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I Could Have Gone To Prison For What I Did To Find My Birth Parents

The author as a baby with her adoptive parents shortly after she arrived at their home in Pittsburgh.
The author as a baby with her adoptive parents shortly after she arrived at their home in Pittsburgh.

The author as a baby with her adoptive parents shortly after she arrived at their home in Pittsburgh.

Late at night, in my childhood room, questions haunted me: Where did I come from? Why was I adopted? Who was my original family? Though my parents informed me of my adoption at a young age, beyond that the subject of adoption was taboo in our home.

When I gathered the courage to pose those questions, I got vague answers: In a hospital. Because we wanted you. People who couldn’t keep you. Because my parents treated the details of my adoption as secret, I desperately wanted to locate my birth family. It was an almost cellular urgency that surged when I became a mother myself.

In 1986, there was little information available to adoptees. Searching was something well-adjusted people didn’t do or even talk about. But on a follow-up visit to my obstetrician after the birth of my twins, I found a waiting-room magazine featuring the title of an article on the front cover that read, “Adoptees Find Birth Parents With Help of ALMA.”

I dove into reading about an adopted woman who had found her birth family with help from the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). After my doctor’s appointment, I slipped the magazine into my purse and brought it home. ALMA would end up shepherding me through a frustrating, emotional decade of searching for my birth family until, at last, I found them.

The author with her twins, Amanda and Kate, around the time she discovered the ALMA article and decided to search for her birth family.
The author with her twins, Amanda and Kate, around the time she discovered the ALMA article and decided to search for her birth family.

The author with her twins, Amanda and Kate, around the time she discovered the ALMA article and decided to search for her birth family.

On Oct. 1, 2023, ALMA’s founder, Florence Fisher, died at the age of 95. An adoptee herself, Fisher and her organization were a major force in assisting many adoptees like myself to find our origins and in pressuring states to open sealed adoption records.

Fisher was a savior and a hero to countless adoptees, a woman who would do almost anything to uncover information, including once dressing as a nun to sneak into a Roman Catholic adoption agency.

I, too, disguised my identity and even broke the law in order to unearth my own history. After finding an index card with my infant footprints and original birth name in my adoptive parents’ basement, I used that information to sign my original name, and later my birth mother’s name, on letters. I committed these forgeries in vain as I tried to obtain my original birth certificate and medical history.

Over a 10-year period, I cold-called people from phone books in three states who had the same last name. I identified myself as “Christine,” from a random company I won’t disclose here. I did this because I needed a way to find out who was on the other end without tipping them off to why, because my search was a breach of contract to birth parents promised anonymity. Also, had I reached a relative, not my birth parents, I’d be outing their possible secret, or the person on the other end could panic and lie. What I did is called fraudulent misrepresentation, and, like the forgery, it’s a federal offense punishable with hefty fines and prison time.

If you’re not an adoptee, you may wonder why such risky, clandestine actions are necessary. Like most adoptions in the United States, mine was “closed” — neither birth nor adoptive side is permitted to know the identity of the other. This is particularly true of the roughly 4 million domestic adoptions that took place during the “Baby Scoop Era,” from the end of World War II until the 1970s.

Occasionally, non-identifying information might be added to an adoptee’s file, such as “mother is Catholic” or “father is an engineer.” Once a court finalized an adoption, the adoptee’s original birth certificate was either destroyed or sealed by court order, and a second, amended birth certificate was issued with the adoptive parents’ names. On the new birth certificate, some states changed the city and county of the child’s birth to where the adoptive parents lived at the time so that no one but the parents could know the child was adopted. The hospital name might be omitted, especially if it primarily served unwed mothers. This was supposed to protect privacy on all sides.

The author's original (pre-adoption) birth certificate, which notes it is
The author's original (pre-adoption) birth certificate, which notes it is

The author's original (pre-adoption) birth certificate, which notes it is "not a certified copy of a birth record."

The piece of paper I thought of as my birth certificate, with my adoptive name, issued by Suffolk County, Massachusetts, says I was born in Boston, which is true. (My adoptive parents lived in Pittsburgh.) The certificate also lists my adoptive parents’ names as if they were there in Boston at my beginning, which is not true. As an adoptee, I’d always thought of my birth certificate almost like a document of ownership. I belong to my adoptive parents. At some point, I began to see it as what it is: a falsified legal document.

The vast majority of the now 5 million adoptees in the United States have no right, even as adults, to our original birth certificates, our medical histories or to any information regarding our identities. Only 14 states permit adult adoptees to petition for unrestricted access to original birth certificates.

I’m fortunate to have been born in Massachusetts, where the law changed as of Aug. 5, 2022, to allow an adult adoptee to petition for and receive an original birth certificate. Both of my birth parents are deceased. Now in my mid-60s and without any medical history, I’m aware of the myriad ways my mystery genetics could catch up with me. I’d like to know my birth parents’ causes of death for myself and for my three children. And Massachusetts has deigned to supply my original birth certificate with my birth parents’ names. Should be pretty easy, right?

I called the counties where my parents died, seeking a long-form death certificate, the type that lists cause of death. In each case, the clerk told me I must provide proof that I’m next of kin to obtain such personal medical information. No problem, I thought, since I have my original birth certificate. Except that original certificate cites my name as Judith Ann Stashinski, whereas my driver’s license and all other ID says I’m Jillian Barnet.

Because closed adoption means severing any link between who an adoptee was before adoption with who she became after adoption, I can produce no paper trail to prove I’m my birth parents’ daughter. Even if my birth mother were still alive and I walked into the county office building with her to verify my identity, I’d be turned away, just as I was by two counties, one nursing home and two funeral directors.

The author's original birth certificate provided some answers but little knowledge.
The author's original birth certificate provided some answers but little knowledge.

The author's original birth certificate provided some answers but little knowledge.

The original birth certificate mailed to me by Suffolk County, Massachusetts, states, “This is a non-certified copy of a record of birth prior to adoption.” At the bottom are these words: “The contents of this birth record are being released under section 2B of chapter 46 of the Massachusetts General Laws or under a court order. This record was amended by adoption. This is not a certified copy of a birth record.” In other words, this birth certificate isn’t real in any legal sense and can’t be used for legal purposes.

Florence Fisher and ALMA helped bring to light the injustice of these kinds of situations and to disseminate the clear scientific evidence that demonstrates closed adoptions and the alteration of birth records cause psychological damage to adopted children, in particular difficulty forming emotional attachments and struggles with low self-esteem. I recall ALMA being first to educate me about what more recent statistics confirm: that as many as 94% of adoptees report they want to search for their birth families. In the United States, that’s potentially 4.7 million individuals out there with longing in their hearts thwarted by a government-sanctioned system.

Just as I had questions as a child, I question now what it might have been like to have access to information about my birth family early on — why they surrendered me, my medical history, my ethnic heritage. Suppose I’d been permitted to contact or even speak to them. Suppose my parents had spoken openly about my adoption. What if I’d been allowed to be Judith Ann Stashinski and that authentic self had been valued and nurtured? Suppose all the secrecy were stripped away, and along with it the shame and fear ― on all sides. Would I have been OK?

But what about the privacy of the birth parents?

Here’s what I know for sure: When parents have a child they aren’t prepared to raise, they have every right to place that child for adoption, but they don’t have the right not to be approached by that child as an adult. Even if the biological parents were promised confidentiality at the time of the adoption, that’s not a promise the child was party to. Knowing who you are is the most basic of human rights.

The author, shown here in 2023, says the first step in changing the secrecy surrounding adoptions is to recognize that adoptees lack basic rights.
The author, shown here in 2023, says the first step in changing the secrecy surrounding adoptions is to recognize that adoptees lack basic rights.

The author, shown here in 2023, says the first step in changing the secrecy surrounding adoptions is to recognize that adoptees lack basic rights.

So why are we still struggling with these issues caused by closed adoption? Why is Fisher’s life work left largely undone? According to the American Adoption Congress, adoption has become a multibillion-dollar industry profiting heavily from the separation of mothers and babies. AAC asserts that the secrecy behind most adoptions has less to do with privacy of the parties and more to do with limiting liability and preserving profits — and that secrecy is protected by a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by adoption agencies. 

With the death of Fisher, the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association is no longer accepting new members (though it continues to assist existing members in finding information). Though there are other organizations fighting for adoptee rights, we cannot allow Fisher’s dream, or the dreams of millions of adoptees, to die with her. Knowing that adoptees lack basic rights is the first step. Talking openly about adoption is crucial. Each state controls its own adoption laws. Suppose every adoptee — domestic, transnational, everyone — and those who love them petitioned their state representatives requesting open adoption records. 

Florence Fisher would be so proud.

Jillian Barnet is a writer whose work explores family, the fallout of closed adoption and transplantation to a rural farming community. She lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she is at work on a memoir. Information can be found at www.jillianbarnetwrites.com or on Instagram @jillianbarnetwrites.

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