One of the reasons I wrote You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, my recently published memoir and critical examination of the U.S. adoption system, was to promote equal treatment of all adoptees by law. The way this ultimately will happen is through the force of law, and in the United States, that will be legislative changes on a state by state basis, given past failures to mount a congressional effort to allow adoptees to receive their birth records by a national legal standard. I am not expecting change to happen fast.
Because I am a realist and know that real grand strategy is a long game, played by deeply committed interest groups and persons who understand power, I also am advocating for shorter term victories that can be accomplished as part of incremental progress. Ultimately, I want my work to contribute to changing Michigan’s outdated and discriminatory adoptions adoption records laws that deny most Michigan adoptees, like me, their family ancestry, birth records, and equal legal status.
I will be promoting these very simple and mostly bureaucratic changes this week (first week of June 2018) when I head to Michigan and meet with lawmakers in person and tell them my story about being denied my identity and records by the state and its public healthy bureaucracy, simply because I was born a bastard and adoptee.
FOUR EASY STEPS THAT WILL HELP AND PROVIDE NO HARM:
1. Provide Accurate Data on Adoptees Born in Michigan: The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) can use minimal resources to estimate the number of adoptees and adoptee relinquishments in Michigan and make that information public. Right now there is no accurate figure that is published showing how many Michigan natives were adopted. Knowing their numbers can highlight the impact of laws impacting all adoptees. This figure can be made public and easily accessible on the state’s/MDHHS’s web sites.
2.Track All Requests for Birth Records by All Michigan Adoptees: The MDHHS claims it doesn’t track how many requests are made by adoptees seeking their birth records. Without accurate data, the impact of state laws cannot be measured. The public has a right to know who and how many people are impacted by state laws that deny a class of people equal treatment by law in accessing their records of origin. A tracking system can easily be created in a database with simple information: date of birth, names of adoptee, location of birth, and even reasons for requests. Reports can be prepared that hide the identity of adoptees when they are made public annually or upon request by the legislature or the media/public.
Instead of tracking all adoptee records requests, the state, as of 2009, uses a log of records released only. This does not count requests rejected or all requests for records assistance, according to an MDHHS spokesperson’s statement from July 2016. As of that month, 549 records requests were fulfilled since fall 2009, and it is unknown if those included original birth records. There is no data on adoptee records requests fulfilled prior to fall 2009, according to MDHHS.
3.Conduct a Performance Audit of the Central Adoption Registry (CAR): The CAR, run by Connie Stevens, is a one-person office with extensive gatekeeper authority to manage all birth records requests from adoptees sent from courts or agencies if adoptees’ birth records information may or may not be released. Even the office’s superior, Glenn Copeland, defers decisions to the CAR. Though the office has authority to approve the release of adoptee birth records, it claims it cannot be contacted by adoptees, many of whom report consistent unprofessional treatment when they seek help from the CAR with Michigan’s overly complex adoptee records system. To ensure the office is treating all requests fairly and acting impartially to serve all residents, a basic performance audit can be conducted to highlight problems and solutions that ensure equitable service to the public. (FYI, here is where you can contact the CAR, and do not expect calls back quickly, if you get them.)
4.Provide Additional Staff Resources to Answer Adoptee Questions: Because the CAR claims it does not help adoptees, the state can dedicate staffing time from other vital records personnel to handle questions from adoptees trying to navigate Michigan’s complex adoptee records laws. This is a principle of basic good governance, to assist and help the public navigate state systems and provide good customer service. A contact number and email should be made visible on the MDHHS website for adoptee records information.
Author note: I published a nearly identical version of this post on my memoir website on June 2, 2018.
This week I was informed by a Michigan historical publication that its editorial committee rejected my proposed article on the historical significance of my birthplace, Crittenton General Hospital. “While the committee appreciates the article you submitted, it unfortunately does not meet our magazine’s editorial needs and we will be unable to accept it for publication,” the editor wrote.
This means that an article I proposed to tell the story of thousands of single Michigan mothers who gave up their children for adoption in the decades after World War II in Detroit will not reach a wider audience in Michigan. For that, I am disappointed.
I respectfully asked for feedback how I did not meet their needs, and did not get a reply. I do not expect a response, and to date have not received one.
[Author’s update, 9/15/2017, 1:05 p.m.: Hours after publishing this article, I received a reply from the publication I had contacted that its editorial committee thought my article was a “personal opinion piece,” which they do not accept in their publications. That reply arrived only after I had provided the publication a courtesy email to let them know I had published this article.]
No publication is obligated to tell any writer why they are rejected. Rejection is the norm in the world of writing and publishing. It also inspires good writers.
However, this outcome, which I have experienced when reaching out to many different publications to engage them on the history and problems in the U.S. adoption system, likely has other issues beyond my storytelling abilities or even the merits of the stories I am trying to tell.
The outcome falls into a trend of editorial bias by people who likely do not recognize how their decisions about covering the story of the U.S. adoption system and its history are influenced by their own subconscious views. My forthcoming book on the U.S. adoption experience investigates how bias influences individuals’ and society’s views about illegitimately born people (bastards like me), including adoptees. I also have published an essay on that topic on my blog.
Is it Bad Writing/Research, Bias, or a ‘Suspect’ Writer/Researcher?
The larger issue of research bias is well documented in human-subjects research. That field boasts a staggering list of biases that impact the research outcomes, before, during, and after clinical trials. It also is a well-documented issue in communications.
The open-source scientific publication PLoS noted in a 2009 editorial, “A large and growing literature details the many ways by which research and the subsequent published record can be inappropriately influenced, including publication bias, outcome reporting bias, financial and non-financial, competing interests, sponsors’ control of study data and publication, and restrictions on access to data and materials. But it can be difficult for an editor, reading a submitted manuscript, to disentangle these many influences and to understand whether the work ultimately represents valid science.”
When a writer or researcher is rejected, they have almost no chance of persuading a potential publisher to chance its views. If you push your case, you also are further discounted as too “attached” or “engaged.”
In the world of investigative journalism, you are even considered dangerous, and your own publications may turn against you if you fail to accept outcomes that can squash controversial stories. This is a common experience to anyone who has mattered in the world of journalism.
The celebrated investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in 1993 that telling stories that some people do not want to read but should be told is often a thankless, even dangerous task.
“Reporters write a story once, and then there’s no response and they stop,” says Hersh. “Somehow the object [is] to keep on pushing. The problem is, what do you do when you make yourself a pain in the ass and you become suspect? Because as everybody knows, for some mysterious reasons, if you have a point of view in a newspaper room you are suspect. Or if you’re a true believer you’re dangerous, you’re political. That’s really crazy. Because it seems to me the only good stories that come out of anything come from people who have a passion about right and wrong, and good and bad. It’s a terrible tragedy. It’s very tough.”
I always turn to Hersh’s quote that I jotted down when I first became a journalist, when I need to remember that telling important stories, including ones that challenge orthodoxy and prejudice, will never be an easy road to travel. That is why I wrote my book about the American adoption experience, knowing it would not be an easy story to tell or to sell.
But anything that matters, really and truly matters, requires overcoming such obstacles. That is how you find personal meaning and how you make positive and meaningful change that may take years to achieve.
(Author’s note: This essay also can also be found on my You Don’t Know How Lucky You Arewebsite, where I provide information, essays, and resources on adoptee rights, adoption, evolutionary biology, adoption law, and other issues covered in my forthcoming memoir on the American adoption experience. Please visit that site to learn more about adoptee rights and research.)
The dark side of American policing once again became an international story late on July 15, when Minneapolis police shot dead Justine Damond outside of her own home, after she called 911 for police help.
The 40-year-old Australian woman and Minneapolis resident became an unlikely victim in a pattern of civilian shootings that are unheard of in Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia.
The intense global coverage of Damond’s killing was inevitable given the unlikely profiles of the deceased and the trigger man.
A Victim and a Cop—How Both Defied the Uncomfortable Normal
Damond ultimately shared a fate of African-American men killed by law enforcement in recent years. Such men are easily categorized as a potential threat or criminals to police or to the public who fear them.
No one could claim Damond had any resemblance to Ferguson resident Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American man who was gunned down by white police officer Darren Wilson, 28, in August 2014.
Damond was white woman. She had blonde hair. She was unarmed and dressed in pajamas outside of her own house, on the eve of her marriage. Damond had called 911 as a good Samaritan, in response to sounds of a possible sexual assault she reportedly heard outside of her residence.
Damond was exactly the type of person all of want as a neighbor because of her concerns for others.
Damond also was a former vet and yoga instructor who moved to the United States in 2015 and was engaged to American businessman and Minneapolis resident Don Damond.
The officer who killed her because of his alleged fear an ambush did not fit the profile of other officer-involved killings as well.
The policeman, Mohamed Noor, 32, is of Somali descent and a Moslem. Less than two years on the job, he was recruited by the Minneapolis police from the immigrant Somali community, where some young Somali-American men have been connected to the Islamic terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.
Noor represented a model for others to follow and to bridge cultural divides.
In other words, a black man of Somali descent and Moslem American from a community that already was in the media crosshairs shot and killed an obviously attractive, white, middle-class, and foreign woman in a major American city.
Many observers were stunned the killing could have occurred to an innocent civilian who had called for police help to investigate a possible sexual assault—actions that police encourage every citizen to do in nearly every city in the United States.
Damond’s Killing: A Rorschach and Rashomon Study of Officer-Involved Shootings
The shooting death is already a Hollywood movie before all of the facts and fogs of conflicting stories will ever be known.
What little we know are the likely time of Damond’s death after her 911 call and that Noor, sitting in the patrol car’s passenger seat, shot her to death from the driver’s side window.
A witness reportedly has come forward saying he was biking home and filmed the effort to resuscitate her by Noor and officer Matthew Harrity. She was shot at nearly point-blank range in the abdomen, and the chances of survival would have been slim, even with the best medical help, were she even alive.
The more murky “facts” surrounding Damond’s death also call into question police accountability through the use of body cameras—an issue that has been hotly debated in the wake of repeated “officer-involved” shootings of minorities nationwide.
In this case, the two officers dispatched to Damond’s 911 call had turned off their body cameras, in violation of the city’s official and controversial video policy implemented a year earlier. To date, no explanation has been provided why the pair had not followed mandatory procedures to record their actions with body and dashboard cameras precisely to avoid the cloudy circumstances that now surround this killing. Police departments nationally have bristled at civilian demands for police-worn body cameras for years.
Officer Noor’s claim of being startled by a loud pop at the sight of a woman in pajamas has been lambasted by many who have voiced outrage.
Many minority activists demanding policy accountability for shootings of civilians allege non-white victims of police shootings often say they posed no threats before they were gunned down, like former Ferguson resident Brown. No jury has sided with the victims since Brown’s death.
The shooting had other ingredients for becoming an international incident:
The officer’s status as a Moslem man from an immigrant community potentially will attract the interest of Moslems globally. Many in that community are fearful and resentful of stereotyping, and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Moslems in the United States and his recent travel ban of Moslems from six Moslem-majority nations have alarmed many in the Moslem world.
Inside the United States, more white Americans, notably those who live in the suburbs and who are supposedly immune from heavy-handed, militarized policing, might become more alarmed that they too could be killed for engaging law enforcement for help. The shooting creates a PR barrier even among the police’s large and ready-built fan base.
Women in particular might be more fearful of ever calling any police officer for assistance, given the violence on display in Damond’s death. It would be fascinating to do a poll how many American woman who self-identify as middle-class and educated feel safe contacting local police for assistance, particularly in cases of domestic violence.
Foreign nationals, particularly international students and more affluent Asians and Europeans, might reconsider travel to the United States for travel, study, or business, given the racial dynamics of the shooting showing starkly that, yes, even white, blonde yoga instructors with charming Aussie accents are not safe in a secure area, from the local authorities.
Damond’s Death: Black, White, and Somewhere in Between
Within days after the shooting, troll commentaries in media stories on sites like Yahoo News were swift to describe the shooter’s ethnicity and religion as likely reasons why Noor killed Damond.
Other commentators on many news web sites mocked the irony that police thought the blonde female victim was accidentally mistaken for a large, scary black man.
Writing about the irony of the killing, The Root wryly noted, “Why is it that the one shooting that suddenly has white people fearing the cops is the shooting that takes one of their own? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they finally found their ‘perfect’ victim. She was white and blonde and rescued ducks out of sewers. She was the antithesis of the ‘superpredator’ image they want you to believe represents blackness. She didn’t deserve to die. But neither did any of the others.”
In Minneapolis, the response has defied some expected outcomes of those quick to frame the issue as black and white. Some who joined in protests a day after Damond’s death were African-American activists, who had protested the shooting of unarmed black motorist Philando Castile, 32, just outside of St. Paul by a Hispanic police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, on June 6, 2016.
Only a month earlier, on June 6, 2017, a jury acquited Janez. The story drew heated debates and national coverage and framed the public response to the Damond shooting from the start.
Castile was gunned down reaching for his wallet—a killing caught on the police dashboard camera. It is profoundly troubling footage to observe. His killing at the hands of a uniformed police officer—Hispanic, not white—was just another in a series of high-profile shootings of African-American men in the past three years that helped to launch the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Following Damond’s slaying, nearly 300 people attended Damond’s vigil. They included Cathy Jones, an African-American woman who had marched at protests with Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She told The Guardian newspaper, “I think it’s important because these are things that affect our community every single day. It’s never been about race. It’s been about police accountability.”
Many of protesters on July 20 in Damond’s neighborhood connected Damond’s death with Castile’s. His mother, Valerie Castile, was shown hugging the widowed fiancé, Dom Damond.
On July 21, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned under pressure. The same day, protesters disrupted Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ press conference.
The two female leaders, both white women, had long been at odds. Harteau had publicly battled city and state officials, and in October 2013, she rejected proposals for body cameras by Hodges and other city council members—a month before Hodges was elected mayor.
Why Damond Stands Out Beyond Her Race
Damond, 40, also fetched a striking image, in the photographs of her that splashed on the internet and airwaves soon after her death.
She was by all measures athletic and very attractive, with blonde hair and a winning smile. She had been a vet, who then became a yoga and meditation instructor. She was the type of middle-class woman you might spot in yoga tights, carrying a yoga pad in a gentrified neighborhood, like my own, where I daily see many women who match this demographic profile take classes at two local yoga studios.
Damond’s shooting generated intense interest from the Australian media and its leaders. The level of interest was larger than what Americans might see of shooting victims in their own country.
In Damond’s native country, news of the meditation teacher’s baffling death has dominated the airwaves, newspapers and websites for days, feeding into Australians’ long-held fears about America’s notorious culture of gun violence. Philip Alpers at the University of Sydney, who has studied U.S. gun issues, said, “The country is infested with possibly more guns than people. We see America as a very risky place in terms of gun violence—and so does the rest of the world.”
A front-page headline in her hometown Sydney newspaper summarized Australia’s reaction in blunt terms: “American Nightmare.”
Days after the killing, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball told Australia’s Today Show what many Australians were also saying publicly about the case and violence in the United States: “How can a woman out in the street in her pajamas seeking assistance from police be shot like that? It is a shocking killing. We are demanding answers on behalf of her family. And our hearts go out to her family and all of her friends and loved ones. It’s a truly tragic, tragic killing there in Minneapolis.”
Shortly after the Minneapolis shooting, the Washington Post reported that more than 520 people had been shot and killed by police officers in the United States in the calendar year, well on pace to surpass 963 shooting deaths by police during 2016.
Deadly shootings by police are exceedingly rare in Australia, even though the police carry firearms. Only a handful are reported each year, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. By comparison, the United States has by policy prevented the creation of national database of deadly police-involved shootings. The body count has come from independent media monitors.
At the time, then-Prime Minister John Howard—a conservative—warned Australians against following America’s lead on gun control, saying: “We have an opportunity in this country not to go down the American path.”
What my Reaction Tells me as Well:
Until this essay, I had not written any articles about the deaths of African-American and minority victims from encounters with the police. I have professional ties that now limit what I talk about on this blog. Also, I exhausted my energy writing and talking about gun violence in the United States, following the mass shootings in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, which took 12 lives, and in Newtown, Connecticut, which claimed 26 victims.
My efforts to frame that story through a public health lens left me feeling powerless and that I could not make a difference. I ultimately stopped writing and talking about gun violence and focused this blog and my energies in more positive directions.
Yet again I am drawn into the discussion of an issue that I feel I cannot change. This time, however, many more affluent white Americans now know such random violence by gunfire can happen to any of them, even those who are most privileged by every measure, at the hands of police they call on for protection in supposedly safe, secure neighborhoods. Perhaps now there might be some momentum to reduce gun violence in the United States—something I longed for and then abandoned five years ago after the Newtown massacre.
This article is a response to a recent newsletter flash I received from the adoption research and advocacy group called the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The organization has suddenly proclaimed a bold new advocacy position and campaign on adoptee rights as a “human rights” issue.
I will make three key points about this new effort and how adoptees, the media, policy-makers, and supporters of adoptee rights should cautiously view this and all other efforts by groups who claim to promote legal rights for adopted persons, illegitimately born people, and people who call themselves bastards:
The institute’s new campaign seeking to become the champion of “human rights” for adoptees seeking their birth records must be viewed critically given the group’s track record and the way it is linked to the promotion of what some adoptees and reporters like Dan Rather call the “adoption industry.”
Authentic advocacy and scholarship on adoptee rights or any issue involves “walking the talk” and having what ordinary folks call “street cred.” For example, Florence Fisher, and the group she lead in the 1970s called the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), showed that when ALMA took a clear stand for adoptees by calling for the “free access to our original birth certificates and the records of our adoption” and went to court in New York in 1977 with a federal class action lawsuit, claiming adoptees had rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 13th and 14th amendments to their original birth records. They lost but their actions spoke volumes. You have to demonstrate what you believe through meaningful action, not fluffy words of cute social media memes.
My work in my upcoming book on my adoption experience and how U.S. adoption should be understood through a public health lens gives full credit to insightful writers and advocates, like Lauren Sabina Kneisly, who clearly define the real power systems involved in adoption and the political realities of being an adoptee and bastard. Real advocates and credible scholars acknowledge their sources and forebears. Those who only seek influence or power in any field will try to co-opt the work of real reformers.
Why I am Troubled by Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Co-opting of Adoptee Claims to Human Rights
My forthcoming memoir on the U.S. adoption experience makes clear I will not and do not appropriate or claim ownership of many breakthrough actions and ideas in the long struggle of adoptees to have equal rights of non-adopted people in the United States.
I praise and quote scholars like professors E. Wayne Carp and Elizabeth Samuels, who have documented how adoptees’ and birth parents’ legal access to original birth records was severely restricted by state legislatures and public health bureaucracies in the decades after World War II. (Also see my post on the topic of discrimination against adoptees.)
To ensure accuracy and authenticity with my readers, I give each and every parent, writer, activist, scholar, organization, and leader full credit for their contributions to changing current practices and thinking. I do that to acknowledge who has meaningfully contributed to our understanding of adoption as a political, health, public health, historic, sociological, biological, and advocacy issue.
I also seek to steer policy-makers, adoptees, and the media to credible and relevant data to correctly frame adoption as a human rights, public health, and legal issue. That is also called responsible scholarship and “walking the talk” in the advocacy arena.
Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Status on Adoptee Rights
One group I continue to have trouble with concerning legal advocacy is the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The New York-based group has published research by scholars on adoption. I cite some of their work in my book. I appreciate how they cited the health issues associated with denying adoptees their family history and a 2016 study on public perceptions of adoptees and adoption. I like that the group supports openness in adoption, but I am very troubled by this concept in the context of their work that appears to support adoption without changing laws or formally acknowledging past wrongs.
However, I do not endorse their work to date as being clear, mission-driven advocacy that seeks to address historic discrimination against adoptees or work that seeks to change laws to promote equality for all adoptees by giving every single living adoptee full and unfettered access to their records–as done in most developed nations.
I say this despite the group’s sudden new commitment under a questionable logo: “50 States. 1 Movement. Restore Adoptee Rights!” The group announced this publicly on May 17, 2017, through an email “special communication.”
I have yet to find in the institute’s work or website if the group acknowledges how other countries (England, Scotland, France, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Israel, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway) have clear national laws that establish all adoptees’ legal right to their birth records or that the group suggests a policy solution proposal endorsing such an approach. (Please let me know if I missed something.)
The group’s diverse interests include topics like “promoting healthy identity formation in adoption,” transnational and biracial adoption issues, adoption by gay parents, and even counseling issues. While I find some of this work worthwhile for some groups, particularly transnational and bi-racial adoptees and their families, I am unconvinced still by what I see right now that the DAI can or ever will be a leader in fighting for real adoptee civil rights.
The group as recently as mid-2016 wasworking on another campaign (“transacton to transformation“), also with a catchy social media title, that urged changing adoption “to a more uniform and transformational process where everyone—expectant parents, first/birth parents, adopted persons and adoptive families and professionals—are better prepared and supported.” This in no way resembles a campaign focussed on ending discrimination against adoptees or challenging the real power structures who promote those views and profit by them. In many ways, this campaign is a contradiction to its newest effort that seemingly appropriates the concept of adoptee rights as “human rights.”
Any group that seeks to sustain this industry should not be a leader in promoting meaningful change. Actual change can be seen in the Australian adoption reconciliation efforts, where the national government formally apologized in 2013 to all birth mothers and adoptees for causing harm. The DAI does not recognize in a formal way this historic action as a solution—yet another red flag for me.
The DAI’s mission statement—not even clearly called out on its website—is also muddled and does not clearly state its top goal is a lasting legal remedy and equality for adoptees by law: “The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s mission is to provide leadership that improves laws, policies and practices—through sound research, education and advocacy—in order to better the lives of everyone touched by adoption.” That is not a mission to change laws or change how adoption is understood as a political system, now sustained and promoted by the Republican Party, evangelical Christians, and groups that profit from adoption as a business.
Now the DAI calls for a national campaign—not coincidentally one it states that it wants to lead. Its announcement tries to claim the mantle of unnamed reformers from the 1970s. Key advocates in legal reform from that era such as Florence Fisher did not entangle themselves in the “business of adoption.” Quite simply, the DAI lacks street cred to lead as measured by its own actions and deeds.
Because of this, I strongly suggest that all adoptees and advocates for adoption hit the pause button and determine for themselves if they wish to do the group’s online survey, now organized to support this effort. This appears to be a power grab on advocacy in the often petty and often frustrating world of advocacy among a mostly powerless group—adoptees.
Who Is “Entitled” to Claim Leadership on Adoptee Legal Rights?
Suddenly, the DAI is using the overarching policy goal of the adoptee advocacy group Bastard Nation, whose mission statement boldly calls for “the civil and human rights of adult citizens who were adopted as children.” For the record, I am not a member of any adoptee advocacy group, and I do not know anyone in Bastard Nation in person.
The DAI now claims: “The tangible negative consequences of denying adopted people their OBC are numerous and sobering. Yet the most severe outcome rests in the fact that a fundamental human right is being denied to an entire group of people.”
What’s more, the DAI has suddenly made statements and language never used before regarding the laws that deny adoptees equal treatment under the law and their birth records. “This is a human rights violation that creates inequality for an entire group of people,” the group writes. “Everyone should have the right to know the truth of his or her birth.”
This is great language, but I am deeply worried such views are not sustainable by a group that is so deeply embedded in a system where groups can make $30,000 or more promoting adoption. The sale of babies to adoption farms that lead to horrific infant death outcomes of bastard babies in the early 1900s in Baltimore is a warning of the dangers of turning infants into sellable commodities. Adoptee rights advocates should distance themselves entirely from anyone associated with this practice for historic and policy reasons alone, not to mention moral concerns.
My Communications with the Donaldson Adoption Institute
I am more troubled that the DAI is using language by groups like Bastard Nation and others. I also am confused that the group’s language strangely resembles legal arguments I shared with them in February and March 2016 by email. I wrote to the group then to ask them to define their advocacy views on the concept of adoptees’ rights to their records as a legal issue and as a human right, similar to how it is enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
(Author’s Note: My goal as I write this post is to forward this post to the DAI and ask if they wish to issue any rebuttal commentary as the form of a response on my blog, which I will publish in the spirit of promoting a vigorous public discussion of adoptee and legal rights issues.)
As of today, May 20, 2017, the DAI has not credited any group or scholar in its new campaign to become the lead group. This is not required, but its failure to acknowledge by name the groups and persons who have laid out the data and legal case for a human rights campaign for adoptees should be a red flag to all persons who believe the United States should have an identical national law like England granting all adoptees full rights to their birth records at the age of 18.
My Indebtedness to Adoptee Advocates and Words of Wisdom on Adoptee Rights Advocacy
In writing my book on the American Adoption experience, I encountered several leaders for adoptee rights who shared nearly identical views with me on the complex perspectives of the institution of adoption, the discriminatory treatment of adoptees and bastards, and the failure of current so-called advocacy groups to provide meaningful leadership to frame adoption as a legal and human rights issue that harms adoptees.
One fellow adoptee and writer I feel most aligned to is Lauren Sabina Kneisly. Her blog, Baby Love Child, appears to be on hiatus, but it provides a superb primer on how to decipher messaging on adoptee rights advocacy.
Her blog does not endorse any group, but acknowledges the work of groups like Bastard Nation.
Kneisly wisely urges adoptees and their supporters to be mindful of the words used by groups and advocates. In other words, don’t fall for astroturfing or greenwashing, which co-opt the words, emotions, and ideas of real reformers by those who seek to profit from the status quo and who may actually not want change at all.
Usually the proof is in both the words and also the deeds, and greenwashing can be very slick. If it’s good, and it often is by such sales personnel, your emotions will be exploited without your conscious awareness.
Therefore, consider Kneisly’s recommendation for judging street cred and moral legitimacy for adoptee advocacy groups. She suggests these criteria:
Do they understand their status as part of a broader class of people and refuse to leave others behind?
Do they have a clear and single-minded focus on the real goal—equity for adoptees?
Do they reject substitutions, distractions, or attempts to divide and conquer that maintain state control and deflect from the goal of equality?
Do they identify who holds real power and what their conflicts of interest are?
Do they only settle for full equality for all those denied access in an inequitable manner?
Remember, as with all things in the real-world of politics and advocacy, trust your gut and disregard any marketing promise that sounds too good to be true, because it often isn’t.
Finally, if you want an example of clearly stated goals towards a policy objective, visit the Adoptee Rights Law Center, maintained by lawyer, adoptee, and activist Gregory Luce of Minnesota. I think he is doing great work to change the national discussion with facts, provide timely and accurate information, and support adoptee rights as a human right.
If you know of a group you like, send me a note. I would love to hear from you and share that on my website for my new book.
[Editor’s Note, Jan. 5, 2018: As of Jan. 4, 2018, the Donaldson Adoption Institute has announced it is closing. Lack of funding likely contributed to its demise. Its research will still be accessible online, according to its most recent public statement. Adoptee rights advocates will now need to fill a void when media cover the issue. Reporters seeking soundbites often turned to this group. True adoptee rights advocates need to insert themselves into the national conversation.]
The following post is drawn from my lecture notes that accompany my presentation on the struggles of Detroit, my birth city. You also can see a PDF version of that PowerPoint. (Note, it may take 20-30 seconds to download.)
My Detroit storytelling project began after I published an essay in a political blog that highlighted the struggles of Detroit, following my visit to the city in April 2015. My piece examined Detroit’s sad decay and my perspective on what I saw throughout my birth city by simply driving through it.
In fact I never intended to tell this story. But it soon became inescapable. It was a story that found me.
While attempting to explore areas near the River Rouge plant, I stumbled on the Delray neighborhood and was dumbstruck by the scale of destruction and decay.
My second recent trip in September 2015 included visits to where I briefly lived as a baby and where my biological family lived. I discovered that the home of my biological grandparents had been gutted and leveled in a neighborhood being razed, with many burned out shells that once were middle-class homes.
By 2015, Detroit had already become the poster child of a new documentary photography genre called “ruin porn.” As an outsider, people do have a right question if my work fit this pattern. But who gets to judge?
Photographer/blogger James Griffioen says there are two ways to do it: responsibly and exploitatively: “The few photographers and reporters I met weren’t interested at all in telling the story of Detroit, but instead gravitated to the most obvious (and over-photographed) ‘ruins,’ and then used them to illustrate stories about problems that had nothing to do with the city (which has looked like this for decades). … These photographers were showing up with $40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills.”
In my pitch to the library, I wrote: “Detroit, once the nation’s fourth largest city and global center to automobile manufacturing, is now a global icon of deindustrialization and urban decay. Population has fallen from 1.85 million in 1960 to 680,000 today. The city has experienced the country’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. More than eight in 10 residents is African American, following decades of white flight that saw no equal anywhere in the American industrial heartland. With 80,000 abandoned buildings and homes.”
The fierce urgency of the topic was painfully evident to me in late 2015, as one GOP candidate was using issues of decay and the loss of manufacturing jobs as his battering ram to win the White House. As the world saw, those messages changed history in the old manufacturing states of Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The man who changed history, Donald J. Trump, is now president of the Untied States. Democrats as a party and most liberals failed and still fail to grasp these changes if they live outside of the area.
For those outside of the so-called Rust Belt, including mostly liberal-leaning Portland where I live, Detroit is far away. Detroit’s issues, told through images and data, highlight deep problems in this now African-American city. The role of race and systemic racism are impossible to avoid. That includes how Detroit grew and declined. But it now includes how Detroiters themselves are managing a reality today. And yes, blame is to be found among those who have been in power in the past two decades.
Why Detroit’s Real Decay Matters in the Trump Era
For those who have not been paying attention, Detroit’s evolution into a shell of its greatness is the stage on which billionaire and now president Trump ascended to power.
His phrases could perfectly fit on any highway billboard entering Detroit: “Make America great again” and “We’re going to bring back manufacturing and American jobs.”
By now most Americans have heard those lines, repeatedly, from the most famous person on the planet.
His economic message, made during his successful campaign in Detroit, in the most blunt terms, is a vast critique of the country’s decline. This can be seen spectacularly in the fall of Detroit from a great city to a city that imploded. It is hardly a surprise that Trump successfully attacked the company that made Detroit famous, the Ford Motor Co., during a much publicized feud during the election. Trump won that battle hands down.
No one but perhaps the Ford Motor Co. and its supporters will argue Trump successfully pressured the company to shut down plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Mexico before he even took office and invest its resources back in the United States.
The election battle over American manufacturing is the inevitable outcome of America’s decline as a country with a manufacturing economic base. In 1959 a third of the American workforce was involved in manufacturing; in 2009 that figure was 12 percent. In the same time span, conversely, the percentage of service sector jobs increased by a similar amount. Many people who used to work in manufacturing are now employed as service workers out in the suburbs.
The Economic Policy Institute today notes that the automotive sector still accounts for one in every 22 jobs in the United States. Detroit was particularly dependent on the love affair. In 1950, Detroit’s population hits 1.85 million, making it America’s fourth-largest city, with 296,000 manufacturing jobs.
Who Is to Blame?
Today, a typical U.S. made car may now have parts made in Canada, Mexico, and overseas, all linked with just-in-time delivery systems. Foreign manufacturers like Toyota and Volkswagen are now firmly rooted throughout America, particularly in tax-friendly states. Since the 1950s, the Big Three have lost market share to their global competitors for the U.S. market. During recent negotiations now between GM and the UAW, GM threatened to outsource even more parts production to Mexican factories—plans now apparently on hold with Trump in the White House.
A painful visual reminder of the decline of automotive manufacturing is the old Packard Co. factory. Packard began operations in 1903 and closed in 1958, leaving behind it’s once state of the art factory. It remains a shell, now occasionally used for film sets of post-industrial-collapse and dystopian films. Factories no longer have horizontal building design like the closed Packard Plant.
Today GM’s main assembly plant in Detroit is actually in Hamtramck, a city within the borders of Detroit. Chrysler’s HQ is in Auburn Hills, a suburb. GM is still located in downtown Detroit, though its brand Cadillac just moved to New York.
It is no coincidence that Henry Ford, the man who helped to put Detroit on the map with mass production, high working-class wages, and assembly line production, also left Detroit in 1910 and relocated to Dearborn. Some argue his model for middle-class and car-owning, working-class Americans spurred the movement of residents from cities to the suburbs, including in the Detroit area.
Ford’s model called for the centralization, rationalization, and integration of all operations under one roof—fabricate the steal, create the parts, assemble the vehicles, sell to the marketplace. River Rouge was the manifestation of that vision. The original model shifted after the 1940s. Auto companies compartmentalized their operations and moved from the city. They shifted instead to horizontal building configurations. One-story buildings were and still are cheaper to build and maintain.
Who Brought About Decay?
In 2011, UAW workers got $58/hour from Ford, $55 from GM, and $52 from Chrysler. After the bailout, a two-tier pay system was implemented for new employees (recently contested in labor negotiations with Fiat Chrysler in Fall 2015). GM alone had $100 billion in pension obligations when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009, not all for union workers/UAW members.
Ford, GM, and Chrysler all relied on SUVs to boost their profitability, and those models spectacularly collapsed during the great recession, leading to bailouts by U.S. taxpayers of Chrysler (now Fiat/Chrysler) and GM. In December 2008, President Bush gave a provisional $17.4 billion bailout to GM and Chrysler. From May through July 2009 Chrysler and GM declared bankruptcy, and the President Obama administration provided financing and guided the automakers through expedited bankruptcy proceedings. A fundamental shift in management-labor relations occurred thereafter.
On Race and Riots:
Detroit has actually had three historic race related riots: 1863 (race related, tied to military draft, 2 dead), 1943 (34 killed, 25 were black), 1967 (43 dead, more than 2,000 buildings burned). That latter was the death knell for many whites determined to leave the city for the suburbs. The last riot followed historic demographic changes. From 1940 to 1970, 4 million blacks moved from the South to urban areas in the North, including Detroit.
Scenes from the 1967 riots that forever changed the city and marked a turning point for white flight. My grandmother and grandfather (biological) moved out of west Detroit to the neighboring suburb of Livonia in 1968, a year after the riot.
As of 2014, Detroit was 83 percent African American, 7 percent white, and about 6 percent Hispanic/Latino of all major ethnic groups.
What About Leadership?
Mayor Coleman Young, the city’s first African American Mayor, has a controversial legacy from 1974 to 1994. The Wall Street Journal squarely blames him for the city’s decline that accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. He is viewed by some, including the Detroit Free Press, for stoking racial flames. The Detroit Free Press however claims he was among the most frugal mayors and avoided debt, unlike his successors. My birth mother remembers him most for his inaction on Devil’s Night in 1989 and not stopping the first outbreak of widespread arson.
Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is best known for his sexting scandal with an aide but also widespread corruption. The Detroit Free Press blames him for pushing it into unprecedented debt: “The greatest damage Kilpatrick did to the city’s long-term stability was with Wall Street’s help when he borrowed $1.44 billion in a flashy high-finance deal to restructure pension fund debt. That deal, which could cost $2.8 billion over the next 22 years, now represents nearly one-fifth of the city’s debt.”
In November 2012, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing for a state appointed financial manager or Chapter 9 bankruptcy for the Motor City. In February 2013, the state described Detroit status as “operational dysfunction” and in need of intervention.
In February 2013, Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as emergency manager. Orr promptly called the city insolvent. Detroit debts totaled $18.5 billion, with twice as many pensioners as workers by this point. In July 2013, Orr filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, the first time ever by a municipality. After court hearings, the state signed bills in June 2014 to move Detroit out of insolvency.
Billionaire Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans and now Detroit real-estate mogul, also is partially blamed by the Detroit Free Press for exacerbating urban blight and the huge foreclosure crisis. Gilbert’s Quicken Loans was central to decay. Since 2000, Wayne County has held one of the world’s largest real estate auctions offering 20,000 properties a year acquired through foreclosure—5 percent of Detroit’s housing stock. The venerable New York Times in 2014 described the city’s plight as post-apocalyptic.
A City Gone Wild
The evidence of arson is omnipresent throughout Detroit. I saw hundreds of torched homes and buildings without really trying to find them. I also saw large numbers of abandoned and in some cases scrapped and pillaged schools, left abandoned because of consolidation, loss of students, and gross mismanagement by Detroit Public Schools (DPS). There were 1,500 suspected arson fires between January and July 2015, according to the Motor City Muckracker blog news site.
A glaring example of that decay can be seen in how the Detroit Public Schools literally left its supplies to rot, much perfectly good (textbooks, supplies, sporting equipment), after a fire. The book repository building was then bought by billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Maroun, who sealed it tight after famous photos surfaced in the 2008 and 2009. Photos of the repository by photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have now become world famous and synonymous with the city . The images can be found in their seminal work, The Ruins of Detroit.
Today, many Detroiters are fiercely opposed to downsizing Detroit. In reality, some areas no longer have vital services delivered—water, lighting, public safety, fire protection. They have gone wild.
I remember one moment that captured this reality best during my last trip in late September 2015. I was driving in the center of the city. I needed to find a restroom. There were no facilities anywhere in sight. So I pulled my car over. There was an abandoned lot, with bushes shoulder-high. It looked like raccoons or coyotes could call it home. Not a soul was in sight. I relieved myself. I felt more like I was in an empty woods than a city that used to be the envy of the world.
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.