In the spring of 2012, I took up blogging to share my perspectives on public health, the field I was entering and completing graduate studies in, at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
Since that time, my blog has racked up more than 79,000 page views and 56,000 visitors. To everyone who visited during the past six years, I want to say, thanks for stopping by and thanks for taking the time read my essays on topics that bring together many of my research and personal passions. It has been a blast.
From 2016 to 2018, I also was writing and finishing my memoir, called You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are. It offers a critical look at the U.S. adoption experience as a major public health issue and a political system that denies millions of adoptees equal treatment by law.
That huge project, on top of a full-time job, often kept me from publishing essays here.
In the last two years, I have been posting most of my new content on my book website, and even re-posting some of those essays here. I also have been creating longer written essays with my photography work. I continue to publish photo essays on my photo blog.
If you have been a visitor in the past, I encourage you to visit and bookmark these sites for my more current work:
All of the content, research, and essays I published here will remain live and here for some time to come. I still get daily visitors from around the world and want to ensure they find the material that brought them to this site.
You are welcome to bookmark my work. Please contact me about other uses of work, which I outline here. Enjoy your visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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, 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.
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.
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.
As the year 2017 comes to a close, millions of American adoptees are no closer to receiving equal treatment under U.S. laws than they were decades earlier. In 1975, the United Kingdom long moved on from this issue, giving all adoptees full access to their records once they turned 18. In fact, the issue of adoptee equal rights is not even a concern in many developed nations. Not so in the United States, the country with the greatest number of adoptees than any developed country in the world.
From a strategic perspective, most U.S. adoptees have not organized cohesively or embraced successful strategies that have altered this battlefield. This includes the all-critical inner battle of the mind that must occur first before any change and tactical advance occurs on the messy, fluid field of combat in the real world. I will focus mostly on this critical aspect of adoptee rights work in this essay, while also addressing the national scene.
Most of us know from our own experiences we can’t change the outer world without changing our inner world. I believe it is time to reset the chessboard and start anew, starting first with each individual adoptee. It is way past due for adoptees to show more backbone and grit, beginning in their own house.
Project Strength, Not Vulnerability: Today, far too many adoptees celebrate a losing attitude, portraying themselves as “trauma victims.” They confess to being desperate, needy, unhappy adults who are incapable of mastering their emotions and managing inner conflict. While there is clear and strong public health evidence on long-term health impacts of early childhood and prenatal experiences, adoptee-led trauma branding ultimately undermines adoptee rights as a larger political cause. (I write this as an adoptee born as a near-low-birth-weight infant, who needed emergency hospital care during my first two weeks of life.) So long as adoptees identify themselves as defeated souls and do not project a public image as standard bearers of centuries-old struggles for basic human rights, they will never win anything and remain captives of their own cages. Unfortunately, those who embrace a weak public image will define adoptees’ public perception and the larger national story defining adoptees and their collective national experience. As long as this losing mentality prevails, all adoptees will be held back.
Learn from the Masters and Apply that Wisdom: Many adoptees in the United States can sharpen their focus by reading any book of their choosing that motivates them to understand conflict and struggles. Take abolitionist Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and anti-slavery crusader and author of several books on his slavery experience. Douglass learned as a young man in captivity that his freedom came first through mental defiance and firm resolve, not in his circumstance, which he later overcame. Douglass wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Any biography of any accomplished person will show they all had conflict and controlled their fate by first winning their internal battles. They mastered their thinking and then launched their external crusades—many more brutal and unfair than the minefield of adoptee discrimination and adoption law. For adoptees needing inspiration, I recommend the author Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, Mastery, The 33 Strategies of War, and more. His treatise on war offers a cool, hard look at human conflict and offers wisdom demonstrated by historic greats from Sun Tzu to Napoleon Bonaparte to Muhammad Ali. He provides a set of ideas how to grab victory from whatever conflict and foes you face.
Here are a few of the concepts from Greene that I think adoptees should consider as they choose how they want to live their lives and then change the world around them.
Have a Grand Strategic Vision: Today, no grand vision unifies the adoptee rights movement—a situation that must be remedied. It is also a movement without a clearly defined national leader, unlike historic predecessors like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, ACT UP, or the Human Rights Campaign. The closest concept unifying adoptee rights is the call by many for human rights and equal rights, recognized in statute, as those laws apply to persons who were placed for adoption. This includes giving all adoptees unfettered and full access to original birth records, without any exception. Many adoptees lack a personal vision too, preventing them from achieving individual success in their fight for their rights and records. This too must be changed, but by each individual adoptee, and in their own way. Only the individual has the power to make that change.
In the United States, adoption law is controlled at the state level. Here proponents of adoption and laws ensuring adoption secrecy, such as pro-adoption, anti-adoptee rights groups like the National Council for Adoption, have maximized a divide-and-conquer strategy that prevents adoptees from mounting a national campaign. Advocacy today focuses mostly on battles in state legislatures over bills to change adoptees’ access to birth records. These fights may bring in up to three or nearly four dozen local and national groups, including longtime groups like Bastard Nation, newer upstarts like the Adoptee Rights Law Center, and state-level groups like California Open. Most adoptees are not involved in these battles as they try to find their own records or families. However, all adoptees are connected to this national debate and need the same overarching strategic approach that is needed nationally.
Ultimately not having a clear end game and objectives will prevent many adoptees from engaging fully in what will be a protracted, long campaign. That can translate to lifelong failure. Greene’s synopsis of the critical role of grand strategy should be a wake up call to all adoptee rights advocates, including those who have to advocate for themselves: “What have distinguished all history’s grand strategists and can distinguish you, too, are specific, detailed, focused goals. Contemplate them day in and day out and imagine how it will feel to reach them and what reaching them will look like. By a psychological law peculiar to humans, clearly visualizing them this way will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Learn from Defeat: Every person in life suffers setbacks. Adoptees who seek their records and identity, unlike nonadoptees, are beset by obstacles imposed by hostile public health bureaucracies, harmful propaganda from the massive pro-adoption and Christian pro-family industry, media stereotypes that frame adoptees as damaged goods or ungrateful bastards, family members, friends, and especially discriminatory laws rooted in historic prejudice against illegitimately born people. Every single defeat represents a learning opportunity if you have an open, flexible mind that can take these setbacks and inform your future efforts. As Greene notes, “Victory and defeat are what you make of them; it is how you deal with them that matters.”
Define your Opponents and Expose Them and Their Weaknesses: Greene’s 33 Strategies of War highlights countless historic examples how combatants overcome their enemies by attacking the weakest link in any chain. He calls this “hit them where it hurts.” Frequently this means exposing individuals who make decisions and holding them accountable to the public. Famous social activist Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals,” called this “picking the target.” “Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies,” he wrote. “Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.” For adoptee rights activists, this means putting a face on those who say “no,” rather than succumbing like sheep to the nameless bureaucrats who operate in secret and hide behind the façade of laws and “process.”
In my case, I identified every Michigan official in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services involved in trying to withhold my birth certificate illegally, such as State Registrar Glenn Copeland. I published their emails about my birth record petition on my websites, revealing how public officials discussed adoptees seeking records that should have been released decades earlier.
Some groups, like Bastard Nation, do call out by name all of the foes and friends of adoptee rights, which others should learn from. My question to the larger adoptee community is this: Why aren’t all adoptee rights activists embracing one of the best tools of a free press, shining light on wrongdoing, to expose the harmful workings of public officials in their treatment of adoptees? This is a proven strategy and one rooted in the American free press tradition. It’s yours to use.
Become a Fighter, Not a Victim: Anyone who perceives himself or herself as crushed by circumstance will never muster the courage or vision to become an advocate or warrior for change, particularly against an old, large, and entrenched system like U.S. adoption. As Greene notes, “Control is an issue in all relationships. It is human nature to abhor feelings of helplessness and to strive for power. … Your task as a strategist is twofold: First, recognize the struggle for control in all aspects of life, and never be taken in by those who claim they are not interested in control.” Make no mistake, adoption secrecy is firmly rooted in states and their bureaucracies exerting power over a mostly unorganized group. Saying you are weak and projecting that image gives those in control greater power over you and all other adoptees. Remember Frederick Douglass’ admonishment that the “limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Therefore adoptees should see themselves as members of a powerful group, who have been forged through adversity and opposition, who are connected to historic heroes who fought for rights on behalf of those denied their rights. Nearly every great civilization has a story of those who have been wronged, but who changed the course of events by becoming the strong. In Scotland, the hero was Robert the Bruce, who defeated the English. In ancient Rome it was Spartacus and the revolting slaves, whose legacy survived millennia after their defeat. In the American South, it was the Civil Rights activists and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King, who challenged the power of the Southern states and Jim Crow laws and won major legislative change nationwide with the passage of two landmark civil rights measures. Find the hero and movements that resonate with you and embrace their power.
Define The Battlefield: In his summary of war strategies, Greene writes, “To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objectives, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reactive mode that so many battles in life lock you into. Keeping your overall goals in mind, it becomes much easier to decide when to fight and when to walk away.” Today, much of U.S. adoptee rights advocacy is stuck in complicated, state-level legislative battles over often regressive state legislation. Most recently, state lawmakers in New York and Florida have introduced legislation that has consumed adoptee rights advocates. In Hawaii in 2016, adoptee rights champions did define the battlefield and reclaimed their rights by passing a law granting all adoptees who are adults over 18 access to their records. In other cases, like New Jersey, a law was signed in 2014 and implemented in 2016 that created a class of adoptees denied forever their human right to know their ancestry because of a so-called “veto.”
Missing in this tactical coverage is how the adoptee rights struggle should be told nationally, outside of the typical media obsession over adoption reunion stories (what some adoptees call “reunion porn”). That space has been seized in the post-World War II decades by the pro-life, Christian, and fundamentalist community who have forged a national story about adoption as a selfless act promoting god’s will and a system that shows the benevolence of loving adoptive families. Adoptee strategists will need to counter the adoption industry’s national story by focusing on adoptee rights as human rights and as something as American as the First Amendment. Some advocates are doing this. More needs to be done. Frontline adoptee activists need to fight off any pretender group that claims that space, such as the Donaldson Adoption Institute—an organization that has a clear record of not supporting this overarching goal. As Green states, “War demands the utmost in realism, seeing things as they are.”
Know Your Enemies: Greene correctly states that no one in history ever won anything without first identifying those who opposed them. “Life is endless battle and conflict, and you cannot fight effectively unless you identify your enemies,” writes Greene. This maxim applies to the struggle for adoptees. Bastard Nation did that well already, publishing a list of many dogged and well-financed foes of adoptee rights (“Know Thine Enemies”). In knowing who they face, adoptees are better able to find allies, collaborators, and even possible swing groups who may pivot if the messages of equality, human rights, and justice override the powerful and slippery propaganda of the well-funded, Christian-leaning, anti-abortion, and pro-adoption advocates like the National Council for Adoption.
Adoptee rights strategists must familiarize themselves with overt anti-adoptee rights groups and their methods to develop a winning strategy. Greene correctly summarizes what hundreds of other historic strategists who have made history have long noted: “Do not be naïve: with some enemies there can be no compromise, no middle ground.” For that reason, adoptee rights groups will face continued setbacks if they also fail to recognize false advocates (the “Benedict bastards”) and those who divide and conquer among adoptees themselves. Adoptees need to use this real politik litmus test for groups who lack a clear vision for full equality, including state-level charlatan groups who claim to support adoptee rights, but promote harmful laws that deny all equal rights.
Launch a Revolution of Thinking: As Greene notes, all people face battles, hourly and daily. “But the greatest battle of all is with yourself—your weakness, your emotions, your lack of resolution in seeing things through to the end,” writes Greene. “Instead of repressing your doubts and fears, you must face the down, do battle with them.” Above all, success comes after you remove distracting emotion from critical thinking. This is a tall task for any adoptee, who often and rightly feels outrage and injustice at being denied their original names, equal legal rights, medical history, and equality. What results is an explosive outrage. This feeling has frequently served as great motivator, and even a catalyst for historic change.
To overcome your adversaries and the underlying legal injustice, you cannot afford the luxury of wallowing in your emotional state or turmoil when you map your long-term strategy for victory. You need to master your situation, turn your defeats into wisdom that inform your future actions, and embrace actions that achieve clear victories and not repeated losses. This can take years. You will get nowhere unless you define where your campaign will end and what you fight for. A campaign devoid of justice and focused on piecemeal objectives—the approach of some so-called adoptee rights advocates—is not a coherent, visionary strategy. It is a losing campaign before the battle begins.
Fighting a long game and knowing your actions are just and that laws are wrong can help carry you through the months and years of defeat. But ultimately winning the battle in one’s mind is your greatest key to victory. As the great Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu wrote nearly 2,500 years ago: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first, and then seek to win.”
[Author note: On June 10, 2018, I updated this essay, removing references to the now closed Donaldson Adoption Institute, and the American Adoption Conference (AAC). Regarding the AAC, the group this spring announced a very clear policy position supporting the right of adoptees to be treated equally by law, which signalled to me the group is commited to genuine legal reform and thus the activities to achieve that in the years to come.]
For the past several years, fellow Michigan adoptees who were born after World War II have contacted me seeking help. They want what they are entitled to as a birthright and under core human rights principles of international law: their original birth certificates (OBCs), held in secret, by the state of Michigan.
The number of queries I received from adoptees increased in the last year, since I won a nearly three-decade-old contest with the state to give me my original birth certificate and published my story about that victory on my website.
Because of these requests, I am publishing a short guide that may help some of the thousands of fellow adoptees born in Michigan deprived of their equal rights by Michigan’s discriminatory and harmful adoption laws. To navigate this system, adoptees will need to deal with state courts and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). That agency overseas the state’s public health bureaucracy and has ultimate authority for adoptees’ official vital records—including their original birth documents.
This guide focuses on Michigan adoptees born between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980. I was born during this time. According to the state’s website, “For those adoptions that occurred between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980, the release of the original birth certificate is contingent upon a court order.” As an adoptee seeking your OBC, that means you are almost certainly going to court, and it will not be easy. More on that shortly.
This 35-year span defined by law was not an accident. These were the boom years for adoption, when single women who became pregnant were pressured by society and many powerful medical, social work, and religious groups to give up millions of infants through the late 1970s. Thus the law intentionally harms the biggest pool of adopted citizens from the state by restricting their right to know who they are and their family ancestry and medical history.
Getting a Court Order: An Uphill Slog through a Hostile Environment
Those born before May 28, 1945 or after September 12, 1980 still face legal barriers. Read this summary of state law, published on the Adoptee Rights Law Center website. Greg Luce, an adoptee rights advocate who runs this website, elegantly describes Michigan’s convoluted system this way: “Michigan has such a confusing and complex system that only lawyers or those invested in such a complicated bureaucratic framework could fully comprehend it. To seek an OBC in Michigan you must 1) apply through an agency or court, which 2) forwards a clearance request form to the state’s “central adoption registry,” which 3) searches the registry and then 3) returns a clearance reply form to the court or agency that 4) is used to inform the adoptee that 5) a birth parent has denied any release of information (and the OBC is therefore unavailable) or that 6) a birth parent agrees to the release of information, upon which 7) the adoptee may obtain a copy of the clearance reply form and may then 7) supply the clearance reply form to the state registrar, which 8) issues a non-certified copy of the original birth certificate to the adoptee. Oh, if you were born between 1945 and 1980, this whole mechanism doesn’t even apply to you. Like other donut hole states, if you fall into that hole you need a court order to get your OBC.”
Michigan’s Communications to Adoptees Seeking an OBC:
You can read a succinct summary of the process published by the Adoptee Rights Coalition. The state also provides a short summary, which does not address how to navigate court order requests for adoptions that occurred between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980.
Key Points for Michigan Adoptees to Consider Before Beginning Court Advocacy for OBCs:
1. Current laws in Michigan, and the way its laws and vital records systems function today, are intended to prevent most Michigan adoptees from getting their original birth documents—forever. Remember that always. I will say that again: Remember that always. The political and legal systems governing adoption laws cause real harm to adoptees and deny them their basic human rights. You must be realistic how this plays out statewide and nationally. The laws vary by state. You cannot afford ignorance of the system or the players who control it. You must educate yourself about this reality. Know your friends and especially your opponents in your effort to achieve equal rights and your OBC.
2. No one will help you who works for theMDHSS, the state’s public health agency that controls your birth records. You can ask them for help, but you will not get it. The agency has an adversarial relationship with adoptees. In fact, you must be prepared to fight them, even once you get your court order—if you get one. They may even attempt to delay the release of your original birth certificate once presented with a judge’s ruling. This happened to me. See my FAQs also.
3. TheMichigan Central Adoption Registry is a mostly unaccountable bureaucracy of one employee (Connie Stevens; firstname.lastname@example.org) with no regulatory oversight. Do not contact it. See Luce’s description above regarding its mandate. Its website states it “is accessed by the court or agency; individual adopted persons do not contact the Registry.” This office does not answer phone calls, but may return one. Expect no help, even if you deserve it and need it.
4. The mediamay not be sympathetic to you, unless you have some emotional and tear-jerking reunion story. Overall, the media has a tepid interest in adoptee rights and in the past has viewed them in a discriminatory way—sometimes portraying them as uppity bastards who are not thankful they were taken in by loving families, etc. See the adoptee rights group Bastard Nation’s essay on this harmful stereotype. You can try to enlist the media, but do not assume the media will be a natural ally in the court of public opinion. That said, you should engage them, and you may find an ally in their ranks. Always try, and try again.
5. Remember, this takes time. You must give yourself anywhere from three months and much longer. You need to file your paperwork, advocate and push a court to set up a date, have your court date, and then submit, hopefully, your court order to Michigan Vital Records for your original birth certificate (OBC). You are running a marathon, not an 800-meter race. Stay focused on the end goal, always.
6. Rely on yourself. This is a personal journey. Most of us will do it alone. Most of us are not wildly rich and cannot afford to hire people to do unpleasant and tedious advocacy work. I encourage you not to seek help from any so-called confidential intermediaries or social workers. (Please avoid a Michigan confidential intermediary named Darryl Royal–he is not a real adoptee rights advocate.) There are some true legal advocates out there who work on cases. I suggest contacting the Adoptee Rights Law Center for possible tips if you really have a strong case needing litigation.
Starting Your Court Order Request:
Adoptees in the donut hole years need to find the court of jurisdiction for adoption records requests. For Wayne County/Detroit, where I was born, it is the Family-Juvenile Division of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan. Its address and contact information is: Third Judicial Circuit Court, Family Division Attention: Post Adoptions 1025 E. Forest Avenue Detroit, MI 48207-1098 Tel: (313) 224-5261; direct line: (313) 833-0032
Circuit courts likely have jurisdiction for issuing court orders for an adoptee. Find your court of jurisdiction here. This may be the hardest detail to figure out. The Third Judicial Circuit Court covers anyone born in Detroit, and adoptees there number in the thousands because that was home to Crittenton General Hospital, one of the nation’s largest maternity hospitals that facilitated adoptions for more than 30 years.
Download or request the instructions from the court in your jurisdiction, or contact that court for additional information. The instructions from the Family-Juvenile Division of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan are found online. Make a copy for your records.
Here are the instructions for Wayne County adoptees seeking to set up a court date and to petition a judge. Before you send your request in, make a copy of everything. Send your request certified mail. Make a cover letter listing everything you are sending and be courteous and professional. Show the court and judge that you are a professional and have your case in order. Show them you know the law and your rights.
You will need to send the following:
A $20 filing fee (as of 2016)
A copy of your photo identification
A copy of your adoptive birth certificate.
A completed Release of Information Authorization Adult Adoptee (FormFIA 1920). Include in the comments area on this form that you are requesting your original birth certificate (it’s a short box that says “additional comments”—make your pitch about your rights to your record).
If the birth certificate you are requesting is for a deceased, direct descendant, proof of the relationship and death are required (ie: death certificate, birth certificate, etc.).
Also, the above forms should be completed with the information regarding the adoptee.
Provide a written statement, no longer than a page, making your case why you deserve your birth record. This is your story, so only you can write it. Note, this is not required, but STRONGLY encouraged.
This week I was informed by a Michigan historical publication that its editorial committee rejected my proposed article on the historical significance of my birthplace, Crittenton General Hospital. “While the committee appreciates the article you submitted, it unfortunately does not meet our magazine’s editorial needs and we will be unable to accept it for publication,” the editor wrote.
This means that an article I proposed to tell the story of thousands of single Michigan mothers who gave up their children for adoption in the decades after World War II in Detroit will not reach a wider audience in Michigan. For that, I am disappointed.
I respectfully asked for feedback how I did not meet their needs, and did not get a reply. I do not expect a response, and to date have not received one.
[Author’s update, 9/15/2017, 1:05 p.m.: Hours after publishing this article, I received a reply from the publication I had contacted that its editorial committee thought my article was a “personal opinion piece,” which they do not accept in their publications. That reply arrived only after I had provided the publication a courtesy email to let them know I had published this article.]
No publication is obligated to tell any writer why they are rejected. Rejection is the norm in the world of writing and publishing. It also inspires good writers.
However, this outcome, which I have experienced when reaching out to many different publications to engage them on the history and problems in the U.S. adoption system, likely has other issues beyond my storytelling abilities or even the merits of the stories I am trying to tell.
The outcome falls into a trend of editorial bias by people who likely do not recognize how their decisions about covering the story of the U.S. adoption system and its history are influenced by their own subconscious views. My forthcoming book on the U.S. adoption experience investigates how bias influences individuals’ and society’s views about illegitimately born people (bastards like me), including adoptees. I also have published an essay on that topic on my blog.
Is it Bad Writing/Research, Bias, or a ‘Suspect’ Writer/Researcher?
The larger issue of research bias is well documented in human-subjects research. That field boasts a staggering list of biases that impact the research outcomes, before, during, and after clinical trials. It also is a well-documented issue in communications.
The open-source scientific publication PLoS noted in a 2009 editorial, “A large and growing literature details the many ways by which research and the subsequent published record can be inappropriately influenced, including publication bias, outcome reporting bias, financial and non-financial, competing interests, sponsors’ control of study data and publication, and restrictions on access to data and materials. But it can be difficult for an editor, reading a submitted manuscript, to disentangle these many influences and to understand whether the work ultimately represents valid science.”
When a writer or researcher is rejected, they have almost no chance of persuading a potential publisher to chance its views. If you push your case, you also are further discounted as too “attached” or “engaged.”
In the world of investigative journalism, you are even considered dangerous, and your own publications may turn against you if you fail to accept outcomes that can squash controversial stories. This is a common experience to anyone who has mattered in the world of journalism.
The celebrated investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in 1993 that telling stories that some people do not want to read but should be told is often a thankless, even dangerous task.
“Reporters write a story once, and then there’s no response and they stop,” says Hersh. “Somehow the object [is] to keep on pushing. The problem is, what do you do when you make yourself a pain in the ass and you become suspect? Because as everybody knows, for some mysterious reasons, if you have a point of view in a newspaper room you are suspect. Or if you’re a true believer you’re dangerous, you’re political. That’s really crazy. Because it seems to me the only good stories that come out of anything come from people who have a passion about right and wrong, and good and bad. It’s a terrible tragedy. It’s very tough.”
I always turn to Hersh’s quote that I jotted down when I first became a journalist, when I need to remember that telling important stories, including ones that challenge orthodoxy and prejudice, will never be an easy road to travel. That is why I wrote my book about the American adoption experience, knowing it would not be an easy story to tell or to sell.
But anything that matters, really and truly matters, requires overcoming such obstacles. That is how you find personal meaning and how you make positive and meaningful change that may take years to achieve.
(Author’s note: This essay also can also be found on my You Don’t Know How Lucky You Arewebsite, where I provide information, essays, and resources on adoptee rights, adoption, evolutionary biology, adoption law, and other issues covered in my forthcoming memoir on the American adoption experience. Please visit that site to learn more about adoptee rights and research.)
This article is a response to a recent newsletter flash I received from the adoption research and advocacy group called the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The organization has suddenly proclaimed a bold new advocacy position and campaign on adoptee rights as a “human rights” issue.
I will make three key points about this new effort and how adoptees, the media, policy-makers, and supporters of adoptee rights should cautiously view this and all other efforts by groups who claim to promote legal rights for adopted persons, illegitimately born people, and people who call themselves bastards:
The institute’s new campaign seeking to become the champion of “human rights” for adoptees seeking their birth records must be viewed critically given the group’s track record and the way it is linked to the promotion of what some adoptees and reporters like Dan Rather call the “adoption industry.”
Authentic advocacy and scholarship on adoptee rights or any issue involves “walking the talk” and having what ordinary folks call “street cred.” For example, Florence Fisher, and the group she lead in the 1970s called the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), showed that when ALMA took a clear stand for adoptees by calling for the “free access to our original birth certificates and the records of our adoption” and went to court in New York in 1977 with a federal class action lawsuit, claiming adoptees had rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 13th and 14th amendments to their original birth records. They lost but their actions spoke volumes. You have to demonstrate what you believe through meaningful action, not fluffy words of cute social media memes.
My work in my upcoming book on my adoption experience and how U.S. adoption should be understood through a public health lens gives full credit to insightful writers and advocates, like Lauren Sabina Kneisly, who clearly define the real power systems involved in adoption and the political realities of being an adoptee and bastard. Real advocates and credible scholars acknowledge their sources and forebears. Those who only seek influence or power in any field will try to co-opt the work of real reformers.
Why I am Troubled by Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Co-opting of Adoptee Claims to Human Rights
My forthcoming memoir on the U.S. adoption experience makes clear I will not and do not appropriate or claim ownership of many breakthrough actions and ideas in the long struggle of adoptees to have equal rights of non-adopted people in the United States.
I praise and quote scholars like professors E. Wayne Carp and Elizabeth Samuels, who have documented how adoptees’ and birth parents’ legal access to original birth records was severely restricted by state legislatures and public health bureaucracies in the decades after World War II. (Also see my post on the topic of discrimination against adoptees.)
To ensure accuracy and authenticity with my readers, I give each and every parent, writer, activist, scholar, organization, and leader full credit for their contributions to changing current practices and thinking. I do that to acknowledge who has meaningfully contributed to our understanding of adoption as a political, health, public health, historic, sociological, biological, and advocacy issue.
I also seek to steer policy-makers, adoptees, and the media to credible and relevant data to correctly frame adoption as a human rights, public health, and legal issue. That is also called responsible scholarship and “walking the talk” in the advocacy arena.
Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Status on Adoptee Rights
One group I continue to have trouble with concerning legal advocacy is the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The New York-based group has published research by scholars on adoption. I cite some of their work in my book. I appreciate how they cited the health issues associated with denying adoptees their family history and a 2016 study on public perceptions of adoptees and adoption. I like that the group supports openness in adoption, but I am very troubled by this concept in the context of their work that appears to support adoption without changing laws or formally acknowledging past wrongs.
However, I do not endorse their work to date as being clear, mission-driven advocacy that seeks to address historic discrimination against adoptees or work that seeks to change laws to promote equality for all adoptees by giving every single living adoptee full and unfettered access to their records–as done in most developed nations.
I say this despite the group’s sudden new commitment under a questionable logo: “50 States. 1 Movement. Restore Adoptee Rights!” The group announced this publicly on May 17, 2017, through an email “special communication.”
I have yet to find in the institute’s work or website if the group acknowledges how other countries (England, Scotland, France, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Israel, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway) have clear national laws that establish all adoptees’ legal right to their birth records or that the group suggests a policy solution proposal endorsing such an approach. (Please let me know if I missed something.)
The group’s diverse interests include topics like “promoting healthy identity formation in adoption,” transnational and biracial adoption issues, adoption by gay parents, and even counseling issues. While I find some of this work worthwhile for some groups, particularly transnational and bi-racial adoptees and their families, I am unconvinced still by what I see right now that the DAI can or ever will be a leader in fighting for real adoptee civil rights.
The group as recently as mid-2016 wasworking on another campaign (“transacton to transformation“), also with a catchy social media title, that urged changing adoption “to a more uniform and transformational process where everyone—expectant parents, first/birth parents, adopted persons and adoptive families and professionals—are better prepared and supported.” This in no way resembles a campaign focussed on ending discrimination against adoptees or challenging the real power structures who promote those views and profit by them. In many ways, this campaign is a contradiction to its newest effort that seemingly appropriates the concept of adoptee rights as “human rights.”
Any group that seeks to sustain this industry should not be a leader in promoting meaningful change. Actual change can be seen in the Australian adoption reconciliation efforts, where the national government formally apologized in 2013 to all birth mothers and adoptees for causing harm. The DAI does not recognize in a formal way this historic action as a solution—yet another red flag for me.
The DAI’s mission statement—not even clearly called out on its website—is also muddled and does not clearly state its top goal is a lasting legal remedy and equality for adoptees by law: “The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s mission is to provide leadership that improves laws, policies and practices—through sound research, education and advocacy—in order to better the lives of everyone touched by adoption.” That is not a mission to change laws or change how adoption is understood as a political system, now sustained and promoted by the Republican Party, evangelical Christians, and groups that profit from adoption as a business.
Now the DAI calls for a national campaign—not coincidentally one it states that it wants to lead. Its announcement tries to claim the mantle of unnamed reformers from the 1970s. Key advocates in legal reform from that era such as Florence Fisher did not entangle themselves in the “business of adoption.” Quite simply, the DAI lacks street cred to lead as measured by its own actions and deeds.
Because of this, I strongly suggest that all adoptees and advocates for adoption hit the pause button and determine for themselves if they wish to do the group’s online survey, now organized to support this effort. This appears to be a power grab on advocacy in the often petty and often frustrating world of advocacy among a mostly powerless group—adoptees.
Who Is “Entitled” to Claim Leadership on Adoptee Legal Rights?
Suddenly, the DAI is using the overarching policy goal of the adoptee advocacy group Bastard Nation, whose mission statement boldly calls for “the civil and human rights of adult citizens who were adopted as children.” For the record, I am not a member of any adoptee advocacy group, and I do not know anyone in Bastard Nation in person.
The DAI now claims: “The tangible negative consequences of denying adopted people their OBC are numerous and sobering. Yet the most severe outcome rests in the fact that a fundamental human right is being denied to an entire group of people.”
What’s more, the DAI has suddenly made statements and language never used before regarding the laws that deny adoptees equal treatment under the law and their birth records. “This is a human rights violation that creates inequality for an entire group of people,” the group writes. “Everyone should have the right to know the truth of his or her birth.”
This is great language, but I am deeply worried such views are not sustainable by a group that is so deeply embedded in a system where groups can make $30,000 or more promoting adoption. The sale of babies to adoption farms that lead to horrific infant death outcomes of bastard babies in the early 1900s in Baltimore is a warning of the dangers of turning infants into sellable commodities. Adoptee rights advocates should distance themselves entirely from anyone associated with this practice for historic and policy reasons alone, not to mention moral concerns.
My Communications with the Donaldson Adoption Institute
I am more troubled that the DAI is using language by groups like Bastard Nation and others. I also am confused that the group’s language strangely resembles legal arguments I shared with them in February and March 2016 by email. I wrote to the group then to ask them to define their advocacy views on the concept of adoptees’ rights to their records as a legal issue and as a human right, similar to how it is enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
(Author’s Note: My goal as I write this post is to forward this post to the DAI and ask if they wish to issue any rebuttal commentary as the form of a response on my blog, which I will publish in the spirit of promoting a vigorous public discussion of adoptee and legal rights issues.)
As of today, May 20, 2017, the DAI has not credited any group or scholar in its new campaign to become the lead group. This is not required, but its failure to acknowledge by name the groups and persons who have laid out the data and legal case for a human rights campaign for adoptees should be a red flag to all persons who believe the United States should have an identical national law like England granting all adoptees full rights to their birth records at the age of 18.
My Indebtedness to Adoptee Advocates and Words of Wisdom on Adoptee Rights Advocacy
In writing my book on the American Adoption experience, I encountered several leaders for adoptee rights who shared nearly identical views with me on the complex perspectives of the institution of adoption, the discriminatory treatment of adoptees and bastards, and the failure of current so-called advocacy groups to provide meaningful leadership to frame adoption as a legal and human rights issue that harms adoptees.
One fellow adoptee and writer I feel most aligned to is Lauren Sabina Kneisly. Her blog, Baby Love Child, appears to be on hiatus, but it provides a superb primer on how to decipher messaging on adoptee rights advocacy.
Her blog does not endorse any group, but acknowledges the work of groups like Bastard Nation.
Kneisly wisely urges adoptees and their supporters to be mindful of the words used by groups and advocates. In other words, don’t fall for astroturfing or greenwashing, which co-opt the words, emotions, and ideas of real reformers by those who seek to profit from the status quo and who may actually not want change at all.
Usually the proof is in both the words and also the deeds, and greenwashing can be very slick. If it’s good, and it often is by such sales personnel, your emotions will be exploited without your conscious awareness.
Therefore, consider Kneisly’s recommendation for judging street cred and moral legitimacy for adoptee advocacy groups. She suggests these criteria:
Do they understand their status as part of a broader class of people and refuse to leave others behind?
Do they have a clear and single-minded focus on the real goal—equity for adoptees?
Do they reject substitutions, distractions, or attempts to divide and conquer that maintain state control and deflect from the goal of equality?
Do they identify who holds real power and what their conflicts of interest are?
Do they only settle for full equality for all those denied access in an inequitable manner?
Remember, as with all things in the real-world of politics and advocacy, trust your gut and disregard any marketing promise that sounds too good to be true, because it often isn’t.
Finally, if you want an example of clearly stated goals towards a policy objective, visit the Adoptee Rights Law Center, maintained by lawyer, adoptee, and activist Gregory Luce of Minnesota. I think he is doing great work to change the national discussion with facts, provide timely and accurate information, and support adoptee rights as a human right.
If you know of a group you like, send me a note. I would love to hear from you and share that on my website for my new book.
[Editor’s Note, Jan. 5, 2018: As of Jan. 4, 2018, the Donaldson Adoption Institute has announced it is closing. Lack of funding likely contributed to its demise. Its research will still be accessible online, according to its most recent public statement. Adoptee rights advocates will now need to fill a void when media cover the issue. Reporters seeking soundbites often turned to this group. True adoptee rights advocates need to insert themselves into the national conversation.]
My forthcoming book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, takes a closer look at the strong evidence that shows the critical role of genetic relations in child-rearing and adoption.
The debate of the role over nature and nurture in raising adopted children has been the central issue of the institution since its inception and later growth into a global business and social engineering system that literally has created millions of family relations involving people who have no genetic relationship. Adoption historian Ellen Herman, of the University of Oregon, calls adoption as practiced in the United States “designated kinship by design.” It has been a large-scale experiment from the beginning, testing what Herman calls “enduring beliefs in the power of blood, and widespread doubts about whether families could thrive without it.”
Today, those who defend adoption, including social workers, adoption advocacy groups who champion closed birth records that harm adoptees, and many Christian and fundamentalist groups who embrace orphan adoption, argue that nature has a minimal or little role in the rearing of an adopted child.
The wealth of evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology and from studies of child abuse of stepchildren by a non-related parent show that genetic relations greatly impact child care in families, in most cultures globally. As Canadian evolutionary psychology researchers Margo Wilson and Martin Daly note, “There is nothing magical about parental discrimination: preferential treatment of one’s own young exists only where a species’ ecology demands it.”
Stories of abuse of adopted children crop up routinely, usually shared by adoptees on social media and not covered rigorously by the mainstream press. Occasionally a sensational story of a harmed adoptee does get extra attention.
The 2011 killing of one young Ethiopian born orphan and adoptee, Hana Williams, in rural Sedro-Woolley, Washington, did lead to moral and political outrage and more nuanced reporting of the Christian transnational adoption movement. The writer Kathryn Joyce has profiled the business of global adoptions by evangelical U.S. Christian families and the underlying issues of creating families among non-related parents and children in her book TheChild Catchers. Joyce provides one of the most detailed profiles of this tragedy, taking on mostly taboo topics that many people involved in adoption do not wish to discuss, even professionally. Such discussions harm the very real “business of adoption” and what I sometimes call the “adoption industrial complex.”
Adoptees’ Experiences Often Go Unnoticed, But Their Stories Matter
Outside of these news flashes, adoptions happen daily and touch millions, and the tragic story of Hana Williams is an outlier. But the issues in her story matter.
Most adoption stories involve the mundane reality of simply growing up and having family relations, over decades. That experience is different for many adoptees. The long view of it over time can be hard to convey to nonadoptees, many of whom carry hidden biases against adoptees that also are rooted in most adoptees’ status as being illegitimately conceived.
The most recent episode of This American Life presents a story–360: Switched At Birth–that describes how two girls were switched at birth and brought up in two different families who lived near each other in Wisconsin. Both of the women described feeling lifelong differences from their family and even how their parents provided less interest in their well-being growing up. This is not remarkable nor even an indication of the two mothers acting badly to the girls they raised who were not their blood kin. The parents were acting as people will naturally do–showing discrimination that evolutionary biology research shows will ultimately favor one’s blood kin over someone who they know is not their genetic offspring.
As an adoptee listening to this story, I did not hear anything new or remarkable in this episode. I heard what sounded very normal to me, having grown up as an adoptee. It is called “being adopted.” It is how you live your life.
Likely the producers of This American Life wanted a story that was quirky and unique, because it was a classic “switcheroo story” straight from Mark Twain’s pantheon of stories, namely Pudd’nhead Wilson. It was not the boring adoption story about life as an adoptee–stories that do not get told well by most media. Adoptees’ lives do not qualify as news, except in these extreme moments. But these stories do matter because the taboo topics of illegitimacy and adoption, including how adoptees experience adoption throughout their entire life, impact millions of adoptees and their families.
One of the issues seldom if never discussed in the long-simmering debate over adoptees’ legal right to their original birth records is how deeply prejudice harms millions of adopted persons.
Discrimination can be seen in how adoptees seeking their birthright to know themselves and obtain copies of their original birth records are treated. By law, they are not considered equal to others in the majority of U.S. states. Many who enforce outdated state laws treat adoptees dismissively—even as threats. (See copies of emails written by senior Michigan public health officials how they responded fearfully to my request for my original birth certificate, as just one example.)
This prejudice is older yet also connected to the historic stereotyping of them by mental health professionals, who for decades described adoptees searching for records as mentally ill and classified this in their handbook on psychiatric disorders. Through the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identified the problem it labeled “identity disorder,” which consisted of “severe subjective distress regarding inability to integrate aspects of the self into a relatively coherent and acceptable sense of self.”
As adoption historian E. Wayne Carp writes, “No adopted person in the 1970s had imagined that asking the question ‘Who am I?’ would end up classified as an official psychiatric disorder.”
This should not be a surprise, given how illegitimately born people have been treated, globally and throughout history. Denying this history in the larger policy discussion of discrimination of adoptees is to deny the role that bias and stereotypes play in our thinking and deeds. We know bias can be found in countless behaviors: those done personally and those made professionally.
There is no reason to think one of the greatest and most universal forms of stigmatization, against so-called “illegitimately” born people, who include most U.S. adoptees, would not persist and be masked and even not noticed by those who discriminate. This includes the actions of lawmakers who passed laws for decades discriminating against adoptees, of the media who stereotype adoptees, and of those who interpret and enforce these Jim Crow-style laws that treat adoptees as persons with lesser rights.
How Stereotyping Works Against Adoptees
Researchers in many fields—law, criminal justice, history, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology—have long investigated prejudice and how humans practice it. Researchers have even begun looking how prejudice works at the neurological level. Researcher David Amodio notes, “Although they are distinguishable by content and process, prejudices and stereotypes often operate in combination to influence social behaviour [sic]. Moreover, both forms of bias can operate implicitly, such that they may be activated and influence judgements [sic] and behaviours [sic] without conscious awareness.”
Today, adoptees remain victims of systemic legal discrimination in seeking equal treatment under the law by requesting their original birth records. There is no credible evidence anywhere that the overwhelming majority of adoptees seek anything more than to be reunited with their kin in seeking their original records.
However, defenders of closed records have made repeated and unsubstantiated claims from the 1940s onward that adoptees or birth mothers might wish to exact revenge or extortion. Adult adoptees seeking their records have been denounced by opposing attorneys and adoptive parents, who claimed the information could be used by the adoptee to “find and murder” biological parents or that granting a records request was the equivalent of giving away a “hunting license.”
The lingering urban legend that may have influenced lawmakers and those charged with managing adoption records from the 1980s onward was the so-called “Adopted Child Syndrome.” Some unethical lawyers used this controversial defense in several murder trials in the 1980s. These lawyers tried to show that adoptees accused of killing their parents suffered from a mental health issue called Multiple Personality Disorder. According to the argument fabricated by psychologist David Kirschner, the Adopted Child Syndrome could prove adoptees encounter more psychological problems in their childhood and adolescence unique to being adopted. The manifestations were promiscuity, lying, stealing, substance abuse, and more, all showing a “toxic potential of adoption.”
The theory argues adoptees acted out of “extreme disassociation.” Though this entirely fictional and discredited theory attracted national attention from the tabloids, he later revealed he prepared the concept for a trial at which he testified in 1986. He admitted he had not done proper research and the sensational theory was in fact a product of his imagination. Yet, the damage had been done and fed the old stereotypes many clung to.
Adoptees and Bastards Are the Victims, not Perpetrators, of Harm
This stereotype is one I personally encountered when I tried to access my records and later interviewed one of the managers whose office managed those records for the Wayne County Probate Court. In reality, it was illegitimate children and their mothers who were the victims, not perpetrators, of crimes and the ones who paid the price for societal attitudes, including with their lives. This is substantiated solidly in population health records, which provide actual data on health and mortality outcomes.
As a modern social institution, adoption laws only date to the 19th century in the United States. Labeling illegitimate children as society threats and bogeymen, however, far precedes the U.S. adoption system and the laws that govern it. Societies over time have addressed these fears, often brutally and lethally for the unlucky illegitimate. Normally, the “bastards” have been ostracized, but also outright killed not very long ago.
The United States inherited European and English legal traditions, which prescribed clear rules how infants would be classified as legitimate in the eyes of society and illegitimate. Roman law, canon law of the Catholic Church, and English law all adhered to the rule that only children born legitimately inside of approved marriages were deemed legitimate. Those who were conceived outside of wedlock were not. While there have been changes to parts of family law that cover how children are legitimized, the basic principle behind legitimation is still mostly unchanged.
From a purely sociological perspective in human societies, the appearance of children has to be prevented for whom no adult male, permanently allied to the mother, can be held responsible as the father. This is required in order to safeguard the future of any given society. This societal need is both ubiquitous and historic. This idea is at the heart of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s Principal of Legitimacy, which proposes “no child can be brought into the world without a man, and one man assuming the role of sociological father.” That man serving that role does not necessarily have to be biological, but must provide a link between the child and the community.
Malinowski first published this idea in 1930. Others who have studied the issue since note that illegitimacy is a category that will be found at every point in the past of every society, as well as in all present societies. Many have since challenged this idea, pointing to high levels of out-of-marriage births in parts of the Caribbean and, since the late 1970s, the United States. That said, the idea of legitimacy prevails, even though it is not adopted in practice. Overall, illegitimacy is and always has been regarded as a negative—the breach of an established rule, never considered an outcome of an approved sexual or child and reproductive behavior.
Bastards and illegitimate children have always faced societal scorn, and they paid severe and deadly consequences for it. Today, a likely contributing factor to poor health outcomes for adoptees is societal stigma, and its multivariate impacts on unmarried mothers and their illegitimate kids. Despite the political correctness of the term adoptee, the underlying truth known to everyone, from the adoptive parents to the adopted children to society at large, is that adoptees are bastards. Adoptees more than any other person alive today know this fact. It is a fact I always knew, and so did nearly everyone around me, including peers my age. Today, such children still bear the stigma as being born illegitimately, despite the high prevalence of children born outside of marriage that has made their status ubiquitous.
Population Records Show High Mortality and Poor Health for Bastards and Illegitimate Children
Historically, illegitimate infants in recent history have been among most vulnerable population groups, documented in birth and mortality records. In fact, the historical study of illegitimacy, or bastardy as many demographic historians call it, is among the best documented of any topics in history because the research has relied on mostly reliable demographic data, such as baptism and death records, in Europe from the 1500s on, as well as in pre-20th century America.
Cambridge historian Peter Laslett, who contributed to an exhaustive study of the topic in 1980, notes that illegitimacy has been viewed in many cultures for centuries as “pathological.” The mothers who gave birth to bastards were perceived as “victimized, disordered, even mentally abnormal.” The numbers from these old data sets from across Europe and early America from the 1500 on paint often horrific outcomes for birth mothers. Outcomes could be worse for the infants who died at rates that suggest infanticide in many instances.
In the 18th and 19th centuries in the United Kingdom, infants who were born out-of-wedlock were about twice as likely to have died before reaching their first year of life compared to their peers born in sanctioned marriage. Poor and unmarried pregnant women frequently took refuge in the country’s notorious workhouse, which housed and fed the poor and forced them to do often-brutal labor, captured in the writings of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Many of the children confined to them faced early deaths. In 1760, four in five infants born in workhouses or left there by their birth mothers died before reaching their first birthday.
A picture for the sheer lethality of being born as a bastard emerges from the records collected in the middle England market city of Branbury, between 1561 and 1838. The number of bastard children with baptism and burial records made up 18 percent of all recorded persons—a high number. However, the rates of infant deaths were at best catastrophic for those unlucky to being born a bastard. Records show that 70 percent of all of these bastards born during these 277 years died before reaching the age of 1. Only 21 percent lived to the age of 1, and just 5 percent reached the age of 5. A mere 1 percent of bastards made it to the age of 30.
Other findings of higher infant mortality can be traced in the records of births and deaths of infants over the last 100 and more years in Europe. Jenny Teichman, author of Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy, reports “there is a persistent and significant difference between infant mortality rates of legitimate and illegitimate children.” Her study found that mortality ranges for the two groups ranged from 50 to 150 percent higher for both English and Norwegian illegitimate infants, looking at national records between 1914 and 1973 at four different points in time. Teichman notes even at English public hospitals through the 1960s, doctors and nursing staff “refused anesthetics to unmarried women in childbirth ‘to them a lesson.’”
A bastard’s prospects in the English colonies in North America were not much greater than those born in Europe. Infanticide likely became a common practice in the United States in the 1700s. Virtually every colony in North America passed legislation that declared, unless witnesses would swear to seeing a childbirth, the mother of a dead infant would be presumed guilty of murder. Things did not improve, even through the end of the 1800s. Nearly a century later in the early 1970s, infant mortality in the United States was 73 percent higher for children of unmarried mothers then their peers from families with married parents.
The findings also are not unique to the Western world. One seminal study on the sociology of illegitimacy published in 1975 found that as of the mid-1960s, in every nation globally that tracked child health data, fetal and infant mortality were higher for illegitimate than legitimate children.
While the penalty for illegitimacy as measured in infant mortality rates did fall in the last century, data from the first years of the 21st century shows illegitimate infants in England and Wales are still 30 percent more likely to die before their first birthday than legitimate infants. Remarkably, evidence shows children reported as illegitimate but registered to both parents living at the same address are still 17 percent more likely to die in infancy.
Today excess infant mortality tied to illegitimacy remains a legitimate health concern. Multiple risk factors contribute to the outcome. Single parents have less disposable income. They likely have worse housing. A single parent likely works full-time. Children likely are weaned off health breast milk earlier. The stigma of illegitimacy and societal scorn directed unfairly to unmarried mothers might reduce their ability to keep their children healthy. Unmarried women may also have come poor social positions, and thus be more vulnerable to having a child out-of-wedlock.
The Murder of Relinquished Infants in the United States, A Little-Known Crime
In the early 1900s, before reformers from groups like the Child Welfare League of America and other benevolent groups intervened, illegitimate babies were boarded and trafficked at so-called baby farms in the United States. One highly publicized 1914 report called the Traffic in Babies, by Dr. George Walker, reported on virtual charnel houses for unwanted, abandoned, and illegitimate children. These reportedly operated to “save” the single women from the disgrace of being unmarried mothers. The description by Walker is noteworthy because of his focus on maternal and child health practices that are unquestioned today. He also described how poor public health practices for abandoned babies served as the functional equivalent of homicide.
“Day after day, month after month, they received healthy, plump infants into their wards and watch them hour after hour go down to death,” wrote Walker. “They know that practically all of those that immediately after birth are separated from their mothers will die; yet year after year they keep up their nefarious, murderous traffic. We do not attempt in this study to settle the many complex problems relating to the illegitimate; but we believe that the facts show that society’s method in many instances is one of repression and virtual murder. This is a hard word, we grant, and we would fain substitute a gentler term; but, after all is said and done, that which we have recorded is virtual murder, and slow and cowardly murder at that. It would be bar more humane to kill these babies by striking them on the head with a hammer than to place them in institutions where four-fifths of them succumb within a few weeks to the effects of malnutrition or infectious diseases.”
Even with the mortality rate of relinquished, out-of-wedlock children as high as 80 percent, this fact did not curb the practice of punishing the children born out-of-wedlock by professionals and religious leaders. Some doctors, nurses, midwives, clergymen, and hospital administrators actively referred the disgraced mothers who had sex out of marriage and became pregnant to these lethal, for-profit baby shops. Some hospitals even took a cut from the baby trade that ferried bastard babies to their likely deaths. Walker’s summary notes hospitals had different methods of disposing of unwanted babies permanently: “There is an old woman, called ‘Mother—’, who carries the babies from the hospital to this institution; she gets $5 for this service. At another hospital, the nurses have charge of separating the infant from its mother; they make all the business arrangements; receive the money, and send the baby to Institution No. 1 by an old black woman, who carries it in a basket.”
History of Bias Against Adoptees Not Acknowledged by Adoption System
These acts all occurred a mere five decades before my birth, as someone born illegitimately and as a bastard. They demonstrate how powerful stigmas against bastard-born children were in recent memory—strong enough to create a system that ensured bastard infants’ likely death in institutional care. Adoption, as a cause championed by Progressive reformers from 1910 through 1930 was a solution that offered a way to eliminate the stigma, mortality risks, and lifelong barriers posed by illegitimacy.
Today, most states still deny adoptees full equal rights and partially and outright restrict them from knowing their past by denying them their original birth records. If one polled any state public health office where these discriminatory laws are practiced on a daily basis, I would wager the staff would never admit their behavior and treatment of adoptees seeking those records is connected to these deeper underlying fears and biases.
My decades of experience and the dark but carefully documented record of human behavior to everyone who is not “legitimate” show me that I must accept that prejudice is still hardwired into how adoptees are treated and will be treated into the future. Like it or not, adoptees will forever be bastards and illegitimate children. Everyone knows that when someone says they are adopted.
An adoptee’s taboo status helps to reinforce biases they face and will continue to face from the record keepers. Those so-called public health professionals and adoption bureaucrats will fall back on these old tropes, frequently unknowingly, and fail to serve adoptees’ interests in states that discriminate against those seeking their birth records. The best remedy remains strong laws that ultimately open all birth records to adult adoptees, similar to national laws in many countries, including England.
Other suggested readings on bastardy in an English historical context:
Black, John. “Who Were the Putative Fathers of Illegitimate Children in London, 1740-1810?.” In Levene, Alysa; Williams, Samantha; and Nutt, Thomas, eds, Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920. Basingstoke, 2005.
Black, John. “Illegitimacy, Sexual Relations and Location in Metropolitan London, 1735-85.” In Hitchcock, Tim and Shore, Heather, eds, The Streets of London: from the Great Fire to the Great Stink. 2003.
Snell, Keith D. M. Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity, and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950. Cambridge, 2006.
 E. Wayne Carp, Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. February 2014), 290.
 David M. Amodio, “The Neuroscience of Prejudice and Stereotyping,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(10) (2011), 670.
 Elizabeth J. Samuels, “The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry into the History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records,” Rutgers Law Review 53 (2001), 367.
 Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 282.
 E. Wayne Carp, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1998), 188.
 Jenny Teichman, Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 28.
 Peter Laslett, “Introduction: Comparing Illegitimacy Over Time and Between Cultures,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 5.
 Susan Stewart, “Bastardy and the Family Reconstitution Studies of Banbury and Hartland,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 127.
 Robert V. Wells, “Illegitimacy and Bridal Pregnancy in Colonial America,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 360.
In researching material for my forthcoming book on the institution of American adoption, I have been collecting stories along with historical documentation and photos of the hospital where I was born in Detroit. [Author’s note, March 2019: my book is now available in paperback and ebook; you can also find an updated version of this article, with footnotes and a bibliography on my book website.]
At the time of my birth, the facility was called Crittenton General Hospital. It was created by the National Florence Crittenton Mission, a group started in 1883 to serve prostitutes, fallen and vulnerable women, and women who were pregnant out of marriage. This was a social group who were exploited and scorned, and the organization sought to assist them by giving them shelter, training in remedial women’s occupations, and, if possible, the space to build new lives.
As the mission’s 1933 publication states, the organization sought to rescue “young girls, both sinned against and sinning,” and to restore “them to the world strengthened against temptation and fitted in some measure to maintain themselves by work.”
In 1933, a half century after its founding, the organization had already served half a million women. Nearly all were white, and they were cared for around the country and even Canada–from sunny Florida, to rainy Oregon, to my home state of Michigan.
The Crittenton mission was uniquely reformist in the American progressive tradition. It was also deeply faith-based. Its strong public-health orientation proved equally important. It tried to improve the health and livelihoods of vulnerable groups and took an active role in training the newly created class of professional social workers.
This combination made it a distinctly American institution. It touched the lives of generations of women who passed through its doors, and equally the children who were born either at the Crittenton homes and hospitals or cared for before and after the mothers’ pregnancies.
I am one of those persons who benefited from the organization’s original charitable mission. I was born in one of its hospitals.
But the organization’s much later and more hidden role in promoting adoption as a “solution” to out-of-wedlock pregnancies by the early 1960s had a much larger role. The solution in my case led to my relinquishment into foster care and eventual adoption. The hospital’s transformation during the boom years of American adoption occurred in the years surrounding my birth. Shortly after, in 1971, the hospital severed its ties with the national organization, ending an important chapter for an institution that played a critical role in Detroit’s social and medical history.
Preaching the gospel and saving lives
The mission began in New York City, under the guidance of businessman Charles Crittenton. A deeply evangelical man, he committed to helping one of society’s most vulnerable groups after the death of his 4-year-old daughter Florence from scarlet fever. Her demise created a deep bout of anguish. His autobiography describes how he turned to solitary prayer and saw the light, leading to his future mission. Today that mission lives on in the National Crittenton Foundation, now located in Portland, Oregon, my current home town. It is now dedicated to serving young women who are victims of violence and childhood adversity.
At its start, in 1883, Crittenton worked the streets and promoted the Christian gospel, specifically to combat prostitution and provide service to exploited women and girls. The organization’s 50-year summary notes, “In its beginning the objective of Florence Crittenton efforts was the redemption of the fallen woman, the street-walker, and the inmate of houses of prostitution. The great agency in such redemption was the simple one of religious conversion.”
The organization slowly expanded its efforts, finding champions in many U.S. cities: St. Petersburg, Detroit, Boston, Nashville, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, and more. By 1895 he was joined by activist Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, with whom Crittenton corresponded. She later became the only woman on the national Crittenton board, after it was incorporated by Congress in 1898.
The mission was involved in anti-prostitution efforts during the early 1900s and focussed on training that would enable women to leave prostitution. Its primary focus remained on the rescue and care of unwed mothers, providing them appropriate medical care, and their right to raise their children free from the scorn of society.
By the 1920s, Crittenton policy opposed separating a mother and child for adoption and believed that children should be kept with their birth mothers. As the mission’s 50-year history notes that promoting this policy helped to deepen the “love of the mother for her child and strengthening her desire to keep her baby.”
Motherhood was viewed as a means of reform. A Crittenton home became the place to promote both responsible motherhood and self-support. “Our girls need the influence of child-life upon them. They need to have the qualities that are essential to a strong, well-regulated character trained in them,” wrote Barrett in an undated pamphlet that described the mission’s philosophy of keeping mother and child together.
Crittenton combats the stigma of illegitimacy and helps “fallen women”
Nationally, the mission also sought to combat societal stigma for children associated with illegitimacy. By the second decade of the 20th century, publicized exposes had revealed the horrors of illegitimately born babies–the bastard children scorned by family, church, and most of society in the United States.
One highly publicized 1914 report called the Traffic in Babies by Dr. George Walker reported virtual charnel houses for unwanted, abandoned, and illegitimate children. These reportedly operated to “save” the single women from the disgrace of being unmarried mothers. The mortality rate of the relinquished bastard children was as high as 80 percent. Some doctors, nurses, midwives, clergymen, and hospital administrators actively referred the disgraced mothers who had sex out of marriage and became pregnant to these lethal, for-profit baby shops. Some hospitals even made money secretively moving the unwanted children from hospital wards to the unsanitary baby homes where most died.
Thc Crittenton mission clearly understood that the stigma of illegitimacy for out-of-wedlock babies was the driving force that demonized both mother and child. Prophetically, the mission in 1933 foretold of larger changes a half century later. The mission’s 50-year history notes: “Nothing short of a revolutionary charge in the mores of the American people will put the unmarried mother on a par, socially, with the married mother. Until such change shall be effected and there is no longer any such person as an illegitimate child, the mother without a marriage ring will continue to be looked at askance by a large proportion of the population and will suffer, even occasionally to the point of suicide, the shadow of social and family disgrace.” By the 1990s, single parenthood largely was de-stigmatized, with one in every three children in the United States being born outside of marriage.
Barrett headed the mission after Crittenton’s death in 1909. She passed away in 1925. By the 1930s, when these photographs were all taken, the organization was providing charitable service to assist those “fallen women,” in order “to restore to her, as far as possible, this most precious asset of a respected standing in society.” At this time, this still meant keeping the mother and child together.
Crittenton Home, San Francisco
Crittenton Home, E. Henry Wemme White Shiled Home, Portland
Crittenton Home, Sioux City
Crittenton Home, Nashville
Crittenton Home, Pittsburgh
Crittenton Home, St. Petersburg
(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)
These pictures of the Florence Crittenton homes, published by the mission, reveal they projected a public image of being well-to-do. The facilities were all found in respectable areas, but had their actual mission hidden by the facade of upper-class and upper-middle-class gentility.
Well-to-do business people contributed to these charitable facilities in the cities where they operated, including my current home town of Portland. Detroit’s efforts at fund-raising, thanks to the Motor City’s new-found wealth from its booming automotive manufacturing sector, led to $700,000 to support the construction of a new hospital–a feat no others could match.
Crittenton General Hospital, the largest in the United States
The first Crittenton home in Detroit opened in 1897 over a store on what is now Broadway Avenue. The operation expanded and moved to a Victorian mansion on Brush Street, also in downtown Detroit. Within six years, it had outgrown its capacity. At any given time, the home was caring for 33 women, not counting the children, according to the mission’s published records. Thanks to the successful fund-raising efforts by the city’s wealthy to support women’s organizations, $700,000 in donations helped to secure land and build a new facility. This was meant to replace the old home, which was reportedly then in a “colored section” of the city. In 1907, the mission opened the Florence Crittenton Hospital on East Elizabeth Street. It offered inpatient and private patient care for indigent and unwed mothers. By 1922, it was offering up to 30 beds for mothers and their children.
The hospital and home on Brush street had already become established as a facility that trained new or resident obstetrician. It was certified by the board of health governing local clinics and affiliated with the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery. By 1927, the hospital had outgrown its capacity to meet the need to serve vulnerable women.
The new Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital, as it was identified in the mission’s records, was opened in 1929 at 1554 Tuxedo Avenue, about three miles from downtown Detroit. The new facility had three wings. Two of the facility’s wings were devoted to the care of the single and pregnant women and their infants. The mission’s records from 1932 note these two wings had 115 dormitory beds, 100 cribs, 40 bassinets, and a nursery that served this ever revolving population. Special recreation rooms were devoted to caring for the infants, and the roof was used for playtime and exposing the babies to sun and air.
According to the mission’s records, the hospital supplemented its operational costs with a third wing. It offered medical care mostly to lower-income women and children and was certified by American College of Surgeons. However, the third wing was separate from the two wings for the unwed women. The public wing also focussed on maternal care and general surgery.
By 1950, the hospital had to expand yet again to meet the growing demand for services. A separate maternity home called the Florence Crittenton Maternity Home, located at 11850 Woodrow Wilson, was built and opened in 1954. It was less than half a block from the hospital, which was then calling itself Crittenton General Hospital. The hospital and maternity home were connected by a service tunnel. The home could accommodate up to 60 young women, who had semi-private rooms. The home offered them class instruction, an auditorium, a dining facility, and even a “beauty shop,” according the mission’s records.
“Every effort was made to maintain a homelike atmosphere for the patient,” according to the official records. In reality, the young women were cut off from family and friends and faced with one of the most momentous decisions of their lives. In many cases, they would be pressured by a social workers, maternity staff, and medical professionals to relinquish their infant children to adoption.
Crittenton General Hospital was the largest of all Crittenton facilities in the country in the 1950s. Crittenton maternity homes–and in the case of cities like Boston and Detroit, combined Crittenton homes and hospitals–had become way stations. Pregnant women from their teens to their early to mid-20s stayed out the last days, weeks, or months of their pregnancy.
Meanwhile the hospital was reorganized after the home had opened. Only one floor of one wing was reserved for “unwed mothers,” like my birth mother. These single women mostly stayed at the maternity home next door. I was born in that wing dedicated to single women, most of whom would never see their children again. There was also a nursery to care for babies. The rest of the hospital’s 194 beds provided private hospital care, including obstetrics, surgery, and pediatric services.
The hospital also continued to be a training facility for residents, from the University of Michigan and Harper Hospital. In my case, the obstetrician who delivered me was completing a residency. He came from overseas, like many other doctors who arrived in the United States and were employed to serve low-income and high-needs patients in inner-urban and rural hospitals. When I contacted him for an interview, he told me how the hospital provided basic maternal services but also doubled as a residence to single and pregnant women, who lived next door at the home. He remembered the many “girls,” as he called those young, pregnant boarders. He suggested they worked in the facility, likely to pay part of their expenses.
In many cases by the 1960s, those women who stayed at Crittenton homes and hospitals were relinquishing their children to adoption agencies, at the urging of social workers, family, faith-based groups, churches, and the systems that were created to address out-of-wedlock marriage and illegitimate children. This marked a radical change from the original Crittenton mission to keep mothers and children together. This coincided with societal change that led to hundreds of thousands of unplanned pregnancies and the American social engineering experiment that promoted adoption as “the best solution” to both restore fallen women and find homes for the estimated 2.4 million illegitimately born babies placed for adoption from 1951 through 1973, the year of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States.
One Crittenton center, in Sioux City, Iowa, claims that 98 percent of Crittenton babies were given up for adoption after World War II. (To learn more about how maternity homes functioned in the era of adoption shame and secrecy from the 1950s through 1973, read Anne Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away.)
Crittenton’s legacy serving single, pregnant women disappears from history
A couple of years after I was born, the Crittenton hospital had moved from its inner-city Detroit environs to suburban Detroit, in Rochester. It became known as Crittenton Hospital Rochester. This came immediately after deadly race riots in 1967 that shook the city and left 43 dead and burned more than 1,000 buildings. Detroit was beginning a five-decade-long decay as a once great American city to one that has seen its population fall from 1.8 million souls in 1950 to less than 700,000 as of 2015.
The city’s declining population and expenditures made the Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit too expensive to operate. Occupancy dropped in half by 1973. The Detroit hospital permanently shuttered its doors on March 22, 1974. At the time, I was still a young boy in the St. Louis area. I was completely oblivious to my true origins as a Detroit adoptee who was born and then surrendered into the status of foster child at one of the nation’s preeminent maternal care facilities that promoted adoption. Only decades later I finally pieced together my life and discovered that I literally arrived into the world at the center of the American Adoption experience and experiment.
In 1975, the facility that served as the starting place in life for a generation of adoptees was demolished. The home remained open, run by the Henry Ford Hospital. Though Crittenton General Hospital was reduced to rubble and built over, its ghosts linger in the memory of thousands who were born there or who gave birth there. The former locations today of the hospital and home look more like a war zone, due to Detroit’s struggles to address economic decline and blight.
The suburban hospital that fled from the Motor City is now called Crittenton Hospital Medical Center. The facility’s current web site shows no record how the former and original Detroit facility once served a critical societal and local need helping vulnerable women and children.
Throughout August 2016, I have reached out with multiple emails and phone calls to the hospital in and its communications staff. I have not received any answer to many questions I submitted concerning the hospital’s older records about its service to those woman and adoptees like myself. I did receive some copies of official of pages from an official National Florence Crittention Mission commemorative book, but no answers concerning the number of births and adoptions that were performed at the hospital. I was told in one curt email reply, “Unfortunately we have no historian on staff, however, the website does have a brief description of our history. … Good luck with your endeavor.” Those birth and adoption records may not be available, or the hospital may be intentionally choosing not to draw attention to its former mission serving single, pregnant women and their bastard babies, like me.
The hospital in 2015 reportedly was bought by the St. Louis-based Ascension Health, a Catholic-run care system. It seems far from coincidental that a Catholic-run medical system would downplay or even omit critical historical information how one of its facilities had dedicated decades of service to those who got pregnant out of marriage and paid the terrible price that many organizations, including America’s many Christian faiths and institutions, exacted on those woman and their children. As an adoptee, I find this deeply saddening and at the same time no surprise at all.
It appears the shame and stigma of illegitimacy that the original founders of the mission sought so hard to overcome have not gone away at all in 2016. I doubt any of the tens of thousands of Crittenton babies like myself are surprised.
This article was first published on Sept. 3, 2016. It was last updated on Sept. 13, 2016, after I found additional original source material outlining the history of the Crittenton mission in Detroit. I have found two different names for the hospital of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital and Detroit Crittenton Hospital. Because of this inconsistency in officials records, I have updated this blog and will use the former, which is cited more frequently.