I Broke the Law to Look for My Birth Parents in the Secret System

Late at night, in my childhood bedroom, the question haunts me: Where do I come from? Why was I adopted? Who is my real family? Although my parents told me about my adoption when I was young, besides that, the topic of adoption was taboo in our house.

When I mustered up the courage to ask those questions, I got a vague answer: At the hospital. Because we want you. People who can’t defend you. Because my parents considered the details of my adoption confidential, I was eager to know the location of my birth family. It’s an almost cellular urgency that emerged when I became a mother myself.

In 1986, there was little information available on adopted children. Searching is something that well-adjusted people don’t do or even talk about. But on my follow-up visit to the obstetrician after the birth of my twins, I came across a waiting room magazine that featured an article headline on the front cover that read, “Adopted Child Finds Birth Parents With ALMA’s Help.”

I started reading about an adopted woman who found her birth family with help from the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). After the doctor’s appointment, I put the magazine in my purse and took it home. ALMA ultimately guided me through a frustrating and emotional decade of searching for my birth family until, finally, I found them.

The author was with her twin sisters, Amanda and Kate, when she came across the ALMA article and decided to look for her birth family.

Courtesy of Jillian Barnet

The author was with her twin sisters, Amanda and Kate, when she came across the ALMA article and decided to look for her birth family.

On October 1, 2023, ALMA founder Florence Fisher died at the age of 95. As an adoptee, Fisher and her organization were a major force in helping many adoptees like me discover our roots and in pressuring states to open up sealed adoption records.

Fisher was a savior and hero to many adoptees, a woman willing to do anything to uncover information, including dressing as a nun to sneak into a Roman Catholic adoption agency.

I also disguised my identity and even broke the law to reveal my own history. After finding an index card with the baby’s footprints and my real birth name in my adoptive parents’ basement, I used the information to sign my real name, and then my birth mother’s name, on the letter. I committed this forgery in vain when I tried to get my original birth certificate and medical history.

Over a 10 year period, I called people from the phone book in three states who shared the same last name. I identified myself as “Christine,” from a random company I won’t reveal here. I did this because I needed a way to find out who was on the other end without telling them why, as my search was a contractual breach of the birth parents’ promise to remain anonymous. Plus, if I contacted relatives instead of my birth parents, I would be giving away their possible secrets, or the person on the other end would panic and lie. What I did is called fraudulent misrepresentation, and, like forgery, it is a federal offense punishable by large fines and prison time.

If you are not adopted, you may wonder why such secretive and risky measures are necessary. Like most adoptions in the United States, my adoption was “closed” – neither the birth nor the adoptee were allowed to know the identity of the other party. This was especially true of the approximately 4 million domestic baby adoptions that occurred during the “Baby Scoop Era,” from the end of World War II through the 1970s.

Sometimes, non-identifying information may be added to an adopted child’s file, such as “mother is Catholic” or “father is an engineer.” After the court finalizes the adoption, the adopted child’s original birth certificate is destroyed or sealed by order of the court, and a second, amended birth certificate is issued in the names of the adoptive parents. On the new birth certificate, some states change the city and county of the child’s birth to the adoptive parents’ residence at the time so that no one but the parents can know that the child was adopted. The name of the hospital may be omitted, especially if the hospital primarily serves unwed mothers. This is intended to protect the privacy of all parties.

The author's original (pre-adoption) birth certificate, which lists him "not an official copy of the birth certificate."

Courtesy of Jillian Barnet

The original (pre-adoption) birth certificate belongs to the author, who states that it is “not a certified copy of the birth certificate”.

A piece of paper that I assume is my birth certificate, with my adopted name, issued by Suffolk County, Massachusetts, states that I was born in Boston, which is true. (My adoptive parents live in Pittsburgh.) The certificate also lists my adoptive parents’ names as if they were in Boston at my start, which is not true. As an adoptee, I have always considered my birth certificate almost like a document of ownership. I belong to my adoptive parents. At some point, I started to see it for what it was: a falsified legal document.

The majority of the 5 million adopted children in the United States, even as adults, do not have the right to original birth certificates, medical histories, or any information about our identities. Only 14 states allow adult adoptees to petition for unrestricted access to original birth certificates.

I was fortunate to be born in Massachusetts, where the law changed effective August 5, 2022, to allow adult adoptees to petition and receive original birth certificates. Both of my biological parents have died. Now, in my mid-60s and without any medical history, I am aware of the ways my mysterious genetics can play a role. I want to know the cause of death of my biological parents, both myself and my three children. And Massachusetts was pleased to provide me with my original birth certificate with the names of my birth parents. It should be easy enough, right?

I called the county where my parents died, looking for a long death certificate, which listed causes of death. In each case, officials told me that I had to provide proof that I was the next of kin to obtain that personal medical information. No problem, I thought, because I had the original birth certificate. Except the original certificate says my name as Judith Ann Stashinski, while my driver’s license and all other identification says I’m Jillian Barnet.

Because closed adoption means severing any connection between who an adopted child was before being adopted and who he or she is after being adopted, I couldn’t create a paper trail to prove that I was my biological parents’ daughter. Even if my birth mother were alive and I walked into the county office building with her to verify my identity, I would be turned away, just as I was at two counties, one nursing home and two funeral directors.

The author's original birth certificate provides some answers but little insight.

Courtesy of Jillian Barnet

The author’s original birth certificate provides some answers but little insight.

The original birth certificate sent to me by Suffolk County, Massachusetts, stated, “This is an uncertified copy of the pre-adoption birth record.” At the bottom are the following words: “The contents of this birth record are released pursuant to article 2B of chapter 46 of the Massachusetts General Laws or pursuant to a court order. This note was changed by adoption. This is not an official copy of the birth certificate.” In other words, this birth certificate is not authentic in any legal sense and cannot be used for legal purposes.

Florence Fisher and ALMA helped expose the injustice in situations like these and disseminated clear scientific evidence showing closed adoptions and alteration of birth records cause psychological damage to adopted children, particularly difficulties in forming emotional bonds and struggles with low self-esteem. -value. I remember ALMA first educating me about what the latest statistics confirm: that as many as 94% of adopted children report that they want to find their birth family. In the United States, there are 4.7 million people whose longings in their hearts are being failed by a government-supported system.

Just like when I was a child, I also question what it would be like to have access to information about my birth family so early – why they gave me up, my health history, and my ethnic heritage. Suppose I am allowed to contact or even talk to them. Let’s say my parents have talked openly about my adoption. What if I was allowed to be Judith Ann Stashinski and that authentic self was valued and nurtured? Suppose all secrecy is stripped away, and with it shame and fear – on all sides. Will I be okay?

But what about the privacy of biological parents?

This is what I know for sure: When parents have a child they are not ready to raise, they have the right to place the child for adoption, but they do not have the right not to be approached by the child when he is an adult. Even if birth parents are promised confidentiality at the time of adoption, that is not a promise the child must fulfill. Knowing who you are is a basic human right.

The author, shown here in 2023, says that the first step in changing the secrecy around adoption is to recognize that adopted children do not have basic rights.

Courtesy of Jillian Barnet

The author, shown here in 2023, says that the first step in changing the secrecy around adoption is to recognize that adopted children do not have basic rights.

So why are we still struggling with the problems caused by these closed adoptions? Why does much of Fisher’s work remain unfinished? According to the American Adoption Congress, adoption has become a multibillion-dollar industry that profits greatly from the separation of mothers and babies. The AAC insists that the secrecy behind most adoptions has little to do with the privacy of the parties and more to do with limiting liability and preserving profits – and that secrecy is protected by multimillion-dollar lobbying efforts undertaken by adoption agencies.

With Fisher’s death, the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association no longer accepts new members (although it continues to assist existing members in finding information). While there are other organizations fighting for the rights of adopted children, we cannot let Fisher’s dream, or the dreams of millions of adopted children, die with her. Recognizing that adopted children do not have basic rights is the first step. Talking openly about adoption is very important. Each state controls its own adoption laws. Suppose every child adopted – domestic, transnational, everyone – and the people who love them petition their state representatives to request open adoption records.

Florence Fisher would be very proud.

Jillian Barnet is a writer whose work explores families, the impact of closed adoptions and transplants to rural farming communities. He lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where he is working on a memoir. Information can be found at www.jillianbarnetwrites.com or on Instagram @jillianbarnetwrites.

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