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Lawsuit fans flames of N.J. debate on adoption privacy

IN NEW JERSEY adoption circles, the right to privacy versus the need for an identity isn't just an explosive issue of the moment: It's been a painful, simmering fire for both sides for almost 30 years.

IN NEW JERSEY adoption circles, the right to privacy versus the need for an identity isn't just an explosive issue of the moment: It's been a painful, simmering fire for both sides for almost 30 years.

Legislation to provide adoptees with greater access to birth records and their medical histories has been kicking around in the Garden State since 1980, adoptee-rights groups claim.

"The primary issue is a right to our own identity at birth. This should not be a state secret," said Pam Hasegawa, an adoptee and spokeswoman for the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform. "It's really outrageous that this bill is stalemated."

The issue has drawn celebrity adoptees such as Darryl McDaniels of the hip-hop group Run-DMC to the state to lobby for reform. But powerful opponents, including the NJ-ACLU, the New Jersey Bar Association and the New Jersey Catholic Conference, hold influence, said state Sen. Diane Allen, a prime sponsor of the most recent bill to open records.

"There is a large group of people who are pushing it, but there are just as many groups pushing back," said Allen, a Burlington County Republican.

The latest bill, Allen said, passed in the Senate in March 2008, but like 2004 and 2006, failed to make it to the Assembly floor. That bill would allow birth mothers to remove their identifying information from birth certificates before turning them over - a caveat that adoptee-rights groups begrudgingly made to get the bill moving, Hasegawa said.

New Jersey currently requires a court order to open birth records.

Last month, numerous adoptee-rights groups and individuals from as far as Wyoming and Washington state contacted the Daily News responding to an article June 23 about an Atlantic City woman who is suing New Jersey for allegedly providing her personal information to the daughter she gave up for adoption 30 years ago after being raped.

That woman received a letter from New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services in August 2008, claiming that her daughter was seeking out her identifying information. The woman, who said she became distraught upon reading the letter, didn't respond. Her daughter showed up at her door months later.

Some who contacted the Daily News said the woman and her attorney were simply pawns for groups who support closed records. Others, like Hasegawa, said the woman had handled it the wrong way.

"All she had to do was go down to her police station and issue a restraining order," Hasegawa said.

Matthew Weisberg, the woman's attorney, said the concept of a mother wanting no contact with a child is difficult for some to grasp, but he said he's been shocked at how some are willing to trivialize her pain and her right to privacy.

"This whole thing has been very polarizing, to say the least," he said. "My client didn't ask for any of this to happen."

Open adoptions, in which all parties have one another's identifying information from the beginning, are the norm in the U.S. today. In New Jersey, more than 10,000 people have signed up for a state registry, expressing interest in being contacted by adopted relatives.

Still, the National Council for Adoption believes that the privacy of women, even just one, who gave up children for adoption decades ago under a right or even promise to anonymity, should not be whisked away by new legislation.

"We just hate talking about it, but it's an important issue," said Chuck Johnson, the NCFA's vice president. "We're not saying there should never be access to allow a relationship to develop. It just can't be shared without people's permission. When you say that, people hate you."

Philip Foley and his wife, Katherine Hoy Foley, of Chatsworth, Burlington County, say they've felt public scorn for their stance on the privacy rights of birth parents. Katherine Hoy Foley was also contacted, against her wishes, by a daughter conceived by rape whom she gave up for adoption decades ago.

Her husband feels the legislation discriminates against older women who didn't have the option of abortion.

"The way society and the movement is going, they are going to keep throwing people like my wife under the bus," he said. "They want to preserve the mom and apple pie. They don't want to deal with the ugly."