Advocating for adoptee rights and sharing my story in Michigan

Rudy Owens in Michigan in June 2018, promoting adoptee rights and his new book on the American adoption experience.

I just spent four days in my birth state, Michigan, to raise awareness about the lack of equal rights for literally thousands of Michigan-born adoptees. I timed my trip right after the release of my newly published memoir on my adoption experience and examination of the system as a public health, legal, and political issue. In addition to speaking to some lawmakers, many more staff, and Michigan media, I returned to the spot where I was born a child to an unwed mother and then placed into the adoption system. For me that had special significance. (Catch the media coverage generated by my visit here: longer podcast interview and shorter videotaped interview with Michigan Radio, on June 8, 2018.)

Measuring Success or the Lack of it:

Let’s be blunt. I cannot claim any clear victories from my outreach and interviews. Michigan has no pending legislation that would revise Michigan’s statutes that deny Michigander adoptees’ their original birth certificate and other vital records. What’s more, given the current balance of power in Michigan—with the GOP firmly in control of both houses of the legislature and in the governor’s office—it is highly unlikely any reformist adoptee rights measure will be coming soon.

Rudy Owens in the Michigan Senate office building in Lansing in June 2018.

Nationally adoption for the GOP remains the policy alternative to abortion, and Michigan’s adoption’s placement system is mostly run by dozens of Christian organizations, who are supported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Politically, Michigan’s Republicans are aligned with social and Christian conservatives on many policy matters.

Therefore, I chose to advocate mostly with Democratic lawmakers and their staff, though I did reach out to some Republican senators and representatives, including the office of Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Arlan Meekhoff, who I learned from legislative staff is an adult adoptee. I made the rounds and visited in person every office of all Democratic representatives and senators, and GOP members in both houses.

Legislative staff were courteous and professional, and they patiently heard my short “elevator speech” on the need to promote equal treatment by law for all adoptees to access their records when they turned 18. I proposed four simple ways to improve customer service at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), which oversees all vital records and tightly controls the release of adoptee records with the strictest and at times prejudicial interpretation of the state’s utterly confusing adoption law.

Before I had arrived in Lansing on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, I emailed every lawmaker a link to my website for my book on my experience as a Michigan adoptee who was denied his identity and records for decades. Some of the staff had read my email and were ready to speak with me.

The historic Michigan State Capitol Building, taken in June 2018.

Not to my surprise two senior staffers of lawmakers told me about their personal family experiences with Michigan’s adoption laws. Both were negative. The family members of the two staffers had been denied their identity documents or records because of their status their whole lives. They had both passed away, and in one case, an adoption agency had refused to provide even the required legal non-identifying information documents to the surviving spouse of the adoptee. The surviving spouse wanted to find out family medical history to help the couple’s surviving children know if they had any family medical history that may have been passed on.

In this one staffer’s case, they were able to find a dead spouse’s biological and living father and receive information—information that had been withheld because of outdated state laws for decades.

I had a productive exchange with Detroit state Rep. Bettie Cook Scott in her office. Rep. Scott liked my T-shirt that said “Adoptee Rights Are Human Rights,” and she said she supported the principle. She expressed reservations about releasing information to adoptees to protect the privacy of the mother. I explained to her that no birth mother was ever given any legal promise of confidentiality when they relinquished their kin, often in very stressful circumstances in the decades after WWII. I also reaffirmed my firm view that all adults should, as a matter of law, be treated equally by law.

Despite our differences, she saw me in rotunda area of the Capitol and asked me to request that I be recognized by her on the floor of the House of Representatives. I filled out the recognition form. I then entered the visitor’s gallery. After receiving permission from the Speaker of the House, she asked the House to recognize me as a Detroit adoptee who had flown out from Oregon to advocate for adoptee rights as human rights. She speaker asked me to rise, and I got a warm applause from lawmakers and the other visitors. That was great.

Conversation Cafe in Lansing to promote adoptee rights.

Taking it to the Streets, in Lansing

On day two of my visit, I wanted to try what I call café conversations. This involved setting up a small table with a chair and having message signs. My two signs said: “Talk to an Adoptee” and “Proud to Be: Detroit Native, Bastard, Adoptee.” I set up shop at a corner of the main capitol square in Lansing, near the statue honoring sharpshooters from the Civil War.

Most of the passers-by were lobbyists talking on their phones, long oblivious to any political stunt and protester they have seen over the years in Lansing. Most never even made eye contact with me. A bill that would be approved later that day to end Michigan’s status as a “right to work” state also had drawn hundreds of trades people to the capital to protest the pending measure that they opposed. They were mostly big, burly, and very tough Michigan men and a few equally scrappy looking women, Wearing their union shirts and work gear, they did not seem to care who I was either. I got a few laughs too.

Rudy Owens and a fellow Michigan adoptee in Lansing, both of whom were denied their original birth certificates by the state because they were adopted.

This might have been a flop if I did not have some amazing and moving conversations with strangers.

  • One 40-year-old woman told me she had given up her son to an open adoption and still remained in touch with him. She later had two girls of her own. She expressed support for my efforts and wanted to read book. She was practically in tears talking about her decision to have given up her son when she had hit a rough patch in her life and knew she could not be a good mother and raise him.
  • Another woman, two years younger than me asked, “What’s this sign about?” I told her I was a Detroit adoptee who had been denied my birth certificate for 51 years, even 27 years after I knew my birth family until I got a court order. She then shared she too was an adoptee who had found her birth mother when she was 21. She had been placed by the Catholic Church-run St. Vincent De Paul Society. She loved that I had gotten my birth certificate and expressed deep frustration she could not get her certificate. We gave each other high fives and posed for pictures in front of my sign “Talk to an Adoptee.”
  • Two bike cops stopped by and asked what I was about. When I told them, one of the young policeman on a mountain bike said he too was adopted in a family of eight adopted children. He did not share his personal views on adoption records, but could relate to my story about being adopted in Michigan. I took pictures of him and cool mountain bike.
  • A man in his late 50s came straight up to my table and also asked what I was doing. When I mentioned his book, he told me he had adopted five children, in his case two sets of siblings. The set with three siblings were Native American, and he said the “authorities” had determined the girls’ relatives were not deemed “fit” to raise them. However, he said, he was trying to keep them informed about their culture as much he could.

I had been hoping for more conversations, but after three hours I decided I was not going to accomplish more that busy day. The state’s dairy council tent about 100 yards from me had drawn hundreds with free ice cream giveaways, and I had no traffic. The photos I took and posted on social media helped tell the story about bringing my narrative of being denied equal rights as an adoptee to the public. However, the method did not lead to any viral media or any media attention.

The Capitol-based reporter for the Detroit News, who I spoke to a day earlier in his office and who, coincidentally, was adopted and even sympathetic to the unequal legal treatment of adoptees, passed on my pitch for a story or interview. His job was to cover the “big bills,” not a little-known adoptee and author. He gave me a quick hello going to and from the Michigan Senate chambers that morning and let my story float by.

Media Coverage:

Rudy Owens with Steve Neavling and Nurse Charms at 910 AM Superstation in Southfield, Michigan.

Over the next two days I landed two broadcast media interviews, in Detroit and Ann Arbor, which reached listeners in Detroit, in Michigan, and even nationally.

On Thursday, June 7, 2018, Southfield-based 910 AM Superstation, an ABC affiliate, invited me on to a talk radio program hosted by independent journalist Steve Neavling. He is also the publisher  the Motorcity Muckracker news site. Neavling’s show, “The Muckracker Report,” takes on a range of political and controversial issues with a progressive perspective, and he was fascinated by the story of Crittenton General Hospital, where I was born and literally thousands of families were separated by adoption.

During our on air interview, he shared his father was an adoptee from Pennsylvania who never found his biological family. We had a great conversation on the history of adoption placement, the way the Crittenton maternity homes and hospitals became centers for adoption promotion, and how these past issues that I describe in my book had a direct connection to the controversial policy of the Trump White House to separate families and children at the southern U.S. border as a form of deterrence.

This connection had been a hot thread among adoptee advocates since late May, as progressives activists around the country had been responding to children of nearly 1,500 unaccounted for migrant children as of late May (and growing since) and had begun hashtag-style protests with the lines “#WhereAreTheChildren.” Nationally, it appeared that no one but adoptees was noting that millions had been separated by adoption with barely any public recognition of these painful historic facts. I made that point during the interview.

We also talked about a range of issues such as the state law denying equal treatment by law for adoptees, how the MDHHS treats adoptees seeking help, and how many adoptees and their kin are in the United States and Michigan.

roducer Mercedes Mejia speaks with author Rudy Owens during an interview for the Michigan Radio new program Stateside.

On June 8, 2018, in Ann Arbor and my final day in Michigan, I had a more than 11 minute interview with Lester Graham, one of the hosts of the show Stateside, produced by the NPR affiliate Michigan Radio. We avoided the controversial issue of adoption as a form of family separation and the hospital where that occurred for decades in Detroit and where I was born and relinquished into adoption. Instead we discussed Michigan’s laws that I said denied adoptees their human rights. We also talked about the four simple ideas I proposed that could improve how the MDHHS deals with adoptees, even with the current laws in place.

During our Q&A, I highlighted my basic reason for writing the book, to shed light on the story of adoption and how it is a story that impacts millions and keeps families from knowing each other. I was able to throw in medical history as a reason to allow all adult adoptees to access their records and highlighted how poorly counted adoptees are, which prevents policymakers from knowing the impact of current legislation and policies.

Michigan Radio staff also did a videotaped interview with me with station producer Mercedes Mejia, to run on their website. She asked me about my book, where I was from and who I was, and why it was important for me to get my birth certificate. I told her it was magical to have that document in my hands, as a symbol of my connection to my original birth identity and family ancestry. She asked what advice I would give to someone who might have wanted to have done what I did. I said it was worth it to have done something that promoted equality and was for principles that made the country stronger and better.

Above all I appreciated how the Michigan Radio news team did not focus on my adoption reunion with my birth family. That itself almost made my cross-country adventure worth the cost, in time and money.

Back to My Place of Origin

Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1933 (from the National Florence Crittenton Mission).

During the two days in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area, I finally visited the place of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital, the epicenter of adoption in Michigan for decades.

The building is now torn down. In its place is a large, boxy utilitarian set of buildings housing the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home, all surrounded by a gated steel fence. There is no plaque mentioning the hospital, how long it operated, and who it served. The surrounding area, just west of the John Lodge Freeway and at the intersections of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Tuxedo Street, is severely distressed.

Multiple houses a half a block from the old hospital site were in various states of collapsing. On Rosa Parks, by the rear entrance to the jobs center, a two-story apartment was slowly falling down—and no doubt would be destroyed one day or, sadly, torched by an arsonist.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home on Woodrow Wilson is now the home of Cass Community Social Services. The former home used to house single mothers before they gave birth next door at the former Crittenton General Hospital, from the the 1950s through the 1970s.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home, in a three-story brick building next to the old hospital site, is still standing. It is now run by Cass Community Social Services. I saw a young and I’m sure poor mother with her child entering the building. I realized how the story of single mothers continues today, but with different issues and without the full-throated promotion of adoption by nearly all major groups involved in social work and the care of children. I took some photos of the home and then went to the hospital site.

I took out my sign that I had quickly made in my car using a fat Sharpie. It simply said: “I was born here.”

I took multiple pictures, on a hot, muggy, and sunny day, but I could not manage a smile. I could not make light of my origins at this place, where so many mothers said goodbye, forever, to their children. It is not a happy story.

Rudy Owens at the site of the former Crittenton General Hospital, where he was born and relinquished into foster care in the mid-1960s, and then adopted at five and a half weeks after his birth.

Despite my stern appearance, I felt a sense of elation to have finally returned to my place of origins. It felt like closure. I accomplished what I set out to do decades earlier, for myself and on behalf of other adoptees denied knowledge of who they were and where they came from.

This time, I had controlled the story. This time, I was telling that to the world this story with my newly published book and public conversations that had been connecting with readers. This time, I owned the moment, unlike the one when I arrived as a nearly underweight baby, heading into the U.S. adoption system in Michigan and a new family.

And no one, not the state of Michigan or the groups who determined my life because of my status as an illegitimate child, could ever take that from me.

Yeah, it was worth it. That selfie and throwaway sign were my Trajan’s Column, as glorious as anything ever built by a conquering Roman emperor. The adoptee hero, as I frequently describe all adoptees searching for their past, had returned victorious to Rome (Detroit), even if there were no crowds throwing garlands upon me and no one to write poetry celebrating that victory. I had written that story already.

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Four actions Michigan can take now to improve its treatment of adoptees

Rudy Owens in T-Shirt
Author Rudy Owens sports his advocacy shirt with a simple idea that equality is a human right.

One of the reasons I wrote You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, my recently published memoir and critical examination of the U.S. adoption system, was to promote equal treatment of all adoptees by law. The way this ultimately will happen is through the force of law, and in the United States, that will be legislative changes on a state by state basis, given past failures to mount a congressional effort to allow adoptees to receive their birth records by a national legal standard. I am not expecting change to happen fast.

Because I am a realist and know that real grand strategy is a long game, played by deeply committed interest groups and persons who understand power, I also am advocating for shorter term victories that can be accomplished as part of incremental progress. Ultimately, I want my work to contribute to changing Michigan’s outdated and discriminatory adoptions adoption records laws that deny most Michigan adoptees, like me, their family ancestry, birth records, and equal legal status.

I will be promoting these very simple and mostly bureaucratic changes this week (first week of June 2018) when I head to Michigan and meet with lawmakers in person and tell them my story about being denied my identity and records by the state and its public healthy bureaucracy, simply because I was born a bastard and adoptee.

FOUR EASY STEPS THAT WILL HELP AND PROVIDE NO HARM: 

1. Provide Accurate Data on Adoptees Born in Michigan: The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) can use minimal resources to estimate the number of adoptees and adoptee relinquishments in Michigan and make that information public. Right now there is no accurate figure that is published showing how many Michigan natives were adopted. Knowing their numbers can highlight the impact of laws impacting all adoptees. This figure can be made public and easily accessible on the state’s/MDHHS’s web sites.

2. Track All Requests for Birth Records by All Michigan Adoptees: The MDHHS claims it doesn’t track how many requests are made by adoptees seeking their birth records. Without accurate data, the impact of state laws cannot be measured. The public has a right to know who and how many people are impacted by state laws that deny a class of people equal treatment by law in accessing their records of origin. A tracking system can easily be created in a database with simple information: date of birth, names of adoptee, location of birth, and even reasons for requests. Reports can be prepared that hide the identity of adoptees when they are made public annually or upon request by the legislature or the media/public.

Instead of tracking all adoptee records requests, the state, as of 2009, uses a log of records released only. This does not count requests rejected or all requests for records assistance, according to an MDHHS spokesperson’s statement from July 2016. As of that month, 549 records requests were fulfilled since fall 2009, and it is unknown if those included original birth records. There is no data on adoptee records requests fulfilled prior to fall 2009, according to MDHHS.

3. Conduct a Performance Audit of the Central Adoption Registry (CAR): The CAR, run by Connie Stevens, is a one-person office with extensive gatekeeper authority to manage all birth records requests from adoptees sent from courts or agencies if adoptees’ birth records information may or may not be released. Even the office’s superior, Glenn Copeland, defers decisions to the CAR. Though the office has authority to approve the release of adoptee birth records, it claims it cannot be contacted by adoptees, many of whom report consistent unprofessional treatment when they seek help from the CAR with Michigan’s overly complex adoptee records system. To ensure the office is treating all requests fairly and acting impartially to serve all residents, a basic performance audit can be conducted to highlight problems and solutions that ensure equitable service to the public. (FYI, here is where you can contact the CAR, and do not expect calls back quickly, if you get them.)

4. Provide Additional Staff Resources to Answer Adoptee Questions: Because the CAR claims it does not help adoptees, the state can dedicate staffing time from other vital records personnel to handle questions from adoptees trying to navigate Michigan’s complex adoptee records laws. This is a principle of basic good governance, to assist and help the public navigate state systems and provide good customer service. A contact number and email should be made visible on the MDHHS website for adoptee records information.

Author note: I published a nearly identical version of this post on my memoir website on June 2, 2018.