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. [Editor’s note, January 2019: my book is now available in paperback and ebook].
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.
There are few documents in life that have as much magical power and significance as an original birth certificate. They are perhaps more talismanic for adoptees in the United State because most adopted adults born after the 1950s were prohibited by law from ever getting their original identity documents. I was one among millions of them.*
As an adoptee born in Michigan before the 1970s, I came into the world at a time when single mothers were shamed and bastard infants posed a moral hazard and strange, undefined threat to society. I was placed for adoption and had my human right to my original identity document taken from me. Denying me my record was more than a solitary injustice. It was a daily reminder of the inequity into which I established an identity cut off from my ancestral human past
The intention by state lawmakers in Michigan and around the country from the 1950s on was to ensure I and millions of other adoptees in nearly every state never knew who we were. The unstated but intended goal was to keep that document hidden forever from me until the day I died. This was a complete 180-degree policy turn from practices that allowed adoptees and their birth mothers to have access to records up to the early 1950s.**
The hiding of original birth records was essential to one of the grandest and least publicized social experiments in recent history—modern U.S. adoption that placed strangers with new families by the hundreds of thousands. The plan failed in many ways for the many people impacted by the practice. In her testimony in 1993 against restrictive measures in Colorado to limit adoptees’ rights to their records, adoptee right activist and pioneer Jean Paton said, “When the records were put under seal, it was an experiment in Utopia. It was a destructive error, and should be remedied by a sweeping cure … .” That cure has still never come, and persons like myself and thousands of others of Michiganders in the decades surrounding my birth are denied equal rights to their birth records, simply by the status and year of their birth, according to state law.
It’s all about ‘power’
On July 18, 2016, decades after first being denied what should have been given to me in 1989 by the State of Michigan and its public health bureaucracy, I received the original record of my birth as a person who came into this world. It is a sheet of paper with a name connected to biological families, a lineage, and a larger human story of kin and family networks over time. I was not a state secret. Nor was I ever a blank slate, to be “reborn” as many evangelical adoption activists falsely believe, as an unnamed person with a new name and an amended certificate. I was who I always was. By asking for what was already mine, I never demanded anything more than what any U.S. citizen asks for: equality under the law.
The state still claims this one sheet of paper literally must be kept secret in a locked box or file, withheld from me because of a “law.” The state asserted its paternalistic power without ever showing any peer-reviewed evidence, policy rationale, or demonstrated benefit how the state or my birth mother and family are helped by actions that represent an extreme interpretation of some very outdated and harmful laws.
When I attempted to interview State Registrar Glenn Copeland on July 22, 2016, his employer, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) refused to allow him or anyone else to speak to me about the department’s management of adoptees’ birth records and requests by adoptees to get their original documents. MDHHS press officer Jennifer Eisner issued a statement on July 27, 2016 defending the state’s position: “It our responsibility to carefully adhere to any and all laws of the state of Michigan. Michigan law includes specific provisions on the sealing of birth certificates in certain circumstances, such as following an adoption. … The vital records office is required to adhere to the law regarding the release of original records.” In short, this was the talking point shared with me on March 22, 2016, by Deputy State Registrar Tamara Weaver, who called me on the phone to share a simple message after I asked for my record: “The law is the law.”
The defense offered by the state has been and remains so flimsy and so removed from best practices, it is impossible not to conclude that Michigan discriminated against me as an adoptee, soley to preserve a perk of power. It needed to single me out to demonstrate that the state can ultimately and arbitrarily exercise its power over even law-abiding persons.
Ultimately, the state asserted its power without demonstrating compassion, leadership, or basic common sense. And it had those chances in spades. Granted this is not the moral equivalent of physical harm that many persons around the world experience daily from tyrannical and abusive governments. But the State of Michigan’s actions follow the logic used by all governments who chose to deny rights simply because they can—one of the most consistent expressions of how government works for itself and not “its subjects.”
What makes a birth certificate ‘different’
A birth certificate is the most important legal document for any American and every person born anywhere in the world. According to public health researchers Putu Duff, Santi Kusumaningrum, and Lindsay Stark, “birth registration is the first legal recognition of a child and a fundamental human right,” under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the United States, a government-created registration document proves you are entitled to the benefits and privileges—and responsibilities—of being a United States citizen.
One cannot obtain the most critical documents to navigate modern life without this sheet of paper: getting a U.S. passport, obtaining the standing legal identity document in the United States—the driver’s license, applying for a Social Security card, or enrolling as a child in school. One literally cannot live a modern life, including opening bank accounts, voting now in many U.S. states, accessing benefits, obtaining a job, and accessing all forms of education throughout one’s life without the cornerstone proof of legal existence that a birth certificate provides.
On a much broader level, as outlined by the United Nations, a birth certificate fulfills a basic human necessity. Without a certificate, anywhere in the world, a child can be denied basic human rights. They cannot get jobs, open bank accounts, obtain credit or inheritances, participate in social benefits, or be involved in political and civil affairs.
How Michigan denies adoptees their human right to a birth certificate
Before I found my birth families in 1989, the MDHHS, my adoption agency (Lutheran Child and Family Services), and the Wayne County Probate Court did everything in their power to keep me from knowing my birth family, critical family medical history, and identity.
After I met my birth mother that year, she signed a release for the state to allow for the release of my identity documents to me. I was sent formal written acknowledgement from the Michigan Department of Public Health, Office of Vital and Health Statistics. It acknowledged original information could be shared with me. This was then acknowledged in writing by the probate court and my adoption agency—they had to legally comply and turn over what was mine, though begrudgingly. I received copies my original adoption decree, birth medical history, and all other identifying information—including the names of my birth father, birth mother’s family, and records of my first year of life that were intentionally kept from me.
Yet the Michigan Department of Public Health, Office of Vital and Health Statistics, refused to surrender my original birth certificate, even when the fig leaf of secrecy had vanished by the events that made my adoption no longer a shameful societal secret. Adoption bureaucrats for the state of Michigan stood fast and claimed my birth certificate was allegedly “sealed,” and because I was an adoptee born between 1945 and 1980 and that state law allegedly allowed them to deny me the most important piece of paper a person can ever have. They made this defense even when I proved I knew my original birth name of Scott Douglas Owens and knew my genetic kin. [Note I have original birth records that spell my original birth name as “Douglas” and “Douglass.” I now use the former as part of my new legal name that mixed my original and adopted names: Rudolf Scott-Douglas Owens.]
‘The law is the law,’ and the abuses of an amoral, legal defense by public health authorities
In March 2016, I decided to challenge the state’s overreach and abuse of power by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), which now manages vital records. I demanded what was mine in a letter to department director Rick Lyon. You can read the details of my petition and all of my original documents on this summary page.
Three decades later, the state and MDHHS again doubled down and chose to fight my request and keep my original identity document from me, even when there was no longer any rational reason to keep a non-secret birth record from the person who knows his original birth name. The state adopted a legal smokescreen to mask arbitrary and paternalistic decisions that provide no public benefit to adoptees, birth parents, or the state.
These actions followed a long pattern of state-sanctioned discrimination against thousands of adoptees by denying them equal rights of all other residents regarding critical medical and family history—a practice that undermines public health.
The state had no compelling legal rationale to continue hiding my birth record except the claims that “the law is the law.” This is precisely the defense that has been used in some of the most egregious abuses of rights by state public officials in U.S. history. Up until the late 1970s and until a court challenges, some states practiced forced sterilization of persons deemed mentally deficient.
The practice was allowed by state laws through a national eugenics movement that began in the early 1900s. In California alone, where one-third of the estimated 60,000 state-sanctioned compulsory sterilization procedures in the United States occurred until 1979, government actions were codified in law and described as an approved public health strategy to breed out undesirable defects from the populace and to promote state health. In short, public health practices, until very recently and to this day still, have been and are still cloaked behind a rationale of being allowed by law, even when the persons implementing policy could always exercise moral judgement.
All of the facts of my identify are public and had been for nearly three decades concerning my original birth name. MDHHS denied my request without a proper review of my evidence sent to Director Lyon on March 28, 2016, claiming “the law is the law.”
Even more startling was the state’s own admission in its reply to me on July 27, 2016, that state law likely was not followed by denying me my birth certificate. The department stated: “For adoptions finalized between the dates of May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980, a court order is required unless the birth parent(s) have filed a consent to release the information. A court order would not be required if the deaths of both birth parents could be documented.” Because I had provided the department the signed legal consent by my birth mother, than it appears my records were supposed to have been shared, as far back in April 1989. I had included copies of that legal proof when I demanded my birth certificate in March 2106—and yet, the department refused to comply with how it claims the law requires vital records officials to handle requests from adult adoptees. (As of July 29, 2016, I have demanded a written explanation if the department was not complying with the law in its denial.)
Public records request reveals a fear-based bunker mentality at the MDHHS
State officials called my request and me the “problem,” “tagged” me in their system, and claimed I had “an agenda.” Nearly 20 senior officials in the MDHHS and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office were involved in denying my reasonable request and were copied in the state’s denial of my request.
I prepared a detailed account of their deliberations in a forensic analysis of personal email communications that revealed fear of me and my request by high-level MDHHS officials. They expressed uncertainty and confusion over their limited legal authority and the state’s poorly crafted adoption statutes. Two senior officials, Glenn Copeland, state registrar, and Tamara Weaver, Deputy State Registrar, also provided written remarks that suggest startling ignorance of U.S. adoption law and global trends that allow adoptees in countries like England to have full access to all their birth documents when they turn 18.
Deputy Registrar Weaver told her boss, State Registrar Copeland, that I would not be satisfied with my original birth certificate, which I had explicitly asked for. She seemed unable to understand, professionally or even compassionately, why any adoptee should have legal access to their birth records. After she called me on the telephone on March 22, 2016, without providing her name or role in managing state vital records, she wrote to her boss, “He has an agenda, nothing I would have said would have been sufficient. … I don’t think my offering him his record would have been enough for him, even though that is ultimately what he says he wants.”
Weaver also revealed in her email a lack of any knowledge of U.S. adoption history and that all adoption records were once accessible to adoptees and birth parents before the 1950s. She dismissed my detailed policy analysis I have published on discrimination against adoptees by U.S. states and adoption bureaucrats. She wrote, “Don’t know how true this angle is, but it is interesting, if you like that kind of story line.” Again, Weaver is the No. 2 in a state agency that manages vital records for all adoptees—a stunning confession. (See page 9 of my summary of state records on the denial of my request for my original birth certificate.)
MDHHS never once sought to consider alternatives they always had, including wide discretion in interpreting laws and rules—a central tenet in U.S. law and in all state and federal judicial reviews of agency actions. MDHHS officials determined from the start to deny me my record, and then they found a legal justification without reviewing all of the evidence I sent to them in an impartial manner. State Registrar Copeland sent me a stunningly obtuse letter in late March 2016 that never acknowledged the key facts of my case that were documented in legal documents in his department’s possession. He basically blew me off and expected me to go away, or maybe some day petition the court. To his dismay (also expressed in email), I reasserted professionally and respectfully my legal right to my birthright document.
The Michigan judiciary orders MDHHS to comply with my request
With no alternative available, I turned to the courts for a remedy to compel the MDHSS to give me what was mine. In April 2016 I filed a petition with the Michigan 3rd Circuit Court requesting a court order that would force the MDHHS to release a copy of my original birth certificate.
My justification to the court noted, “I am no longer wanting to accept the state’s continued unjust treatment of me simply because I am an adopted Michigan native who wants what non-adopted Michiganders receive: equal treatment under the law. A just outcome that releases the certificate to me poses no burden, meaningful cost, or harm to any party, nor the state of Michigan.” The Honorable Judge Christopher Dingell, in a telephone court hearing on June 17, 2016, agreed with facts of the case. He noted that I knew my birth name, had nearly three decades of contact with his birth families, and that the legal consent was already in state records in 1989. He signed the order requiring the MDHHS to end what I consider the illegal holding of my birth certificate and terminate decades-long discrimination against me on the basis of my status as an adoptee.
I finally get my birth certificate and what that means
I mailed the court order to the state’s vital records office on July 1, 2016, with a thick pack of documents that made absolutely clear the state had no more legal excuses to deny my birth record. On July 18, 2016, the sheet of paper, with a legal stamp from the state registrar, finally arrived in my mailbox.
I was stunned looking at the copy of my original birth certificate. The state had given me a final insult by writing three times in big bold letters, “SEALED,” as a reminder I was still a bastard and not a normal person. But underneath that insulting bureaucratic graffiti that purportedly protected the well-being of the state and its residents were all the facts I already had known for three decades. The only new information I found on the document was the full name of the attending physician, who helped to safely bring me into this world one spring day in Detroit, Michigan, many years ago.
The legal document marked my entrance into this world as a human being, with genetic kin and family histories and family members who did want to know me. It was registered as my original birth certificate about four weeks after my birth. This single sheet of paper was deemed a state secret. All my life, I was classified by law as being undeserving of this record, unlike all-non-adopted state residents, simply because I was relinquished as an infant to become an adoptee.
The only reason—and I repeat only reason—I now have possession of what is and always has been mine is because I never once recognized the legal or moral authority of the state’s so-called vital records professionals to deny me equal treatment and equal status by law. They never had that authority, and their actions over all these years demonstrate their lack of moral authority to anyone who may care about fairness and equality. By denying me my birth certificate, even when I knew my original name and birth families, they showed they had no moral center, clinging to a legalistic loin cloth and well-documented prejudice against adult adoptees who dare to say the emperor has no clothes.
I immediately posted a tweet about my final clash with state records keepers. I wrote this Facebook post as well for my social network circle: “It only took 27 years, but the so-called ‘public health’ secrecy mongers in Michigan finally gave me what has been mine since the day I was born: My Original Birth Certificate. … What a waste of time and resources. Imagine all the amazing things the state could have done helping adoptees or infants or needy kids instead of treating bastards as second-class people and children. This effort was done on behalf of anyone who was denied fair treatment under the law. You are always stronger when you work on behalf of the many, instead of just yourself.”
The Governor and MDHHS refuse to answer questions on adoptees’ rights
Before I published this article, I wanted to give Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the MDHHS a chance to defend and articulate the state’s positions on state adoption law and practices that discriminate against adoptees by denying them equal treatment to their vital records. Laura Biehl, senior communication advisor to Gov. Snyder, did not want to make statements when contacted by phone, but did accept my written questions that asked if adult adoptees had legal rights to vital records without restrictions and if Snyder believed all persons in Michigan had the right to received equal treatment under the U.S. Constitution and state law regarding access to original vital records. She replied on July 26, 2016, with a statement: “The Governor does not have a position regarding adoption records in Michigan so I am unable to answer your questions.”
I also reached out directly to interview State Registrar Copeland on July 22, 2016—the man who denied giving me my original birth certificate in March 2016. The MDHHS refused to allow him to speak to me nor any members of its media team to be interviewed by phone. The MDHHS agreed to respond to written questions. The department’s press officer, Jennifer Eisner, provided answers to only five of 27 questions, with a statement that essentially said the law is the law. (See her statement and a summary of those questions and mostly no answers on my summary document).
Specifically, the department did not answer if it discriminated against adult adoptees in the management of vital records. It refused to answer questions how it managed my record request or why I was “tagged” after being identified as the “problem.” It could not even answer simple questions how the state’s adoptions record unit that handles adoptee records requests, the Central Adoption Registry, is managed, who manages it, or if it ever has been audited. Finally, the department did not answer if it was aware of national adoption laws in countries like England that allow all adult adoptees to get copies of all of their original birth records when they turn 18.
The most startling fact I discovered was the state’s total failure to even track or count how many requests for birth records by adult adoptees are denied by the MDHHS. “The total number of these official requests would not be known but is believed to be very close to the number released,” said Jennifer Eisner, a press officer with the MDDHS in a July 27, 2016, email.
Given the ubiquity of adoptees in the United states (perhaps 5 million or maybe more) and the decades-long efforts by adoptees to access their records, such an acknowledgement shows for Michigan at least, adoptees still do not matter and thus will not be counted. As those in public health and health know, what gets measured gets done. What is ignored remains a problem.
The state also could not provide a written estimate how many Michigan adoptees may be living who were born between 1945 and 1980—those who that state claims need court orders to get birth certificates. According to Eisner, the department only began counting the number of released birth certificates in 2009—decades after adoption became one of the most widespread practices in family formation in the United States. Since 2009, only 549 original birth certificates have been given to adoptees, according to the MDHHS. I do not know if I was No. 549 or if some other determined adoptee came right after me. We are a shockingly small group of Michiganders who persevered against the secrecy guardians of the state.
The message from these vital records keeping practices by Michigan’s public health professionals is very clear. Adult adoptees, you still do not count. We can continue to ignore your rights and treat you as State Registrar Copeland called the “problem.”
* Records collection on adoptions has long been imprecise. The most widely quoted data set on U.S. adoptions through the mid-1970s was published in a paper by Penelope Maza for the U.S. Children’s Bureau. The study found the United States recorded 2.4 million adoptions from 1944 through 1972— the last year before abortion became legal in the United States. The study made estimates without precise data, because data collecting was voluntary not mandatory.
In 2010, the U.S. Census officially recorded more than 1.5 million adopted children under 18 years of age living with an adopted parent. This compares to a total U.S. estimated population of adopted children, including those 18 and older still living in households with their parents, at a little more than 2 million persons. The count does not include adoptees who are no longer living at home and who are adults—a figure that remains undefined by demographers, but expansive and far-reaching.
**Read an excellent article by adoption law scholar Elizabeth Samuels, JD. She has published numerous articles on how states and bureaucracies implemented secrecy measures that have closed once open birth records, preventing adoptees and birth parents from accessing their vital records and from knowing one another.
 Penelope L. Maza, “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975,” Child Welfare Research Notes #9 (U.S. Children’s Bureau, August 1984), pp. 1-4, Child Welfare League of America Papers, Box 65, Folder: “Adoption—Research—Reprints of Articles,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.
I am attempting to secure my original birth certificate from the State of Michigan. You can watch my video highlighting my request for my original record of birth.
If you were not adopted, you are entitled to this document. It provides you legal proof of who you are and, as important, information about your family, which is the foundation to knowing your ancestry. If you are not adopted, you will never have to face obstacles for the most basic information and not know what it means to be denied essential information about who you are.
Today, one’s ancestry is widely considered one of the important pieces of information for a human to have. Medically, having access to one’s family history is considered a best health practice by all medical professionals. Nearly all dental and medical professionals ask for this information.
Access to original birth records is a national health and public health priority
Adoptees like all other Americans should by legal right be entitled to this potentially life-saving information. The National Institutes for Health reports there are more than 6,000 genetic and rare diseases. These afflict more than 25 million Americans, and about 30 percent of early deaths can be linked to genetic causes. Genetic mutations play a major role in about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers, the second leading killer of all Americans, topped only by heart disease. Researchers have associated mutations in specific genes with more than 50 hereditary cancer syndromes, which are disorders that may mean some individuals are more likely to develop certain cancers.
For its part, the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) identifies the role of genomes in other health issues, such as birth defects, chronic diseases, and congenital heart defects, and the CDC has created the Office of Public Health Genomics to promote research in the field. The U.S. Surgeon General in 2004 declared a Family History Health Day, on Thanksgiving, to promote greater awareness on the critical role of family medical history to promoting health—and by family history the nation’s leading medical advocate means onlygenetic family history. Family medical histories can identify people with a higher risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. A family medical history can also provide risks of rarer conditions caused by mutations, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.
Groups like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also use family health history information to recommend national screening and preventive services for conditions such as osteoporosis, hyperlipidemia, and breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommendations for early breast cancer detection recently included changes in mammography recommendations that use family health history in decisions when a woman should begin mammography in persons with a family history where breast cancer is a known risk.
Ignore science and evidence and deny, deny, deny
To date, Michigan has prevented me for more than a quarter of a century from getting this document, by law. This is, on its face, discrimination against me simply because I am an adopted person. No other group of persons in Michigan, not even convicted felons, are denied this document on the basis of their status at birth.
The Wayne County Probate Court and my adoption agency, formerly Lutheran Children’s Friend Society of Michigan, did release most of my identifying information to me, however. But that was only after I found my birth family, spending two years searching, at great investment of my time, financial resources, and energy. They were compelled by law to release this information they once hid from me, in theory to promote some abstract benefit that is not proven anywhere in any research. I received no help from the adoption bureaucracy to secure my original records. Even though I have a copy of documents bearing my original birth name, my medical records during my adoption, my adoption decree, and other legal documents, the state’s outdated and archaic adoption bureaucracy has refused to discuss and work with me to obtain what I am legally entitled to: my original birth certificate.
To try and speed up this process, I am communicating directly with Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services asking the leader of this state agency to resolve this simple bureaucratic records request without delay. I will have sent that document to Director Nick Lyon on March 21, 2016. I am excerpting below some of that request. In that note I outlined how Michigan openly discriminates against people by status of being adopted.
My goal is only to obtain what I should have been given years ago, and without further delay. By writing about this issue, I also hope to highlight how discriminatory state adoption laws continue to harm hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and deny them equal treatment under the law. Closed records are widely acknowledged by nearly all evidence to be harmful to birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive families. My story is just a small piece of that larger story. One story at a time, state laws might be changed. I am not expecting that to happen any time soon, however.
Excerpt of Letter to Director Lyon:
Laws that your legislatures have passed concerning adoption no longer apply to me, as I have already found my birth families, now for more than 26 years, in 1989. There is no longer any compelling state interest or legal or other rationale that justifies the state of Michigan holding an original record and what is mine by birthright. I know my original name (Scott Douglas Owens). …
However, your adoption staff personnel refused to discuss this situation with me when I called the Central Adoption Registry in October 2015. A staff member there returned my call but refused to discuss my legal reality that bypasses the need for me to fill out Form 1919 (Parent’s Consent/Denial to Release Information to Adult Adoptee). … When I tried to explain I already know everything about my birth family and birth records, she still told me, in essence, “Fill out the damn form.” It was one of the most embarrassing calls I have had with anyone in public service in my life, and I’ve spent decades serving the public now as a professional.
… this form is no longer legally required. The alleged purpose of the law is to supposedly provide a benefit to birth parents and adoptees, even in the face of overwhelming evidence such legal barriers are antiquated and all sides in adoption want to know each other. In this case, there is no longer any compelling legal justification to delay the release of my original birth record now. I already know my family. I already have my other birth records. I just want my original birth certificate.
“Prior to World War II, there was no wide-spread and institutionalized adoption system. When children were born out of wedlock, both the babies and the mothers were considered undesirable. They bore a stigma—got little or no help. But after the war, that changed. Babies became part of a huge new adoption industry … while their unwed mothers were still shunned by society.”
“With respect to attitudes about adoption, white unmarried motherhood is no longer equated with mental disorder or an ability to recover easily from surrendering a child for adoption. A large majority of birth parents are reported to be open to or actually desire contact with adoptees. Adoptive families have come increasingly to be seen as having unique qualities and challenges. … Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families have become families figures and are no longer assumed to be suffering from a mental disorder.”
One of the most under-reported societal stories of the past six decades has been how the U.S. adoption system continues to discriminate against several million adopted Americans. This legal practice is particularly ironic because the movement to make adoption records more secret from adoptees, depriving them of basic human rights, came at a time when voting rights, civil rights, gay rights, disability rights, and women’s rights were expanding for all Americans from the 1950s onward.
University of Baltimore law professor Elizabeth Samuels has documented this national trend with both clarity and meticulous detail in a series of articles she has published starting in 2001 on adoption law and privacy issues surrounding adoption.
Samuels has painstakingly documented in her authoritative study how state adoption laws evolved from the 1930s to the present and how elected state lawmakers systematically closed adoption records between the 1960s and 1990s. The change was championed by state legislatures and social service bureaucracies, with the quiet but critical involvement of the U.S. medical establishment that delivered the babies and cared for the women giving birth.
This happened without any clear evidence proving records secrecy offered benefits to mothers and children placed for adoption. The closing of records was based largely on societal views that stigmatized unwed mothers and particularly adopted children even to this day.
It is likely that many Americans still harbor deep fears and suspicions about adoptees as adults, thanks to archetypal fears of bastard babies and stigmas fueled by unrepentant mental health professionals who caused calculated harm with their pseudo-scientific branding of an adoptees’ quest for information as unhealthy.
Oddly, this movement to seal original birth certificates and birth records of adoptees through the 1990s took place as many adoptees had come of age and began organizing local, state-level, and national movements demanding a universal right to know who they were and where they came from, as found in original identity documents.
Advocates included Betty Jean Lifton, author of Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter (1975); Florence Fisher, author of The Search for Anna Fisher (1973), and social worker-turned adoptee rights advocate Jean Paton, author of The Adopted Break Silence (1953).
Paton, a mostly unrecognized social leader and equal rights advocate two decades ahead of her time, helped to launch a national adoptees right movement and published two books that advocated for adoptees’ rights. She suggested the creation of a mutual consent registry as early as 1949, for example, and embraced the term “bastard” in the 1970s, long before the emergence of the advocacy group Bastard Nation in the 1990s.
She wrote of her experience before states began to implement discriminatory laws: “In 1942 I had gone to the Probate Court … and looked up my first adoption paper, and saw my mother’s full name signed by her own hand. There was no rigmarole; you were allowed to see your own paper in a kindly procedure.”
When records were open to adoptees, the norm
As Samuels reports, “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, most state laws did permit adult adoptees to view birth records. But by 1960, 26 states were making both original birth records and adoption records available only by court order. Twenty other states still birth records available on demand, but over the following 30 years, all of those states but three—Alaska, Kansas and South Dakota—close records to adults adoptees.”
Samuels shows through a review of state records and recommendations from leading adoption welfare agencies from the 1930s to the 1950s that the groups most involved in handling adoptions and developing recommendations mostly agreed that adult adoptees should have access to their original birth records.
Samuels shows the original legal rationale to provide confidentiality of the birth mother and to keep her from knowing her birth parents was only to “protect adoptees and adoptive parents from the dangers of public access to personal information.”
The intent up through the end of the 1950s was never to prevent adult adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates, which had their original names prior to their adoption and later amended birth certificates with their name provided by the adoptive parents.
The most influential adoption agency of its time, the Child Welfare League of America, noted in its 1941 standards that such protection shielded adoptees “from unnecessary embarrassment in case of illegitimacy.”
In fact the U.S. Children’s Bureau, one of the major players in the development of adoption law through the mid-20th century, fully endorsed adult adoptees’ rights to know who they were, in the form of access to their original birth records, up through the late 1940s. Samuels notes one consultant for the agency defended this already established legal practice nationally, noting, “every person has a right to know who he is and who his people were.”
Samuels’ legal analysis dismantles and thoroughly destroys the predominant justification still used today that the shamed and marginalized pregnant mothers who entered into adoptions from the 1940s onward wanted to have their identities hidden from their birth children. This false narrative still survives today and still continues to allow legalized discrimination and stigmatization of these mothers and their kids.
Samuels unearthed no data or credible study that ever justified this overwhelming legal rationale. It was the view advanced by the interest groups who managed adoptions, notably the social service agencies who brokered more than 1.5 million adoptions from 1951 to 1972— the last year before abortion became legal in the United States.
“The historical record suggests that birth mothers were in fact seeking a measure of confidentiality,” writes Samuels in her October 2001 op ed published in the Washington Post in 2001. “What mothers wanted, however, was not to prevent the adoptive parents and the children they had surrendered from discovering their identities, but to prevent their communities from learning of their situations.”
When and why “secrecy” became acceptable?
Samuels’ evidence shows that the rationale by state legislatures reflected the social attitudes of their day. It is very likely lawmakers, still majority male from the 1960s to 1990s, were open to the advocacy of interest groups supportive of family ideas not grounded in any scientific research of the birth mothers or adoptees.
Samuels outlines this unproven myth of these three decades with the following main points:
Social attitudes were developing about the nature of adoption.
Adoption was increasingly being regarded as a “complete and perfect” substitute for the creation of families.
A prevailing myth gained credibility that once adoption is legalized, the newly configured family would become the “real family” and the child would be the same and feel the same as if he or she were born into that family.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, child development theories emphasized nurture over nature, and suggested that a birth parent’s purported “morality” would not be transmitted in a child’s development or future actions.
These views coincided with larger societal views that shamed unmarried women. This institutionalizing of this shame can be seen in the development of the Florence Crittenton Homes and other places that spirited away unwed and mostly white women until they gave birth to their kids. (See Anne Fessler’s study of these women, The Girls Who Went Away, for an overview of this system.)
There were also illegal operations that allowed babies to be sold or stolen, seen in the case of nearly a dozen “Gertie’s babies” in the 1950s in the American west, who were placed in the adoption black market. In Ireland up through the 1960s, the Catholic Church ran homes for “lost girls” and brokered the sale of babies from single pregnant women to American families, documented in the 2013 film Philomena. (See my story on that film and the Florence Crittenton Homes, “The American Philomena story that is also my own.”)
The adoption industrial complex
Dan Rather recently profiled America’s hidden baby delivery and placement system that put vulnerable, pregnant women in situations that sometimes led to coercive adoptions. His May 1, 2012, episode of Dan Rather Reports, called “Adopted or Abducted?” interviewed women who decades after surrendering their children now claim they were forced to put their babies up for adoption, often with the support of Catholic charities.
This large but little publicized system went beyond the Florence Crittenton Homes and similar facilities that hid young women, including my birth mother and me. The participants were parents desperate for kids, doctors, social workers, clergy, lawyers, nurses, and lawmakers passing laws that ensured the system could operate without disruption. Most believed they were doing the right thing for kids and their moms. The adoptive parents certainly were not causing harm, and offering love and a home. Adoptive families are not being criticized or questioned here for their deeds and their love.
That larger system still exists today, minus the homes for unwed mothers. One estimate puts the value of the adoption industrial complex today at $13 billion per anum.
Not including adoptive parents, I have rarely heard of a single participant in this system ever admit they believed they were wrong, even when compelling evidence has been widely reported for decades in the USA today that secrecy in the adoption system has led to lifelong frustration by adults wanting to know their kin and where they came from.
Demographics and changing social mores had a large impact in this story too. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show a dramatic rise in “illegitimate births” during the 25-year period from 1940 to 1965.
Five years later, in 1970, these out-of wedlock births reached 398,700.
More than half were by women 15 to 19 years of age.
By the mid-1960s, close to 400 maternity homes were operating nationwide, often overcrowded. My birthmother stayed in one of these. I was born in the unwed mother’s maternity ward of Detroit’s Crittenton General Hospital, on Tuxedo Street, once affiliated with the National lorence Crittenton Mission.
Sham pseudo-science by psychologists and psychiatrists
What’s particularly shameful from this era is how it promoted women’s virtue at the expense of pregnant women and the hundreds of thousands of adoptees. Complicit in these failings are social workers and health professionals who may have meant well, but who never fully understood the impacts of their activities or never considered the long-term welfare of mothers and their kids.
Psychiatry and psychology professionals colluded in especially damaging ways. They provided a mental health framework to promote ideas that were harmful to millions of Americans whose only failing was to have a child out of marriage or be born out of marriage. (For me, the kooky theories offered from this era still call into question these professionals’ scientific credibility to this day.)
One commentary cited by Samuels of a mental health professional (Viola Barnard) from this era described an adoptee’s curiosity to find his or her identity as “tragically pathological distortions.” Barnard’s views were considered influential in the 1950s and early 1960s on adoption practices, according to Samuels.
Samuels’ review of the literature of the time shows that unmarried mothers who became pregnant were seen as mentally ill—a theory that completely ignored the failures of the legal and moral systems to hold the birth fathers accountable or to shame them equally.
A woman, a white woman in particular, who had sex was seen as a deviant or having a psychopathology. Samuels notes racist views promoted another view that it was natural or normal for less-moral African Americans to have out of wedlock births.
Barbara Melosh’s history on American adoption notes that in postwar America, women who had children out of marriage were “deemed neurotic—as manifesting a disordered femininity.” They were “bad women, their sexual transgressions exposed by pregnancy.” (See Strangers and Kin, 2002.) Even women adopting were tarred as being unfit women because of their infertility.
Anne Fessler profiled this stigma in her 2006 oral history on women before the Roe V. Wade decision who gave up children for adoption, called TheGirls Who Went Away.
In her interview with Rather on often coercive and sometimes illegal methods used to convince young women to surrender their bids for adoption, Fessler said, “In the United States between 1945 and 1973 a million and a half women surrendered children for adoption. I see that period of time as a kind of perfect storm of circumstances that led to all these surrenders. Number one, during the war and after the war there was a change in what was considered acceptable sexual behavior.”
While the men, like my respected ROTC and medical professional birth father, escaped societal scorn, women had to wear the brand of mental illness and be changed.
According to this view, reforming the mentally ill mother could occur with the lifelong separation from her birth child, which would enable the woman a chance to fulfill her desired identity as a woman by raising her own children and family. The burgeoning adoption market provided the “system” through which this idea was sustained—a two-part solution to a problem of change in society.
Unsubstantiated claims from the 1960s onward were made by defenders of closed records that adoptees or birth mothers might wish to extract revenge or extortion. Samuels even cites one instance where efforts in a court case by an adult adoptee to seek their records were denounced by an opposing attorney, who claimed the information could be used by the adoptee to “find and murder his biological parent.”
The bogeyman concept of illegitimate children, however, far precedes the U.S. adoption system and laws that govern it. Adoption laws only date to the 19th century in the United States. Ideas of birth-driven—now considered genetic—identity are historic and rooted deeply in most cultures over time.
Such children call into question property ownership, lines of familial and political succession, moral standing of parents and entire religions, and more. Each society over time has addressed these fears, often brutally for the unlucky illegitimate. Normally, the “bastards” have been ostracized, but also killed. (Please see my article on the demonization of bastards.)
Parenting literature from the 1970s also was awash in guidance to adopted parents how to tell the children they adopted about their origins. But the so-called psychological professionals counseled that any adopted child who sought out their origins was the acting out of fantasy, not one of a human’s most innate desires, documented in nearly all religions and myths as an essential and archetypal human need. (See my article on this archetype and myth.)
The sociologist Katherine Wegar, who has studied the issue of adoptees’ rights and their quests for their birth documentation, suggests that searching for genetic identity is “generally regarded and experienced as an important part of a person’s identity, perhaps even as an archetypal yearning.” Wegar concludes adoptees continued to suffer from societal discrimination that they are inferior to non-adopted persons.
Accepted discrimination, so long as you are adopted or a birth parent
The stigma of adoption was also branded on all adoptees by these prevailing norms from the 1960s onward. These were reinforced by a network of increasingly discriminatory state laws that treated adult adoptees separately, with lesser rights than all other U.S. citizens. Laws were passed in states that blocked adoptees from ever inheriting any property or wealth from natural parents. (Samuels cites the presence of such discrimination in 2001 of slightly less than half of all states preventing such inheritance.)
Author Florence Fisher wrote of her efforts in 1951 to find her birth parents, and the lawyer who arranged the process told her, “You have right to any information whatsoever. You were adopted legally … . You had no other parents.” Author Betty Jay Lifton was told by her psychiatrist she had consulted about her search in the mid-1950s, “Your need to look for your mother is neurotic. You are rationalizing why you must know who your real ‘real’ parent, as you call them, are.”
This was the overwhelming societal attitude I encountered starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, when I began to openly discussing my adoption as a young person.
During this dark period of lawmaking that closed adoption records one by one in most states, I began my own long, expensive, and ultimately successful search for my biological parents, my family medical background, and my collective family history. This is information that I am entitled to as a human right, though most states had made that right illegal.
During that search, I was told I was being cruel to my adoptive family. I was told I had “issues” that had not been resolved in my infancy or childhood. I was mocked and laughed at by people when I explained I had a German name, but was not German. I was told I was mentally unhealthy. The only people who seemed to give a damn were adoptees.
As Samuels shows, “widespread and entrenched social attitudes about secrecy in adoption” contributed to the closing of birth records to adult adoptees and birth mothers from 1960 to 1990. This was despite the social revolution of the era that was attacking the false adoption secrecy model and challenging the false narrative that adoption provided a perfect replacement to childbirth for families who could not produce children.
Samuels suggests that as single-parent homes among white families became more widespread, unmarried motherhood “was no longer equated with mental illness.” Adoptive families were finally seen as having challenges and qualities, grounded in peer-reviewed studies of outcomes of adoptees and their families.
Many birth parents were found to be open to being contacted. Thanks to the growing proliferation of stories about adoptees’ lack of rights, discrimination by states and agencies against them, and the emergence of a national movement, adoptees’ quests for identify information became less stigmatized. “Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families became familiar figures, no longer assumed to be suffering from mental disorders,” says Samuels.
Samuels also cites arguments circulating in legal and psychological communities that adoptees should be given access to their rightful identity information because denial causes “psychological impairment.”
This idea is fundamentally flawed because it justifies the continued stereotyping of adoptees as mentally harmed, not as persons who are healthy by seeking information and who are doing what should be considered human and utterly normal.
Why state lawmakers ignore evidence and disregard adoptees and birth mothers
Despite changing societal views, states continued to double down and continued to close records.
I think this happened because the state legislative environment has many conservative lawmakers in all states. Many of these lawmakers are sympathetic to adoptions as the “solution” to abortion (it is not). I also believe that this political environment is overly receptive to the Christian piety myth of rebirth through adoption that mirrors a conservative Christian notion of being “born again” (being adopted is not being born again, period).
Finally state lawmaking settings rarely rely on evidence alone to pass laws. I have seen on countless occasions when I worked in the Washington State Legislature for two years how single stories carry equal weight to massive evidence contradicting those outlier stories. In such a setting, the views of just one birth mother can be given equal weight of extensive and large bodies of scientific evidence that provide birth mothers and adoptees want to have rights they once had restored.
Samuels argues that laws from the 1970s on failed to ever acknowledge records for adoptees were once open. “It was as if there had never been periods of time in many states, only recently concluded in some and still ongoing in others, during which adult adoptees had legal access to their birth records.”
Evidence from many researchers continues to show adoption secrecy is rejected by the principal actors in adoption: birth parents and their children placed for adoption. Samuels says studies as far back as 1989 showed that “almost ninety percent of birth mothers studied favored being contacted on behalf of their surrendered children.”
Samuels reported in 2001 that:
In state sanctioned intermediary programs (where a third party is a bridge contact between adoptees and birth parents [birth mothers]), 95% of the parents are open to contact.
Hawaii reported that the most typical reaction of their state-run system is one of “great joy, crying, and, “This is the call I’ve been waiting for.”
New Jersey reported that 95 percent of 350 living birth family members contacted in a four-year period wanted contact if adoptees requested it.
More recent data published by the Donaldson Adoption Institute suggests that there is overwhelming support among adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents to allow for open records, completely undermining arguments from secrecy proponents.
Failures of intermediaries and registries and the power of a powerless bureaucrat
In some states, such as Michigan, some adoptees and birth mothers can use an approved intermediary and others registries to request original birth records and find biological families. Others cannot simply on the basis of a person’s birth year. I fall into the period of births that closes records, except under strict conditions that require a birth mother to sign a legal release form, reviewed by bureaucrat who makes decisions that they likely have no training to understand.
I also believe a major issue not discussed in adoption research is simply the love of absolute power that mostly powerless bureaucrats and social workers have over adoptees searching for records. A bureaucrat’s imperative is to say “no,” as history shows time and again in a classic Weberian sense of how bureaucracies wield power.
In April 1989 in Detroit, I met a social worker with the Lutheran Child and Family Services and asked for my records and birth certificate. She politely refused to help me. She had the power, it was not “legal,” and she offered no help.
Two days later, after I had found my birth mother with some pretty impressive gumshoe detective work, I returned to the same social worker with a signed statement by my birth mother asking to release my information. The social worker finally released documents about my birth with my original birth name, except my birth certificate.
That type of life-changing power held by mostly lower-level practitioners is intoxicating, and bureaucrats seldom relinquish power once they have seized it. The law is the artifice used to justify it.
Registries and intermediaries in states also support the continuation of restricted access to records for hundreds of thousands of adoptees. They create unnecessary barriers to both birth parents and their kids under an unjustified notion that equal rights, namely, access to birth records, is a conditional right only the state can control.
Were such practices applied to anyone beyond adoptees and birth mothers, the media and advocacy groups would be lambasting state-approved registries and intermediary systems as a form of legal discrimination.
These methods still support a system that is not rooted in science or research, but one that emerged mainly through custom and tradition and the desire of Christian lawmakers to promote adoption alternatives to birth control (my own view of the political landscape). Restrictions also exhibit a raw expression of power by states and their bureaucracies. These methods legitimize the power of a state to control individual rights that most people assume are natural at birth.
With regards to the passive and active registries, Samuels concludes rightly they are “ineffective, demean adult adoptees, and do not remedy the fundamental denial of adoptees’ rights to the kind of basic information about oneself that is available to all other persons.”
Admitting wrongs and changing laws will make a difference
As an adult adoptee, I am grateful for the work of pioneers like Lifton, Fisher, and Paton, who were prophets in the wilderness and who identified injustice and clear wrongs. I remain grateful that stories continue to be published on adoptees finding birth family, and vice versa, as a means of keeping the legal discrimination front and center in the news.
Having football heroes like Tim Green and singing icon and former birth mother Joni Mitchell have their personal stories be known to the public helps build awareness of the hidden and ongoing pattern of legalized secrecy that provides no clear benefit to society or those most involved. They humanize the issue.
However, the “compelling human-interest story” that inspires “myriad novels, plays, and movies,” as Wegar calls it, should not be the means to correct past wrongs and to extend equal rights to adoptees.
The language of civil rights, that was broadened to include the rights of gays persons seeking to marry legally and have the same benefits under the law, now needs to be considered in the context of those born into a system in which their rights were never fully considered.
In fact adoptees are doing that with a national MoveOn.org petition asking for the Obama administration to open closed birth records with an executive order, and they are planning to hold a national rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23 and 24, 2016, demanding equal treatment under the law by demanding open records.
As Samuels shows, anonymity rights concocted by mostly male run legislatures, with no recorded evidence submitted on their negative impacts on adopted persons, never existed in practice when the prevailing legal interpretations of the time claimed they did. Myth became truth, in other words.
I hope that the evidence that moves society is more through the studies Samuels cited and books like those written by Barbara Melosh, which are also turned into moving stories.
Evidence exists in other developed countries with a long record of using adoption (England, Scotland, Israel) that there have not been dire consequences for sharing birth identity documentation. Scotland has had open records since 1930, and England and Wales since 1975, both of which saw the benefits to the Scottish legal model that worked.
A useful model to follow is how the Australian Government has reviewed past abuses and harms caused by adoption to birth mothers, their families, and their kids. The government released an extensively researched 2010 report called the Impact of past adoption practices: Summary of key issues from Australian research, which focused on abusive practices that coerced young women to surrendering kids out of marriage.
The report noted: “Contrary to the popular myth that ‘time heals all wounds,’ one theme that was fairly consistent across the different studies and methodologies reviewed here was the notion that the pain and distress of their experience of adoption did not just ‘go away’ with the passage of time.”
The report looked honestly at the country’s past and used research to come to conclusions how to correct the mistakes and acknowledge that adoption was never a perfect system. Australia took a further step when Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in 2013, apologized to the thousands of birth mothers who gave up their children for adoption in situations that amounted to coercion.
There needs to be an honest accounting nationally in the United States, grounded in rigorous reporting and science. That should include testimonials by doctors and mental health experts, and lawmakers, who greased the skids of the flawed U.S. adoption system along the way. They need to step up to the mic, say what they did, and say that we could do better now.
Then there needs to be political and legal action to make it possible for those who were adopted or who gave up children for adoption to experience legal rights other countries grant to their citizens. We will see if the rally in Washington in September 2016 makes a difference. But I doubt states will be rushing to help adoptees anytime soon by granting them all open records access.
Meanwhile, my original birth certificate, bearing my birth name of Scott Douglas Owens*, remains sealed in an office somewhere in Michigan, hidden from me as a state secret, more than a quarter century after I have found my biological families. I will continue having to accept the utter insanity of an imperfect legal system that considers this to be both moral and normal.
(*I decided in August 2009 to legally change my adopted name, Martin Rudolf Brueggemann, to Rudolf Scott Douglas Owens, combining parts of my adopted and birth name. This is a true reflection of who I am, a person born into two families, with two names.)