BOSTON (SHNS) – Born and adopted in California, Joan Strauss decided after her birth mother’s death from COVID-19 last year that she would seek access to her sealed birth records.
Strauss, now an East Brookfield resident, is an author and filmmaker who through that work has followed other adoptees in their quests for similar information. She said she knew when she submitted her application to California officials that it could be denied, but still burst into tears when she got the call back telling her the application wasn’t enough and she’d need to hire a lawyer and fly there to appear in court in person.
“It was diminishing and dehumanizing,” Strauss told the Public Health Committee. “I am 66 years old. When will I be old enough to have access to a document that any other citizen can file a form for and get? When will I be considered a good enough citizen to be given that privilege? What do I have to do to be equal to them?”
Strauss was one of several people to urge the committee to support a bill that seeks to create equal opportunities for all adopted people in Massachusetts to access their original birth certificates.
Though the bill would not apply to Strauss herself, she said that her personal experience underscored for her that it would provide Massachusetts adoptees with equality, dignity and “the respect they need to feel like they’re full citizens.”
Under Massachusetts law, birth certificates for adopted children born between July 17, 1974 and Jan. 1, 2008 are sealed, while adoptees born before and after that window can access their original birth certificates after turning 18 if they choose to do so.
A 2007 state law prohibited future application of a 1974 statute blocking adopted children from obtaining original birth records, which include the biological parents’ names, without a court order. As they passed the bill, lawmakers at the time said they were trying to strike a balance for parents who had expected confidentiality when placing a child for adoption.
Supporters of legislation (H 2294, S 1440) that would close the nearly 34-year gap and open up birth certificate access made their case to lawmakers Monday, pitching the bill as a matter of fairness and a way to help people who have been adopted learn about their own medical and personal histories.
The House passed a version of the bill last session, in July 2020, but it did not come up for a vote in the Senate.
Rep. Sean Garballey, an Arlington Democrat who filed the bill with Sen. Anne Gobi, said he and his twin brother were adopted and land in the age range where they cannot get their original birth certificates.
Garballey said he may not seek his own birth certificate if the option became available, but filed the bill because he believes all citizens should be able to access information about themselves.
“To me this is about vital records,” he said. “It’s about your identity and in Massachusetts we have three types of citizens — citizens who were not adopted and they have their original birth certificate, that identity that says who they are, those who are adopted and can get access to their original birth certificate, and those who are adopted but can’t get access because they were born within that 33-year gap.”
Former Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson said his birth, in April 1975, came about nine months after the 1974 birth certificate “lockout” went into place.
Jackson recently connected with his birth mother, Rachel Twymon, and said that doing so “completed my puzzle.” He said that Twymon and he had likely been in Boston City Hall at the same times, and that he read “Common Ground,” a book that tells her family’s story, including about his birth, five times without knowing the connection.
Jackson noted both he and Twymon had contracted COVID-19 over the past year.
“We literally could have both missed one another in this life, based on this lack of information,” he said, going on to tell the committee, “I ask you, and honestly I beg of you, to actually move this legislation forward.”
Rep. Marjorie Decker, who co-chairs the panel with Sen. Jo Comerford, said begging wasn’t necessary, pointing to the House’s passage of the bill last term.
“We voted it out. It went over to the Senate and I have to believe that for our ability to try to figure out how to respond quickly to a pandemic, I would have hoped that this would have gone through the Senate,” Decker said.
Comerford said that, as a mom of two adopted kids, she feels the issue “very personally.” She said early in the hearing that she’d never forget the personal stories bill supporters shared last session and that she expected to hear more “as we urge this bill forward, as it should.”