I just spent four days in my birth state, Michigan, to raise awareness about the lack of equal rights for literally thousands of Michigan-born adoptees. I timed my trip right after the release of my newly published memoir on my adoption experience and examination of the system as a public health, legal, and political issue. In addition to speaking to some lawmakers, many more staff, and Michigan media, I returned to the spot where I was born a child to an unwed mother and then placed into the adoption system. For me that had special significance. (Catch the media coverage generated by my visit here: longer podcast interview and shorter videotaped interview with Michigan Radio, on June 8, 2018.)
Measuring Success or the Lack of it:
Let’s be blunt. I cannot claim any clear victories from my outreach and interviews. Michigan has no pending legislation that would revise Michigan’s statutes that deny Michigander adoptees’ their original birth certificate and other vital records. What’s more, given the current balance of power in Michigan—with the GOP firmly in control of both houses of the legislature and in the governor’s office—it is highly unlikely any reformist adoptee rights measure will be coming soon.
Nationally adoption for the GOP remains the policy alternative to abortion, and Michigan’s adoption’s placement system is mostly run by dozens of Christian organizations, who are supported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Politically, Michigan’s Republicans are aligned with social and Christian conservatives on many policy matters.
Therefore, I chose to advocate mostly with Democratic lawmakers and their staff, though I did reach out to some Republican senators and representatives, including the office of Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Arlan Meekhoff, who I learned from legislative staff is an adult adoptee. I made the rounds and visited in person every office of all Democratic representatives and senators, and GOP members in both houses.
Legislative staff were courteous and professional, and they patiently heard my short “elevator speech” on the need to promote equal treatment by law for all adoptees to access their records when they turned 18. I proposed four simple ways to improve customer service at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), which oversees all vital records and tightly controls the release of adoptee records with the strictest and at times prejudicial interpretation of the state’s utterly confusing adoption law.
Before I had arrived in Lansing on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, I emailed every lawmaker a link to my website for my book on my experience as a Michigan adoptee who was denied his identity and records for decades. Some of the staff had read my email and were ready to speak with me.
Not to my surprise two senior staffers of lawmakers told me about their personal family experiences with Michigan’s adoption laws. Both were negative. The family members of the two staffers had been denied their identity documents or records because of their status their whole lives. They had both passed away, and in one case, an adoption agency had refused to provide even the required legal non-identifying information documents to the surviving spouse of the adoptee. The surviving spouse wanted to find out family medical history to help the couple’s surviving children know if they had any family medical history that may have been passed on.
In this one staffer’s case, they were able to find a dead spouse’s biological and living father and receive information—information that had been withheld because of outdated state laws for decades.
I had a productive exchange with Detroit state Rep. Bettie Cook Scott in her office. Rep. Scott liked my T-shirt that said “Adoptee Rights Are Human Rights,” and she said she supported the principle. She expressed reservations about releasing information to adoptees to protect the privacy of the mother. I explained to her that no birth mother was ever given any legal promise of confidentiality when they relinquished their kin, often in very stressful circumstances in the decades after WWII. I also reaffirmed my firm view that all adults should, as a matter of law, be treated equally by law.
Despite our differences, she saw me in rotunda area of the Capitol and asked me to request that I be recognized by her on the floor of the House of Representatives. I filled out the recognition form. I then entered the visitor’s gallery. After receiving permission from the Speaker of the House, she asked the House to recognize me as a Detroit adoptee who had flown out from Oregon to advocate for adoptee rights as human rights. She speaker asked me to rise, and I got a warm applause from lawmakers and the other visitors. That was great.
Taking it to the Streets, in Lansing
On day two of my visit, I wanted to try what I call café conversations. This involved setting up a small table with a chair and having message signs. My two signs said: “Talk to an Adoptee” and “Proud to Be: Detroit Native, Bastard, Adoptee.” I set up shop at a corner of the main capitol square in Lansing, near the statue honoring sharpshooters from the Civil War.
Most of the passers-by were lobbyists talking on their phones, long oblivious to any political stunt and protester they have seen over the years in Lansing. Most never even made eye contact with me. A bill that would be approved later that day to end Michigan’s status as a “right to work” state also had drawn hundreds of trades people to the capital to protest the pending measure that they opposed. They were mostly big, burly, and very tough Michigan men and a few equally scrappy looking women, Wearing their union shirts and work gear, they did not seem to care who I was either. I got a few laughs too.
This might have been a flop if I did not have some amazing and moving conversations with strangers.
One 40-year-old woman told me she had given up her son to an open adoption and still remained in touch with him. She later had two girls of her own. She expressed support for my efforts and wanted to read book. She was practically in tears talking about her decision to have given up her son when she had hit a rough patch in her life and knew she could not be a good mother and raise him.
Another woman, two years younger than me asked, “What’s this sign about?” I told her I was a Detroit adoptee who had been denied my birth certificate for 51 years, even 27 years after I knew my birth family until I got a court order. She then shared she too was an adoptee who had found her birth mother when she was 21. She had been placed by the Catholic Church-run St. Vincent De Paul Society. She loved that I had gotten my birth certificate and expressed deep frustration she could not get her certificate. We gave each other high fives and posed for pictures in front of my sign “Talk to an Adoptee.”
Two bike cops stopped by and asked what I was about. When I told them, one of the young policeman on a mountain bike said he too was adopted in a family of eight adopted children. He did not share his personal views on adoption records, but could relate to my story about being adopted in Michigan. I took pictures of him and cool mountain bike.
A man in his late 50s came straight up to my table and also asked what I was doing. When I mentioned his book, he told me he had adopted five children, in his case two sets of siblings. The set with three siblings were Native American, and he said the “authorities” had determined the girls’ relatives were not deemed “fit” to raise them. However, he said, he was trying to keep them informed about their culture as much he could.
I had been hoping for more conversations, but after three hours I decided I was not going to accomplish more that busy day. The state’s dairy council tent about 100 yards from me had drawn hundreds with free ice cream giveaways, and I had no traffic. The photos I took and posted on social media helped tell the story about bringing my narrative of being denied equal rights as an adoptee to the public. However, the method did not lead to any viral media or any media attention.
The Capitol-based reporter for the Detroit News, who I spoke to a day earlier in his office and who, coincidentally, was adopted and even sympathetic to the unequal legal treatment of adoptees, passed on my pitch for a story or interview. His job was to cover the “big bills,” not a little-known adoptee and author. He gave me a quick hello going to and from the Michigan Senate chambers that morning and let my story float by.
Over the next two days I landed two broadcast media interviews, in Detroit and Ann Arbor, which reached listeners in Detroit, in Michigan, and even nationally.
On Thursday, June 7, 2018, Southfield-based 910 AM Superstation, an ABC affiliate, invited me on to a talk radio program hosted by independent journalist Steve Neavling. He is also the publisher the Motorcity Muckracker news site. Neavling’s show, “The Muckracker Report,” takes on a range of political and controversial issues with a progressive perspective, and he was fascinated by the story of Crittenton General Hospital, where I was born and literally thousands of families were separated by adoption.
During our on air interview, he shared his father was an adoptee from Pennsylvania who never found his biological family. We had a great conversation on the history of adoption placement, the way the Crittenton maternity homes and hospitals became centers for adoption promotion, and how these past issues that I describe in my book had a direct connection to the controversial policy of the Trump White House to separate families and children at the southern U.S. border as a form of deterrence.
This connection had been a hot thread among adoptee advocates since late May, as progressives activists around the country had been responding to children of nearly 1,500 unaccounted for migrant children as of late May (and growing since) and had begun hashtag-style protests with the lines “#WhereAreTheChildren.” Nationally, it appeared that no one but adoptees was noting that millions had been separated by adoption with barely any public recognition of these painful historic facts. I made that point during the interview.
We also talked about a range of issues such as the state law denying equal treatment by law for adoptees, how the MDHHS treats adoptees seeking help, and how many adoptees and their kin are in the United States and Michigan.
On June 8, 2018, in Ann Arbor and my final day in Michigan, I had a more than 11 minute interview with Lester Graham, one of the hosts of the show Stateside, produced by the NPR affiliate Michigan Radio. We avoided the controversial issue of adoption as a form of family separation and the hospital where that occurred for decades in Detroit and where I was born and relinquished into adoption. Instead we discussed Michigan’s laws that I said denied adoptees their human rights. We also talked about the four simple ideas I proposed that could improve how the MDHHS deals with adoptees, even with the current laws in place.
During our Q&A, I highlighted my basic reason for writing the book, to shed light on the story of adoption and how it is a story that impacts millions and keeps families from knowing each other. I was able to throw in medical history as a reason to allow all adult adoptees to access their records and highlighted how poorly counted adoptees are, which prevents policymakers from knowing the impact of current legislation and policies.
Michigan Radio staff also did a videotaped interview with me with station producer Mercedes Mejia, to run on their website. She asked me about my book, where I was from and who I was, and why it was important for me to get my birth certificate. I told her it was magical to have that document in my hands, as a symbol of my connection to my original birth identity and family ancestry. She asked what advice I would give to someone who might have wanted to have done what I did. I said it was worth it to have done something that promoted equality and was for principles that made the country stronger and better.
Above all I appreciated how the Michigan Radio news team did not focus on my adoption reunion with my birth family. That itself almost made my cross-country adventure worth the cost, in time and money.
Back to My Place of Origin
During the two days in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area, I finally visited the place of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital, the epicenter of adoption in Michigan for decades.
The building is now torn down. In its place is a large, boxy utilitarian set of buildings housing the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home, all surrounded by a gated steel fence. There is no plaque mentioning the hospital, how long it operated, and who it served. The surrounding area, just west of the John Lodge Freeway and at the intersections of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Tuxedo Street, is severely distressed.
Multiple houses a half a block from the old hospital site were in various states of collapsing. On Rosa Parks, by the rear entrance to the jobs center, a two-story apartment was slowly falling down—and no doubt would be destroyed one day or, sadly, torched by an arsonist.
The former Crittenton Maternity Home, in a three-story brick building next to the old hospital site, is still standing. It is now run by Cass Community Social Services. I saw a young and I’m sure poor mother with her child entering the building. I realized how the story of single mothers continues today, but with different issues and without the full-throated promotion of adoption by nearly all major groups involved in social work and the care of children. I took some photos of the home and then went to the hospital site.
I took out my sign that I had quickly made in my car using a fat Sharpie. It simply said: “I was born here.”
I took multiple pictures, on a hot, muggy, and sunny day, but I could not manage a smile. I could not make light of my origins at this place, where so many mothers said goodbye, forever, to their children. It is not a happy story.
Despite my stern appearance, I felt a sense of elation to have finally returned to my place of origins. It felt like closure. I accomplished what I set out to do decades earlier, for myself and on behalf of other adoptees denied knowledge of who they were and where they came from.
This time, I had controlled the story. This time, I was telling that to the world this story with my newly published book and public conversations that had been connecting with readers. This time, I owned the moment, unlike the one when I arrived as a nearly underweight baby, heading into the U.S. adoption system in Michigan and a new family.
And no one, not the state of Michigan or the groups who determined my life because of my status as an illegitimate child, could ever take that from me.
Yeah, it was worth it. That selfie and throwaway sign were my Trajan’s Column, as glorious as anything ever built by a conquering Roman emperor. The adoptee hero, as I frequently describe all adoptees searching for their past, had returned victorious to Rome (Detroit), even if there were no crowds throwing garlands upon me and no one to write poetry celebrating that victory. I had written that story already.
As the year 2017 comes to a close, millions of American adoptees are no closer to receiving equal treatment under U.S. laws than they were decades earlier. In 1975, the United Kingdom long moved on from this issue, giving all adoptees full access to their records once they turned 18. In fact, the issue of adoptee equal rights is not even a concern in many developed nations. Not so in the United States, the country with the greatest number of adoptees than any developed country in the world.
From a strategic perspective, most U.S. adoptees have not organized cohesively or embraced successful strategies that have altered this battlefield. This includes the all-critical inner battle of the mind that must occur first before any change and tactical advance occurs on the messy, fluid field of combat in the real world. I will focus mostly on this critical aspect of adoptee rights work in this essay, while also addressing the national scene.
Most of us know from our own experiences we can’t change the outer world without changing our inner world. I believe it is time to reset the chessboard and start anew, starting first with each individual adoptee. It is way past due for adoptees to show more backbone and grit, beginning in their own house.
Project Strength, Not Vulnerability: Today, far too many adoptees celebrate a losing attitude, portraying themselves as “trauma victims.” They confess to being desperate, needy, unhappy adults who are incapable of mastering their emotions and managing inner conflict. While there is clear and strong public health evidence on long-term health impacts of early childhood and prenatal experiences, adoptee-led trauma branding ultimately undermines adoptee rights as a larger political cause. (I write this as an adoptee born as a near-low-birth-weight infant, who needed emergency hospital care during my first two weeks of life.) So long as adoptees identify themselves as defeated souls and do not project a public image as standard bearers of centuries-old struggles for basic human rights, they will never win anything and remain captives of their own cages. Unfortunately, those who embrace a weak public image will define adoptees’ public perception and the larger national story defining adoptees and their collective national experience. As long as this losing mentality prevails, all adoptees will be held back.
Learn from the Masters and Apply that Wisdom: Many adoptees in the United States can sharpen their focus by reading any book of their choosing that motivates them to understand conflict and struggles. Take abolitionist Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and anti-slavery crusader and author of several books on his slavery experience. Douglass learned as a young man in captivity that his freedom came first through mental defiance and firm resolve, not in his circumstance, which he later overcame. Douglass wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Any biography of any accomplished person will show they all had conflict and controlled their fate by first winning their internal battles. They mastered their thinking and then launched their external crusades—many more brutal and unfair than the minefield of adoptee discrimination and adoption law. For adoptees needing inspiration, I recommend the author Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, Mastery, The 33 Strategies of War, and more. His treatise on war offers a cool, hard look at human conflict and offers wisdom demonstrated by historic greats from Sun Tzu to Napoleon Bonaparte to Muhammad Ali. He provides a set of ideas how to grab victory from whatever conflict and foes you face.
Here are a few of the concepts from Greene that I think adoptees should consider as they choose how they want to live their lives and then change the world around them.
Have a Grand Strategic Vision: Today, no grand vision unifies the adoptee rights movement—a situation that must be remedied. It is also a movement without a clearly defined national leader, unlike historic predecessors like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, ACT UP, or the Human Rights Campaign. The closest concept unifying adoptee rights is the call by many for human rights and equal rights, recognized in statute, as those laws apply to persons who were placed for adoption. This includes giving all adoptees unfettered and full access to original birth records, without any exception. Many adoptees lack a personal vision too, preventing them from achieving individual success in their fight for their rights and records. This too must be changed, but by each individual adoptee, and in their own way. Only the individual has the power to make that change.
In the United States, adoption law is controlled at the state level. Here proponents of adoption and laws ensuring adoption secrecy, such as pro-adoption, anti-adoptee rights groups like the National Council for Adoption, have maximized a divide-and-conquer strategy that prevents adoptees from mounting a national campaign. Advocacy today focuses mostly on battles in state legislatures over bills to change adoptees’ access to birth records. These fights may bring in up to three or nearly four dozen local and national groups, including longtime groups like Bastard Nation, newer upstarts like the Adoptee Rights Law Center, and state-level groups like California Open. Most adoptees are not involved in these battles as they try to find their own records or families. However, all adoptees are connected to this national debate and need the same overarching strategic approach that is needed nationally.
Ultimately not having a clear end game and objectives will prevent many adoptees from engaging fully in what will be a protracted, long campaign. That can translate to lifelong failure. Greene’s synopsis of the critical role of grand strategy should be a wake up call to all adoptee rights advocates, including those who have to advocate for themselves: “What have distinguished all history’s grand strategists and can distinguish you, too, are specific, detailed, focused goals. Contemplate them day in and day out and imagine how it will feel to reach them and what reaching them will look like. By a psychological law peculiar to humans, clearly visualizing them this way will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Learn from Defeat: Every person in life suffers setbacks. Adoptees who seek their records and identity, unlike nonadoptees, are beset by obstacles imposed by hostile public health bureaucracies, harmful propaganda from the massive pro-adoption and Christian pro-family industry, media stereotypes that frame adoptees as damaged goods or ungrateful bastards, family members, friends, and especially discriminatory laws rooted in historic prejudice against illegitimately born people. Every single defeat represents a learning opportunity if you have an open, flexible mind that can take these setbacks and inform your future efforts. As Greene notes, “Victory and defeat are what you make of them; it is how you deal with them that matters.”
Define your Opponents and Expose Them and Their Weaknesses: Greene’s 33 Strategies of War highlights countless historic examples how combatants overcome their enemies by attacking the weakest link in any chain. He calls this “hit them where it hurts.” Frequently this means exposing individuals who make decisions and holding them accountable to the public. Famous social activist Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals,” called this “picking the target.” “Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies,” he wrote. “Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.” For adoptee rights activists, this means putting a face on those who say “no,” rather than succumbing like sheep to the nameless bureaucrats who operate in secret and hide behind the façade of laws and “process.”
In my case, I identified every Michigan official in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services involved in trying to withhold my birth certificate illegally, such as State Registrar Glenn Copeland. I published their emails about my birth record petition on my websites, revealing how public officials discussed adoptees seeking records that should have been released decades earlier.
Some groups, like Bastard Nation, do call out by name all of the foes and friends of adoptee rights, which others should learn from. My question to the larger adoptee community is this: Why aren’t all adoptee rights activists embracing one of the best tools of a free press, shining light on wrongdoing, to expose the harmful workings of public officials in their treatment of adoptees? This is a proven strategy and one rooted in the American free press tradition. It’s yours to use.
Become a Fighter, Not a Victim: Anyone who perceives himself or herself as crushed by circumstance will never muster the courage or vision to become an advocate or warrior for change, particularly against an old, large, and entrenched system like U.S. adoption. As Greene notes, “Control is an issue in all relationships. It is human nature to abhor feelings of helplessness and to strive for power. … Your task as a strategist is twofold: First, recognize the struggle for control in all aspects of life, and never be taken in by those who claim they are not interested in control.” Make no mistake, adoption secrecy is firmly rooted in states and their bureaucracies exerting power over a mostly unorganized group. Saying you are weak and projecting that image gives those in control greater power over you and all other adoptees. Remember Frederick Douglass’ admonishment that the “limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Therefore adoptees should see themselves as members of a powerful group, who have been forged through adversity and opposition, who are connected to historic heroes who fought for rights on behalf of those denied their rights. Nearly every great civilization has a story of those who have been wronged, but who changed the course of events by becoming the strong. In Scotland, the hero was Robert the Bruce, who defeated the English. In ancient Rome it was Spartacus and the revolting slaves, whose legacy survived millennia after their defeat. In the American South, it was the Civil Rights activists and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King, who challenged the power of the Southern states and Jim Crow laws and won major legislative change nationwide with the passage of two landmark civil rights measures. Find the hero and movements that resonate with you and embrace their power.
Define The Battlefield: In his summary of war strategies, Greene writes, “To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objectives, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reactive mode that so many battles in life lock you into. Keeping your overall goals in mind, it becomes much easier to decide when to fight and when to walk away.” Today, much of U.S. adoptee rights advocacy is stuck in complicated, state-level legislative battles over often regressive state legislation. Most recently, state lawmakers in New York and Florida have introduced legislation that has consumed adoptee rights advocates. In Hawaii in 2016, adoptee rights champions did define the battlefield and reclaimed their rights by passing a law granting all adoptees who are adults over 18 access to their records. In other cases, like New Jersey, a law was signed in 2014 and implemented in 2016 that created a class of adoptees denied forever their human right to know their ancestry because of a so-called “veto.”
Missing in this tactical coverage is how the adoptee rights struggle should be told nationally, outside of the typical media obsession over adoption reunion stories (what some adoptees call “reunion porn”). That space has been seized in the post-World War II decades by the pro-life, Christian, and fundamentalist community who have forged a national story about adoption as a selfless act promoting god’s will and a system that shows the benevolence of loving adoptive families. Adoptee strategists will need to counter the adoption industry’s national story by focusing on adoptee rights as human rights and as something as American as the First Amendment. Some advocates are doing this. More needs to be done. Frontline adoptee activists need to fight off any pretender group that claims that space, such as the Donaldson Adoption Institute—an organization that has a clear record of not supporting this overarching goal. As Green states, “War demands the utmost in realism, seeing things as they are.”
Know Your Enemies: Greene correctly states that no one in history ever won anything without first identifying those who opposed them. “Life is endless battle and conflict, and you cannot fight effectively unless you identify your enemies,” writes Greene. This maxim applies to the struggle for adoptees. Bastard Nation did that well already, publishing a list of many dogged and well-financed foes of adoptee rights (“Know Thine Enemies”). In knowing who they face, adoptees are better able to find allies, collaborators, and even possible swing groups who may pivot if the messages of equality, human rights, and justice override the powerful and slippery propaganda of the well-funded, Christian-leaning, anti-abortion, and pro-adoption advocates like the National Council for Adoption.
Adoptee rights strategists must familiarize themselves with overt anti-adoptee rights groups and their methods to develop a winning strategy. Greene correctly summarizes what hundreds of other historic strategists who have made history have long noted: “Do not be naïve: with some enemies there can be no compromise, no middle ground.” For that reason, adoptee rights groups will face continued setbacks if they also fail to recognize false advocates (the “Benedict bastards”) and those who divide and conquer among adoptees themselves. Adoptees need to use this real politik litmus test for groups who lack a clear vision for full equality, including state-level charlatan groups who claim to support adoptee rights, but promote harmful laws that deny all equal rights.
Launch a Revolution of Thinking: As Greene notes, all people face battles, hourly and daily. “But the greatest battle of all is with yourself—your weakness, your emotions, your lack of resolution in seeing things through to the end,” writes Greene. “Instead of repressing your doubts and fears, you must face the down, do battle with them.” Above all, success comes after you remove distracting emotion from critical thinking. This is a tall task for any adoptee, who often and rightly feels outrage and injustice at being denied their original names, equal legal rights, medical history, and equality. What results is an explosive outrage. This feeling has frequently served as great motivator, and even a catalyst for historic change.
To overcome your adversaries and the underlying legal injustice, you cannot afford the luxury of wallowing in your emotional state or turmoil when you map your long-term strategy for victory. You need to master your situation, turn your defeats into wisdom that inform your future actions, and embrace actions that achieve clear victories and not repeated losses. This can take years. You will get nowhere unless you define where your campaign will end and what you fight for. A campaign devoid of justice and focused on piecemeal objectives—the approach of some so-called adoptee rights advocates—is not a coherent, visionary strategy. It is a losing campaign before the battle begins.
Fighting a long game and knowing your actions are just and that laws are wrong can help carry you through the months and years of defeat. But ultimately winning the battle in one’s mind is your greatest key to victory. As the great Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu wrote nearly 2,500 years ago: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first, and then seek to win.”
[Author note: On June 10, 2018, I updated this essay, removing references to the now closed Donaldson Adoption Institute, and the American Adoption Conference (AAC). Regarding the AAC, the group this spring announced a very clear policy position supporting the right of adoptees to be treated equally by law, which signalled to me the group is commited to genuine legal reform and thus the activities to achieve that in the years to come.]
For the past several years, fellow Michigan adoptees who were born after World War II have contacted me seeking help. They want what they are entitled to as a birthright and under core human rights principles of international law: their original birth certificates (OBCs), held in secret, by the state of Michigan.
The number of queries I received from adoptees increased in the last year, since I won a nearly three-decade-old contest with the state to give me my original birth certificate and published my story about that victory on my website.
Because of these requests, I am publishing a short guide that may help some of the thousands of fellow adoptees born in Michigan deprived of their equal rights by Michigan’s discriminatory and harmful adoption laws. To navigate this system, adoptees will need to deal with state courts and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). That agency overseas the state’s public health bureaucracy and has ultimate authority for adoptees’ official vital records—including their original birth documents.
This guide focuses on Michigan adoptees born between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980. I was born during this time. According to the state’s website, “For those adoptions that occurred between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980, the release of the original birth certificate is contingent upon a court order.” As an adoptee seeking your OBC, that means you are almost certainly going to court, and it will not be easy. More on that shortly.
This 35-year span defined by law was not an accident. These were the boom years for adoption, when single women who became pregnant were pressured by society and many powerful medical, social work, and religious groups to give up millions of infants through the late 1970s. Thus the law intentionally harms the biggest pool of adopted citizens from the state by restricting their right to know who they are and their family ancestry and medical history.
Getting a Court Order: An Uphill Slog through a Hostile Environment
Those born before May 28, 1945 or after September 12, 1980 still face legal barriers. Read this summary of state law, published on the Adoptee Rights Law Center website. Greg Luce, an adoptee rights advocate who runs this website, elegantly describes Michigan’s convoluted system this way: “Michigan has such a confusing and complex system that only lawyers or those invested in such a complicated bureaucratic framework could fully comprehend it. To seek an OBC in Michigan you must 1) apply through an agency or court, which 2) forwards a clearance request form to the state’s “central adoption registry,” which 3) searches the registry and then 3) returns a clearance reply form to the court or agency that 4) is used to inform the adoptee that 5) a birth parent has denied any release of information (and the OBC is therefore unavailable) or that 6) a birth parent agrees to the release of information, upon which 7) the adoptee may obtain a copy of the clearance reply form and may then 7) supply the clearance reply form to the state registrar, which 8) issues a non-certified copy of the original birth certificate to the adoptee. Oh, if you were born between 1945 and 1980, this whole mechanism doesn’t even apply to you. Like other donut hole states, if you fall into that hole you need a court order to get your OBC.”
Michigan’s Communications to Adoptees Seeking an OBC:
You can read a succinct summary of the process published by the Adoptee Rights Coalition. The state also provides a short summary, which does not address how to navigate court order requests for adoptions that occurred between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980.
Key Points for Michigan Adoptees to Consider Before Beginning Court Advocacy for OBCs:
1. Current laws in Michigan, and the way its laws and vital records systems function today, are intended to prevent most Michigan adoptees from getting their original birth documents—forever. Remember that always. I will say that again: Remember that always. The political and legal systems governing adoption laws cause real harm to adoptees and deny them their basic human rights. You must be realistic how this plays out statewide and nationally. The laws vary by state. You cannot afford ignorance of the system or the players who control it. You must educate yourself about this reality. Know your friends and especially your opponents in your effort to achieve equal rights and your OBC.
2. No one will help you who works for theMDHSS, the state’s public health agency that controls your birth records. You can ask them for help, but you will not get it. The agency has an adversarial relationship with adoptees. In fact, you must be prepared to fight them, even once you get your court order—if you get one. They may even attempt to delay the release of your original birth certificate once presented with a judge’s ruling. This happened to me. See my FAQs also.
3. TheMichigan Central Adoption Registry is a mostly unaccountable bureaucracy of one employee (Connie Stevens; firstname.lastname@example.org) with no regulatory oversight. Do not contact it. See Luce’s description above regarding its mandate. Its website states it “is accessed by the court or agency; individual adopted persons do not contact the Registry.” This office does not answer phone calls, but may return one. Expect no help, even if you deserve it and need it.
4. The mediamay not be sympathetic to you, unless you have some emotional and tear-jerking reunion story. Overall, the media has a tepid interest in adoptee rights and in the past has viewed them in a discriminatory way—sometimes portraying them as uppity bastards who are not thankful they were taken in by loving families, etc. See the adoptee rights group Bastard Nation’s essay on this harmful stereotype. You can try to enlist the media, but do not assume the media will be a natural ally in the court of public opinion. That said, you should engage them, and you may find an ally in their ranks. Always try, and try again.
5. Remember, this takes time. You must give yourself anywhere from three months and much longer. You need to file your paperwork, advocate and push a court to set up a date, have your court date, and then submit, hopefully, your court order to Michigan Vital Records for your original birth certificate (OBC). You are running a marathon, not an 800-meter race. Stay focused on the end goal, always.
6. Rely on yourself. This is a personal journey. Most of us will do it alone. Most of us are not wildly rich and cannot afford to hire people to do unpleasant and tedious advocacy work. I encourage you not to seek help from any so-called confidential intermediaries or social workers. (Please avoid a Michigan confidential intermediary named Darryl Royal–he is not a real adoptee rights advocate.) There are some true legal advocates out there who work on cases. I suggest contacting the Adoptee Rights Law Center for possible tips if you really have a strong case needing litigation.
Starting Your Court Order Request:
Adoptees in the donut hole years need to find the court of jurisdiction for adoption records requests. For Wayne County/Detroit, where I was born, it is the Family-Juvenile Division of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan. Its address and contact information is: Third Judicial Circuit Court, Family Division Attention: Post Adoptions 1025 E. Forest Avenue Detroit, MI 48207-1098 Tel: (313) 224-5261; direct line: (313) 833-0032
Circuit courts likely have jurisdiction for issuing court orders for an adoptee. Find your court of jurisdiction here. This may be the hardest detail to figure out. The Third Judicial Circuit Court covers anyone born in Detroit, and adoptees there number in the thousands because that was home to Crittenton General Hospital, one of the nation’s largest maternity hospitals that facilitated adoptions for more than 30 years.
Download or request the instructions from the court in your jurisdiction, or contact that court for additional information. The instructions from the Family-Juvenile Division of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan are found online. Make a copy for your records.
Here are the instructions for Wayne County adoptees seeking to set up a court date and to petition a judge. Before you send your request in, make a copy of everything. Send your request certified mail. Make a cover letter listing everything you are sending and be courteous and professional. Show the court and judge that you are a professional and have your case in order. Show them you know the law and your rights.
You will need to send the following:
A $20 filing fee (as of 2016)
A copy of your photo identification
A copy of your adoptive birth certificate.
A completed Release of Information Authorization Adult Adoptee (FormFIA 1920). Include in the comments area on this form that you are requesting your original birth certificate (it’s a short box that says “additional comments”—make your pitch about your rights to your record).
If the birth certificate you are requesting is for a deceased, direct descendant, proof of the relationship and death are required (ie: death certificate, birth certificate, etc.).
Also, the above forms should be completed with the information regarding the adoptee.
Provide a written statement, no longer than a page, making your case why you deserve your birth record. This is your story, so only you can write it. Note, this is not required, but STRONGLY encouraged.
This week I was informed by a Michigan historical publication that its editorial committee rejected my proposed article on the historical significance of my birthplace, Crittenton General Hospital. “While the committee appreciates the article you submitted, it unfortunately does not meet our magazine’s editorial needs and we will be unable to accept it for publication,” the editor wrote.
This means that an article I proposed to tell the story of thousands of single Michigan mothers who gave up their children for adoption in the decades after World War II in Detroit will not reach a wider audience in Michigan. For that, I am disappointed.
I respectfully asked for feedback how I did not meet their needs, and did not get a reply. I do not expect a response, and to date have not received one.
[Author’s update, 9/15/2017, 1:05 p.m.: Hours after publishing this article, I received a reply from the publication I had contacted that its editorial committee thought my article was a “personal opinion piece,” which they do not accept in their publications. That reply arrived only after I had provided the publication a courtesy email to let them know I had published this article.]
No publication is obligated to tell any writer why they are rejected. Rejection is the norm in the world of writing and publishing. It also inspires good writers.
However, this outcome, which I have experienced when reaching out to many different publications to engage them on the history and problems in the U.S. adoption system, likely has other issues beyond my storytelling abilities or even the merits of the stories I am trying to tell.
The outcome falls into a trend of editorial bias by people who likely do not recognize how their decisions about covering the story of the U.S. adoption system and its history are influenced by their own subconscious views. My forthcoming book on the U.S. adoption experience investigates how bias influences individuals’ and society’s views about illegitimately born people (bastards like me), including adoptees. I also have published an essay on that topic on my blog.
Is it Bad Writing/Research, Bias, or a ‘Suspect’ Writer/Researcher?
The larger issue of research bias is well documented in human-subjects research. That field boasts a staggering list of biases that impact the research outcomes, before, during, and after clinical trials. It also is a well-documented issue in communications.
The open-source scientific publication PLoS noted in a 2009 editorial, “A large and growing literature details the many ways by which research and the subsequent published record can be inappropriately influenced, including publication bias, outcome reporting bias, financial and non-financial, competing interests, sponsors’ control of study data and publication, and restrictions on access to data and materials. But it can be difficult for an editor, reading a submitted manuscript, to disentangle these many influences and to understand whether the work ultimately represents valid science.”
When a writer or researcher is rejected, they have almost no chance of persuading a potential publisher to chance its views. If you push your case, you also are further discounted as too “attached” or “engaged.”
In the world of investigative journalism, you are even considered dangerous, and your own publications may turn against you if you fail to accept outcomes that can squash controversial stories. This is a common experience to anyone who has mattered in the world of journalism.
The celebrated investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in 1993 that telling stories that some people do not want to read but should be told is often a thankless, even dangerous task.
“Reporters write a story once, and then there’s no response and they stop,” says Hersh. “Somehow the object [is] to keep on pushing. The problem is, what do you do when you make yourself a pain in the ass and you become suspect? Because as everybody knows, for some mysterious reasons, if you have a point of view in a newspaper room you are suspect. Or if you’re a true believer you’re dangerous, you’re political. That’s really crazy. Because it seems to me the only good stories that come out of anything come from people who have a passion about right and wrong, and good and bad. It’s a terrible tragedy. It’s very tough.”
I always turn to Hersh’s quote that I jotted down when I first became a journalist, when I need to remember that telling important stories, including ones that challenge orthodoxy and prejudice, will never be an easy road to travel. That is why I wrote my book about the American adoption experience, knowing it would not be an easy story to tell or to sell.
But anything that matters, really and truly matters, requires overcoming such obstacles. That is how you find personal meaning and how you make positive and meaningful change that may take years to achieve.
(Author’s note: This essay also can also be found on my You Don’t Know How Lucky You Arewebsite, where I provide information, essays, and resources on adoptee rights, adoption, evolutionary biology, adoption law, and other issues covered in my forthcoming memoir on the American adoption experience. Please visit that site to learn more about adoptee rights and research.)
This article is a response to a recent newsletter flash I received from the adoption research and advocacy group called the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The organization has suddenly proclaimed a bold new advocacy position and campaign on adoptee rights as a “human rights” issue.
I will make three key points about this new effort and how adoptees, the media, policy-makers, and supporters of adoptee rights should cautiously view this and all other efforts by groups who claim to promote legal rights for adopted persons, illegitimately born people, and people who call themselves bastards:
The institute’s new campaign seeking to become the champion of “human rights” for adoptees seeking their birth records must be viewed critically given the group’s track record and the way it is linked to the promotion of what some adoptees and reporters like Dan Rather call the “adoption industry.”
Authentic advocacy and scholarship on adoptee rights or any issue involves “walking the talk” and having what ordinary folks call “street cred.” For example, Florence Fisher, and the group she lead in the 1970s called the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), showed that when ALMA took a clear stand for adoptees by calling for the “free access to our original birth certificates and the records of our adoption” and went to court in New York in 1977 with a federal class action lawsuit, claiming adoptees had rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 13th and 14th amendments to their original birth records. They lost but their actions spoke volumes. You have to demonstrate what you believe through meaningful action, not fluffy words of cute social media memes.
My work in my upcoming book on my adoption experience and how U.S. adoption should be understood through a public health lens gives full credit to insightful writers and advocates, like Lauren Sabina Kneisly, who clearly define the real power systems involved in adoption and the political realities of being an adoptee and bastard. Real advocates and credible scholars acknowledge their sources and forebears. Those who only seek influence or power in any field will try to co-opt the work of real reformers.
Why I am Troubled by Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Co-opting of Adoptee Claims to Human Rights
My forthcoming memoir on the U.S. adoption experience makes clear I will not and do not appropriate or claim ownership of many breakthrough actions and ideas in the long struggle of adoptees to have equal rights of non-adopted people in the United States.
I praise and quote scholars like professors E. Wayne Carp and Elizabeth Samuels, who have documented how adoptees’ and birth parents’ legal access to original birth records was severely restricted by state legislatures and public health bureaucracies in the decades after World War II. (Also see my post on the topic of discrimination against adoptees.)
To ensure accuracy and authenticity with my readers, I give each and every parent, writer, activist, scholar, organization, and leader full credit for their contributions to changing current practices and thinking. I do that to acknowledge who has meaningfully contributed to our understanding of adoption as a political, health, public health, historic, sociological, biological, and advocacy issue.
I also seek to steer policy-makers, adoptees, and the media to credible and relevant data to correctly frame adoption as a human rights, public health, and legal issue. That is also called responsible scholarship and “walking the talk” in the advocacy arena.
Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Status on Adoptee Rights
One group I continue to have trouble with concerning legal advocacy is the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The New York-based group has published research by scholars on adoption. I cite some of their work in my book. I appreciate how they cited the health issues associated with denying adoptees their family history and a 2016 study on public perceptions of adoptees and adoption. I like that the group supports openness in adoption, but I am very troubled by this concept in the context of their work that appears to support adoption without changing laws or formally acknowledging past wrongs.
However, I do not endorse their work to date as being clear, mission-driven advocacy that seeks to address historic discrimination against adoptees or work that seeks to change laws to promote equality for all adoptees by giving every single living adoptee full and unfettered access to their records–as done in most developed nations.
I say this despite the group’s sudden new commitment under a questionable logo: “50 States. 1 Movement. Restore Adoptee Rights!” The group announced this publicly on May 17, 2017, through an email “special communication.”
I have yet to find in the institute’s work or website if the group acknowledges how other countries (England, Scotland, France, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Israel, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway) have clear national laws that establish all adoptees’ legal right to their birth records or that the group suggests a policy solution proposal endorsing such an approach. (Please let me know if I missed something.)
The group’s diverse interests include topics like “promoting healthy identity formation in adoption,” transnational and biracial adoption issues, adoption by gay parents, and even counseling issues. While I find some of this work worthwhile for some groups, particularly transnational and bi-racial adoptees and their families, I am unconvinced still by what I see right now that the DAI can or ever will be a leader in fighting for real adoptee civil rights.
The group as recently as mid-2016 wasworking on another campaign (“transacton to transformation“), also with a catchy social media title, that urged changing adoption “to a more uniform and transformational process where everyone—expectant parents, first/birth parents, adopted persons and adoptive families and professionals—are better prepared and supported.” This in no way resembles a campaign focussed on ending discrimination against adoptees or challenging the real power structures who promote those views and profit by them. In many ways, this campaign is a contradiction to its newest effort that seemingly appropriates the concept of adoptee rights as “human rights.”
Any group that seeks to sustain this industry should not be a leader in promoting meaningful change. Actual change can be seen in the Australian adoption reconciliation efforts, where the national government formally apologized in 2013 to all birth mothers and adoptees for causing harm. The DAI does not recognize in a formal way this historic action as a solution—yet another red flag for me.
The DAI’s mission statement—not even clearly called out on its website—is also muddled and does not clearly state its top goal is a lasting legal remedy and equality for adoptees by law: “The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s mission is to provide leadership that improves laws, policies and practices—through sound research, education and advocacy—in order to better the lives of everyone touched by adoption.” That is not a mission to change laws or change how adoption is understood as a political system, now sustained and promoted by the Republican Party, evangelical Christians, and groups that profit from adoption as a business.
Now the DAI calls for a national campaign—not coincidentally one it states that it wants to lead. Its announcement tries to claim the mantle of unnamed reformers from the 1970s. Key advocates in legal reform from that era such as Florence Fisher did not entangle themselves in the “business of adoption.” Quite simply, the DAI lacks street cred to lead as measured by its own actions and deeds.
Because of this, I strongly suggest that all adoptees and advocates for adoption hit the pause button and determine for themselves if they wish to do the group’s online survey, now organized to support this effort. This appears to be a power grab on advocacy in the often petty and often frustrating world of advocacy among a mostly powerless group—adoptees.
Who Is “Entitled” to Claim Leadership on Adoptee Legal Rights?
Suddenly, the DAI is using the overarching policy goal of the adoptee advocacy group Bastard Nation, whose mission statement boldly calls for “the civil and human rights of adult citizens who were adopted as children.” For the record, I am not a member of any adoptee advocacy group, and I do not know anyone in Bastard Nation in person.
The DAI now claims: “The tangible negative consequences of denying adopted people their OBC are numerous and sobering. Yet the most severe outcome rests in the fact that a fundamental human right is being denied to an entire group of people.”
What’s more, the DAI has suddenly made statements and language never used before regarding the laws that deny adoptees equal treatment under the law and their birth records. “This is a human rights violation that creates inequality for an entire group of people,” the group writes. “Everyone should have the right to know the truth of his or her birth.”
This is great language, but I am deeply worried such views are not sustainable by a group that is so deeply embedded in a system where groups can make $30,000 or more promoting adoption. The sale of babies to adoption farms that lead to horrific infant death outcomes of bastard babies in the early 1900s in Baltimore is a warning of the dangers of turning infants into sellable commodities. Adoptee rights advocates should distance themselves entirely from anyone associated with this practice for historic and policy reasons alone, not to mention moral concerns.
My Communications with the Donaldson Adoption Institute
I am more troubled that the DAI is using language by groups like Bastard Nation and others. I also am confused that the group’s language strangely resembles legal arguments I shared with them in February and March 2016 by email. I wrote to the group then to ask them to define their advocacy views on the concept of adoptees’ rights to their records as a legal issue and as a human right, similar to how it is enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
(Author’s Note: My goal as I write this post is to forward this post to the DAI and ask if they wish to issue any rebuttal commentary as the form of a response on my blog, which I will publish in the spirit of promoting a vigorous public discussion of adoptee and legal rights issues.)
As of today, May 20, 2017, the DAI has not credited any group or scholar in its new campaign to become the lead group. This is not required, but its failure to acknowledge by name the groups and persons who have laid out the data and legal case for a human rights campaign for adoptees should be a red flag to all persons who believe the United States should have an identical national law like England granting all adoptees full rights to their birth records at the age of 18.
My Indebtedness to Adoptee Advocates and Words of Wisdom on Adoptee Rights Advocacy
In writing my book on the American Adoption experience, I encountered several leaders for adoptee rights who shared nearly identical views with me on the complex perspectives of the institution of adoption, the discriminatory treatment of adoptees and bastards, and the failure of current so-called advocacy groups to provide meaningful leadership to frame adoption as a legal and human rights issue that harms adoptees.
One fellow adoptee and writer I feel most aligned to is Lauren Sabina Kneisly. Her blog, Baby Love Child, appears to be on hiatus, but it provides a superb primer on how to decipher messaging on adoptee rights advocacy.
Her blog does not endorse any group, but acknowledges the work of groups like Bastard Nation.
Kneisly wisely urges adoptees and their supporters to be mindful of the words used by groups and advocates. In other words, don’t fall for astroturfing or greenwashing, which co-opt the words, emotions, and ideas of real reformers by those who seek to profit from the status quo and who may actually not want change at all.
Usually the proof is in both the words and also the deeds, and greenwashing can be very slick. If it’s good, and it often is by such sales personnel, your emotions will be exploited without your conscious awareness.
Therefore, consider Kneisly’s recommendation for judging street cred and moral legitimacy for adoptee advocacy groups. She suggests these criteria:
Do they understand their status as part of a broader class of people and refuse to leave others behind?
Do they have a clear and single-minded focus on the real goal—equity for adoptees?
Do they reject substitutions, distractions, or attempts to divide and conquer that maintain state control and deflect from the goal of equality?
Do they identify who holds real power and what their conflicts of interest are?
Do they only settle for full equality for all those denied access in an inequitable manner?
Remember, as with all things in the real-world of politics and advocacy, trust your gut and disregard any marketing promise that sounds too good to be true, because it often isn’t.
Finally, if you want an example of clearly stated goals towards a policy objective, visit the Adoptee Rights Law Center, maintained by lawyer, adoptee, and activist Gregory Luce of Minnesota. I think he is doing great work to change the national discussion with facts, provide timely and accurate information, and support adoptee rights as a human right.
If you know of a group you like, send me a note. I would love to hear from you and share that on my website for my new book.
[Editor’s Note, Jan. 5, 2018: As of Jan. 4, 2018, the Donaldson Adoption Institute has announced it is closing. Lack of funding likely contributed to its demise. Its research will still be accessible online, according to its most recent public statement. Adoptee rights advocates will now need to fill a void when media cover the issue. Reporters seeking soundbites often turned to this group. True adoptee rights advocates need to insert themselves into the national conversation.]
There are few documents in life that have as much magical power and significance as an original birth certificate. They are perhaps more talismanic for adoptees in the United State because most adopted adults born after the 1950s were prohibited by law from ever getting their original identity documents. I was one among millions of them.*
As an adoptee born in Michigan before the 1970s, I came into the world at a time when single mothers were shamed and bastard infants posed a moral hazard and strange, undefined threat to society. I was placed for adoption and had my human right to my original identity document taken from me. Denying me my record was more than a solitary injustice. It was a daily reminder of the inequity into which I established an identity cut off from my ancestral human past
The intention by state lawmakers in Michigan and around the country from the 1950s on was to ensure I and millions of other adoptees in nearly every state never knew who we were. The unstated but intended goal was to keep that document hidden forever from me until the day I died. This was a complete 180-degree policy turn from practices that allowed adoptees and their birth mothers to have access to records up to the early 1950s.**
The hiding of original birth records was essential to one of the grandest and least publicized social experiments in recent history—modern U.S. adoption that placed strangers with new families by the hundreds of thousands. The plan failed in many ways for the many people impacted by the practice. In her testimony in 1993 against restrictive measures in Colorado to limit adoptees’ rights to their records, adoptee right activist and pioneer Jean Paton said, “When the records were put under seal, it was an experiment in Utopia. It was a destructive error, and should be remedied by a sweeping cure … .” That cure has still never come, and persons like myself and thousands of others of Michiganders in the decades surrounding my birth are denied equal rights to their birth records, simply by the status and year of their birth, according to state law.
It’s all about ‘power’
On July 18, 2016, decades after first being denied what should have been given to me in 1989 by the State of Michigan and its public health bureaucracy, I received the original record of my birth as a person who came into this world. It is a sheet of paper with a name connected to biological families, a lineage, and a larger human story of kin and family networks over time. I was not a state secret. Nor was I ever a blank slate, to be “reborn” as many evangelical adoption activists falsely believe, as an unnamed person with a new name and an amended certificate. I was who I always was. By asking for what was already mine, I never demanded anything more than what any U.S. citizen asks for: equality under the law.
The state still claims this one sheet of paper literally must be kept secret in a locked box or file, withheld from me because of a “law.” The state asserted its paternalistic power without ever showing any peer-reviewed evidence, policy rationale, or demonstrated benefit how the state or my birth mother and family are helped by actions that represent an extreme interpretation of some very outdated and harmful laws.
When I attempted to interview State Registrar Glenn Copeland on July 22, 2016, his employer, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) refused to allow him or anyone else to speak to me about the department’s management of adoptees’ birth records and requests by adoptees to get their original documents. MDHHS press officer Jennifer Eisner issued a statement on July 27, 2016 defending the state’s position: “It our responsibility to carefully adhere to any and all laws of the state of Michigan. Michigan law includes specific provisions on the sealing of birth certificates in certain circumstances, such as following an adoption. … The vital records office is required to adhere to the law regarding the release of original records.” In short, this was the talking point shared with me on March 22, 2016, by Deputy State Registrar Tamara Weaver, who called me on the phone to share a simple message after I asked for my record: “The law is the law.”
The defense offered by the state has been and remains so flimsy and so removed from best practices, it is impossible not to conclude that Michigan discriminated against me as an adoptee, soley to preserve a perk of power. It needed to single me out to demonstrate that the state can ultimately and arbitrarily exercise its power over even law-abiding persons.
Ultimately, the state asserted its power without demonstrating compassion, leadership, or basic common sense. And it had those chances in spades. Granted this is not the moral equivalent of physical harm that many persons around the world experience daily from tyrannical and abusive governments. But the State of Michigan’s actions follow the logic used by all governments who chose to deny rights simply because they can—one of the most consistent expressions of how government works for itself and not “its subjects.”
What makes a birth certificate ‘different’
A birth certificate is the most important legal document for any American and every person born anywhere in the world. According to public health researchers Putu Duff, Santi Kusumaningrum, and Lindsay Stark, “birth registration is the first legal recognition of a child and a fundamental human right,” under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the United States, a government-created registration document proves you are entitled to the benefits and privileges—and responsibilities—of being a United States citizen.
One cannot obtain the most critical documents to navigate modern life without this sheet of paper: getting a U.S. passport, obtaining the standing legal identity document in the United States—the driver’s license, applying for a Social Security card, or enrolling as a child in school. One literally cannot live a modern life, including opening bank accounts, voting now in many U.S. states, accessing benefits, obtaining a job, and accessing all forms of education throughout one’s life without the cornerstone proof of legal existence that a birth certificate provides.
On a much broader level, as outlined by the United Nations, a birth certificate fulfills a basic human necessity. Without a certificate, anywhere in the world, a child can be denied basic human rights. They cannot get jobs, open bank accounts, obtain credit or inheritances, participate in social benefits, or be involved in political and civil affairs.
How Michigan denies adoptees their human right to a birth certificate
Before I found my birth families in 1989, the MDHHS, my adoption agency (Lutheran Child and Family Services), and the Wayne County Probate Court did everything in their power to keep me from knowing my birth family, critical family medical history, and identity.
After I met my birth mother that year, she signed a release for the state to allow for the release of my identity documents to me. I was sent formal written acknowledgement from the Michigan Department of Public Health, Office of Vital and Health Statistics. It acknowledged original information could be shared with me. This was then acknowledged in writing by the probate court and my adoption agency—they had to legally comply and turn over what was mine, though begrudgingly. I received copies my original adoption decree, birth medical history, and all other identifying information—including the names of my birth father, birth mother’s family, and records of my first year of life that were intentionally kept from me.
Yet the Michigan Department of Public Health, Office of Vital and Health Statistics, refused to surrender my original birth certificate, even when the fig leaf of secrecy had vanished by the events that made my adoption no longer a shameful societal secret. Adoption bureaucrats for the state of Michigan stood fast and claimed my birth certificate was allegedly “sealed,” and because I was an adoptee born between 1945 and 1980 and that state law allegedly allowed them to deny me the most important piece of paper a person can ever have. They made this defense even when I proved I knew my original birth name of Scott Douglas Owens and knew my genetic kin. [Note I have original birth records that spell my original birth name as “Douglas” and “Douglass.” I now use the former as part of my new legal name that mixed my original and adopted names: Rudolf Scott-Douglas Owens.]
‘The law is the law,’ and the abuses of an amoral, legal defense by public health authorities
In March 2016, I decided to challenge the state’s overreach and abuse of power by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), which now manages vital records. I demanded what was mine in a letter to department director Rick Lyon. You can read the details of my petition and all of my original documents on this summary page.
Three decades later, the state and MDHHS again doubled down and chose to fight my request and keep my original identity document from me, even when there was no longer any rational reason to keep a non-secret birth record from the person who knows his original birth name. The state adopted a legal smokescreen to mask arbitrary and paternalistic decisions that provide no public benefit to adoptees, birth parents, or the state.
These actions followed a long pattern of state-sanctioned discrimination against thousands of adoptees by denying them equal rights of all other residents regarding critical medical and family history—a practice that undermines public health.
The state had no compelling legal rationale to continue hiding my birth record except the claims that “the law is the law.” This is precisely the defense that has been used in some of the most egregious abuses of rights by state public officials in U.S. history. Up until the late 1970s and until a court challenges, some states practiced forced sterilization of persons deemed mentally deficient.
The practice was allowed by state laws through a national eugenics movement that began in the early 1900s. In California alone, where one-third of the estimated 60,000 state-sanctioned compulsory sterilization procedures in the United States occurred until 1979, government actions were codified in law and described as an approved public health strategy to breed out undesirable defects from the populace and to promote state health. In short, public health practices, until very recently and to this day still, have been and are still cloaked behind a rationale of being allowed by law, even when the persons implementing policy could always exercise moral judgement.
All of the facts of my identify are public and had been for nearly three decades concerning my original birth name. MDHHS denied my request without a proper review of my evidence sent to Director Lyon on March 28, 2016, claiming “the law is the law.”
Even more startling was the state’s own admission in its reply to me on July 27, 2016, that state law likely was not followed by denying me my birth certificate. The department stated: “For adoptions finalized between the dates of May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980, a court order is required unless the birth parent(s) have filed a consent to release the information. A court order would not be required if the deaths of both birth parents could be documented.” Because I had provided the department the signed legal consent by my birth mother, than it appears my records were supposed to have been shared, as far back in April 1989. I had included copies of that legal proof when I demanded my birth certificate in March 2106—and yet, the department refused to comply with how it claims the law requires vital records officials to handle requests from adult adoptees. (As of July 29, 2016, I have demanded a written explanation if the department was not complying with the law in its denial.)
Public records request reveals a fear-based bunker mentality at the MDHHS
State officials called my request and me the “problem,” “tagged” me in their system, and claimed I had “an agenda.” Nearly 20 senior officials in the MDHHS and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office were involved in denying my reasonable request and were copied in the state’s denial of my request.
I prepared a detailed account of their deliberations in a forensic analysis of personal email communications that revealed fear of me and my request by high-level MDHHS officials. They expressed uncertainty and confusion over their limited legal authority and the state’s poorly crafted adoption statutes. Two senior officials, Glenn Copeland, state registrar, and Tamara Weaver, Deputy State Registrar, also provided written remarks that suggest startling ignorance of U.S. adoption law and global trends that allow adoptees in countries like England to have full access to all their birth documents when they turn 18.
Deputy Registrar Weaver told her boss, State Registrar Copeland, that I would not be satisfied with my original birth certificate, which I had explicitly asked for. She seemed unable to understand, professionally or even compassionately, why any adoptee should have legal access to their birth records. After she called me on the telephone on March 22, 2016, without providing her name or role in managing state vital records, she wrote to her boss, “He has an agenda, nothing I would have said would have been sufficient. … I don’t think my offering him his record would have been enough for him, even though that is ultimately what he says he wants.”
Weaver also revealed in her email a lack of any knowledge of U.S. adoption history and that all adoption records were once accessible to adoptees and birth parents before the 1950s. She dismissed my detailed policy analysis I have published on discrimination against adoptees by U.S. states and adoption bureaucrats. She wrote, “Don’t know how true this angle is, but it is interesting, if you like that kind of story line.” Again, Weaver is the No. 2 in a state agency that manages vital records for all adoptees—a stunning confession. (See page 9 of my summary of state records on the denial of my request for my original birth certificate.)
MDHHS never once sought to consider alternatives they always had, including wide discretion in interpreting laws and rules—a central tenet in U.S. law and in all state and federal judicial reviews of agency actions. MDHHS officials determined from the start to deny me my record, and then they found a legal justification without reviewing all of the evidence I sent to them in an impartial manner. State Registrar Copeland sent me a stunningly obtuse letter in late March 2016 that never acknowledged the key facts of my case that were documented in legal documents in his department’s possession. He basically blew me off and expected me to go away, or maybe some day petition the court. To his dismay (also expressed in email), I reasserted professionally and respectfully my legal right to my birthright document.
The Michigan judiciary orders MDHHS to comply with my request
With no alternative available, I turned to the courts for a remedy to compel the MDHSS to give me what was mine. In April 2016 I filed a petition with the Michigan 3rd Circuit Court requesting a court order that would force the MDHHS to release a copy of my original birth certificate.
My justification to the court noted, “I am no longer wanting to accept the state’s continued unjust treatment of me simply because I am an adopted Michigan native who wants what non-adopted Michiganders receive: equal treatment under the law. A just outcome that releases the certificate to me poses no burden, meaningful cost, or harm to any party, nor the state of Michigan.” The Honorable Judge Christopher Dingell, in a telephone court hearing on June 17, 2016, agreed with facts of the case. He noted that I knew my birth name, had nearly three decades of contact with his birth families, and that the legal consent was already in state records in 1989. He signed the order requiring the MDHHS to end what I consider the illegal holding of my birth certificate and terminate decades-long discrimination against me on the basis of my status as an adoptee.
I finally get my birth certificate and what that means
I mailed the court order to the state’s vital records office on July 1, 2016, with a thick pack of documents that made absolutely clear the state had no more legal excuses to deny my birth record. On July 18, 2016, the sheet of paper, with a legal stamp from the state registrar, finally arrived in my mailbox.
I was stunned looking at the copy of my original birth certificate. The state had given me a final insult by writing three times in big bold letters, “SEALED,” as a reminder I was still a bastard and not a normal person. But underneath that insulting bureaucratic graffiti that purportedly protected the well-being of the state and its residents were all the facts I already had known for three decades. The only new information I found on the document was the full name of the attending physician, who helped to safely bring me into this world one spring day in Detroit, Michigan, many years ago.
The legal document marked my entrance into this world as a human being, with genetic kin and family histories and family members who did want to know me. It was registered as my original birth certificate about four weeks after my birth. This single sheet of paper was deemed a state secret. All my life, I was classified by law as being undeserving of this record, unlike all-non-adopted state residents, simply because I was relinquished as an infant to become an adoptee.
The only reason—and I repeat only reason—I now have possession of what is and always has been mine is because I never once recognized the legal or moral authority of the state’s so-called vital records professionals to deny me equal treatment and equal status by law. They never had that authority, and their actions over all these years demonstrate their lack of moral authority to anyone who may care about fairness and equality. By denying me my birth certificate, even when I knew my original name and birth families, they showed they had no moral center, clinging to a legalistic loin cloth and well-documented prejudice against adult adoptees who dare to say the emperor has no clothes.
I immediately posted a tweet about my final clash with state records keepers. I wrote this Facebook post as well for my social network circle: “It only took 27 years, but the so-called ‘public health’ secrecy mongers in Michigan finally gave me what has been mine since the day I was born: My Original Birth Certificate. … What a waste of time and resources. Imagine all the amazing things the state could have done helping adoptees or infants or needy kids instead of treating bastards as second-class people and children. This effort was done on behalf of anyone who was denied fair treatment under the law. You are always stronger when you work on behalf of the many, instead of just yourself.”
The Governor and MDHHS refuse to answer questions on adoptees’ rights
Before I published this article, I wanted to give Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the MDHHS a chance to defend and articulate the state’s positions on state adoption law and practices that discriminate against adoptees by denying them equal treatment to their vital records. Laura Biehl, senior communication advisor to Gov. Snyder, did not want to make statements when contacted by phone, but did accept my written questions that asked if adult adoptees had legal rights to vital records without restrictions and if Snyder believed all persons in Michigan had the right to received equal treatment under the U.S. Constitution and state law regarding access to original vital records. She replied on July 26, 2016, with a statement: “The Governor does not have a position regarding adoption records in Michigan so I am unable to answer your questions.”
I also reached out directly to interview State Registrar Copeland on July 22, 2016—the man who denied giving me my original birth certificate in March 2016. The MDHHS refused to allow him to speak to me nor any members of its media team to be interviewed by phone. The MDHHS agreed to respond to written questions. The department’s press officer, Jennifer Eisner, provided answers to only five of 27 questions, with a statement that essentially said the law is the law. (See her statement and a summary of those questions and mostly no answers on my summary document).
Specifically, the department did not answer if it discriminated against adult adoptees in the management of vital records. It refused to answer questions how it managed my record request or why I was “tagged” after being identified as the “problem.” It could not even answer simple questions how the state’s adoptions record unit that handles adoptee records requests, the Central Adoption Registry, is managed, who manages it, or if it ever has been audited. Finally, the department did not answer if it was aware of national adoption laws in countries like England that allow all adult adoptees to get copies of all of their original birth records when they turn 18.
The most startling fact I discovered was the state’s total failure to even track or count how many requests for birth records by adult adoptees are denied by the MDHHS. “The total number of these official requests would not be known but is believed to be very close to the number released,” said Jennifer Eisner, a press officer with the MDDHS in a July 27, 2016, email.
Given the ubiquity of adoptees in the United states (perhaps 5 million or maybe more) and the decades-long efforts by adoptees to access their records, such an acknowledgement shows for Michigan at least, adoptees still do not matter and thus will not be counted. As those in public health and health know, what gets measured gets done. What is ignored remains a problem.
The state also could not provide a written estimate how many Michigan adoptees may be living who were born between 1945 and 1980—those who that state claims need court orders to get birth certificates. According to Eisner, the department only began counting the number of released birth certificates in 2009—decades after adoption became one of the most widespread practices in family formation in the United States. Since 2009, only 549 original birth certificates have been given to adoptees, according to the MDHHS. I do not know if I was No. 549 or if some other determined adoptee came right after me. We are a shockingly small group of Michiganders who persevered against the secrecy guardians of the state.
The message from these vital records keeping practices by Michigan’s public health professionals is very clear. Adult adoptees, you still do not count. We can continue to ignore your rights and treat you as State Registrar Copeland called the “problem.”
* Records collection on adoptions has long been imprecise. The most widely quoted data set on U.S. adoptions through the mid-1970s was published in a paper by Penelope Maza for the U.S. Children’s Bureau. The study found the United States recorded 2.4 million adoptions from 1944 through 1972— the last year before abortion became legal in the United States. The study made estimates without precise data, because data collecting was voluntary not mandatory.
In 2010, the U.S. Census officially recorded more than 1.5 million adopted children under 18 years of age living with an adopted parent. This compares to a total U.S. estimated population of adopted children, including those 18 and older still living in households with their parents, at a little more than 2 million persons. The count does not include adoptees who are no longer living at home and who are adults—a figure that remains undefined by demographers, but expansive and far-reaching.
**Read an excellent article by adoption law scholar Elizabeth Samuels, JD. She has published numerous articles on how states and bureaucracies implemented secrecy measures that have closed once open birth records, preventing adoptees and birth parents from accessing their vital records and from knowing one another.
 Penelope L. Maza, “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975,” Child Welfare Research Notes #9 (U.S. Children’s Bureau, August 1984), pp. 1-4, Child Welfare League of America Papers, Box 65, Folder: “Adoption—Research—Reprints of Articles,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.
“Prior to World War II, there was no wide-spread and institutionalized adoption system. When children were born out of wedlock, both the babies and the mothers were considered undesirable. They bore a stigma—got little or no help. But after the war, that changed. Babies became part of a huge new adoption industry … while their unwed mothers were still shunned by society.”
“With respect to attitudes about adoption, white unmarried motherhood is no longer equated with mental disorder or an ability to recover easily from surrendering a child for adoption. A large majority of birth parents are reported to be open to or actually desire contact with adoptees. Adoptive families have come increasingly to be seen as having unique qualities and challenges. … Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families have become families figures and are no longer assumed to be suffering from a mental disorder.”
One of the most under-reported societal stories of the past six decades has been how the U.S. adoption system continues to discriminate against several million adopted Americans. This legal practice is particularly ironic because the movement to make adoption records more secret from adoptees, depriving them of basic human rights, came at a time when voting rights, civil rights, gay rights, disability rights, and women’s rights were expanding for all Americans from the 1950s onward.
University of Baltimore law professor Elizabeth Samuels has documented this national trend with both clarity and meticulous detail in a series of articles she has published starting in 2001 on adoption law and privacy issues surrounding adoption.
Samuels has painstakingly documented in her authoritative study how state adoption laws evolved from the 1930s to the present and how elected state lawmakers systematically closed adoption records between the 1960s and 1990s. The change was championed by state legislatures and social service bureaucracies, with the quiet but critical involvement of the U.S. medical establishment that delivered the babies and cared for the women giving birth.
This happened without any clear evidence proving records secrecy offered benefits to mothers and children placed for adoption. The closing of records was based largely on societal views that stigmatized unwed mothers and particularly adopted children even to this day.
It is likely that many Americans still harbor deep fears and suspicions about adoptees as adults, thanks to archetypal fears of bastard babies and stigmas fueled by unrepentant mental health professionals who caused calculated harm with their pseudo-scientific branding of an adoptees’ quest for information as unhealthy.
Oddly, this movement to seal original birth certificates and birth records of adoptees through the 1990s took place as many adoptees had come of age and began organizing local, state-level, and national movements demanding a universal right to know who they were and where they came from, as found in original identity documents.
Advocates included Betty Jean Lifton, author of Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter (1975); Florence Fisher, author of The Search for Anna Fisher (1973), and social worker-turned adoptee rights advocate Jean Paton, author of The Adopted Break Silence (1953).
Paton, a mostly unrecognized social leader and equal rights advocate two decades ahead of her time, helped to launch a national adoptees right movement and published two books that advocated for adoptees’ rights. She suggested the creation of a mutual consent registry as early as 1949, for example, and embraced the term “bastard” in the 1970s, long before the emergence of the advocacy group Bastard Nation in the 1990s.
She wrote of her experience before states began to implement discriminatory laws: “In 1942 I had gone to the Probate Court … and looked up my first adoption paper, and saw my mother’s full name signed by her own hand. There was no rigmarole; you were allowed to see your own paper in a kindly procedure.”
When records were open to adoptees, the norm
As Samuels reports, “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, most state laws did permit adult adoptees to view birth records. But by 1960, 26 states were making both original birth records and adoption records available only by court order. Twenty other states still birth records available on demand, but over the following 30 years, all of those states but three—Alaska, Kansas and South Dakota—close records to adults adoptees.”
Samuels shows through a review of state records and recommendations from leading adoption welfare agencies from the 1930s to the 1950s that the groups most involved in handling adoptions and developing recommendations mostly agreed that adult adoptees should have access to their original birth records.
Samuels shows the original legal rationale to provide confidentiality of the birth mother and to keep her from knowing her birth parents was only to “protect adoptees and adoptive parents from the dangers of public access to personal information.”
The intent up through the end of the 1950s was never to prevent adult adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates, which had their original names prior to their adoption and later amended birth certificates with their name provided by the adoptive parents.
The most influential adoption agency of its time, the Child Welfare League of America, noted in its 1941 standards that such protection shielded adoptees “from unnecessary embarrassment in case of illegitimacy.”
In fact the U.S. Children’s Bureau, one of the major players in the development of adoption law through the mid-20th century, fully endorsed adult adoptees’ rights to know who they were, in the form of access to their original birth records, up through the late 1940s. Samuels notes one consultant for the agency defended this already established legal practice nationally, noting, “every person has a right to know who he is and who his people were.”
Samuels’ legal analysis dismantles and thoroughly destroys the predominant justification still used today that the shamed and marginalized pregnant mothers who entered into adoptions from the 1940s onward wanted to have their identities hidden from their birth children. This false narrative still survives today and still continues to allow legalized discrimination and stigmatization of these mothers and their kids.
Samuels unearthed no data or credible study that ever justified this overwhelming legal rationale. It was the view advanced by the interest groups who managed adoptions, notably the social service agencies who brokered more than 1.5 million adoptions from 1951 to 1972— the last year before abortion became legal in the United States.
“The historical record suggests that birth mothers were in fact seeking a measure of confidentiality,” writes Samuels in her October 2001 op ed published in the Washington Post in 2001. “What mothers wanted, however, was not to prevent the adoptive parents and the children they had surrendered from discovering their identities, but to prevent their communities from learning of their situations.”
When and why “secrecy” became acceptable?
Samuels’ evidence shows that the rationale by state legislatures reflected the social attitudes of their day. It is very likely lawmakers, still majority male from the 1960s to 1990s, were open to the advocacy of interest groups supportive of family ideas not grounded in any scientific research of the birth mothers or adoptees.
Samuels outlines this unproven myth of these three decades with the following main points:
Social attitudes were developing about the nature of adoption.
Adoption was increasingly being regarded as a “complete and perfect” substitute for the creation of families.
A prevailing myth gained credibility that once adoption is legalized, the newly configured family would become the “real family” and the child would be the same and feel the same as if he or she were born into that family.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, child development theories emphasized nurture over nature, and suggested that a birth parent’s purported “morality” would not be transmitted in a child’s development or future actions.
These views coincided with larger societal views that shamed unmarried women. This institutionalizing of this shame can be seen in the development of the Florence Crittenton Homes and other places that spirited away unwed and mostly white women until they gave birth to their kids. (See Anne Fessler’s study of these women, The Girls Who Went Away, for an overview of this system.)
There were also illegal operations that allowed babies to be sold or stolen, seen in the case of nearly a dozen “Gertie’s babies” in the 1950s in the American west, who were placed in the adoption black market. In Ireland up through the 1960s, the Catholic Church ran homes for “lost girls” and brokered the sale of babies from single pregnant women to American families, documented in the 2013 film Philomena. (See my story on that film and the Florence Crittenton Homes, “The American Philomena story that is also my own.”)
The adoption industrial complex
Dan Rather recently profiled America’s hidden baby delivery and placement system that put vulnerable, pregnant women in situations that sometimes led to coercive adoptions. His May 1, 2012, episode of Dan Rather Reports, called “Adopted or Abducted?” interviewed women who decades after surrendering their children now claim they were forced to put their babies up for adoption, often with the support of Catholic charities.
This large but little publicized system went beyond the Florence Crittenton Homes and similar facilities that hid young women, including my birth mother and me. The participants were parents desperate for kids, doctors, social workers, clergy, lawyers, nurses, and lawmakers passing laws that ensured the system could operate without disruption. Most believed they were doing the right thing for kids and their moms. The adoptive parents certainly were not causing harm, and offering love and a home. Adoptive families are not being criticized or questioned here for their deeds and their love.
That larger system still exists today, minus the homes for unwed mothers. One estimate puts the value of the adoption industrial complex today at $13 billion per anum.
Not including adoptive parents, I have rarely heard of a single participant in this system ever admit they believed they were wrong, even when compelling evidence has been widely reported for decades in the USA today that secrecy in the adoption system has led to lifelong frustration by adults wanting to know their kin and where they came from.
Demographics and changing social mores had a large impact in this story too. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show a dramatic rise in “illegitimate births” during the 25-year period from 1940 to 1965.
Five years later, in 1970, these out-of wedlock births reached 398,700.
More than half were by women 15 to 19 years of age.
By the mid-1960s, close to 400 maternity homes were operating nationwide, often overcrowded. My birthmother stayed in one of these. I was born in the unwed mother’s maternity ward of Detroit’s Crittenton General Hospital, on Tuxedo Street, once affiliated with the National lorence Crittenton Mission.
Sham pseudo-science by psychologists and psychiatrists
What’s particularly shameful from this era is how it promoted women’s virtue at the expense of pregnant women and the hundreds of thousands of adoptees. Complicit in these failings are social workers and health professionals who may have meant well, but who never fully understood the impacts of their activities or never considered the long-term welfare of mothers and their kids.
Psychiatry and psychology professionals colluded in especially damaging ways. They provided a mental health framework to promote ideas that were harmful to millions of Americans whose only failing was to have a child out of marriage or be born out of marriage. (For me, the kooky theories offered from this era still call into question these professionals’ scientific credibility to this day.)
One commentary cited by Samuels of a mental health professional (Viola Barnard) from this era described an adoptee’s curiosity to find his or her identity as “tragically pathological distortions.” Barnard’s views were considered influential in the 1950s and early 1960s on adoption practices, according to Samuels.
Samuels’ review of the literature of the time shows that unmarried mothers who became pregnant were seen as mentally ill—a theory that completely ignored the failures of the legal and moral systems to hold the birth fathers accountable or to shame them equally.
A woman, a white woman in particular, who had sex was seen as a deviant or having a psychopathology. Samuels notes racist views promoted another view that it was natural or normal for less-moral African Americans to have out of wedlock births.
Barbara Melosh’s history on American adoption notes that in postwar America, women who had children out of marriage were “deemed neurotic—as manifesting a disordered femininity.” They were “bad women, their sexual transgressions exposed by pregnancy.” (See Strangers and Kin, 2002.) Even women adopting were tarred as being unfit women because of their infertility.
Anne Fessler profiled this stigma in her 2006 oral history on women before the Roe V. Wade decision who gave up children for adoption, called TheGirls Who Went Away.
In her interview with Rather on often coercive and sometimes illegal methods used to convince young women to surrender their bids for adoption, Fessler said, “In the United States between 1945 and 1973 a million and a half women surrendered children for adoption. I see that period of time as a kind of perfect storm of circumstances that led to all these surrenders. Number one, during the war and after the war there was a change in what was considered acceptable sexual behavior.”
While the men, like my respected ROTC and medical professional birth father, escaped societal scorn, women had to wear the brand of mental illness and be changed.
According to this view, reforming the mentally ill mother could occur with the lifelong separation from her birth child, which would enable the woman a chance to fulfill her desired identity as a woman by raising her own children and family. The burgeoning adoption market provided the “system” through which this idea was sustained—a two-part solution to a problem of change in society.
Unsubstantiated claims from the 1960s onward were made by defenders of closed records that adoptees or birth mothers might wish to extract revenge or extortion. Samuels even cites one instance where efforts in a court case by an adult adoptee to seek their records were denounced by an opposing attorney, who claimed the information could be used by the adoptee to “find and murder his biological parent.”
The bogeyman concept of illegitimate children, however, far precedes the U.S. adoption system and laws that govern it. Adoption laws only date to the 19th century in the United States. Ideas of birth-driven—now considered genetic—identity are historic and rooted deeply in most cultures over time.
Such children call into question property ownership, lines of familial and political succession, moral standing of parents and entire religions, and more. Each society over time has addressed these fears, often brutally for the unlucky illegitimate. Normally, the “bastards” have been ostracized, but also killed. (Please see my article on the demonization of bastards.)
Parenting literature from the 1970s also was awash in guidance to adopted parents how to tell the children they adopted about their origins. But the so-called psychological professionals counseled that any adopted child who sought out their origins was the acting out of fantasy, not one of a human’s most innate desires, documented in nearly all religions and myths as an essential and archetypal human need. (See my article on this archetype and myth.)
The sociologist Katherine Wegar, who has studied the issue of adoptees’ rights and their quests for their birth documentation, suggests that searching for genetic identity is “generally regarded and experienced as an important part of a person’s identity, perhaps even as an archetypal yearning.” Wegar concludes adoptees continued to suffer from societal discrimination that they are inferior to non-adopted persons.
Accepted discrimination, so long as you are adopted or a birth parent
The stigma of adoption was also branded on all adoptees by these prevailing norms from the 1960s onward. These were reinforced by a network of increasingly discriminatory state laws that treated adult adoptees separately, with lesser rights than all other U.S. citizens. Laws were passed in states that blocked adoptees from ever inheriting any property or wealth from natural parents. (Samuels cites the presence of such discrimination in 2001 of slightly less than half of all states preventing such inheritance.)
Author Florence Fisher wrote of her efforts in 1951 to find her birth parents, and the lawyer who arranged the process told her, “You have right to any information whatsoever. You were adopted legally … . You had no other parents.” Author Betty Jay Lifton was told by her psychiatrist she had consulted about her search in the mid-1950s, “Your need to look for your mother is neurotic. You are rationalizing why you must know who your real ‘real’ parent, as you call them, are.”
This was the overwhelming societal attitude I encountered starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, when I began to openly discussing my adoption as a young person.
During this dark period of lawmaking that closed adoption records one by one in most states, I began my own long, expensive, and ultimately successful search for my biological parents, my family medical background, and my collective family history. This is information that I am entitled to as a human right, though most states had made that right illegal.
During that search, I was told I was being cruel to my adoptive family. I was told I had “issues” that had not been resolved in my infancy or childhood. I was mocked and laughed at by people when I explained I had a German name, but was not German. I was told I was mentally unhealthy. The only people who seemed to give a damn were adoptees.
As Samuels shows, “widespread and entrenched social attitudes about secrecy in adoption” contributed to the closing of birth records to adult adoptees and birth mothers from 1960 to 1990. This was despite the social revolution of the era that was attacking the false adoption secrecy model and challenging the false narrative that adoption provided a perfect replacement to childbirth for families who could not produce children.
Samuels suggests that as single-parent homes among white families became more widespread, unmarried motherhood “was no longer equated with mental illness.” Adoptive families were finally seen as having challenges and qualities, grounded in peer-reviewed studies of outcomes of adoptees and their families.
Many birth parents were found to be open to being contacted. Thanks to the growing proliferation of stories about adoptees’ lack of rights, discrimination by states and agencies against them, and the emergence of a national movement, adoptees’ quests for identify information became less stigmatized. “Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families became familiar figures, no longer assumed to be suffering from mental disorders,” says Samuels.
Samuels also cites arguments circulating in legal and psychological communities that adoptees should be given access to their rightful identity information because denial causes “psychological impairment.”
This idea is fundamentally flawed because it justifies the continued stereotyping of adoptees as mentally harmed, not as persons who are healthy by seeking information and who are doing what should be considered human and utterly normal.
Why state lawmakers ignore evidence and disregard adoptees and birth mothers
Despite changing societal views, states continued to double down and continued to close records.
I think this happened because the state legislative environment has many conservative lawmakers in all states. Many of these lawmakers are sympathetic to adoptions as the “solution” to abortion (it is not). I also believe that this political environment is overly receptive to the Christian piety myth of rebirth through adoption that mirrors a conservative Christian notion of being “born again” (being adopted is not being born again, period).
Finally state lawmaking settings rarely rely on evidence alone to pass laws. I have seen on countless occasions when I worked in the Washington State Legislature for two years how single stories carry equal weight to massive evidence contradicting those outlier stories. In such a setting, the views of just one birth mother can be given equal weight of extensive and large bodies of scientific evidence that provide birth mothers and adoptees want to have rights they once had restored.
Samuels argues that laws from the 1970s on failed to ever acknowledge records for adoptees were once open. “It was as if there had never been periods of time in many states, only recently concluded in some and still ongoing in others, during which adult adoptees had legal access to their birth records.”
Evidence from many researchers continues to show adoption secrecy is rejected by the principal actors in adoption: birth parents and their children placed for adoption. Samuels says studies as far back as 1989 showed that “almost ninety percent of birth mothers studied favored being contacted on behalf of their surrendered children.”
Samuels reported in 2001 that:
In state sanctioned intermediary programs (where a third party is a bridge contact between adoptees and birth parents [birth mothers]), 95% of the parents are open to contact.
Hawaii reported that the most typical reaction of their state-run system is one of “great joy, crying, and, “This is the call I’ve been waiting for.”
New Jersey reported that 95 percent of 350 living birth family members contacted in a four-year period wanted contact if adoptees requested it.
More recent data published by the Donaldson Adoption Institute suggests that there is overwhelming support among adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents to allow for open records, completely undermining arguments from secrecy proponents.
Failures of intermediaries and registries and the power of a powerless bureaucrat
In some states, such as Michigan, some adoptees and birth mothers can use an approved intermediary and others registries to request original birth records and find biological families. Others cannot simply on the basis of a person’s birth year. I fall into the period of births that closes records, except under strict conditions that require a birth mother to sign a legal release form, reviewed by bureaucrat who makes decisions that they likely have no training to understand.
I also believe a major issue not discussed in adoption research is simply the love of absolute power that mostly powerless bureaucrats and social workers have over adoptees searching for records. A bureaucrat’s imperative is to say “no,” as history shows time and again in a classic Weberian sense of how bureaucracies wield power.
In April 1989 in Detroit, I met a social worker with the Lutheran Child and Family Services and asked for my records and birth certificate. She politely refused to help me. She had the power, it was not “legal,” and she offered no help.
Two days later, after I had found my birth mother with some pretty impressive gumshoe detective work, I returned to the same social worker with a signed statement by my birth mother asking to release my information. The social worker finally released documents about my birth with my original birth name, except my birth certificate.
That type of life-changing power held by mostly lower-level practitioners is intoxicating, and bureaucrats seldom relinquish power once they have seized it. The law is the artifice used to justify it.
Registries and intermediaries in states also support the continuation of restricted access to records for hundreds of thousands of adoptees. They create unnecessary barriers to both birth parents and their kids under an unjustified notion that equal rights, namely, access to birth records, is a conditional right only the state can control.
Were such practices applied to anyone beyond adoptees and birth mothers, the media and advocacy groups would be lambasting state-approved registries and intermediary systems as a form of legal discrimination.
These methods still support a system that is not rooted in science or research, but one that emerged mainly through custom and tradition and the desire of Christian lawmakers to promote adoption alternatives to birth control (my own view of the political landscape). Restrictions also exhibit a raw expression of power by states and their bureaucracies. These methods legitimize the power of a state to control individual rights that most people assume are natural at birth.
With regards to the passive and active registries, Samuels concludes rightly they are “ineffective, demean adult adoptees, and do not remedy the fundamental denial of adoptees’ rights to the kind of basic information about oneself that is available to all other persons.”
Admitting wrongs and changing laws will make a difference
As an adult adoptee, I am grateful for the work of pioneers like Lifton, Fisher, and Paton, who were prophets in the wilderness and who identified injustice and clear wrongs. I remain grateful that stories continue to be published on adoptees finding birth family, and vice versa, as a means of keeping the legal discrimination front and center in the news.
Having football heroes like Tim Green and singing icon and former birth mother Joni Mitchell have their personal stories be known to the public helps build awareness of the hidden and ongoing pattern of legalized secrecy that provides no clear benefit to society or those most involved. They humanize the issue.
However, the “compelling human-interest story” that inspires “myriad novels, plays, and movies,” as Wegar calls it, should not be the means to correct past wrongs and to extend equal rights to adoptees.
The language of civil rights, that was broadened to include the rights of gays persons seeking to marry legally and have the same benefits under the law, now needs to be considered in the context of those born into a system in which their rights were never fully considered.
In fact adoptees are doing that with a national MoveOn.org petition asking for the Obama administration to open closed birth records with an executive order, and they are planning to hold a national rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23 and 24, 2016, demanding equal treatment under the law by demanding open records.
As Samuels shows, anonymity rights concocted by mostly male run legislatures, with no recorded evidence submitted on their negative impacts on adopted persons, never existed in practice when the prevailing legal interpretations of the time claimed they did. Myth became truth, in other words.
I hope that the evidence that moves society is more through the studies Samuels cited and books like those written by Barbara Melosh, which are also turned into moving stories.
Evidence exists in other developed countries with a long record of using adoption (England, Scotland, Israel) that there have not been dire consequences for sharing birth identity documentation. Scotland has had open records since 1930, and England and Wales since 1975, both of which saw the benefits to the Scottish legal model that worked.
A useful model to follow is how the Australian Government has reviewed past abuses and harms caused by adoption to birth mothers, their families, and their kids. The government released an extensively researched 2010 report called the Impact of past adoption practices: Summary of key issues from Australian research, which focused on abusive practices that coerced young women to surrendering kids out of marriage.
The report noted: “Contrary to the popular myth that ‘time heals all wounds,’ one theme that was fairly consistent across the different studies and methodologies reviewed here was the notion that the pain and distress of their experience of adoption did not just ‘go away’ with the passage of time.”
The report looked honestly at the country’s past and used research to come to conclusions how to correct the mistakes and acknowledge that adoption was never a perfect system. Australia took a further step when Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in 2013, apologized to the thousands of birth mothers who gave up their children for adoption in situations that amounted to coercion.
There needs to be an honest accounting nationally in the United States, grounded in rigorous reporting and science. That should include testimonials by doctors and mental health experts, and lawmakers, who greased the skids of the flawed U.S. adoption system along the way. They need to step up to the mic, say what they did, and say that we could do better now.
Then there needs to be political and legal action to make it possible for those who were adopted or who gave up children for adoption to experience legal rights other countries grant to their citizens. We will see if the rally in Washington in September 2016 makes a difference. But I doubt states will be rushing to help adoptees anytime soon by granting them all open records access.
Meanwhile, my original birth certificate, bearing my birth name of Scott Douglas Owens*, remains sealed in an office somewhere in Michigan, hidden from me as a state secret, more than a quarter century after I have found my biological families. I will continue having to accept the utter insanity of an imperfect legal system that considers this to be both moral and normal.
(*I decided in August 2009 to legally change my adopted name, Martin Rudolf Brueggemann, to Rudolf Scott Douglas Owens, combining parts of my adopted and birth name. This is a true reflection of who I am, a person born into two families, with two names.)