Discrimination against adoptees rooted in fears of illegitimacy

(Note: To learn more about my forthcoming memoir and study of adoption in the United states, visit the You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are website. © 2017, Rudy Owens. All rights reserved. )

Rudy Owens, as a young child, and later someone denied equal treatment under the law because of my status as both an adoptee and someone born
Rudy Owens (the author), as a young child, and later someone denied equal treatment under the law because of his status as both an adoptee and someone born “illegitimately.”

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 Many who enforce outdated state laws treat adoptees dismissively—even as threats.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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4]

David Kirschner's imaginary diagnosis that stigmatized adoptees can still be found in publications, despite being discredted as a fabrication nearly three decades earlier.
David Kirschner’s imaginary diagnosis that stigmatized adoptees can still be found in publications, despite being discredited as a fabrication nearly three decades earlier.

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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

the-outcast-painting-in-royal-academy-of-arts-london-1851
The Outcast, by Richard Redgrave, 1851, Royal Academy of the Arts, London, documents the treatment of bastardy and birth mothers in England in the 1800s.

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11]

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

bastard-examination1
William Hogarth depicts bastardy examinations (1729), in which justices enquired how a woman about to give birth to a bastard child had fallen pregnant. Legally a woman who knew herself to be likely to bear a bastard child had to present herself for examination, but in practice this only occasionally happened, and many examinations occurred after the birth. Bastardy examinations tried to discover the identity of the father, in order to force him to provide a bond to defray the parish against the costs of maintaining the child, many who were cared for in workhouses depicted in brutal form by Charles Dickens in Oliver twist. Courtesy of London lives, found at: https://www.londonlives.org/static/EP.jsp.

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.”[12] 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.

oliver-twist-cover
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist portrayed the harsh lives of “foundlings” (abandoned bastard infants), left to cruel fates in England’s workhouses.

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.[13]

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.’”[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19]

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

The New York Times covered the findings of the investigation of the horrific conditions that killed nearly four in five relinquished infants in Baltimore, in 1914.
The New York Times covered the findings of the investigation of the horrific conditions that killed nearly four in five relinquished infants in Baltimore, in 1914.

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.”[20]

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.[21] 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.”[22]

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.

Footnotes:

[1] E. Wayne Carp, Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. February 2014), 290.

[2] David M. Amodio, “The Neuroscience of Prejudice and Stereotyping,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(10) (2011), 670.

[3] 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.

[4] Samuels, 411.

[5] Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 282.

[6] E. Wayne Carp, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1998), 188.

[7] Jenny Teichman, Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 28.

[8] 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.

[9] Teichman, Illegitimacy, 89.

[10] Shirley Foster Hartley, Illegitimacy (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1975), 5.

[11] Laslett, Bastardy, 5.

[12] Laslett, Bastardy, 2.

[13] 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.

[14] Teichman, Illegitimacy, 105.

[15] 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.

[16] Hartley, Illegitimacy, 8.

[17] Hartley, Illegitimacy, 8.

[18] Reid Alice, Davies Ros, Garrett Eilidh, Blaikie Andrew, “Vulnerability Among Illegitimate Children in Nineteenth Century Scotland,” Annales de démographie historique 1, no. 111 (2006), 89.

[19]  Alice, Ros, Eilidh, Andrew, “Vulnerability Among Illegitimate Children in Nineteenth Century Scotland,” 90.

[20] George Walker, The Traffic In Babies: an Analysis of the Conditions Discovered During an Investigation Conducted In the Year 1914 (Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Co., 1918), 3.

[21] Barbara Melosh, Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 19.

[22] Walker, The Traffic In Babies, 16.

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You were surprised by Trump’s con job? Seriously?

President Elect Donald J. Trump
President Elect Donald J. Trump and his famous hat.

Everyone must stop saying they are “stunned” and “shocked.” What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair. YEARS of being neglected by both parties, the anger and the need for revenge against the system only grew. Along came a TV star they liked whose plan was to destroy both parties and tell them all “You’re fired!” Trump’s victory is no surprise. He was never a joke. Treating him as one only strengthened him. He is both a creature and a creation of the media and the media will never own that.

Michael Moore’s Facebook Post, Nov. 9, 2016

A lie is an allurement, a fabrication, that can be embellished into a fantasy. … Truth is cold, sober fact, not so comfortable to absorb. A lie is more palatable. … I found it far more interesting and profitable to romance than to tell the truth.

Joseph Weil, aka “The Yellow Kid” (Professional Con Artist), Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power

To those who expressed shock and awe the day after GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump won the Electoral College but not the popular vote on Nov. 8, 2016, I say, what freaking country have you been living in for the last 25 years?

If you were born any time before 1980, exactly what forms of dystopian thinking had overwhelmed your senses as you observed events unfold in your country and home town–year … after year … after year?

The outcome that brought smiles in the Kremlin and so wildly alarmed the much of the world, America’s progressive coalition, and the Democratic establishment was paved decades ago by the Republican Party and its supporters.

The GOP has unabashedly and shamelessly advanced a far-right agenda that makes the United States an extreme outlier in nearly every category compared to “advanced democracies.” And now the Democratic and progressive establishment say they are shocked by the election? Are you kidding me?

So, am I outraged that Trump lost the popular vote and was still elected? Absolutely. Shocked? Hell no, and not even remotely.

The GOP Establishment Primed the Nation for Trump

Adolph Hitler, one of history's most infamous demagogues
Adolph Hitler is one of history’s most infamous demagogues and the dictator who seduced Germany as he turned it into a totalitarian state that organized mass murder and global war.

Rather than an aberration, Trump was a pre-ordained messiah who walked through the giant blast hole the GOP created in our democracy over the last three decades. He also proved to be an adept and capable con artist, clever enough to employ all of the proven stratagems used by dictators throughout history, in nearly every civilization.

Anyone who has read anything about history or who has read writer Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, could recognize how Trump mastered the trade craft of power in the purest Machiavellian sense. But the real-estate mogul and reality TV star also exploited an exceedingly well-fertilized landscape, plowed for a generation by his GOP predecessors and moistened by the flood of unregulated money in American politics.

Trump’s performance as a titillating, transcendent messenger was similar to demagogues of the last century. He offered racial and economic salvation, while restoring “law and order,” deporting millions of non-citizens, building a wall with Mexico, and giving hate speech wide latitude to an increasingly agitated and well-armed white and right political base.

Even the right-wing publication The Weekly Standard—a foe of Trump—predicted Trump’s meteoric success perfectly in an August 2015 article, by Jim Swift. Swift described prophetically how Trump was using all the 48 tactics of past strong men of history: “Law 27 — Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following: As Greene writes: ‘People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something. Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow.’ How about ‘Make America Great Again?’”

Sadly, I correctly predicted the outcome myself in the spring of 2016, when I bet a good friend a beer that Trump would defeat his likely rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton. (I have yet to drink that beer, and it will be the worst brew of my life.)

I knew he would win the “shocker” by the time he had won the South Carolina primary, where he repudiated the military legacy of the last GOP president, George W. Bush, and called the Iraq war a failure without any political consequences among evangelicals or traditional conservative voters. Here was a new creature who defied the rules–a characteristic of successful demagogues in history.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Youngstown) of Ohio’s industrial heartland, who is now challenging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for her job and pledging to reconnect with disaffected blue collar white voters, also predicted a dire outcome a month before the election. Ryan warned union members to not fall for Trump’s song and dance. “He will gut you, and he will walk over your cold dead body, and he won’t even flinch,” Ryan told a crowd of union members in Ohio in October 2016. “He’ll climb over your cold dead body and get on his helicopter.” And many of them did not listen.

Other wise people who saw this coming were filmmaker Michael Moore and commentator Van Jones—because it was so bloody obvious. They too were ignored.

In two key policy areas—guns, health care—Trump mostly used tested messages. Those soundbites and their political outcomes were already extreme before Trump became what Moore called a “human Molotov cocktail.” However, he was unexpected in several key ways.

Trump broke from the GOP orthodoxy on jobs and trade. He saw an opportunity to resonate with the disaffected working class in the industrial Midwest. He also proved to be a far better salesman than anyone in the GOP establishment. Lastly, he had a keener understanding of psychology than most of the highly respected, well-paid, and powerful individuals of the Democratic and Republican parties and the broadcast media, most of whom professed not to see the Trump tsunami coming.

Walmart is the largest commercial retailer of guns in the United States, including semi-automatic rifles commonly used now in mass shootings.
Wal-Mart is the largest commercial retailer of guns in the United States, including semi-automatic rifles commonly used now in mass shootings.

Trump and Guns, Nothing New

Consider the domestic militarization of the United States since the early 1990s. GOP members of Congress and in state legislatures have worked lock step with the National Rifle Association since the passage of the The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993.

Mores Guns Than PeopleAmerica now has a virtually unregulated market of guns and semi-automatic weapons that are now considered inalienable rights of the majority of Republican-voting and mostly white Americans. There are now more guns than people in these United States of America. This powerful segment of the American electorate had turned their fringe ideas into mainstream GOP policy long before they voted for Trump.

These armed citizens who form the rank and file of a well-armed citizenry for years have muzzled lawmakers who might otherwise approve gun measures that put modest restrictions on the sale of weapons that kill about 33,000 Americans a year. During the campaign candidate Trump implicitly threatened to call these Americans into action against his Democratic opponent: “By the way, and if she gets the pick—if she gets the pick of her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno.”

Trump merely echoed the GOP lines that had become accepted public discourse since the Columbine mass shooting in 1999. He was able to say it publicly without much rebuke because it was already normal to threaten gun violence against elected officials, putting them in “cross-hairs.” Immediately after the election, the NRA unsurprisingly announced an even more radical agenda it has been pushing, to allow concealed handgun permits to be accepted in every state and to legalize silencers—yes, silencers.

Trump’s Health Care Vision Advances the Decades-Long Agenda of the Republican Establishment

The GOP has fought doggedly for more than six decades to prevent the United States from adopting a national health care system or even insurance plan. As a result, the country is the most expensive and least efficient health provider at the population level among most developed nations.

The Affordable Care Act that squeaked through under President Barack Obama’s slim majority in Congress in 2009 was not true health reform—it was mostly an expansion of health insurance to nearly 50 million uninsured Americans—50 million!—and a first step to change the broken health insurance market. It was never meant to be the start of a national health system, like Canada’s or France’s.

OECD Health SpendingBut this mattered little to the nearly half of the American electorate in November, many who were lower-income and who supported a billionaire who boasted of not paying U.S. income taxes. Trump knew that. He knew facts did not matter, the same way the GOP was able to defend the monopolistic and dysfunctional health system for years while health insurance middlemen were gobbling up the nation’s economic resources. Trump simply reflected all that was said repeatedly before, like a mirror.

Throughout the campaign, Trump pledged to dismantle the act and remove more than 20 million Americans from having even lousy coverage. However, the GOP in Congress voted to repeal it more than 60 times by February 2016 and tried to shut down the government in 2013 to protest legislation promoting health insurance for all Americans. Trump repeated common political discourse that never wandered into real facts.

Jobs and Manufacturing—Who Needs Facts?

What about Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” and bring back those shuttered factories in depressed Midwest towns and coal production in Appalachia. Here is where Trump broke ranks with the GOP, seeing his golden opportunity. Trump had been paying attention. He and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont were sharply aware of millions of lost manufacturing jobs and closed factories and mills since well before 1994. The establishment of both parties were not.

For the last 20 years, America has seen its manufacturing base shrink while factory jobs fled across the border to our NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico, or overseas to China and Asia. FiveThirtyEight reports the United States “has lost more than 4.5 million manufacturing jobs since NAFTA took effect in 1994.”

Not many care what happened to Midwest cities over the last two decades in Washington, DC.
Who really cares about ailing Midwest industrial cities in the post-NAFTA era? Many there thought no one did and just swung an election to a billionaire who had nothing in common with those who live there.

That pain is visible in nearly every crumbling Midwestern city, which have repeatedly been ignored and long deemed unworthy of saving. No one, not even the Democrats, really cares about the devastated community that is now Detroit, except Detroiters, even though candidates Trump and Clinton both used it as their prop to talk about their vision for the economy. For that matter, few in Washington and less in the GOP really have cared about Youngstown, St. Louis, Akron, Cleveland, Toledo, Flint, or other industrial cities that slid into oblivion since the passage of NAFTA. The GOP, until the Trump tornado, had promoted outsourcing and trade policies that sped up the loss of manufacturing.

While Both Clinton and Trump campaigned for votes in Detroit and Michigan, as well as Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, Trump’s message about feeling the overwhelmingly visible dislocation seen everywhere in the Midwest resonated. The angry, white, dislocated Midwest blue-collar worker became a larger than life meta symbol of the Trump constituency and the key voting bloc that gave him victory.

Flint native and left-leaning independent filmmaker Michael Moore predicted the vote outcome in every single Midwestern state and national election perfectly three weeks before the election in his must-see film Michael Moore in Trumpland.

moore-screen-snapshotAlways the savvy cultural observer, Moore described why those angry and almost all white voters would revolt and go for Trump on election day: “On November 8, you Joe Blow, Steve Blow, Bob Blow, Billy Blow, all the Blows get to go and blow up the whole goddamn system because it’s your right! Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history. And it will feel good. For a day. Eh, maybe a week, possibly a month.” Then, a few months later, they would realize they were conned, and, as he said, “It will be too late to do anything about it.” Because Moore is a Joe Blow himself, he and more importantly his insights were ignored or sidelined by the pundits and the Democratic National Committee, who had been missing the warning signs that had been festering all election, but really for the decades before.

Reality Sets in, and the Threats to American Democracy Are Real

Now that the election is over, we are all beginning to see the likely devastating outcomes. Hate crime activity is rising. White nationalists, the Klan, neo-Nazis, and others feel legitimized to speak openly of promoting fascist and extremist views.

hitler-and-hindenberg
Adolph Hitler with President Paul von Hindenburg of the Weimar Republic, after the 1932 election that saw the Nazis win more seats to the Reichstag than any other party, but not a majority of the posts. Two years after the election, Hindenburg would die in office, ushering in the dictatorship of Chancellor Hitler, who took power first through the ballot box.

Public officials who support Trump are even now actively talking of creating a national registry for Muslims and frankly discussing the policy of Japanese American internment camps from the 1940s. These are all echoes of Germany, after Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party. It won less than a full majority of seats in the German Reichstag in 1932, and the party under Hitler and his circle managed to turn Germany into a totalitarian state that murdered at least 11 million in camps, on top of tens of other millions killed in war.

Between Nov. 9 and 14 alone, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment. Many cases involved references to the Trump campaign or its slogans. Many had taken place at schools, where bullies and racists are feeling emboldened by the new openness in hate discourse.

I remain profoundly worried what will happen to my nation and its most vulnerable members. Many challenges lie ahead. But I completely agree with Moore’s top two action items he laid down the day after Americans woke up in a bed the GOP had been making for decades. For my part, I will, as Moore argues, support that take over of the Democratic Party and its return to the people. They have, as Moore wrote so clearly, “failed us miserably.”

It will be up to the party itself to see if it takes action on item No. 2 on Moore’s list—so far, they have not. If you have not read that list, here it that item: “Fire all pundits, predictors, pollsters and anyone else in the media who had a narrative they wouldn’t let go of and refused to listen to or acknowledge what was really going on. Those same bloviators will now tell us we must ‘heal the divide’ and ‘come together.’ They will pull more hooey like that out of their ass in the days to come. Turn them off.”

And what is next? Many from President Barack Obama down to the thousands of street protesters after the election see the next four years as a real fight for democracy that is now very, very much in peril. The GOP has never had more power in state capitals and Congress. A true charismatic demagogue just took power, without winning a popular vote, the way it happened in Germany in 1932. The fight has begun, and it will be bitter and costly. The stakes have never been higher since the country successfully came together and helped defeat the Axis Powers in World War II. But the fight will be for the soul and future of the country. History will judge how successful we are.

Changing my blog name, but keeping the blog

I care a lot about a lot of things. My interests in many policy, health, and global issues inform the posts I shared on this blog. But sometimes, it's important not to take things too seriously. If that means suring where a great white attacked a fellow surfer, humor is probably the best antidote to fear. My Friend and I had a great day and respected the ocean, home to so many wonderful things.
I care a lot about a lot of things. My interests in many policy, health, and global issues inform the posts I have shared on this blog. Sometimes, it is important not to take things too seriously. If that means surfing where a great white attacked a fellow surfer, humor is probably the best antidote to fear. My friend and I had a great day and respected the ocean, home to so many wonderful things.

I have retired my old blog name of Iwonderandwander.rudyfoto.com. Let’s face it, that was a mouthful. I am now redirecting that site and all of its content and my past blog posts there to the newly named website, rudyowensblog.com. From now on, typing either in the URL line of a browser will open up this blog that I first created in 2012.

I wanted to align this blog with my primary web site, http://www.rudyowens.com, at least in name. I also wanted to have this domain more clearly linked to my brand as a writer, photographer, essayist, and blogger. It will take a few days for the web spiders to find the newly directed web site. Changing my blog name will also support the forthcoming publication of my new book profiling the American adoption experience that will draw upon content I have been publishing on my old Iwonderandwander.rudyfoto.com site.

I hope all of my new and old visitors will bookmark this site. Send me an email. Tell me what you think about my writings. I want to hear from visitors who have found me and, I hope, enjoyed my writing. Have a great day, everyone.

Scenes from a wasteland: inside an abandoned Detroit public high school

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

A year ago, in September 2015, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I saw things I could not imagine were possible in the supposedly most powerful country in the world. I toured the city and observed impoverished neighborhoods, shuttered factories, empty homes in every corner of the community, and the omnipresent ruins from arson that have made the Motor City the arson capital of the United States. Detroit had a surreal feel. I called it City of the Future and published several photo essays and a photo gallery on my web site. The most memorable and heart-wrenching place I visited was the now shuttered Crockett Technical High School, at the corner of St. Cyril and Georgia Street.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.
The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

In my last photo essay on this gutted and neglected facility of learning, I recounted that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) recently had implemented a painful round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. In sum, 16 school buildings were closed permanently. In the previous decade, enrollment in the system had fallen 100,000 students, and by 2012-13, enrollment was about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

Death of a school by scrapping and bureaucratic negligence

What I learned during my visit to Crockett from two friendly neighbors who were across the street would have been intolerable in nearly any other major U.S. city. I wrote in my September 2015 photo essay, “They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.” The tragedy was compounded, according to one of the neighbors, because the school had been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

When I jumped into the old school, I saw newly built science labs completely trashed, eerily similar to how ISIS extremists would destroy monuments of culture and civilization in Iraq and Syria. But in Detroit’s case, the vandals were not crazed religious radicals, they were local residents, scavenging for scrap and destroying either for pleasure, anger, or both.

You can watch this June 2015 Detroit area news report on the scrapping at Crockett–all caught on live footage, with impunity. As one resident trying to protect abandoned public schools said, “How we can we hold off scrappers when we don’t have a license to arrest.”

Who really cares about Detroit’s decline or its public schools?

Today, the DPS is rated the worst in the nation for test scores. In May 2016 The Atlantic reported, “… the country has probably never witnessed an education crisis quite like Detroit’s.” And, then to no one’s surprise and certainly not to anyone in Detroit, no one really gave a crap. What happens in Detroit no longer seems to matter, no matter how awful and absurd.

After my trip to Detroit, I spent about four months trying to get respected Portland universities to host a lecture and photo show (click on the link to see how I presented the concept) on the decline of Detroit and how it looked in 2015. I was turned down by Portland State University, my alma mater Reed College, the University of Portland, and the Multnomah County Library. I made repeated requests to multiple faculty and these organizations.

The topic may just be too depressing or impossible to comprehend. Even worse, the story about mostly black Detroit and its current woes, like the simple destruction of one fine public school by the community itself, did not fit a narrative of race that is preferred many people at this time. A dominant narrative will always defeat an alternative story, particularly one that is rooted in ugly reality. I suspect this yawning disinterest was a combination of all of these factors.

To accept the reality of what Detroit is requires confronting the larger, painful issues about the United States that have not been addressed by our national political system. What we see instead are two candidates vying for the presidency who have used Detroit as a prop and photo-op to tell an economic story that does not resonate with the lives of people struggling in the city. Those two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, know little to nothing about the ordinary people in Detroit and have never stepped into any neighborhood where schools are abandoned, houses are burned, and blocks have gone feral. If one day one of them or any presidential candidate actually visit a place like Crockett, then I will retract this judgement

But let’s be honest. No one running for the nation’s highest office will ever see or want to see the real Detroit.

Note, I published the same essay on my What Beautiful Life photo blog on Sept. 30, 2016.

Detroit’s complex legacy in the National Florence Crittenton Mission

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.

Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital Detroit, 1932. Source: Fifty Years' Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes
The Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1932. Source: Fifty Years’ Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.

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.

Source: Fifty Years' Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.
Source: Fifty Years’ Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.

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.

Charles Crittenton, founder of the Florence Crittenton Mission.
Charles Crittenton, founder of the National Florence Crittenton Mission.

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.

Kate Waller Barrett, former president of the National Florence Crittenton Mission.
Kate Waller Barrett, former president of the National Florence Crittenton Mission.

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.

(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.

National Florence Critttenton Mission convention, 1932, Detroit.
National Florence Critttenton Mission convention, 1932, Detroit.

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.)

A shot of some of the tens of thousands of babies relinquished for adoption through the maternity care facilities run by the National Florence Crittenton Mission. (Source: SIoux City Journal, "Wife of Nobel winner started life at Crittenton Center," Sept.18, 2011.
A shot of some of the tens of thousands of babies relinquished for adoption through the maternity care facilities run by the National Florence Crittenton Mission. (Source: Sioux City Journal, “Wife of Nobel winner started life at Crittenton Center,” Sept.18, 2011.

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.

Note: All of these archival photos of the Crittenton facilities are taken from the 50th anniversary publication by the National Florence Crittenton Mission called Fifty Years’ Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.

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.

Getting what has always been mine–my original birth certificate

Rudy Owens holds a copy of his original birth certificate (some info whited out intentionally). Michigan denied my human right to my birth record for 27 years. They failed. I did not.
Rudy Owens holds a copy of his original birth certificate (some info whited out intentionally). Michigan denied me my human right to my original birth record for 27 years. They failed. I did not.

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.”

This is part of my original record of birth, which the state of Michigan considered a top secret document that had to be kept from me at all cost for decades, even after I knew my birth name and birth families.
This is part of my original record of birth, which the state of Michigan considered a top secret document that had to be kept from me at all cost for decades, even after I knew my birth name and birth families.

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.

A birth certificate is the most crucial identity document, which allows one to get critical other documents such as a passport
A birth certificate is the most crucial identity document, which allows one to get critical other documents such as a passport, but also financial documents, Social Security numbers, and much more.

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.

Supreme Court Edifice

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.

This is a recent head shot of Glenn Copeland, state registrar of Michigan and the man whose name now appears on my current legal birth certificate bearing my new name, and the copy of my original birth certificate that was released and must bear the registrar’s signature and name.

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.

Vital Records at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services made sure to remind me that I am a bastard by placed in larged capital letters
Vital Records at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services made sure to remind me that I am a bastard by placing in large capital letters “SEALED” three times on the copy of my original birth certificate–an act not required by state law.

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 announced my victory over Michigan's adoption secrecy mongers with a Tweet--of course!
I announced my victory over Michigan’s adoption secrecy mongers with a Tweet–of course!

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.”

Defeating one's dragons on a hero's journey can sometimes take years. Bureaucratic dragons can be some of the most difficult ones to vanquish. They can regenerate like a many-headed hydra, which can not fully be defeated so long as it retains one of its many heads, according to Greek mythology.
Defeating one’s dragons on a hero’s journey can sometimes take years. Bureaucratic dragons can be some of the most difficult ones to vanquish. They can regenerate like a many-headed hydra, which can not fully be defeated so long as it retains one of its many heads, according to Greek mythology.

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 4 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Rose M. Kreider and Daphne A. Lofquist, Adopted Children and Stepchildren: 2010, Current Population Reports pps. 520-572, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC. 2014. Found at: https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p20-572.pdf.

Dear Portland: how about we promote best public health practices for drinking water

Carole Smith, Superintendent
Carole Smith, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, has been criticized severely by many parents for failures of leadership surrounding the lack of notification about unsafe lead levels at two public schools, for weeks.

Ed. Note, July 16, 2016: See update below regarding the city deciding not to adjust the water’s pH to address corrosion/lead and water issues.

On June 5, 2016, I wrote a letter to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish, head of the Portland Water Bureau, asking for some leadership. Right now, it appears Portland’s management of its critically important drinking water system is now being called into question, and rightly so. If you have not heard, the city’s schools are in a tailspin because kids and families were not properly advised of unsafe levels of lead in drinking water at two schools, for weeks. Soon after, all drinking water was shut off at all schools until fixes are made, and parents have called for the immediate resignation of Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith. This has since grown into a larger crisis impacting school systems dependent on the city’s water.

The actions at the schools and in our water system impact the entire community. While I am not alarmist by lead level readings in parts per billion, and I deeply worried that leadership is lacking and ideas that undermine public health are now being embraced in the decision-making culture of our schools and our local government. This matters, because nothing is more critical to public health than clean drinking water. And when trust is eroded, the public will not support public health with public money, which is how we ensure public health for all.

COPY OF LETTER SENT:

Dear Mayor Hales and Commissioner Fish: I work on many issues for my job, including educating the public about water. I love informing people how amazing our country’s drinking water systems are in promoting public health. So I feel passionately about the topic and appreciate all the work all of our water purveyors do daily, without much thanks they deserve, all the time. And my thanks are extended to the staff at the Portland Water Bureau. They keep us healthy, 365 days a year.

For the record, I have a background in public health and spent two years promoting community water fluoridation in the Tacoma/Pierce County area. I am proud of the many proven public health measures with our water systems adopted nationally since the early 1900s have saved lives, improved human health, and lead to better overall public health. This includes fluoridation and chlorination.

The Crude death rate for infectious diseases - United States, 1900-1996. Chlorination proved one of the greatest life savers to promote public health.
The Crude death rate for infectious diseases – United States, 1900-1996. Chlorination proved one of the greatest life savers to promote public health.

I am writing both of you now because I am becoming alarmed as a resident of the city, who is waiting for the outcome of a lead/water test at his home, of a “philosophy” expressed by some of our most important leaders regarding how we should provide clean, healthy drinking water–the greatest public health intervention we have for our community.

It appears as a city may have been taken badly off the rails by perhaps improper cost-based decisions and philosophically-based decisions over a long period of time.

OPB reported on June 3 that the U.S. EPA has become alarmed by the city’s decisions: “The manager, Marie Jennings, was concerned that the Portland Water Bureau isn’t doing enough to minimize the amount of lead at taps in Portland. She wrote that the EPA’s regional administrator, Dennis McLerran, had ‘heightened concerns about drinking water quality, including the [Portland Water Bureau’s] implementation under the Lead and Copper Rule.'”

We also, as a city, do not appear to be promoting best practices because of the vocal “natural-health,” vaccination-denying minority who don’t understand public health and whose sometimes radical views now threaten our kids, and everyone else in many areas. The consequences were very harmful with the public vote on water fluoridation. Continuing stories on how the city’s and its schools’ lead and water protocols are handled have me growing more concerned the more I learn about the many actions taken by the city dating back to the 1990s.

So, for the record, I WANT treated water. I think we can all agree there is NO SUCH THING as pure water. All water has minerals and chemicals that are adjusted to optimize public heath. Give me my chlorine/chloramines, please. I love that taste. It means I’m not going to get a water-borne illness that might kill me.

Mayor Hales, I would hope you can use your bully pulpit in the remaining few months to promote a dialogue on the benefits of healthy drinking water, including chlorination systems, one of the greatest life-savers ever adopted in this country. And please communicate using facts not fairy dust that Portland has “pure” water or that WE Portlanders “expect purity” in our drinking water. This is a very dangerous message with real consequences as we are now seeing.

We as Portlanders don’t want minimally treated water. We want optimally treated water. I want my chemicals in the water to ensure we stay healthy based on proven science. Having this message below used by our public health champions (and they are our champions) is not a best practice to promote public health. Let’s stop the nonsense about keeping our water pure. Did we learn anything from Flint?

I'll have my water with the appropriate treatment to optimize health--and yes that includes chemicals, thank you.
I’ll have my water with the appropriate treatment to optimize health–and yes that includes chemicals, thank you.

FROM THE OPB STORY:  http://www.opb.org/news/article/portlands-water-hasnt-gotten-the-lead-out/

The public’s strong preference for keeping Portland’s water source pure and natural – in open air reservoirs and free of chemical treatment  – hindered efforts that would have reduced the amount of lead in drinking water.

Portland remains the largest city in the country that does not add fluoride to its water. The city finally decided to phase out its open-air reservoirs after more than a decade of debate.

“Portland residents have said pretty clearly that they want a minimal amount of treatment in their water, so that’s something that needs to be taken into account” [Scott] Bradway said.

 Ed. Note: Scott Bradway is a lead hazard reduction specialist at the Portland Water Bureau.

UPDATE JULY 16, 2016:

The Oregonian published a story that addresses the concerns I raised with Mayor Hale’s and Commissioner Fish. Neither office replied to two emails I sent to their office. In the story by Oregonian reporter Brad Schmidt, it appears Portland is continuing to take a position not to address issue of the corrosive qualities of the water. This is likely in part because of a misguided view seen in the statement from Bradway that residents want minimal treatment of water. That is a false statement–we want our water treated optimally to maximize public health for everyone.

This view undermines the ability of government to promote public health and dangerously cedes public health decision making to the anti-fluoride and anti-vaccer voices that have made Portland and Oregon public health poster children for how not to promote health for all. If these views are guiding our policy-makers, this remains very disturbing and should be a great concern to anyone who practices public health in Oregon and Portland. Did anyone in Portland learn anything from the example of Flint, Michigan?

The story noted: “But Fish cautioned Portland may not simply add more chemicals to the water to reduce corrosion. Officials could explore options for ‘more robust outreach and education,’ more water testing or potentially some sort of program that helps homeowners replace lead-tainted plumbing.

“‘We think we can do better’ — Portland Commissioner Nick Fish on lead levels in drinking water.

“‘Until we’ve completed our assessment, we don’t know what’s the best option,’ Fish said.

“In August, city officials will meet with state and federal regulators to review preliminary results from a study looking at pipe corrosion within Portland’s water system. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Although city officials haven’t committed to making any changes to their treatment process, they have agreed to present a ‘detailed proposed schedule for selection, design, construction, and implementation’ of treatment techniques to lower lead levels, state records show.”