Adoptees’ Right to Know Vs. Parents’ Right to Privacy

About two years ago I got an email from a lady in New Brunswick who’d read some of my posts on the MacVay family and figured she’d drop me a line to see if we might be related. Her mother, she told me, was a MacVay. We’ve been trading emails and Facebook messages ever since, but until now neither of us knows if we’re actually cousins. That’s because the MacVay name is one of the only things she knows about her mother.

My cousin — I call her that anyway, but for the sake of brevity let’s call her J — was born in 1952 in Saint John, NB and left at an orphanage, where she was adopted when she was eight days old. All she knows about her pre-adoption life is her full name, which appears on some papers from the Protestant Orphans Home in Saint John, and also some court documents and papers from a law firm. Her last name appears on those documents as MacVay. She’s been known by a different surname her entire life; in fact she was given new ‘Christian’ names as well. She wasn’t really told anything about her parents, except that her mother was a Protestant and her father was an Irish Catholic, which was supposedly why they never married and ended up giving up their child. If that story is true, she’s either related to my MacVays or (if the spelling on that document was slightly off) to another Protestant family in New Brunswick that spells the name slightly differently. There are some more remote possibilities as well.

But this is not a genealogy post. Yes, it’s about someone looking for information on their ancestors. But it’s really about rights, and about the difficulties J has faced in trying to get access to information about her origins. Everyone who might have information she’s looking for — namely the law firm that handled the adoption and the New Brunswick government — has been giving her the runaround. The law firm could be telling the truth about no longer having the records (J doesn’t think so), but the provincial government’s reasons for keeping information from her are, in my opinion, less acceptable.

New Brunswick is, according to Origins Canada, a ‘closed records province’, so adoptees face a lot of difficulties when it comes to finding out information about their parents. After going to the provincial government to find out who her parents are/were, J was put on a waiting list and was told that when her turn comes up, the government will try to find her mother. The process, she’s been told, could take up to two years. Her mother, if she’s even found, will be given time to decide whether or not she wants to have any contact with J. If she decides she doesn’t want any contact, the government starts searching all over again, this time for J’s father — if, that is, his name even appeared on the birth certificate or whatever documents the government uses to search for relatives. If J’s father can’t be found, or if he refuses contact, the focus of the search is switched to other relatives, who may or may not even be known to the government depending on which documents are consulted.

J accepts the possibility that her mother and/or other relatives might refuse to have any contact with her. The real problem is that even if J’s parents are found, not only could they refuse contact, they could also refuse to have any identifying information released to J. The government would still provide “non-identifying information”, but this would probably not be as useful as the following description might make it seem:

It is information taken from the files kept at the time of the adoption, not current information. It is not intended to reveal the identity of another person.
For an adoptee or adoptive parent, non-identifying information on the birth family may include: the physical descriptions of the birth parents, their age and educational level, their religion, racial origin, interests, relationship, medical histories, circumstances at the time of the adoption and any other information considered non-identifying.

So why would that not be very useful to J? Well, its sole source would be “the files kept at the time of the adoption”; it seems unlikely to me that all of the information mentioned above would have been recorded and/or kept on file at the time of J’s adoption in 1952. Even if it was, it would most likely be very basic information that wouldn’t add very much to what she already knows. That last argument is debatable, but really, even if the ‘non-identifying information’ would tell J a few things she didn’t quite know, would it be enough? I don’t think it would. It wouldn’t be enough for me, I can tell you that. And I know it wouldn’t be enough for J. For one thing, there are aspects of her medical history she would like to know more about, things which probably wouldn’t appear on files created in 1952.

The province does have something called the Post Adoption Disclosure Register, which is supposed to enable adult adoptees and their biological parents to find one another, but the catch is that J’s parents would have to have added their names to the registry as well in order for any real information to be obtained. Even if both names are on the register, there won’t be any notifications one way or the other until J’s turn on the waiting list comes up. The register does seem like a good idea, as it would save the government from having to search for people, but it seems to me its usefulness is quite limited.

So the bottom line is that if J’s relatives don’t want J to know who they are, she won’t know who they are. To make matters worse, it may only come to that after years of waiting. Adoptees from Nova Scotia face similar hurdles. Ontario opened up their adoption records a few years ago, but in 2007 there were several challenges to the Adoption Information Disclosure Act that led to the addition of a disclosure veto, putting many adoptees (and parents) in a similar situation to that faced by J. (I should add that most of the challenges that led to the disclosure veto were by adoptees, with only one challenge by a biological parent.)

I think it’s understandable that J’s family could opt out of having contact with her, but I don’t think they should have the right to keep her from even knowing who they are. I’m all for respecting people’s privacy — in fact I think adoptees should be able to veto any disclosure of their identities and whereabouts to their biological parents — but I firmly believe that a child’s right to know who their parents are/were trumps their parents’ right to privacy, and that governments should act accordingly. I believe this applies to any case in which a child (grown up or otherwise) wants to know who their parents are/were, even if the father was a sperm donor, and/or even if legal documents exist that are meant to keep the identity of one or both of the parents from their child(ren). I believe no legal contract (made before one was born or when one was a child) should be allowed to supersede that right. I think it would be terrible if J’s quest to find out about her origins were to end in disappointment because just because the New Brunswick government thinks a parent’s right to privacy trumps a child’s right to know.

What do you think?

Of Mice & Men & Alisdair

I know TV is supposed to be bad — or at the very least not great — for small children. There are studies that say so, apparently. I’m tempted to think, however, that the people who did those studies didn’t have children of their own. If they did, they might be kinder to that magical tool, without which many a parent would have way more trouble doing a load of laundry or preparing lunch for the kids. But yeah, I know, it’s science and all that, TV is bad for kids’ development, and when we hit old age we won’t be able to rely on our kids to take care of us because they’ll all be serial killers. I know.

In spite of the warnings about the evils of television, I let my kids watch it. I’ve tried to compromise, though, by mostly letting them watch Playhouse Disney, which only recently changed its name to Disney Junior. I figure if they’re going to end up with severe ADD because they spent their formative years watching TV, they might as well watch programs that will teach them about good manners, patience, compromise, teamwork, and some ABCs and 123s. And hey, I think ADD runs in my family, so if they’re probably going to get it anyway, might as well learn a few things along the way, right?

The other channels have always been somewhat dodgy, at least as far as small children are concerned. The Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network are obviously for slightly older kids, and by older I don’t necessarily mean teens, just kids who are older than Al. Then there’s Astro Ceria. If that were the only kids’ channel on Astro, I’d be firmly on the side of the ‘TV will turn your children into zombies’ people. It’s bad enough they have Ultraman on there, but it gets worse. One day Al was watching Hagemaru when a punk rock band appeared on the screen, not a big deal except for the fact that their drum kit bore the words ‘F*CK YOU’ (only they didn’t censor it like I just did). Okay, so Al couldn’t read at the time anyway. But still, come on.

Anyway, Al used to watch channel 613 all the time — that’s the good one — but after his last visit to his older cousin Afiq’s place in Muar, now all he wants to watch is channel 616 — that’s Cartoon Network — and occasionally the other channels. He won’t watch Disney Junior at all, because it’s just not cool anymore.

It could be a coincidence, but lately he’s been having mild nightmares. Not the wake-up-screaming kind but nightmares nonetheless. Leen figured the nightmares were a good reason for Al to stop watching channel 616.

Leen: You know why you have those nightmares?

Al: Why?

Leen: Because you like to watch 616. It has scary stuff. You should watch Disney Junior. Mickey Mouse isn’t scary at all, right?

Al: Hey, Mickey Mouse is scary too!

Leen: What? Mickey Mouse isn’t scary, silly!

Al: Yes he is!

Leen: How is Mickey Mouse scary?

Al: He stands up like a man. And he can talk. Mice can’t talk!

Neither of us could come up with a suitable comeback to that. In fact we’re both pretty sure we failed to deter him from watching the other channels, though of course we could still just forbid him from watching them. The upside is that yesterday I caught him watching Disney Junior. And just this morning, he heard the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme while having his morning bath and grabbed for his towel because he didn’t want to miss anything. Maybe being ‘scary’ enhances Mickey’s cool factor.

So, since we know TV is bad for small children, we don’t let little Aaron watch it at all, right? Well, he watches Baby TV all the time. Nothing scary there, though I have to say I find Vegimals a little weird. He’s into Mickey Mouse Clubhouse now too. Once he can talk — if all this exposure to TV doesn’t render him mute or unable to focus long enough to have a conversation, that is, because come on, there have been studies — we’ll find out if Mickey freaks him out a little.

Read All About My Reading From Readings From Readings

On May 15th I did a reading of my chapter from Readings From Readings at the MPH bookstore in 1Utama, along with several talented writers — Shanthini Venugopal, Alina Rastam, Brian Gomez, Uthaya Sankar SB, and of course the lovely Sharon Bakar, who hosted the event. Leen and the boys were there to cheer me on. Okay, actually Alisdair was whining because he wanted a sticker book, Aaron was squealing with delight and running all over the store, and Leen was trying to keep both boys within arm’s reach without any bloodshed. I appreciated their presence nonetheless.

I was a bit nervous about reading my work aloud in front of a small crowd. I’ve spoken before more than a thousand people without any major anxiety, but these readings always make me nervous, even with only two dozen people in the audience.

Today there’s an article about the event in The Selangor Times.

Thanks to Sharon for the link to the article…and also for inviting me to read that day. I had a great time and made some new friends.