New York City and state were inundated by requests from adoptees seeking their original birth certificates this week, as a new law went into effect granting unrestricted access for the first time in more than 80 years.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the reform last November, culminating a decades-long campaign by adoptees to overturn a Depression-era state law. In a release Friday afternoon, his office announced that more than 3,600 adoptees outside of New York City had filed applications since Wednesday for the pre-adoption certificates.
“Adoptees have every right to the same birth records as everyone else, and the new law we enacted is making that a reality for the first time,” said a statement from Cuomo. “The significant interest we’ve seen in just the first 48 hours of the new law being in effect underscores how valuable this policy change is for New Yorkers, and I’m proud we were able to help correct this inequity.”
Legislators hailed the rule change at an event in the Albany state capitol building on Wednesday.
“This measure grants adult adoptees what I consider a basic human and civil right, the right of adopted individuals to get their original birth certificates and medical history and identity,” said Assemblyman David Weprin (D), who was the measure’s champion for the last decade, along with retiring State Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D) of Brooklyn.
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“I just want to say thank you to the advocates who have over those years and years of hopeful and pressuring and pushing and joining us and working together to make this happen,” said Montgomery, speaking with Weprin and advocates. “It is a tribute to them that they maintained the level of hopefulness and determination to make sure we did this.”
Previously, adult New York adoptees needed a judge’s permission to access their original, pre-adoption birth certificate. Adoptee advocates say this costly, time-consuming process rarely resulted in them receiving the certificates, with birth locations and parents’ names included. In many cases that meant adoptees faced a lifetime of forced secrecy, identity questions or the denial of life-saving family medical history.
Regardless of the information on the document, the reform movement saw searing inequality in the blocked access.
“We have changed and will continue to evolve the culture of secrecy in adoption to one of openness in adoption; the culture of barring people from knowing their personal history; to one of celebrating the individual choice, the unimpeded civil right to know,” said Tim Monti-Wohlpart, the national legislative chair and New York State representative of the American Adoption Congress. “And I’d like to be very, very clear about this: New York, we are never going back.”
The state’s Department of Health is urging any adults whose adoptions were finalized outside of New York City — or descendants of deceased adoptees, or their legal representatives — to submit a simple application for certificates online, like any non-adoptee. Applications are also accepted in person or via mail. In New York City, pre-adoption birth certificates must be applied for via mail through the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The agency website says it will start taking orders online or in person later in the year.
Fees range from $15 in New York City to $53 dollars for non-New York City requests submitted online to the state health agency.
“Our dedicated staff at the Department of Health has put in a lot of time to prepare for this day. We will continue to work to diligently to process these applications as quickly as possible, so that adoptees can have this important piece of their past,” said New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker.
According to Michael Lanza, a spokesperson with New York City’s Health and Mental Hygiene, there were 900 online requests for applications between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday, and 20 in-person requests.
“There are sealed records dating back to at least 1938. I think it is safe to say [there are] hundreds of thousands,” of now-accessible, pre-adoption birth certificates, added Lanza via e-mail.
Monti-Wohlpart estimates that there are 650,000 New York birth records that had been sealed until this week. Nationally, only nine other states allow adoptees’ unrestricted access, with New York becoming the most recent and by far the most populous state to open access.
Advocates in Albany on Wednesday confirmed that they intend to use New York as a model for pushing similar legislation in other states.
“Forty other states and the District of Columbia need to step up their game at this point and follow the lead of New York. This is truly an equality issue,” said Annette O’Connell the treasurer of the adoptee civil rights group Bastard Nation and one of the leaders of the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition, which formed to help pass the law Cuomo signed after years of halting efforts.
“It’s not about people searching, it’s not about reunion. It’s about equality,” she said.
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*This article was updated on Friday, January 17, 2020 with comment from the New York Governor and the commissioner of the state’s Department of Health.