NJ adoptees can get birth certificates in 2017 under compromise between Christie, lawmakers
Gov. Chris Christie and state lawmakers have reached an historic agreement that will give adopted New Jerseyans access to their birth certificates, capping a 34-year effort supporters described as a civil rights struggle for their identities and medical histories, The Star-Ledger has learned.
Under the compromise that will be announced today, adoption records would be opened in New Jersey for the first time since 1940, when they were sealed by a court order.
The relentless push for the measure by a Morristown-based volunteer network of adopted adults, birth parents and those who had adopted children spanned nine governors, including Christie. It began as a call to help families reunite, but grew into a broader cause of equality for adoptees as advances in medicine made knowing family history critically important.
“While for me this has been a long and difficult process, it is nothing in comparison to the many children of adoption and birth parents, who yearn to know one another and who have waited for decades for this moment,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the bill with Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and confirmed details of the agreement.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts acknowledged the governor will take action on the bill today but declined to discuss it Sunday night. Allen could not be reached for comment.
The legislation stalled for years because Catholic and anti-abortion rights leaders had argued that birth mothers expected their identities would be protected when they surrendered babies for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s. The bill’s supporters denied this was the case, enlisting birth parents who passionately testified how they had never signed a confidentiality agreement and wanted to be found.
Negotiated by the bill’s sponsors and the Christie administration, the deal finds common ground by giving birth parents a lengthy period of time — until December 31, 2016 — to notify the state Health Department whether they want to be contacted by their child or an intermediary, and whether they want their name redacted from the birth certificate. The bill that passed the legislature in February did not allow the birth parents’ names to be redacted, and allotted only six months for birth parents to file a “contact preference” form with the health department.
“I am grateful to all the co-sponsors for their years of dedication,” Vitale said. “I am particularly thankful to Gov. Christie and his staff for working together with us to find common ground and to craft a process that respects the opinions and beliefs of all those who participate and make sacrifices through their love of children.”
The compromise marks a significant change of heart by Christie, who conditionally vetoed the legislation in 2011 and said he would support the bill only if the Legislature agreed to specific changes suggested by the New Jersey Catholic Conference, New Jersey Right to Life and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Christie wanted the bill to allow a “confidential intermediary” from an adoption agency to search for an adult’s biological parents, and if after a year-long “diligent” search the birth parents were not found, the birth certificate would be released. He also would have allowed parents who requested no contact with their child the option of providing medical history information to be shared with them.
In his veto statement, Christie praised the bill’s sponsors for their “courageous leadership on this important landmark proposal” but said changes were needed “to avoid any unwanted breaches of privacy, and the potential chilling effect on adoptions. I believe that additional safeguards are needed to best balance the needs of adoptees seeking the identity of their biological parents with the expectations of birth parents who may wish for their identities to remain private.”
Christie’s veto incensed the adoption advocates that had formed the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education, the grassroots organization in Morristown that has championed the bill since 1980. They urged the sponsors to reject the governor’s suggestions and introduce the bill again.
The Legislature approved the latest version of the bill on Feb. 27, which gave Christie a deadline of today to sign the bill into law, veto it, or conditionally veto it again and make other changes. The compromise will be contained in a new conditional veto that must be approved by both the Senate and Assembly.
Once enacted, New Jersey will join Kansas, Alaska, Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee as states that provide unrestricted access to an adopted person’s birth certificate, according to the American Adoption Congress.