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After Decades-Long Fight For Access To Birth Certificates, New York Adoptees Say It's A Monumental Day

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - For the first time in 84 years, adopted people born in New York state have access to their original birth certificates.

A new law to unseal those records went into effect on Wednesday.

Many are calling it a monumental day. Adoptees say having quick and easy access to their original birth certificates is a basic right that has been restored.

"I've always had abandonment issues my whole life, and I have sort of wandered around figuring out where do I belong? Who do I belong to?" explained Cara D'Emanuele.

The Rochester actor is just one of an untold number of New Yorkers who will be requesting records showing where they were born, how much they weighed, and who their birth parents are.

Until now, New York sealed the original birth certificates of adoptees.  The only way they could be unsealed was through a court order, and only if information was needed about a person's genetic or medical history that could prevent their premature death.

Those rules, dating back to the 1930s, had originally been intended to protect the privacy of parents who relinquished their children. But attitudes about the rights of adoption have shifted.

Last year, after decades of lobbying by adoptees and their advocates, the state Legislature agreed to unseal birth certificates upon the request of adoptees who are 18 or older.

Jay Hunter has been traveling to Albany for about a decade to push for the new law.

Hunter already knows who his birth mother is. He tracked her down five years ago with the help of a private investigator.

Hunter's mother was 15 when she gave him up for adoption. Hunter said she had signed an agreement with Catholic Charities saying she would be open to hearing from him if he ever wanted to find her.

"So when I called her 32 years later," he said, "she was a little bit shocked and she was a little confused why I hadn't contacted her earlier."

Hunter said for reasons he doesn't know, that reunion contract was never honored by the adoption agency. It's one of the pitfalls he said people can face when they're trying to find their family of origin.

Today, of course, you can go online and order an at-home DNA test that will link you to people who share your DNA, but Hunter said adoptees can be more discreet about making that initial contact if they have a birth certificate.

"Ancestry DNA and 23 and Me are great tools that adoptees have been using over the years to find their mothers and their fathers," he explained, "but usually when that happens, you're reaching out to a second or a third cousin."

Hunter said he was scammed by what he called a "sham" company based in the Cayman Islands that took his money but gave him no real leads in his quest to find his biological parents.

The second investigator he hired located Hunter's family in two days. "It's been a wonderful, healing experience for me," he said. "I don't know what else to say, really. It's been great."

D'Emanuele is grateful for the opportunity to find her birth parents, but she has some reservations. She said her work as an actor has been sort of a lifelong rehearsal for that big moment, and she's afraid. What if they reject her?

"As an actor, you put yourself out there every day. 'Hi, am I good enough?' I've been doing this my whole life, that's all we do. 'Hi, am I good enough? OK, you don't want me. Do you want me?' You go through this all the time, and this would be the big no," she said.

D'Emanuele does plan to get a copy of her birth certificate. She said she'll just make sure she's in a good place mentally if she decides to ever open it.

There are professional mediators who can help navigate reunions. Jenny Thomas is an adoptee who runs a support group in Rochester. She said it helps to talk to other people they can relate to.

"It's overwhelming," Thomas said. "It's very emotional. It's a monumental day and for those who fought for so long and for those who died before they were able to get access to that information is heart-wrenching, but it is a beautiful day for adoptees in New York state."

Thomas was reunited with her birth mother on the TLC television show "Long Lost Family."

"It was a very surreal moment," she said.  Thomas did not remain in touch with her birth mother for very long after the show.

She wants a copy of her original birth certificate to clarify some questions she has based on conflicting information she was given.

"I'm interested to see if on that birth certificate it states that I am white," said Thomas, who explained that she is biracial.  She said her biological mother claimed Thomas was white.

Some adoptees are wary of pursuing the truth about their families of origin for fear of offending their adoptive parents.

Mindy MacLaren's adoptive parents died in 2014, but they were alive when she hired an investigator who found her birth mother's name 16 years ago.

"Just to have that information would not have usurped my parents in any way," she said, "but for sure, there's that concern that you're going to hurt their feelings."

In MacLaren's case, she was told the woman who gave birth to her had no interest in meeting her, but she did meet other family members, including a half-brother, some cousins, and an aunt.

MacLaren does plan to apply for her birth certificate.

"Because I can now, and I just want to see it," she said. "So much of it feels so secretive and there's some shame to not being able to have the same kind of information everybody else has, through no fault of my own."

While New York adoptees now have a choice that wasn't available to them before Wednesday, some aren't fully satisfied.

Cathi Swett, an attorney and downstate coordinator for the group New York Equality, said she is "extraordinary grateful" to the legislators who sponsored the measure allowing unrestricted access to birth certificates. She said she has some concerns, though.

"I don't want to diminish the historic significance of this, but this is not equality," she said, "because our birth certificates are not available on the same basis as non-adopted people."

Swett explained that's because only adoptees who are 18 and older can apply for their birth records, not genealogists or historians.  Family members of adopted people can get access to the adoptees' birth certificates only after the adoptee is deceased.

"Your great-grandfather's birth certificate, assuming he was not adopted, will eventually become a public record," she said. "Adopted people's won't. My children can't do their genealogy until I'm dead."