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Crucial deadline in N.J. for adoptees seeking birth parents

Gov. Christie faces an April 28 deadline on the New Jersey Adoptees' Birthright Bill, which would give adopted adults over 18 access to their full original birth certificates.

Adoptee Cindy Wren, 58, at her home. She hopes to get access to her birth certificate.
Adoptee Cindy Wren, 58, at her home. She hopes to get access to her birth certificate.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff

Gov. Christie faces an April 28 deadline on the New Jersey Adoptees' Birthright Bill, which would give adopted adults over 18 access to their full original birth certificates.

The governor could s sign it into law by that day; conditionally veto it with recommended changes, as he did in 2011; reject the legislation (an outright veto); or do nothing and allow it to become law. But those directly impacted face a different type of clock.

"A lot of adoptees like myself are getting older," said Karen Baranowski, 54, of Turnersville, Gloucester County. She was adopted through Catholic Charities and has no knowledge of her birth mother.

Baranowski was born in Pennsylvania - though she doesn't know in which town - and is also closely watching whether the Keystone State's adoptee access bill passes in Harrisburg. (A measure is set for a Senate committee hearing after it was unanimously passed by the Pennsylvania House in October.)

Seven states - Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Ohio, Oregon, and Illinois - have passed access legislation for adopted adults since 1999.

Adoptees can access their birth certificates only in the states where they were born, not where they currently live.

"I've accepted throughout my whole life that I had no right to my genetic story, that that's what it means to be adopted," Baranowski said. "I now recognize the importance of family history in regard to my health. I've had to go through extra medical tests because I can't answer family history questions for my doctors."

The New Jersey measure is backed by key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and adoptee advocate groups who say access to one's birth certificate could open up medical, genealogical, and other vital personal information.

But it is also opposed with the same level of fervor by a powerful coalition of groups - New Jersey Right to Life, the state Catholic Conference, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey chapter.

All argue that it violates the privacy of birth parents who choose to put their children up for adoption by forcing them to reveal their identity. The Right to Life group claims compromising the privacy of a birth mother could lead to an increase in abortions.

Complicating matters is a potential 2016 presidential bid by Christie. He is courting the right wing of his party - including making a pitch before the Conservative Political Action Committee last month in National Harbor, Md.

"Chris Christie remains, despite the investigations into Sandy aid and the bridge closing, one of the leading contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination," said Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University and an expert on New Jersey politics. "As such, everything he does comes under an intense spotlight. . . . In this case, where there is a pro-life constituency with advocates on one side of the bill, it clearly has national implications for any national candidate."

Christie is expected to meet this week with the legislation's chief sponsors, including State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington), who are making a final push. She has backed the bill since it began its 17-year odyssey in Trenton, where it has repeatedly fallen short of the needed votes or a governor's signature.

"I hope that I am able to share with [the governor] the sense of despair that so many adoptees feel, and to give them hope with the possibility of him giving them what they desperately want - which is their full birth certificate," Allen said. "They feel this is worth fighting for."

Among them is Cindy Wren, 58, a homemaker from Tuckerton, Ocean County. From age 9, she was raised by her grandparents and never knew her birth mother and father. Her grandparents had cut off contact with their daughter.

"At this age, I'm realizing what I was told and who I am are so different," she said last week from her home. If the adoptee bill becomes law, she could access her birth certificate through the state registrar.

The legislation passed the state Senate and Assembly on Feb. 27. The bill's originating house - in this case, the Senate - must be in session for Christie to return it. While the Legislature is on break this month, the upper chamber has a quorum call on Tuesday, April 28 - which qualifies as a session and meets the 45-day deadline for the governor to act on it. If Christie takes no action, it becomes law.

Christie's conditional veto in 2011 included provisions to protect the privacy of birth parents by giving them the option to request not to be contacted by their adopted children, and for the state registrar to redact the name of any birth parent who didn't submit a consent form before releasing an uncertified, long-form copy of an original birth certificate.

The governor also recommended using a confidential intermediary to facilitate contact between birth parents and adopted children.

"Adoptees now adults don't need someone to ask on their behalf," said another longtime sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), who will also meet with Christie this week. "There has never been negative outcomes from those who have made contact. Fifty-year-old men and women don't need, 'Mother, may I.' "

At a recent town hall meeting in Sayreville, where he was questioned by a member of the audience, Christie said he had discussed the issue at length with his younger sister, Dawn, who was adopted at age 2.

"I conditionally vetoed that bill to suggest a compromise to try to maintain the privacy of the folks who offer their children for adoption, and also give adoptees abilities to access medical information," he said on April 13. "The bill on my desk I have not read yet. But what I have been told is that it looks exactly like the last one I vetoed. If that's the case, then I'll wind up offering a compromise again through the conditional veto."

Added Christie: "My principle on this is that we need to find a middle ground. . . . What I don't want to do is anything to discourage adoption, because it was a miracle in our lives.

"I want the young woman who makes that decision, if she wants her privacy to be protected and to move on with her life, I want her to be protected," Christie said, "because if she's not, she may make another much more difficult choice, and I don't think that would be good for anybody."

Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life - the state's largest antiabortion organization - praised Christie and hopes he vetoes the current bill as well.

"The recommended language changes in Gov. Christie's 2011 conditional veto would have allowed access, in the majority of cases, to the information proponents seek and would have resulted in a major reform of adoption law in New Jersey while respecting the rights of birth parents who still do desire privacy," Tasy said.

But Pat Hohwald, 72, a retiree from Maple Shade, is seeking answers, not a reunion. She was adopted in 1942 and is sure her birth mother is now deceased. She, too, hopes the Pennsylvania adoptee bill becomes law because she was born in Philadelphia.

"When I was a child, I always wondered, 'Why?' " she said of being put up for adoption. "I knew nothing about my background, and even when I had children, I always wondered what I was passing on medically."

Time ran out for Susan Perry of Cherry Hill to get her birth mother's medical history. A longtime advocate of the measure as a member of the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJ CARE), Perry died April 7 of melanoma. She was 63.

"The need for medical history and the right of adult adoptees to obtain it is not disputed," said Ty Perry, Susan's husband. "But the continued opposition to the bill that's now on the governor's desk has the unintended consequence of delaying access to vital, and sometimes life-impacting, medical histories for adult adoptees."