LONG ROAD HOME
Local adoptee’s fight for access to birth certificate, medical history
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.”
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.
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.”
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.