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OPINION: The Door To The Past Cracks Open

Legislation to allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates a major step in the right direction

by Patricia A. Miller

I stood outside the church where I had been baptized so long ago for a few minutes. I took a deep breath, then went inside the rectory.

The receptionist at St. Aedan's R.C. Church in Jersey City couldn't have been nicer. I told her I needed a copy of my baptismal certificate. She excused herself and went into another room.

Adult adoptees are sometimes cunning. We have to be.

What the receptionist didn't know was that I had given her my original birth name. I was luckier than many adoptees. My adoptive father handed me by final adoption papers when I turned 21. It had my natural mother's name on it.

"You have a right to see this," he said.

When the church receptionist returned, her smile had disappeared, replaced with a scowl.

"What are you trying to pull?" she said angrily. "You know I can't give you that information!"

Welcome to the world of adult adoptees in New Jersey, where adoption records have been sealed since 1940.

Gov. Christie recently signed legislation that will eventually grant adult adoptees the right to their original birth certificates. But the legislation comes with stipulations.

Natural parents are granted up to two years to decide whether or not they wish to be contacted, or have their names redacted from the original birth certificates. So adult adoptees in New Jersey - if the natural parents agree - won't be able to see their own birth certificates until Dec. 31, 2016.

And that's too long for some adult adoptees, born in the 1940s, 1950s and beyond, before open adoptions came into being. Some may not live until then. And many natural parents are long dead. That won't be much help when it comes to medical information or family history.

I went to Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City the same day I visited the church rectory back in the late 1970s. The hospital looked battered, with peeling paint. Not a great place to be born.

"Oh, honey," the clerk in the records room said to me. "When you were born, this hospital was a showplace. It didn't always look like this."

I told the lady I needed the original hospital records of my birth. I gave her my birth name and told her I was adopted.

"We get so many people like you looking for information," she said kindly. "Unfortunately, I can't give them to you. "

But she gave me a great tip, at the risk of her own job. She told me to go to my doctor's office, fill out a records release authorization form with my birth name, and send it back to the hospital records department. She would send back the information.

My doctor at the time agreed to share in the subterfuge. We sent in the form. Several weeks later, he called. My birth records had arrived.

And that's how I found out I weighed five pounds, 13 ounces when I was born, that I was 19 inches long, three weeks premature and my birth mother's fourth child.

And that's how I found out my mother - who was separated but not divorced from the man listed as my father - was nearly 44 when she had me. The names listed on the hospital records were Helen and Francis Zurick. They were both from Shamokin, a small coal mining town in central Pennsylvania.

The next step was the Jersey City Hall of Records. My then-husband, who was working in the city at the time, spun a story for the clerk behind the desk. He told them I was very ill and needed to confirm my birth parents' names in the hope of tracking down some medical history.

The man frowned.

"You know I can't give you that information," he said.

My husband told him in was a medical emergency.

"Just stay right here," the clerk said, annoyed.

A few minutes later, he came back with a ledger, threw it on the counter and walked away.

"You didn't get this from me," he said to my husband.

Then I called the Newark-based Catholic Children's Aid Association - now Catholic Charities - the agency I had been surrendered to nearly five months after I was born.

A  woman named Mrs. White said she couldn't give me any more details, citing the confidential nature of adoption records. But she did confirm what I had - except for one minor detail - someone else was listed as my father.

We tracked my natural mother down through the Jersey City Board of Elections - which had a name and phone number for her. She was contacted by phone and denied ever having me.

"Someone else must have used my name," she said. "Please leave me alone."

I never sought her out again, or knocked on her door.

I called Pennsylvania information and asked for anyone named Zurick in Shamokin. She gave me eight numbers. I didn't know where to start, so I closed my eyes and let a finger drop on one name.

I got lucky, very lucky. The elderly woman at the other end of the line was my Aunt Gertrude. She didn't hang up the phone. I told her my story.

"Oh my," she said. "This is very interesting."

Gertrude's husband Joseph was Francis Zurick's brother. I learned that she left Pennsylvania four years before I was born, after enduring too many years with an alcoholic, sometimes brutal husband. Gertrude also told me that Francis had gone to New Jersey a number of times in an effort to get her back.

She also sent me two pictures of my birth mother, one when she was the maid of honor at her sister's wedding. If you put my high school graduation picture next to that one, you can't tell the difference.

So who is my father? I still don't know. Perhaps the only way I will ever find out for sure is when the birth records are unsealed. And that's way too long to wait.

People who are not adopted will never understand the need to know one's heritage, who they look like, what diseases should they be on guard for. They never will and it's pointless to explain.

I loved my adoptive parents. They were the only parents I ever knew. I can't count how many times in my life I wished I had been born to them. It would have been so much easier.

My natural parents haunted my childhood years. I was told they were killed in a train accident. They were ghosts in my bedroom, phantoms on my way to school, waiting to snatch me away from the only home I knew. They still are.

We paid a visit to Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Joe Zurick, several years before  before she died. My aunt had rounded up a group of relatives to meet me. We knocked on the front door and no one answered.

We head for the back of the house, because we heard car doors slamming. They had all just gotten back from church.

When I rounded the corner, there was a collective gasp from my relatives. Then I knew. I looked just like her.

No one should have to go to such great lengths to find out where they came from, who they look like. There's been an explosion of interest in genealogy over the past two decades. Ancestry.com has thousands of subscribers.

But it's useless for many adoptees, when they don't even have a last name to go by.

Unsealing adoption records in New Jersey is the right thing to do. Forget the so-called confidentiality promised to natural parents. Whatever the reasons for giving up a child, no one - not even the state - has the right to withhold such basic information as your parentage or your medical history.

It's a violation of an adopted adults civil rights and always has been. The struggle for open adoption records goes back 35 years. It's about time.

Elisabeth Anderson May 28, 2014 at 02:33 PM
Someone I know was adopted and has half siblings. He deserves to know if they are alive. His adoptive mother was a witch. His adoptive father was himself adopted. He was a good man, but unable to control his crazy wife. My friend would have benefitted knowing this information in his 20's. Now, it may be lost forever.
John May 29, 2014 at 07:24 AM
Wow, that was a nice article. Rare for Patch. I think once an adoptive child reaches adult age , he or she should be allowed to know who their biological parents are. However, it should be up to those parents if they want to meet that child . If they don't then their rights and wishes should be respected. That also goes for any siblings , grandparents (should they still be around) and aunts and uncles. All of us inherit our biological parents DNA . The good and the bad. For medical reasons alone , adopted children should have that knowledge.
grace May 29, 2014 at 08:33 AM
as long as the parent who gave the child up for adoption doesnt lose any rights either..may be a good reason they want to stay hidden..god bless all of you in that situation..think of how hard that must be to give up your child and so unselfish

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