Susan Merkel looked around the dining room at the elegant Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange that day in 1986, struggling to keep from blurting out the truth to people eating lunch at nearby tables.
“I wanted to scream out to everyone present that I was meeting my mother for the very first time,” the Rutgers graduate recalls.
She was 23, a newly minted college graduate pondering her next steps in life, and for the first time she was face to face with someone who looked like her, someone whose personality matched hers – someone who had given birth to her.
The encounter was surreal, overwhelming and fraught with tension, Merkel says today. But it finally provided answers to questions she had struggled with most of her life as to where she fit into the greater world.
Next month, thanks in part to lobbying by Merkel and like-minded activists, reunions such as these will become easier for those who search for their origins.
As of January 1, the state will enact the long-awaited New Jersey Birthright Bill, granting adoptees access to their official birth certificates, essentially opening records sealed away since 1940.
The West Windsor resident, who received her master’s in social work from Rutgers’ School of Social Work in 2012, can draw a direct line between that charged meeting three decades ago and her advocacy efforts on behalf of the measure – as well as the work she does as a clinical social worker at the IAC Center in Pennington, NJ.
Signed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2014 after more than 30 years of lobbying, the bill brings adoptees closer to information about their parents, as well as their medical histories and places of birth.
It also provides a safety net for birth parents: Those who wish to have their names redacted from the pertinent documents have until Dec. 31 to make their request. Birth parents who change their minds and decide not to redact their names can reverse the decision at any time, according to an announcement by state Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett.
Both as an adoptee herself and the mother of an adopted daughter – Merkel and her husband Barry Leavitt brought 10-month-old Maia home from China in 2007 – Merkel dramatically experienced the barriers erected by rules and policies set in stone generations ago.
“When adopted persons don’t have access to their birth family, they are barred from their own medical history,” she says. “Adoptees often grow up not knowing of their heritage, or their ethnic identification – basic civil rights enjoyed by citizens who have not been adopted. Having your original birth certificate is often the first step to connecting with birth parents and birth siblings.”
Case in point: When her birth mother died of breast cancer less than 10 years after that emotion-filled first encounter, Merkel was unable to bury her because she lacked the original birth certificate to prove she was indeed the daughter of Joan Babbage, the woman who had relinquished her at birth.
So while her mother’s body remained in cold storage, the heart-broken young woman found herself fighting in court for permission to arrange for the interment.
Later, when Merkel and her husband decided to adopt a baby from Russia, the birth certificate issue reared its head again.
“We got stopped even before we visited the adoption agency, because the document I had was not the original – we had to go to China instead,” says the social worker, who later joined members the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education to lobby for the policies being put into place this month.
Merkel is convinced her life would have been easier if the NJ Birthright Act had passed earlier.
“I would have been able to spend time with people who ‘got me,’” she says, “and I would have understood the details surrounding my relinquishment. Instead, I felt like an outsider in my own family. I did not look like them, think like them, and [we] had very little in common.
“I would characterize my reunion with my birth family as a healing process.”
Today in her work at the IAC Counseling Center, Merkel uses these memories to help guide clients who are about to set off on the same road.
She encourages them to prepare for a possible reunion with birth parents by asking themselves penetrating questions: What do I hope to achieve? What are my expectations?
And she primes them to understand that the encounter may have unexpected reverberations: How about people in your birth family who don’t know you exist – how will they react? What if your birth mother wants to have a long-term relationship with you – and you don’t?
Merkel has also lent her voice to the American Adoption Congress, which is working state by state for legislation permitting adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. To date, 20 states permit such access, some with restrictions.
“The power of that document – it’s something people take for granted,” Merkel says.
That’s a luxury she never had.
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