a volunteer who constructs family trees
from DNA information and available
clues—he has met his birth mother, Jean,
now 95. She cried and told him she had
thought about him every day for the last
73 years—his entire life.
Likewise, Pam Hasegawa’s birth mother
gave a false name on Hasegawa’s original
birth certificate. Hasegawa, the spokes-person for NJCARE, was able to find birth
relatives only through DNA testing.
Since 1980, Hasegawa has helped lead
the battle to make adoptees’ original
birth certificates accessible in the state
and received the Friend of Children and
Youth Award from the North American
Council on Adoptable Children in July.
She enjoyed the recent legislative victory.
“It’s so nice that we’re celebrating
something so simple,” she says. “A birth
certificate is a government document attesting to the birth of an individual given
birth to by a mother who was impregnated by a father. How does a state have
the authority to remove evidence of an
individual’s identity at birth?”
the new law was exactly what
Gary Ruckelshaus, 69, needed to find his
birth family. A former mayor of Madison,
he personally thanked Governor Chris
Christie for signing the law.
“He changed my life and probably
the lives of thousands of other people,”
Ruckelshaus says. “I now know that
there’s someone that’s my brother, for
goodness sakes, and he and I can now
talk on the phone and see each other. It’s
a whole different world.”
Over the years, a few adoptees were
able to gain access to their adoption
records by convincing a judge that their
mental health required it. In the mid
1990s, Ruckelshaus had asked a judge to
unseal his records, but after an interview
with a psychiatrist, he was deemed too
well-adjusted to need the court order
from the judge. “I’ll never forget the
words he used: ‘I never opened one of
these records before, and I’m not going to
Ruckelshaus then hired a private
investigator, who found the last name of
his birth mother, Patterson. Ruckelshaus
wrote letters to every Patterson near
Troy, New York, where he was born. He
heard back from one promising lead, but
their DNA did not match.
He met Hasegawa at a wedding and
became active in NJCARE’s lobbying
efforts to open birth records. He spoke to
legislators, many of whom he knew from
local government. His efforts—and the
work of others—were met with opposition from anti-abortion groups and the
NJ Catholic Conference. In 2011, Christie vetoed a bill to open the records.
“I gave up,” Ruckelshaus says. “I made
the decision that, at that point, I’d go to
my death never knowing about my birth
parents or if I had siblings.”
But in 2014, Christie signed a new
version of the bill, this time with a provi-
sion to give birth parents the option to
redact their names from the original birth
certificates. On January 12—after placing
several calls to the state health depart-
ment to ask what was taking so long—
Ruckelshaus received his original birth
certificate with his birth mother’s name,
Virginia Patterson. Through classmates.
com he found her senior picture from her
high school yearbook. She had a white col-
lar, wore her hair brushed back from her
forehead and looked quite a bit like him.
“That was probably the most signifi-
cant thing of the whole search,” he says.
“The face to go with all the knowledge I
From his birth mother’s obituary, he
found the name of a son, Glenn P. Davis of
Lynnwood, Washington, his half brother.
He sent him a registered letter and heard
back within a week. By late June, DNA
test results proved they were related.
Davis, who had thought he was an only
child, is floored that his mother took the
secret of his older half brother’s birth to
the grave. “I’m sad for her, when I think
of that part of it, and sad that I didn’t
have a brother to share my life with,” he
says. “As a little brother, I think he could
have helped me out a bit.”
Davis, who plans to meet with Ruck-
elshaus and two cousins in December,
feels angry at the judge who kept his big
brother’s original birth certificate sealed.
“If the judge had allowed this to hap-
pen, my mom was still alive back then,
and they would’ve been reunited,” he says.
in march, joi fisher met her birth
father. He brought her a copy of her
great-great-grandfather’s diploma from
Tuskegee Institute, signed by Booker T.
Washington. Now her daughters are also
benefiting from her newfound family.
They have learned their ancestors were
involved in the sciences.
“My daughter Traci walks around in
the summer with an anatomy book, and
when she found out there were all these
doctors in the family and people inter-
ested in science, she said, ‘Now I don’t feel
so weird anymore. I was built for this.’”
Fisher’s adoptive parents have ad-
justed to the latest developments and
have met many of her new relatives. In
fact, they had encouraged her search; she
learned of the changing law in the news
clippings her father sent her regularly.
Fisher has attended several adoption-
related support-group meetings—one
group gathers monthly in Morristown,
another in Pennington—as she ponders
this new chapter in her life.
“Right now,” she says, “I’m just trying
not to worry about how to divide myself,
to have enough time for everybody.”
Tina Kelley is co-author of Almost
Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope ( Wiley, 2012) and a
former New York Times reporter. She
lives in Maplewood.
from the author
There’s a personal angle to this story. I was adopted in 1963 at four days old, and raised
by loving and supportive parents. When I had a cancer scare in 2007 and was able to
get medical information from my birth mother via our adoption agency, I learned that
compelling personal reasons kept her from wanting contact with me. I understood, and
am deeply grateful that she made the decisions she did when I was born.
I received my original birth certificate in January, and learned through the adoption
agency that my birth mother lives out of state and was not told that New Jersey’s laws
changed. I do not want to disrupt her life by reaching out to her, though I wonder if her
circumstances might have changed with the passage of a decade.—Tina Kelley
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