Graying Adoptees Still Searching for Their Identities

"I have friends who are really into genealogy and when they start talking about it, I shut down," she said. "I don't want to be rude, but it's upsetting."

In 1975, an older half-sister who knew Cook was adopted told an aunt, who shocked her with the news.

"I asked me mother if it was true and she said, 'yes,'" according to Cook. "I was standing in the kitchen and literally slid down the wall. Everything just went out from under me."

Her mother told her she was born at Columbus Hospital in the Italian section of Newark, N.J., nothing else. The hospital has since closed and Catholic Charities told her they have no records.

For a time, Cook attended some advocacy groups and even called the records office to see if she could get her birth certificate.

"I got this nasty person who said, 'Why do you even want to know it, like I was some kind of horrible person. I really just couldn't face it."

When Cook goes to the doctor's office and forms ask for her health history, she writes "not applicable."

Cook's granddaughter was diagnosed with celiac disease and she has wondered if the genetic disorder came from her side of the family. "Whether it has any bearing, I don't know," she said.

Religious Groups Oppose Access to Original Birth Certificates

The New Jersey bill faces opposition from New Jersey Right to Life, the Catholic Church, the New Jersey Bar Association, the National Council for Adoption and even the ACLU, who defend the privacy rights of birth parents.

"Birth parents who place children for adoption should have the right to keep their identities private, both prospectively and retroactively," is the stance of the New Jersey Coalition to Defend Privacy in Adoption.

"It almost makes us sound like terrorists who are going to creep into people's lives and destroy them," said Cook.

Pam Hasegawa, an adoptee and grandmother who has led the 30-year fight in New Jersey with the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform & Education, said their argument is "full of holes."

Today, with open adoptions the norm, "most birth mothers choose to meet with the family and to know each other's names, and if they can, get the birth certificate or a copy of it before it's finalized to give to the adoptive parents," she said.

Historically, birth records were closed to protect children from the stigma of being born "out of wedlock" and having "illegitimate" stamped on their birth certificates.

It also was designed to protect the adoptive family from intervention or, as older adoption contracts state, "molestation" by a birth mother.

Hasegawa always knew she was adopted, but later learned more detail about her birth mother's identity through letters written to an adoptive aunt. Her birth parents had married in Paris, but after her father was killed, her mother had to return to the United States and, without help, reluctantly gave up her daughter.

Hasegawa said birth mothers were never promised anonymity. They were forced to sign papers that relinquished their babies, giving up all rights to knowing their fate -- if they were later sick, died or even if they were ever adopted.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, most states had sealed adoption court records completely but, typically allowed adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates, according to adoption researcher Elizabeth Samuels, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

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