There are few documents in life that have as much magical power and significance as an original birth certificate. They are perhaps more talismanic for adoptees in the United State because most adopted adults born after the 1950s were prohibited by law from ever getting their original identity documents. I was one among millions of them.*
As an adoptee born in Michigan before the 1970s, I came into the world at a time when single mothers were shamed and bastard infants posed a moral hazard and strange, undefined threat to society. I was placed for adoption and had my human right to my original identity document taken from me. Denying me my record was more than a solitary injustice. It was a daily reminder of the inequity into which I established an identity cut off from my ancestral human past
The intention by state lawmakers in Michigan and around the country from the 1950s on was to ensure I and millions of other adoptees in nearly every state never knew who we were. The unstated but intended goal was to keep that document hidden forever from me until the day I died. This was a complete 180-degree policy turn from practices that allowed adoptees and their birth mothers to have access to records up to the early 1950s.**
The hiding of original birth records was essential to one of the grandest and least publicized social experiments in recent history—modern U.S. adoption that placed strangers with new families by the hundreds of thousands. The plan failed in many ways for the many people impacted by the practice. In her testimony in 1993 against restrictive measures in Colorado to limit adoptees’ rights to their records, adoptee right activist and pioneer Jean Paton said, “When the records were put under seal, it was an experiment in Utopia. It was a destructive error, and should be remedied by a sweeping cure … .” That cure has still never come, and persons like myself and thousands of others of Michiganders in the decades surrounding my birth are denied equal rights to their birth records, simply by the status and year of their birth, according to state law.
It’s all about ‘power’
On July 18, 2016, decades after first being denied what should have been given to me in 1989 by the State of Michigan and its public health bureaucracy, I received the original record of my birth as a person who came into this world. It is a sheet of paper with a name connected to biological families, a lineage, and a larger human story of kin and family networks over time. I was not a state secret. Nor was I ever a blank slate, to be “reborn” as many evangelical adoption activists falsely believe, as an unnamed person with a new name and an amended certificate. I was who I always was. By asking for what was already mine, I never demanded anything more than what any U.S. citizen asks for: equality under the law.
The state still claims this one sheet of paper literally must be kept secret in a locked box or file, withheld from me because of a “law.” The state asserted its paternalistic power without ever showing any peer-reviewed evidence, policy rationale, or demonstrated benefit how the state or my birth mother and family are helped by actions that represent an extreme interpretation of some very outdated and harmful laws.
When I attempted to interview State Registrar Glenn Copeland on July 22, 2016, his employer, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) refused to allow him or anyone else to speak to me about the department’s management of adoptees’ birth records and requests by adoptees to get their original documents. MDHHS press officer Jennifer Eisner issued a statement on July 27, 2016 defending the state’s position: “It our responsibility to carefully adhere to any and all laws of the state of Michigan. Michigan law includes specific provisions on the sealing of birth certificates in certain circumstances, such as following an adoption. … The vital records office is required to adhere to the law regarding the release of original records.” In short, this was the talking point shared with me on March 22, 2016, by Deputy State Registrar Tamara Weaver, who called me on the phone to share a simple message after I asked for my record: “The law is the law.”
The defense offered by the state has been and remains so flimsy and so removed from best practices, it is impossible not to conclude that Michigan discriminated against me as an adoptee, soley to preserve a perk of power. It needed to single me out to demonstrate that the state can ultimately and arbitrarily exercise its power over even law-abiding persons.
Ultimately, the state asserted its power without demonstrating compassion, leadership, or basic common sense. And it had those chances in spades. Granted this is not the moral equivalent of physical harm that many persons around the world experience daily from tyrannical and abusive governments. But the State of Michigan’s actions follow the logic used by all governments who chose to deny rights simply because they can—one of the most consistent expressions of how government works for itself and not “its subjects.”
What makes a birth certificate ‘different’
A birth certificate is the most important legal document for any American and every person born anywhere in the world. According to public health researchers Putu Duff, Santi Kusumaningrum, and Lindsay Stark, “birth registration is the first legal recognition of a child and a fundamental human right,” under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the United States, a government-created registration document proves you are entitled to the benefits and privileges—and responsibilities—of being a United States citizen.
One cannot obtain the most critical documents to navigate modern life without this sheet of paper: getting a U.S. passport, obtaining the standing legal identity document in the United States—the driver’s license, applying for a Social Security card, or enrolling as a child in school. One literally cannot live a modern life, including opening bank accounts, voting now in many U.S. states, accessing benefits, obtaining a job, and accessing all forms of education throughout one’s life without the cornerstone proof of legal existence that a birth certificate provides.
On a much broader level, as outlined by the United Nations, a birth certificate fulfills a basic human necessity. Without a certificate, anywhere in the world, a child can be denied basic human rights. They cannot get jobs, open bank accounts, obtain credit or inheritances, participate in social benefits, or be involved in political and civil affairs.
How Michigan denies adoptees their human right to a birth certificate
Before I found my birth families in 1989, the MDHHS, my adoption agency (Lutheran Child and Family Services), and the Wayne County Probate Court did everything in their power to keep me from knowing my birth family, critical family medical history, and identity.
After I met my birth mother that year, she signed a release for the state to allow for the release of my identity documents to me. I was sent formal written acknowledgement from the Michigan Department of Public Health, Office of Vital and Health Statistics. It acknowledged original information could be shared with me. This was then acknowledged in writing by the probate court and my adoption agency—they had to legally comply and turn over what was mine, though begrudgingly. I received copies my original adoption decree, birth medical history, and all other identifying information—including the names of my birth father, birth mother’s family, and records of my first year of life that were intentionally kept from me.
Yet the Michigan Department of Public Health, Office of Vital and Health Statistics, refused to surrender my original birth certificate, even when the fig leaf of secrecy had vanished by the events that made my adoption no longer a shameful societal secret. Adoption bureaucrats for the state of Michigan stood fast and claimed my birth certificate was allegedly “sealed,” and because I was an adoptee born between 1945 and 1980 and that state law allegedly allowed them to deny me the most important piece of paper a person can ever have. They made this defense even when I proved I knew my original birth name of Scott Douglas Owens and knew my genetic kin. [Note I have original birth records that spell my original birth name as “Douglas” and “Douglass.” I now use the former as part of my new legal name that mixed my original and adopted names: Rudolf Scott-Douglas Owens.]
‘The law is the law,’ and the abuses of an amoral, legal defense by public health authorities
In March 2016, I decided to challenge the state’s overreach and abuse of power by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), which now manages vital records. I demanded what was mine in a letter to department director Rick Lyon. You can read the details of my petition and all of my original documents on this summary page.
Three decades later, the state and MDHHS again doubled down and chose to fight my request and keep my original identity document from me, even when there was no longer any rational reason to keep a non-secret birth record from the person who knows his original birth name. The state adopted a legal smokescreen to mask arbitrary and paternalistic decisions that provide no public benefit to adoptees, birth parents, or the state.
These actions followed a long pattern of state-sanctioned discrimination against thousands of adoptees by denying them equal rights of all other residents regarding critical medical and family history—a practice that undermines public health.
The state had no compelling legal rationale to continue hiding my birth record except the claims that “the law is the law.” This is precisely the defense that has been used in some of the most egregious abuses of rights by state public officials in U.S. history. Up until the late 1970s and until a court challenges, some states practiced forced sterilization of persons deemed mentally deficient.
The practice was allowed by state laws through a national eugenics movement that began in the early 1900s. In California alone, where one-third of the estimated 60,000 state-sanctioned compulsory sterilization procedures in the United States occurred until 1979, government actions were codified in law and described as an approved public health strategy to breed out undesirable defects from the populace and to promote state health. In short, public health practices, until very recently and to this day still, have been and are still cloaked behind a rationale of being allowed by law, even when the persons implementing policy could always exercise moral judgement.
All of the facts of my identify are public and had been for nearly three decades concerning my original birth name. MDHHS denied my request without a proper review of my evidence sent to Director Lyon on March 28, 2016, claiming “the law is the law.”
Even more startling was the state’s own admission in its reply to me on July 27, 2016, that state law likely was not followed by denying me my birth certificate. The department stated: “For adoptions finalized between the dates of May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980, a court order is required unless the birth parent(s) have filed a consent to release the information. A court order would not be required if the deaths of both birth parents could be documented.” Because I had provided the department the signed legal consent by my birth mother, than it appears my records were supposed to have been shared, as far back in April 1989. I had included copies of that legal proof when I demanded my birth certificate in March 2106—and yet, the department refused to comply with how it claims the law requires vital records officials to handle requests from adult adoptees. (As of July 29, 2016, I have demanded a written explanation if the department was not complying with the law in its denial.)
Public records request reveals a fear-based bunker mentality at the MDHHS
State officials called my request and me the “problem,” “tagged” me in their system, and claimed I had “an agenda.” Nearly 20 senior officials in the MDHHS and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office were involved in denying my reasonable request and were copied in the state’s denial of my request.
I prepared a detailed account of their deliberations in a forensic analysis of personal email communications that revealed fear of me and my request by high-level MDHHS officials. They expressed uncertainty and confusion over their limited legal authority and the state’s poorly crafted adoption statutes. Two senior officials, Glenn Copeland, state registrar, and Tamara Weaver, Deputy State Registrar, also provided written remarks that suggest startling ignorance of U.S. adoption law and global trends that allow adoptees in countries like England to have full access to all their birth documents when they turn 18.
Deputy Registrar Weaver told her boss, State Registrar Copeland, that I would not be satisfied with my original birth certificate, which I had explicitly asked for. She seemed unable to understand, professionally or even compassionately, why any adoptee should have legal access to their birth records. After she called me on the telephone on March 22, 2016, without providing her name or role in managing state vital records, she wrote to her boss, “He has an agenda, nothing I would have said would have been sufficient. … I don’t think my offering him his record would have been enough for him, even though that is ultimately what he says he wants.”
Weaver also revealed in her email a lack of any knowledge of U.S. adoption history and that all adoption records were once accessible to adoptees and birth parents before the 1950s. She dismissed my detailed policy analysis I have published on discrimination against adoptees by U.S. states and adoption bureaucrats. She wrote, “Don’t know how true this angle is, but it is interesting, if you like that kind of story line.” Again, Weaver is the No. 2 in a state agency that manages vital records for all adoptees—a stunning confession. (See page 9 of my summary of state records on the denial of my request for my original birth certificate.)
MDHHS never once sought to consider alternatives they always had, including wide discretion in interpreting laws and rules—a central tenet in U.S. law and in all state and federal judicial reviews of agency actions. MDHHS officials determined from the start to deny me my record, and then they found a legal justification without reviewing all of the evidence I sent to them in an impartial manner. State Registrar Copeland sent me a stunningly obtuse letter in late March 2016 that never acknowledged the key facts of my case that were documented in legal documents in his department’s possession. He basically blew me off and expected me to go away, or maybe some day petition the court. To his dismay (also expressed in email), I reasserted professionally and respectfully my legal right to my birthright document.
The Michigan judiciary orders MDHHS to comply with my request
With no alternative available, I turned to the courts for a remedy to compel the MDHSS to give me what was mine. In April 2016 I filed a petition with the Michigan 3rd Circuit Court requesting a court order that would force the MDHHS to release a copy of my original birth certificate.
My justification to the court noted, “I am no longer wanting to accept the state’s continued unjust treatment of me simply because I am an adopted Michigan native who wants what non-adopted Michiganders receive: equal treatment under the law. A just outcome that releases the certificate to me poses no burden, meaningful cost, or harm to any party, nor the state of Michigan.” The Honorable Judge Christopher Dingell, in a telephone court hearing on June 17, 2016, agreed with facts of the case. He noted that I knew my birth name, had nearly three decades of contact with his birth families, and that the legal consent was already in state records in 1989. He signed the order requiring the MDHHS to end what I consider the illegal holding of my birth certificate and terminate decades-long discrimination against me on the basis of my status as an adoptee.
I finally get my birth certificate and what that means
I mailed the court order to the state’s vital records office on July 1, 2016, with a thick pack of documents that made absolutely clear the state had no more legal excuses to deny my birth record. On July 18, 2016, the sheet of paper, with a legal stamp from the state registrar, finally arrived in my mailbox.
I was stunned looking at the copy of my original birth certificate. The state had given me a final insult by writing three times in big bold letters, “SEALED,” as a reminder I was still a bastard and not a normal person. But underneath that insulting bureaucratic graffiti that purportedly protected the well-being of the state and its residents were all the facts I already had known for three decades. The only new information I found on the document was the full name of the attending physician, who helped to safely bring me into this world one spring day in Detroit, Michigan, many years ago.
The legal document marked my entrance into this world as a human being, with genetic kin and family histories and family members who did want to know me. It was registered as my original birth certificate about four weeks after my birth. This single sheet of paper was deemed a state secret. All my life, I was classified by law as being undeserving of this record, unlike all-non-adopted state residents, simply because I was relinquished as an infant to become an adoptee.
The only reason—and I repeat only reason—I now have possession of what is and always has been mine is because I never once recognized the legal or moral authority of the state’s so-called vital records professionals to deny me equal treatment and equal status by law. They never had that authority, and their actions over all these years demonstrate their lack of moral authority to anyone who may care about fairness and equality. By denying me my birth certificate, even when I knew my original name and birth families, they showed they had no moral center, clinging to a legalistic loin cloth and well-documented prejudice against adult adoptees who dare to say the emperor has no clothes.
I immediately posted a tweet about my final clash with state records keepers. I wrote this Facebook post as well for my social network circle: “It only took 27 years, but the so-called ‘public health’ secrecy mongers in Michigan finally gave me what has been mine since the day I was born: My Original Birth Certificate. … What a waste of time and resources. Imagine all the amazing things the state could have done helping adoptees or infants or needy kids instead of treating bastards as second-class people and children. This effort was done on behalf of anyone who was denied fair treatment under the law. You are always stronger when you work on behalf of the many, instead of just yourself.”
The Governor and MDHHS refuse to answer questions on adoptees’ rights
Before I published this article, I wanted to give Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the MDHHS a chance to defend and articulate the state’s positions on state adoption law and practices that discriminate against adoptees by denying them equal treatment to their vital records. Laura Biehl, senior communication advisor to Gov. Snyder, did not want to make statements when contacted by phone, but did accept my written questions that asked if adult adoptees had legal rights to vital records without restrictions and if Snyder believed all persons in Michigan had the right to received equal treatment under the U.S. Constitution and state law regarding access to original vital records. She replied on July 26, 2016, with a statement: “The Governor does not have a position regarding adoption records in Michigan so I am unable to answer your questions.”
I also reached out directly to interview State Registrar Copeland on July 22, 2016—the man who denied giving me my original birth certificate in March 2016. The MDHHS refused to allow him to speak to me nor any members of its media team to be interviewed by phone. The MDHHS agreed to respond to written questions. The department’s press officer, Jennifer Eisner, provided answers to only five of 27 questions, with a statement that essentially said the law is the law. (See her statement and a summary of those questions and mostly no answers on my summary document).
Specifically, the department did not answer if it discriminated against adult adoptees in the management of vital records. It refused to answer questions how it managed my record request or why I was “tagged” after being identified as the “problem.” It could not even answer simple questions how the state’s adoptions record unit that handles adoptee records requests, the Central Adoption Registry, is managed, who manages it, or if it ever has been audited. Finally, the department did not answer if it was aware of national adoption laws in countries like England that allow all adult adoptees to get copies of all of their original birth records when they turn 18.
The most startling fact I discovered was the state’s total failure to even track or count how many requests for birth records by adult adoptees are denied by the MDHHS. “The total number of these official requests would not be known but is believed to be very close to the number released,” said Jennifer Eisner, a press officer with the MDDHS in a July 27, 2016, email.
Given the ubiquity of adoptees in the United states (perhaps 5 million or maybe more) and the decades-long efforts by adoptees to access their records, such an acknowledgement shows for Michigan at least, adoptees still do not matter and thus will not be counted. As those in public health and health know, what gets measured gets done. What is ignored remains a problem.
The state also could not provide a written estimate how many Michigan adoptees may be living who were born between 1945 and 1980—those who that state claims need court orders to get birth certificates. According to Eisner, the department only began counting the number of released birth certificates in 2009—decades after adoption became one of the most widespread practices in family formation in the United States. Since 2009, only 549 original birth certificates have been given to adoptees, according to the MDHHS. I do not know if I was No. 549 or if some other determined adoptee came right after me. We are a shockingly small group of Michiganders who persevered against the secrecy guardians of the state.
The message from these vital records keeping practices by Michigan’s public health professionals is very clear. Adult adoptees, you still do not count. We can continue to ignore your rights and treat you as State Registrar Copeland called the “problem.”
* Records collection on adoptions has long been imprecise. The most widely quoted data set on U.S. adoptions through the mid-1970s was published in a paper by Penelope Maza for the U.S. Children’s Bureau. The study found the United States recorded 2.4 million adoptions from 1944 through 1972— the last year before abortion became legal in the United States. The study made estimates without precise data, because data collecting was voluntary not mandatory.
In 2010, the U.S. Census officially recorded more than 1.5 million adopted children under 18 years of age living with an adopted parent. This compares to a total U.S. estimated population of adopted children, including those 18 and older still living in households with their parents, at a little more than 2 million persons. The count does not include adoptees who are no longer living at home and who are adults—a figure that remains undefined by demographers, but expansive and far-reaching.
**Read an excellent article by adoption law scholar Elizabeth Samuels, JD. She has published numerous articles on how states and bureaucracies implemented secrecy measures that have closed once open birth records, preventing adoptees and birth parents from accessing their vital records and from knowing one another.
 Penelope L. Maza, “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975,” Child Welfare Research Notes #9 (U.S. Children’s Bureau, August 1984), pp. 1-4, Child Welfare League of America Papers, Box 65, Folder: “Adoption—Research—Reprints of Articles,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.
 Rose M. Kreider and Daphne A. Lofquist, Adopted Children and Stepchildren: 2010, Current Population Reports pps. 520-572, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC. 2014. Found at: https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p20-572.pdf.