Adoptees say receiving their original birth certificates is opening up profound feelings of relief and closure.
William A. Farley, a native New Yorker, has lived an exciting, full life.
For decades, the 82-year-old traveled the world as a hairstylist to some of Hollywood’s biggest superstars: coifing Meg Ryan’s curls for the infamous deli scene in “When Harry Met Sally” and slicking back Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta’s locks to perfect the decadent mobster look in “Goodfellas.”
He’s raised a family of four now-adult sons across two marriages. Now in retirement in Florida, he still drag-races his Dodge Hellcat.
But throughout it all, he’d felt “a nagging sense of something askew.” That deep-seated unease burst forth 30 years ago, in the offices of New York City’s vital records agency.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, Mr. Farley, but I can’t give you the original birth certificate,” Farley recalls the clerk behind the counter telling him. “Your records are sealed.”
He already had a birth certificate — created a few years after he was born on June 2, 1938 — but the clerk wouldn’t tell him more about the original, simply noting:
“If you have a lawyer, call your lawyer.”
Farley would spend the next 30 years chasing his origin story and wondering why, for decades, he had no right or access to his original birth certificate. The mystery would destroy some family relationships, but is now closer to resolution for Farley and thousands like him, following passage of a landmark reform New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law in late 2019. The so-called Clean Bill of Adoptee Rights ended generations of secrecy surrounding adoptees’ birth certificates.
The new law grants adoptees who have turned 18, as well as direct-line descendants of deceased adoptees, unrestricted access to their pre-adoption birth certificates. Their right to those records has been blocked since the 1930s, when lawmakers sought to remove the “stigma of illegitimacy” for children born “out of wedlock,” as advisors put it in a 1936 memo to New York’s then-governor.*
Prior to 2020, absent a rare court order, adoptees had only been able to access amended birth certificates, documents that are created at the time of adoption and list the adoptive parents’ names. At that point — no matter the adoptees’ age — their original birth certificates were also automatically sealed, permanently.
Farley hastily applied for his original birth certificate within days of the new law taking effect, yet he is still waiting for the document to arrive.
He’s convinced it will confirm what he’s pieced together from years of obsessive multi-state research, consultation with a lawyer and revelations from his uncle as he lay dying: The man Farley had long called father was not his biological dad, and that had been kept from him for the first five decades of his life.
Farley’s mother raised him with her husband William Walter Farley, who adopted him at age 5. He became William Arthur Farley, and his mother’s past, he said, became a secret locked in the city’s vital records room. Farley said he learned later in life that his mother had left his biological father in Johnstown, Pennsylvania during her pregnancy, moved in with a girlfriend in New York and delivered her baby in the now-shuttered Manhattan Hospital.
“At that time for a mother not to have a husband was like a scarlet letter,” Farley said, describing what he would later learn about his mother’s 1930s dilemma. “It was terrible.”
Advocates for adoptees have long argued they have a legal right to their original birth certificates, documenting the facts of their biological lineage, like any other U.S. citizen. Now, more than 10,000 people adopted in New York have taken advantage of the state’s new law validating that right.
A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Health — which holds the records for all New Yorkers adopted outside New York City — said the agency had fulfilled 10,458 adoptee requests, out of 11,116 received, as of Jan.15, the first anniversary of the Clean Bill of Adoptee Rights.
Thousands of applicants like Farley who were adopted in New York City, however, are still waiting. Roughly one-third of the 6,300 records requests received as of late last month have been fulfilled by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, according to a spokesperson.
Victoria Merlino, assistant press secretary for the city agency, which holds Farley’s records, stated in an email that their responses have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adoptees who have received their original birth certificates say the documents have caused a profound mix of emotions — relief, closure and some heartache.
Annette O’Connell mailed her application to New York City’s health department a day after the law took effect, on Jan. 16, 2020, and received her documents just before Thanksgiving. One of the leading advocates who pushed for the state to change its laws, O’Connell decided to share her reaction while streaming live on Facebook.
As a teenager, she said she used to wait outside for the postal service to bring her the document she now had in front of her.
“For all the years I’ve felt like Charlie Brown waiting for his valentine,” O’Connell said. Now, decades later, “it is here.”
Staring into her camera, the 53-year-old described the moment: “I’m feeling absolutely ridiculously nauseous about this whole thing right now, not gonna lie,” she said, breaking down as she confirmed for the first time her middle name at birth was Sue.
From now on, no one ever adopted in New York, including those currently under 18, will need to wait fruitlessly for the mail carrier. They’ll only need to submit a basic application to either the city or state health agencies, depending on where they were adopted.
The movement to open up birth certificates has gained momentum across the country in recent decades, pushed by adoptee and birth parent groups like the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, the Unsealed Initiative and Bastard Nation. Catholic groups, and some adoptive parents and adoption agencies, long resisted changes, but that opposition faded over time in New York.
These days, the vast majority of adoptions are “open,” meaning most adoptees know their birth parents and may be in touch if they choose. DNA testing and social media have also made it much easier to find relatives, rendering administrative secrecy essentially futile.
Still, New York last year became only the ninth state to allow unrestricted access to birth certificates for adoptees. Advocates and legal groups like the Adoptee Rights Law Center say they hope other states will soon follow the Empire State.
“This is really a human rights issue, and so many people were fighting for so long,” said state Assemblymember David Weprin, the Queens Democrat who sponsored New York’s reform bill.
Weprin said one issue that especially resonated with his colleagues was the simple matter of health. Without knowing who their parents are, and their parents’ medical histories, adoptees miss out on information that can potentially save their lives and the lives of their children.
Tim Monti-Wohlpart, the national legislative chair for the American Adoption Congress, applied for his documents almost the moment the state’s Department of Health application page updated in the early hours of Jan. 15, 2020. Unlike city applicants Farley and O’Connell, he received his birth certificate from the state the next month.
“The myriad emotions I had upon receiving that document,” Monti-Wohlpart said, “the English language probably isn’t sufficient to answer that.”
The activist O’Connell helped Farley find his birth father’s identity last year. They are all but certain it’s a now-deceased insurance salesman from small-town Pennsylvania, where Farley’s mother’s German immigrant family lived before World War II.
After multiple bureaucratic mishaps and delays that have lasted 13 months, Farley is hopeful, but still waiting to confirm those details with his original birth certificate.
On one of his many calls with the New York City records agency, he said he recently reminded a clerk: “You know I want to get this information before I die? I’m 82 years old.”
Stephanie Staats, who was adopted in Syracuse in 1970, was able to get her birth certificate from the state health department in less than a month.
After it arrived, she sneaked away from her family to study the document in private.
“It was just so overwhelming, and I didn’t know how I would respond. It was exhilaration, joy and grief,” she said in a recent interview.
Staats had confirmed her birth parents’ identity through DNA testing six years ago. Unlike her fair-skinned, Scandinavian adoptive parents — who fully supported her search — her birth mother was British and her father was from a long line of Italians.
That’s why, Staats said, the power of the document wasn’t the information it contained, but something more fundamental.
“It’s not even about reunion with my birth parents,” she said. “For me, getting that document was about equal rights, having the same rights that the rest of the population has.”
*Update, 2/18/2021: This sentence has been revised to clarify that children’s privacy was of primary concern to New York lawmakers who approved the sealing of pre-adoption birth certificates.