the 80-member body to vote on it.

The bill already passed the Senate in March. Next stop if it clears the Assembly: Gov. Chris Christie’s desk. The governor’s spokesman said the administration will review the legislation if the Assembly passes it.

If Christie signs the bill, New Jersey would be the ninth state to allow adopted adults, or children represented by their adoptive parents, to obtain their original birth certificates.

"I wholeheartedly support it. Adoptees and advocates are entitled to have their interests addressed by the Legislature,’’ Oliver said last week.

Committee Chairwoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) said she thinks the time is right as acceptance grows for open adoptions. She’s also examined documents private adoption agencies required birth mothers to sign in the 1960s saying the conditions of the surrender end at "the term of the child’s minority." Seeing that language "was the turning point for me,’’ Huttle said.

"It’s been too long. Thirty years later, it’s a different society,’’ she said.

But opponents argue the bill is different from its predecessors because it outs future biological moms who choose adoption over abortion.

"For prospective adoptions, the bill takes away the option of privacy,’’ New Jersey Right to Life executive director Marie Tasy said. "The language of the bill says the birth parent can fill out a preference form, but it’s just that — a preference, not an absolute veto.’’

"That section of the bill has caused a lot of confusion among legislators,’’ Tasy added.

Upon the adopted person’s request, the state Bureau of Vital Statistics and Registration would produce both the birth certificate and the contact preference form, leaving it up to the adopted person to decide whether to
honor a request for no contact, according to the bill.

Biological mothers who have surrendered children up to now would continue to have far more protections.

If they want their name and address removed, they have 12 months after the law is finalized to submit a notarized letter requesting no contact.

In three states that enacted a law similar to the one pending in New Jersey, requests for birth records far outweigh the number of biological parents requesting no contact.

The Oregon Public Health Division has issued 10,151 birth certificates since that state’s law took effect 10 years ago, health spokeswoman Christine Stone said. Just 639 biological parents filed a
contact-preference form: 518 wanted contact, 86 requested no contact and 35 agreed to contact through an intermediary.

In Tennessee where both adopted people and biological parents may submit a contact-preference form, 58 people agreed to be contacted and 13 requested no contact between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, state spokeswoman Calista Doll said. The state provided birth records to 161 people during this time.

Maine granted 722 requests from adoptees to receive their birth certificates in 2009, the inaugural year of its law.

Of the 29 biological parents who submitted a contact preference form, eight requested no contact, according to
published reports.

The bill’s supporters, who formed the Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education, say they feel optimistic about their timing.

Coincidentally, filmmaker Jean Strauss’ documentary on adoptees’ search for identity, "For the Life of Me," was scheduled to debut at the New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers University today. The film features Joe DiGeronimo, a 70-year-old retired heavy-machinery engineer from Edison and one of the original advocates behind changing the law 30 years ago.

The film’s message is "how secrets aren’t good for people,’’ Strauss said. He is sharing the film with lawmakers to garner their support.

With the help of a private investigator and the coalition, Strauss said, DiGeronimo eventually found his parents — only to learn his mother died five years after he started searching for her and his father six months before DiGeronimo discovered his identity.

"They never sat in my shoes,’’ he said of lawmakers who have opposed the bill. "I feel like such a second-class citizen. I don’t feel equal. It would be so nice to pass this bill so people can find out who they are."

Tags: adoption, new jersey

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