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Bill Would Allow Those Adopted Access To Birth Records

Adopted children who are looking for their birth parents are getting help from the state Legislature.

Legislation was approved during the rush of bills at the end of the state Legislature’s 2019 session establishing a right for adoptees to receive a certified copy of their birth certificate once they turn 18. If the adopted person is 18, the adopted person’s direct line of descendants or the lawful representative of the adopted person can receive the documentation.

The legislation, S.3419/A.5494, was sponsored by Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Hollis. Assemblyman Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, signed onto the bill as a multi-sponsor and voted in favor of the legislation when it came before the Rules Committee and the Codes Committee. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed the legislation.

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, was one of the few Assembly members to vote against the legislation. Weprin argued that the law allows adult adoptees adopted in New York the same right as non-adopted people to access birth certificates or the true and correct information that would have appeared on them. Goodell argued that the state’s existing Adoption Information Registry already allows such access and that birth parents who give children up for adoption have typically had a privacy that such records will be sealed.

“Except that’s not really correct,” Weprin said. “No person who gave up a child for adoption to our knowledge had ever been promised anonymity or confidentiality. That was something often that lawyers may have told their clients or prospective clients but there’s never been a legal document to show that there has ever been a promise of anonymity. As a matter of fact a number of years ago chairman (Richard) Gottfried of the Health Committee had a public hearing on this bill and we had hundreds of witnesses, it went all day, and no one could produce a document showing that they were promised any form of anonymity.”

Goodell asked Weprin if the legislation required consent of biological parents before their information is released, if it requires advance notice to the biological parents before the information is released or if there is anything in the legislation that allows a biological mother to remain anonymous if the child was conceived through a sexual assault or other coersion. Weprin answered each time that the proposed law did not provide such protections.

“This bill doesn’t apply prospectively,” Goodell said. “It doesn’t say if you give up a child in the future starting from the adoption your identity might be given up and not disclosed to you or without your involvement or consent. That would be a different bill, but that’s not this bill. This bill says that even though we’ve been telling women that their identity would be confidential unless they consented, we’re changing the rules retroactively. If we were to do it prospectively, undoubtedly we would want want to have the biological mother sign an acknowledgement recognizing that her identity might be disclosed. I would not recommend changing the current policy for the reasons I’ve mentioned, including it could reduce the number of children that are given up for adoption and may create other unintended consequences, particularly if the mother were the victim of a sexual assault or rape.”

Goodell said there is a procedure that allows adopted children searching for their birth parents to have the records unsealed if there is an overwhelming reason to do so.

He relayed a situation where a Surrogate’s Court judge called Goodell asking if a client would be willing to give up their anonymity because a child that had been given up for adoption was looking for a kidney donor. Goodell and the judge looked at the records and contacted the birth mother and father. The mother consented to being contacted while the father chose not to be contacted. The mother then was tested as a possible kidney match for her biological son.

Weprin said one of the issues with the current Adoption Information Registry is that too few adopted children can secure the information they seek.

“Today most adoptions in New York state are done openly,” Weprin said. “There’s no guarantee of anopnymity in today’s society to anyone because with the internet and DNA and other evidence, adoptees, particularly adoptees that have means that can afford to hire private detectives find their biological parents whether they have access to their original birth certificate or not. Very often poor adoptees who can’t afford to hire private detectives are discriminated against in a sense because they can’t afford to hire a private detective and may not find their biological parents. In any case there is the same possibility of an 18-year-old showing up at the door of a biological parent regardless of whether they have their original birth certificate or not.”

Goodell also contended that the Women’s Bar Association had issued with the legislation, citing the association’s claim that the rights of birth parents aren’t being considered and that a great many mothers could be harmed and experience significant trauma. Association members preferred Goodell’s preferred solution to make birth certificates available if consent is given but to leave existing records sealed.

“We have a system right now that balances the needs of an adoptive child to legitimately contact their birth parents or siblings while still protecting the confidentiality of those who have been in that situation,” Goodell said. “I would recommend we stay with the current system rather than a wholesale change from what we’ve been telling mothers over the past 81 years.”

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