July 27, 2010— -- Carol Cook of Blairstown, N.J., grew up thinking she was a WASP with Native American blood, a splash of ethnicity that pleased her because she had majored in anthropology in college.
But at 33, the executive secretary and mother of two inadvertently discovered a secret her entire family had held from her: Cook was adopted, born in a Catholic hospital and was likely Italian.
"I suspect the [secret] evolved and it became more impossible to tell me," she said. "I had good parents. But suddenly I was not the person I thought. I was a totally different nationality. I was floored."
Now she is 68 and a grandmother, but Cook's struggle to find her identity is never-ending. In New Jersey -- and in all but nine states -- it's against the law to for her to get her original birth certificate.
Today, most adoptions are open, but for a generation of graying Americans like Cook, the doors to their identities are irrevocably closed shut.
Now, in growing numbers, adult adoptees are trying to overturn legislation that sealed up records, but in most states they are fighting an uphill battle.
New Jersey is the latest battleground over laws that were originally intended to protect the birth child and her mother from moral shame, but many say are now antiquated and cruel.
Since 1980, efforts to unseal birth records in New Jersey have failed, but an open adoption records bill that recently passed a Senate committee will go before the state Assembly this fall.
Birth parents would have 12 months to request that their names not be made public or to state how they would want to be contacted by a birth child.
Lawmakers in at least 11 states are now considering the issue and in the last decade seven states have expanded access, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an organization dedicated to education and research.
Today, birth records are broadly available to adult adoptees in Tennessee, Alabama, Delaware, New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon and Illinois, as well as Kansas and Alaska, where they were never sealed.
Just this month, the institute issued a report recommending every state enact legislation restore rights to adult adoptees.
"How a human being comes into a family should not dictate what rights they have," said Executive Director Adam Pertman. "There has to be a level playing field."
Adoptees also need access to medical records, according to Pertman, noting that the surgeon general says that knowing family history, "is the most important thing for health."
The 46-page policy brief also contends that the vast majority of birth mothers do not want to be anonymous to the children they relinquished.
"The single biggest factor that helps women heal and deal with loss and the grief they feel when placing a child up for adoption is knowing the child is OK," said Pertman.
In New Hampshire, where birth certificates were unsealed in 2005, out of 24,000 records only 12 birth mothers stipulated that they wanted no contact with their birth children, according to research.
"Knowing who you are and where you come from, it turns out, is not just a matter of fulfilling curiosity, it's something that helps human beings develop more fully psychologically to understand and feel better about themselves," he said.
As for Cook, she said she doesn't feel "connected."
"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.