LONG ROAD HOME

Lo­cal adoptee’s fight for ac­cess to birth cer­tifi­cate, med­i­cal his­tory

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Francine D. Grin­nell fgrin­[email protected]­tu­ry­media.com @d_­grin­nell on Twit­ter

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. >> For Ballston Spa res­i­dent Michele Newell, it’s been a long road lead­ing up to the pas­sage of the leg­is­la­tion signed by Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuomo in Novem­ber al­low­ing adoptees for the first time to re­ceive a cer­ti­fied copy of their birth cer­tifi­cate when they turn 18-years-old.

This mea­sure en­sures that all adult New York adoptees will have the same unim­peded right to in­for­ma­tion about their birth and bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents.

Cuomo ended decades of se­crecy around adop­tions in New York by sign­ing the land­mark re­form bill that al­lows adult adoptees un­re­stricted ac­cess to their orig­i­nal birth cer­tifi­cates.

Since 1936, that ac­cess has been barred with­out a court or­der. Ad­vo­cates char­ac­ter­ize New York’s rules as a hu­man rights is­sue, and Cuomo echoed that in a state­ment at the sign­ing.

“Where you came from in­forms who you are, and ev­ery New Yorker de­serves ac­cess to the same birth records — it’s a ba­sic hu­man right,” Cuomo said. “For too many years, adoptees have been wrongly de­nied ac­cess to this in­for­ma­tion and I am proud to sign this leg­is­la­tion into law and cor­rect this in­equity once and for all.”

This leg­is­la­tion re­moves the right of gov­ern­ment agen­cies to re­strict the type of in­for­ma­tion made avail­able to adopted per

"Where you came from in­forms who you are, and ev­ery New Yorker de­serves ac­cess to the same birth records — it’s a ba­sic hu­man right."

— Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuomo

sons and re­moves the pre­vi­ous bar­ri­ers to re­ceive in­for­ma­tion about bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents to iden­tify med­i­cal data that can pre­vent pre­ventable dis­eases or un­timely death.

Un­der this new law, the adopted per­son’s law­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tive or their de­scen­dants will also be able to get ac­cess the birth cer­tifi­cate if the adoptee is de­ceased.

Newell ap­proached Assem­bly­man David I. Weprin (D) of Queens, the as­sem­bly bill’s lead spon­sor for his ad­vo­cacy to­ward get­ting the leg­is­la­tion fi­nal­ized.

“The sign­ing of this bill is a mo­men­tous step for­ward for adoptees across New York State,” Weprin said.

Newell shared the pro­gres­sion of how she learned she was adopted and why the re­cently passed leg­is­la­tion would take on great im­por­tance in her own life.

“This bill was not just about me; it was about all adoptees in the state of New York. I lived in Ballston Spa not know­ing my birth mother only lived 15 min­utes away in Sch­enec­tady. I was born and raised here.

“On the first day of kin­der­garten, my adopted mother came into my room and by the look on her face, I knew what she had to say wasn’t go­ing to be about school the next day.”

She re­counts from the per­spec­tive of a child what oc­curred next.

“I was hold­ing my Win­nie the Pooh bear, and she said “I have some­thing to tell you.” “The first thing out of my mouth was “Why didn’t my Mom­mie want me?” She didn’t an­swer, and left the room. so that ques­tion was left unan­swered.

“I went to the first day of school, where they had show and tell. I told ev­ery­one I was adopted for my show and tell, so ev­ery­one in the school knew I was adopted. I guess I wanted ev­ery­one to know with­out re­al­iz­ing what it meant. As I grew older, it got harder. Kids can be cruel; they picked on me, say­ing ‘Your Mom and Dad didn’t want you.’

“Mid­dle school was rough; high school was bet­ter. I went to mid­dle school in Burnt Hills. Later, in high school, things were fine, I had a lot of friends.”

She grad­u­ated from Burnt Hills High School in 1987. The fam­ily lived on Crooked Street, in Charl­ton.

“My adopted par­ents de­cided to move to St. Louis, Mis­souri when I was 18. My dad was a chemist at Sch­enec­tady Chem­i­cals for over 35 years, and got a trans­fer. That was so hard, leav­ing ev­ery­one I grew up with. I was re­ally lost. I was out of school at that point, and had had a baby daugh­ter here. I didn’t want to move.

“My adopted par­ents had a lawyer con­tact me where I was stay­ing af­ter be­ing kicked out, to try to take the baby away, and to gain cus­tody to take her with them. My boyfriend and I were to­gether, his fam­ily was go­ing to help us. Be­ing an adopted per­son led to al­ways feel­ing con­trolled, not hav­ing choices and my own voice. I was forced to move.”

“I al­ways wanted to have my own “happy” fam­ily. I was alone, with­out a job and money to go out on my own. I strug­gled with de­pres­sion and drink­ing be­cause of the iden­tity is­sues. I felt I was dropped there and told to fig­ure it out my­self; who I was, who my birth par­ents were, where I was go­ing.”

Newell later met a man who she de­vel­oped a re­la­tion­ship with, and she left her adopted par­ent’s home with her daugh­ter. They were mar­ried af­ter 11 years to­gether in Mis­souri and later re­turned to New York state.

“It’s hard to move for­ward when you don’t know your past. It’s like open­ing a book in the mid­dle of a story, or walk­ing in late at a movie that’s al­ready started.”

Newell seemed to have an un­quench­able drive to find out who she was her­self, sep­a­rate and apart from the role she played to oth­ers. She has had a to­tal of three chil­dren: Am­ber, Justin, and Nico.

There is a grief con­veyed in her voice as she tells the ac­count of her search for who the lit­tle girl she was re­ally be­longed to.

Newell’s birth mother sought her out when she had breast cancer at the age of thirty, con­sid­er­ing it was vi­tal to find Michele and make her aware of the ge­netic con­nec­tion.

She wasn’t given the in­for­ma­tion un­til years later when she her­self was preg­nant at 16 and un­der med­i­cal care for her preg­nancy.

•••

Newell re­mem­bers the day her birth mother phoned her and they spoke for the first time.

“It was a sum­mer day, in Mis­souri. I was sit­ting out­side, tak­ing care of the kids and I get this phone call from this woman on the phone and she started cry­ing. She said “Did your par­ents ever tell you..” My mouth dropped, and I was like “Oh, my God. I was lis­ten­ing to her voice and it was like I was talk­ing to my­self.”

•••

Although her birth mother has passed away, Newell ad­vo­cated for adoptees in both Mis­souri and New York state to have ac­cess to his­to­ries and med­i­cal back­grounds.

Upon the bill’s sign­ing into law, Weprin stated:

“I com­mend Gov­er­nor Cuomo for sign­ing this land­mark bill end­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against adoptees statewide and I thank Se­na­tor Vel­manette Mont­gomery for car­ry­ing this bill the Se­nate.”

Se­na­tor Vel­manette Mont­gomery said, “I am so proud to have been the Se­nate spon­sor of the Clean Bill of Adoptee Rights and I thank Gov­er­nor Cuomo for sign­ing this his­toric piece of leg­is­la­tion. This has been long over­due. We owe our suc­cess to the ad­vo­cacy of thou­sands of adult adoptees who have fought tire­lessly on this is­sue for over 20 years. The level of sup­port I re­ceived for this leg­is­la­tion from adult adoptees all across the state and the na­tion was as­tound­ing.

“It is im­por­tant that they have the right to seek an­swers about their health, their fam­ily his­tory and their her­itage.”

In her role as the rank­ing Democrat on the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies, Se­na­tor Mont­gomery is com­mit­ted to help­ing young peo­ple achieve pos­i­tive out­comes through re­form of the State’s ju­ve­nile jus­tice, foster care and adop­tive care sys­tem.

New York is the 10th and largest state to grant adoptees equal ac­cess to birth cer­tifi­cates. Un­til now, they could only re­quest “amended” birth cer­tifi­cates, cre­ated post adop­tion and lack­ing birth names and lo­ca­tions. Those who wanted that in­for­ma­tion, and vi­tal med­i­cal and eth­nic his­tory were left to pur­sue ar­du­ous per­sonal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and of­ten the com­mer­cial DNA tests and time-con­sum­ing archival re­search were cost pro­hib­i­tive.

For Newell, it was about hav­ing the in­for­ma­tion so she could own re­spon­si­bilty for her own de­ci­sion. She had ge­netic test­ing done and was ad­vised to have the rad­i­cal surg­eries rec­om­mended to many who con­sider that route proac­tive.

“I made my own de­ci­sion that if it wasn’t bro­ken, it didn’t need to be fixed,” Newell said. “But the de­ci­sion was mine.”

FRANCINE D. GRIN­NELL — MEDIANEWS GROUP

For Ballston Spa res­i­dent Michele Newell, it’s been a long road lead­ing up to the re­cent pas­sage of the leg­is­la­tion signed by Gov­er­nor Andrew M. Cuomo in Novem­ber al­low­ing adoptees for the first time to re­ceive a cer­ti­fied copy of their birth cer­tifi­cate when they turn 18-years-old.

FRANCINE D. GRIN­NELL — MEDIANEWS GROUP

Michele Newell: “This bill was not just about me; it was about all adoptees in the state of New York. I lived in Ballston Spa not know­ing my birth mother only lived 15 min­utes away in Sch­enec­tady. I was born and raised here.”

FRANCINE D. GRIN­NELL — MEDIANEWS GROUP

Adoptee Michele Newell col­lected this mem­o­ra­bilia as she pieced to­gether the story of her birth roots and fam­ily his­tory over many years. Here is a por­trait of her­self and her birth mother and one of her birth fa­ther, who com­mit­ted sui­cide as a young man.

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