By David Karas | Correspondent
With a deadline looming, Catholic groups are working to alert birth parents of changes in the state’s adoption law that could affect their privacy rights.
Legislation signed into law last May 27 paves the way for substantial changes to New Jersey’s Adoption Records Law, prompting the New Jersey Catholic Conference, Catholic Charities and diocesan Respect Life offices throughout the state to embark on outreach campaigns to inform birth parents of their privacy rights going forward.
The legislation (S873/A1259) allows for wider access to birth certificates for adoptees, who after Jan. 1 2017, will be able to request a long form birth certificate that includes the names of their biological parents.
Birth parents who wish to maintain their privacy – including those who had been assured privacy in the past – must submit a contact preference form to the state by Dec. 31, 2016, in order to remain anonymous and indicate that they do not wish to have contact with the child.
“It is a very sensitive issue, and our heart goes out to people on both sides,” said Deacon Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference (NJCC), the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops. “It is an issue that is very complex.”
Gov. Chris Christie had conditionally vetoed an earlier draft of the bill April 28, clearing the way for passage with several key changes. The conditional veto was accepted by the Senate May 12 and the General Assembly May 22 before the revised law was signed by Christie May 27.
The conditional veto allows elimination of a court order requirement for adoptees to obtain a birth certificate starting in 2017 and a 31-month transition period that will provide birth parents the opportunity to file a request to have no contact with an adoptee. The veto also stipulates that birth parents who request redaction and anonymity will be required to update medical history information every 10 years until the birth parent reaches the age of 40, and every five years thereafter.
Christie, who shared that his own sister had been adopted, said that the law achieves “our intended goals of protecting and respecting the interests of all of the people involved in the adoption process, while at the same time making sure that the miracle of adoption – the miracle that was experienced by my own family and is still being experienced by us today, is available to as many people in New Jersey who have an open heart and a willingness to share their home and their lives with a new member of the family.”
He added that the bill, in its final form, struck the right balance “by preserving privacy options for birth parents by allowing them to select a preference for contact – either through direct contact, contact through a confidential intermediary, or access to medical records only with continued privacy.”
Deacon Brannigan said that the NJCC has long-supported tenets of adoptee records access.
“We always supported reunions between adoptees and birth parents if the reunions would be by mutual consent,” he said. “NJCC also supported adoptees having full access to their birth parents’ medical histories and cultural and social history information.”
The primary focal point, he said, has revolved around privacy.
“The key principle upon which we operated was that a birth parent’s identity should remain confidential, and anonymity be preserved unless the birth parent agreed to have their identity revealed,” he explained.
The right to privacy for birth parents is important to preserve, he added.
Marlene Lao Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, said in a past interview that she was struck by “the pain and suffering of adults who experienced the trauma of giving up someone for adoption, as well as the feeling on the side of adoptees of being unloved by birth parents or incomplete because they don’t know their full family story.”
Deacon Brannigan spoke of the need to inform birth parents of the changes in the law.
“All who facilitated adoptions have a moral obligation to alert birth parents of the changes about to occur,” Deacon Brannigan said. “For the Catholic Church, which provided adoption services for well over a century, the responsibility is great. Thousands of birth mothers placed their children for adoption, relying on the Church’s assurance of their privacy.”
He continued, “People – mostly mothers – will be vulnerable because of this change in our long established law,” and added that the educational efforts must extend far beyond New Jersey to parents adopted who children from Ireland, Italy and other countries.
The NJCC, along with state Catholic Charities agencies, submitted recommendations to assist the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) with the legislative mandate to develop a “Birth Parents Contact Preference” form.
The coalition emphasized that forms should be simple, easy to complete and widely accessible, that the state should be required to confirm receipt of such forms, and that a point of contact at the state should be designated to answer questions from the public about the changes in the law.
Deacon Brannigan said that the NJDOH welcomed their recommendations, and held a meeting in January to discuss development of the form and processes. That dialogue, he said, will continue in the future.
“We have been working with the state,” he said. “They have been very responsive with us.”
“Final information on how birth parents should request continued privacy is not yet available from New Jersey,” Deacon Brannigan said. “As soon as the state release the information, NJCC, Catholic Charities agencies and Catholic dioceses in New Jersey will provide that information on their websites, diocesan newspapers and parish bulletins.”