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 Many who enforce outdated state laws treat adoptees dismissively—even as threats.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: Cornet 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.

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.”

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* 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.