Every January, state lawmakers convene for their annual legislative session accompanied by lobbyists for everything from banning cat declawing to new gun control measures. For 13 of those sessions, Kingston resident Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy has showed up to push a proposition at once both simple and controversial — a law that would allow adoptees to have the same access to their birth certificates as any other New Yorker.
Last week, in the final days of the legislative session, that 13 years of lobbying by D’Arcy — and many more by fellow adoption rights advocates — paid off when the legislature overturned a Depression-era law that sealed the long-form birth certificates of adoptees. D’Arcy said she hopes New York’s action would open the floodgates to overturn similar laws in other states, including Massachusetts, where her son’s birth certificate remains under seal.
“New York is considered the crown jewel, New York will lead the way for the rest of the country,” said D’Arcy. “So many people never thought we’d get here, but we had to get here. There was no other endgame.”
D’Arcy, a 51-year-old Long Island native who has called Ulster County home since 1989, was just 19 when she relinquished her newborn son for adoption. Internet sleuthing led to their reunion many years later. But that reunion was just the start of D’Arcy’s activism around adoption issues. Over the years she has worked with an array of groups dedicated to combating abuses in the adoption industry and promoting the rights of adoptees and birth parents. For the past three years she has served as director of outreach and advocacy for the Adoptive and Family Coalition of New York. In that capacity, she worked on the front lines of a lobbying effort to overturn the 1935 law barring access by adoptees to their birth certificates. In 2017, she helped organize a successful lobbying effort to get Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto what advocates dubbed the “half a loaf law” that would have allowed access, but only after a potentially lengthy and expensive legal process. Along the way, D’Arcy and her fellow advocates faced bipartisan resistance from lawmakers who believed that the law protected the privacy of birth parents who were promised anonymity when they relinquished children for adoption.
“We would go to Albany and tell the same stories over and over again,” said D’Arcy. “It was really a process of educating [lawmakers] about a subject that most people don’t really think about.”
Over the past few legislative sessions, resistance slowly eroded, with lawmakers who once stood firm against opening the records changing their minds and their votes. Advocates say that progress reflected an overall easing of the stigma around unwed motherhood and growing awareness of the importance of genetics in personal health issues.
But D’Arcy said she believes no single factor played a larger role in changing minds than the advent of DNA testing companies like 23andMe that allow users to connect with relatives by way of ever-expanding genetic databases. That development allowed adoptee advocates to argue that the best way to protect the privacy of birth parents was to allow adoptees to access their birth certificates.
“[DNA testing] makes all of these laws absolutely obsolete,” said D’Arcy. “If your concern is for the mothers’ privacy, then the best way to protect that is to allow [adoptees] to find the one person they’re looking for. Otherwise they’re contacting that person’s mother, their sister, their second cousin, their great niece.”
With her fight for adoptee access to birth certificates in New York complete — the law goes into effect Jan. 15, 2020 — D’Arcy said she’s moving on to new battlefields, including Massachusetts, where she recently lobbied lawmakers alongside her son.
“I used to say that I was going to visit every state in the union advocating for this,” said D’Arcy. “But this took longer than I expected, so I think I’ll have to be satisfied with New York and Massachusetts.”