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In re Adoption of A Child

decided.: February 3, 1981.

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF A CHILD BY L.C. AND E.R.C., HIS WIFE


Pashman

The opinion of the Court was delivered by PASHMAN, J.

In this case the adoptive parents of a foreign-born child seek a court-ordered change of birthplace on the child's birth certificate. N.J.S.A. 26:8-40.1 provides that

[u]pon application by an adopting parent or parents of any person born in the United States and adopted pursuant to the laws of this State, the court before which the adoption proceedings have been conducted, may, for good cause shown, direct and order that the place of birth shall be the residence of the adopting parent or parents at the time of said adoption; provided however, that the adopting parent or parents were residents of this State at the time of said adoption. [emphasis added]

The questions presented in this case are: first, what constitutes "good cause" for a change of birthplace and, second, whether the statutory exclusion of foreign-born adoptees impermissibly discriminates against aliens in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution.

The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion to change the birthplace for failure to show good cause. The Appellate Division affirmed, 171 N.J. Super. 553 (App.Div.1979), and we granted plaintiffs' petition for certification. 84 N.J. 409 (1980). Although we find that plaintiffs have shown good cause for a change of birthplace, we affirm the denial of their motion because the statute excludes foreign-born adoptees and we find such an exclusion constitutionally permissible.

I

In 1977 L.C. and his wife adopted a two-year-old child, M.C., who was born in Portugal. Besides ordering the adoption and [85 NJ Page 156] change of the child's name, the judgment of adoption entered by the Probate Division ordered "that pursuant to N.J.S.A. 26:8-40.1, the State Registrar shall issue a new birth certificate stating the said adopted child's birthplace as the residence of the Plaintiffs, adoptive parents."*fn1 When L.C. presented the judgment

to the State Registrar and requested a new birth certificate for the child showing L.C.'s residence as the place of birth, the Registrar refused to comply fully with the judgment. The Registrar contended that N.J.S.A. 26:8-40.1 does not permit the issuance of a certificate showing the adopting parents' residence as the place of birth if the adopted child was born outside the United States. Therefore, the Registrar issued a birth certificate designating Portugal as the birthplace and indicating that L.C. and his wife are the child's parents "by adoption," as the statute requires.*fn2

Plaintiffs moved for an order enforcing the judgment. Before the motion was heard, it was ascertained that the challenged portion of the judgment was the result of an administrative error. The judgment was then vacated because it was contrary to the terms of N.J.S.A. 26:8-40.1. A second judgment was entered omitting the order for a change of birthplace.

After entry of the new judgment, plaintiffs filed a motion requesting a change of birthplace on the child's birth certificate. They furnished an affidavit by L.C. in which he stated reasons for seeking the change. He described his fears about the

psychological trauma and social stigma that his daughter might endure if people with whom she is associated learn about her true birthplace. In his view, this potential for emotional harm constitutes "good cause" for a court-ordered change of birthplace. The plaintiffs also argued that the statute denies equal protection to foreign-born children, if it is read to permit only children born in the United States to obtain the benefit of a change of birthplace. The Attorney General appeared on behalf of the State Registrar to defend the constitutionality of the statute. After hearing argument, the trial court denied plaintiffs' motion on the ground that they had not shown the necessary "good cause." The court found possibility of emotional and developmental harm too speculative, concluding that although their daughter might well be exposed to "the normal strains and ethnic slurs which all of us have had to endure at one time or another," it was highly unlikely that any special difficulties would arise because of M.C.'s foreign birth "which would be so greatly to her detriment that the fears of her father will . . . be realized." Because the plaintiffs had failed to meet the requirement of showing good cause, the court found it unnecessary to consider plaintiffs' constitutional argument.

The plaintiffs then appealed to the Appellate Division, raising essentially the same arguments. The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of plaintiffs' motion. 171 N.J. Super. 553 (App.Div.1979). The court agreed with the trial court's finding that good cause had not been shown and, therefore, declined to address the equal protection claim.

We affirm, but for different reasons.

II

N.J.S.A. 26:8-40.1 permits a court to order a change of birthplace on an adopted child's birth certificate if good cause is shown. The plaintiffs and the trial court agreed that this provision is intended as a means of concealing the fact of

adoption from the adopted child and anyone else who sees the birth certificate. They disagreed as to what kind of possible harm to the child constitutes "good cause."

The plaintiffs described the emotional harm to M.C. that might result from premature or accidental disclosure of their child's adoption. Although L.C. intends to tell his daughter about the adoption some day, he wants to wait until he believes she is emotionally ready. He fears that a third party who learns of her adoption from the birth certificate will inform her at an inopportune time, thus risking emotional trauma and permanent psychological harm. L.C. also fears that his daughter will be the victim of prejudice at the hands of school officials or her peers if they learn of ...


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