Reunions of adopted children and their birth parents are usually heartwarming moments in which tears flow and broken bonds are made whole in mere seconds.
At least that's how it usually plays out on "Oprah."
But that wasn't the case last Dec. 13, when an Atlantic City woman came face to face with the daughter she placed for adoption 30 years ago after being raped.
This short reunion on the woman's doorstep left her feeling "violated, in shock, and short of breath," according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, in Camden, and she believes that a division of New Jersey's Department of Children and Families helped set up the traumatic event.
"Everyone would like to believe that these reunions are so wonderful," said attorney Matthew Weisberg. "This one wasn't. They didn't have coffee together. My client went pale. She is devastated and continues to be devastated because her biological child continues to attempt contact with her."
According to the complaint, the woman - whose name is being withheld by the Daily News - received a letter from the Division of Youth and Family Services in August 2008 saying that an adopted adult was seeking information about her birth parents. DYFS asked her to confirm her identity and whether she wanted to pursue the matter.
That letter alone was painful, rehashing a "violent, disturbing" incident, the complaint claims, but she believed that her lack of response would suffice as an answer.
"She does not want any relationship with this woman," Weisberg said.
Nevertheless, the woman claiming to be her daughter appeared on her doorstep four months later.
When she spoke with DYFS after her biological daughter paid the unexpected visit, she was informed that because she had not returned the letter, the office "more or less did what they had to do," the complaint alleges.
The Atlantic City woman is seeking at least $1 million in damages from the state.
Privacy issues are a controversial topic in adoption today, and the National Council for Adoption believes that identifying information should be released only if the adoptive and biological parents agree in advance, said Chuck Johnson, the council's chief executive officer.
"The law should protect the rights of everyone, including the birth parents," he said.
A testimonial on the National Council for Adoption's Web site tells a similar story, from a woman who was raped at 18 and fears that New York was considering unsealing birth records for adult adoptees.
Bastard Nation, an adoptee-rights organization, believes that adoption records should be open and are tantamount to a constitutional right.
In New Jersey, DYFS operates an adoption registry, which, according to its Web site, helps facilitate contact between birth-family members and those who were adopted. Two of the defendants in the lawsuit are listed as contacts for the registry.
A DYFS spokeswoman referred all comments to the state Attorney General's Office. Representatives from that office declined to comment.
According to the complaint, the Atlantic City woman was told that she had to take pre-emptive measures to keep her identity private, but Weisberg says that she was always under the protection of New Jersey law, which states that adoption records can be unsealed only with a court order.
She also learned that one of her daughters had been contacted by the daughter she placed for adoption, as well. Weisberg said that the woman's children never knew of the rape or of the adoption prior to DYFS's involvement.
There will be no fairy-tale ending for the woman and the daughter she placed for adoption, Weisberg said, and he believes that these situations harm adoptions elsewhere.
"Adoption works precisely because of those privacy procedures in place," he said. "Something like this creates a disincentive."