Sunday, June 28, 2015

Testimony: An Act To Prohibit Unauthorized Custody Transfers of Children

Testimony of Representative Craig V. Hickman on LD 1342, An Act To Prohibit Unauthorized Custody Transfers of Children Before the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary, May 21, 2015

Senator Burns, Representative Hobbins, and other distinguished members of the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary, I am Representative Craig Hickman of Winthrop and I represent District 81, Winthrop, Readfield, and a part of North Monmouth at the foot of Mt. Pisgah. Today, I come before you to present LD 1342, An Act To Prohibit Unauthorized Custody Transfers of Children.

As some of you may know, I am an adopted person. My parents, Hazelle and Minnie Hickman, may they rest in peace, chose me to be a part of their family when I was a sixteen-month-old baby named Joseph Bernard White. The story behind my adoption reads almost like a soap opera and yet it was typical of a time when young girls went away to have babies in secret, when young girls were coerced to surrender their children for adoption, when young girls, broken-hearted and catatonic, returned to their communities wounded for life.

My birth mother got pregnant on February 14, 1967, while at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. Her mother didn’t want her unwed daughter’s pregnancy to stain the family name, so she sent her away to live alone in a room on the second floor of a home in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was born on December 8. As my birth mother recalled, thirty-three years later, when I showed up on her doorstep unannounced, after a 6-year search to find her, she told me her story: 

“It was like being on death row, son, and I had one last request before they took you away. They weren’t supposed to let me, but I demanded that I have a moment with you in the room with no doctors, no nurses, no brothers, no parents, no technicians, no one. But the laws in the state of Wisconsin forbade such a request. Birth mothers couldn’t see, much less hold, their children after delivery if they had already consented to give them up. But I told them that rules were meant to be broken, and who would find out about it anyway? So, I held you in my arms and looked you in your eyes and said, ‘You look just like your father. Someday you will grow up to be a handsome and smart man, son. But I may not get to see any of it because Mommy has to go away now. I have no choice. 

But I remember the story of Joseph from the Bible. How his brothers sold him into slavery and how he was lost from his brothers and his father for all those years. And then he became ruler of Egypt. And during the great famine when his brothers came to him to get food, he recognized them, but he didn’t let them know who he was. When he finally let them know, he told them to go and get Jacob because he wanted to be reunited with his father before his father died. And they were. And so I name you Joseph, because I know that someday, you’ll come back to me. Someday, you will find me. I don’t know if I’ll be living or dead, but I know you will find me. Just as Joseph in the Bible was reunited with his family, so shall you also be reunited with me. I just know it. Someday.”

Three days later, I was in foster care. Just over a year after that, my parents came to Madison on a camping trip, picked me up from the foster home, took me back to Milwaukee to join their adopted daughter, my sister, Gina, changed my name to Craig Von Hickman, and the rest is history. 

As much as I love my parents and my sister, as good as my parents were to both of us, I always wanted to know where I came from. And so when I was old enough to search for my biological parents, I did. I had to. I couldn’t reach my full potential in life without the knowledge of my genesis.

For the past 20 years, I have been involved in adoptee rights issues. In fact, it was this committee, back in 2005, where I first testified before any legislative body on a bill that would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, which had been sealed when their adoptions were finalized, just like mine had been. Then, as now, Representative Hobbins was a chair of this committee. Throughout my search for my birth parents and my involvement in adoptee rights issues, a disenchanting reality revealed itself to me. For all the talk of doing what is in the best interest of the child, children are not always well served by the institutions that are supposed to protect them, and adult adoptees are treated like second-class citizens by law and by adoption agency policies in far too many situations. Fortunately, some of these injustices have been corrected but too many of them remain.

Today, I stand before you and ask that you correct another. When my childhood friend, Governor Scott Walker, signed into law last year a bill that would prohibit the unauthorized custody transfer of adopted children to nonrelatives, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to outlaw what has come to be called rehoming. Now, other states are following suit. It’s time for Maine to join them.

Later, you will hear the harrowing experience of a young woman who was rehomed. As with all adoptees, so much of her story unfolded against her will. Imagine being shipped across oceans to a new culture with a new language to become part of a new family, only to have that family decide that they don’t want you, and since it is not against the law, that family advertises you on Facebook or Craigslist or some other social media platform and within days you are dropped off to another stranger in a parking lot behind some Walmart somewhere. Yes, this actually happens.

Right now, this scenario would be perfectly legal in the great state of Maine. Unless we pass LD 1342, which would prohibit such an unconscionable act and make it a Class C crime. To borrow and modify a quote from another legislator on this very matter, children are not furniture to be replaced on a whim. Children deserve stability. Adopted children, especially, deserve the chance to heal the so-called primal wound of separation from the mothers who pushed them into the world, and to have the opportunity, if they so choose, to discover their origins.

We must protect our children.

As with all bills, the devil is in the details, and so there may be some kinks that will have to be combed out. But I have faith that under the wisdom of your deliberations, you will craft a piece of legislation that will protect children and families from the outrageous indignity called re-homing and send a clear message to adoptees here and all over the nation that Maine people care about the safety and welfare of all our children. I urge you to pass LD 1342 with a unanimous vote. 

Thank you and I would be happy to answer any questions.


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