Adoptee Rights Advocates Must Critically View Any Group Lacking ‘Street Cred’

The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s new campaign has a hashtag and tagline, but is it really about reform?

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 and critical look at U.S. adoption, called You Don’t Know How Lucky You are, presents a public health and human rights perspective on adoption and how it denies human rights and legal rights to U.S. adoptees in most U.S. states. Visit: http://www.howluckyuare.com.

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.”

The DAI has a new image for its social media campaign to restore adoptee rights–a great idea, but are they committed to this mission based on their goals and actions?

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 was working 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.”

Grading Those Who Work in Adoptee Advocacy

This is a graphic with a summary of data published by Musings of the Lame, whose publisher, Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, has published numerous articles on the business of adoption and its global reach.

The DAI claims its board has “adoption professionals, academics, adopted people, adoptive parents, first/birth parents, business leaders and other people concerned about adoption.” For any adoptee, the word “adoption professional” should be a hot red flag, because it includes perspectives of the multi-billion-dollar and global adoption industry and professions like social workers who still teach adoption as a form of possible pathology.

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 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 is 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.”

The New York Times covered the findings of the investigation of the horrific conditions that killed nearly four in five relinquished infants in Baltimore, in 1914. It was abuses against illegitimately born infants that led to national reforms to protect these infants and promote adoption standards that would prevent abuses and end the trafficking of humans.

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

Bastard Nation is an adoptee advocacy group with a clear mission statement to support the human rights of adoptees and support their legal rights to original birth records.

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.

The organization wrote me back saying, “DAI believes that an adopted persons right to access their original birth certificate is fundamentally a civil and human rights issue.” However, the DAI did not make its messaging pivot until this new campaign was launched this week. (Please see my summary of my email exchanges with the DAI and the passages of my work I published on my book website in December 2016 and policy blog in January 2016.)

(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

Lauren Sabina Kneisly’s web site promoting legal rights for adoptees and should be bookmarked by anyone who cares about civil rights and equal rights.

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 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.

Discrimination against adoptees rooted in fears of illegitimacy

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

Rudy Owens, as a young child, and later someone denied equal treatment under the law because of my status as both an adoptee and someone born

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

One of the issues seldom if never discussed in the long-simmering debate over adoptees’ legal right to their original birth records is how deeply prejudice harms millions of adopted persons.

Discrimination can be seen in how adoptees seeking their birthright to know themselves and obtain copies of their original birth records are treated. By law, they are not considered equal to others in the majority of U.S. states. Many who enforce outdated state laws treat adoptees dismissively—even as threats. (See copies of emails written by senior Michigan public health officials how they responded fearfully to my request for my original birth certificate, as just one example.)

This prejudice is older yet also connected to the historic stereotyping of them by mental health professionals, who for decades described adoptees searching for records as mentally ill and classified this in their handbook on psychiatric disorders. Through the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identified the problem it labeled “identity disorder,” which consisted of “severe subjective distress regarding inability to integrate aspects of the self into a relatively coherent and acceptable sense of self.”

As adoption historian E. Wayne Carp writes, “No adopted person in the 1970s had imagined that asking the question ‘Who am I?’ would end up classified as an official psychiatric disorder.”[1]

This should not be a surprise, given how illegitimately born people have been treated, globally and throughout history. Denying this history in the larger policy discussion of discrimination of adoptees is to deny the role that bias and stereotypes play in our thinking and deeds. We know bias can be found in countless behaviors: those done personally and those made professionally.

There is no reason to think one of the greatest and most universal forms of stigmatization, against so-called “illegitimately” born people, who include most U.S. adoptees, would not persist and be masked and even not noticed by those who discriminate. This includes the actions of lawmakers who passed laws for decades discriminating against adoptees, of the media who stereotype adoptees, and of those who interpret and enforce these Jim Crow-style laws that treat adoptees as persons with lesser rights.

How Stereotyping Works Against Adoptees

Researchers in many fields—law, criminal justice, history, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology—have long investigated prejudice and how humans practice it. Researchers have even begun looking how prejudice works at the neurological level. Researcher David Amodio notes, “Although they are distinguishable by content and process, prejudices and stereotypes often operate in combination to influence social behaviour [sic]. Moreover, both forms of bias can operate implicitly, such that they may be activated and influence judgements [sic] and behaviours [sic] without conscious awareness.”[2]

Today, adoptees remain victims of systemic legal discrimination in seeking equal treatment under the law by requesting their original birth records. There is no credible evidence anywhere that the overwhelming majority of adoptees seek anything more than to be reunited with their kin in seeking their original records.[3]

However, defenders of closed records have made repeated and unsubstantiated claims from the 1940s onward that adoptees or birth mothers might wish to exact revenge or extortion. Adult adoptees seeking their records have been denounced by opposing attorneys and adoptive parents, who claimed the information could be used by the adoptee to “find and murder” biological parents or that granting a records request was the equivalent of giving away a “hunting license.”[4]

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

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

The lingering urban legend that may have influenced lawmakers and those charged with managing adoption records from the 1980s onward was the so-called “Adopted Child Syndrome.” Some unethical lawyers used this controversial defense in several murder trials in the 1980s. These lawyers tried to show that adoptees accused of killing their parents suffered from a mental health issue called Multiple Personality Disorder. According to the argument fabricated by psychologist David Kirschner, the Adopted Child Syndrome could prove adoptees encounter more psychological problems in their childhood and adolescence unique to being adopted. The manifestations were promiscuity, lying, stealing, substance abuse, and more, all showing a “toxic potential of adoption.”[5]

The theory argues adoptees acted out of “extreme disassociation.” Though this entirely fictional and discredited theory attracted national attention from the tabloids, he later revealed he prepared the concept for a trial at which he testified in 1986. He admitted he had not done proper research and the sensational theory was in fact a product of his imagination.[6] Yet, the damage had been done and fed the old stereotypes many clung to.

Adoptees and Bastards Are the Victims, not Perpetrators, of Harm

This stereotype is one I personally encountered when I tried to access my records and later interviewed one of the managers whose office managed those records for the Wayne County Probate Court. In reality, it was illegitimate children and their mothers who were the victims, not perpetrators, of crimes and the ones who paid the price for societal attitudes, including with their lives. This is substantiated solidly in population health records, which provide actual data on health and mortality outcomes.

As a modern social institution, adoption laws only date to the 19th century in the United States. Labeling illegitimate children as society threats and bogeymen, however, far precedes the U.S. adoption system and the laws that govern it. Societies over time have addressed these fears, often brutally and lethally for the unlucky illegitimate. Normally, the “bastards” have been ostracized, but also outright killed not very long ago.

The United States inherited European and English legal traditions, which prescribed clear rules how infants would be classified as legitimate in the eyes of society and illegitimate. Roman law, canon law of the Catholic Church, and English law all adhered to the rule that only children born legitimately inside of approved marriages were deemed legitimate. Those who were conceived outside of wedlock were not. While there have been changes to parts of family law that cover how children are legitimized, the basic principle behind legitimation is still mostly unchanged.[7]

the-outcast-painting-in-royal-academy-of-arts-london-1851

The Outcast, by Richard Redgrave, 1851, Royal Academy of the Arts, London, documents the treatment of bastardy and birth mothers in England in the 1800s.

From a purely sociological perspective in human societies, the appearance of children has to be prevented for whom no adult male, permanently allied to the mother, can be held responsible as the father. This is required in order to safeguard the future of any given society.[8] This societal need is both ubiquitous and historic. This idea is at the heart of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s Principal of Legitimacy, which proposes “no child can be brought into the world without a man, and one man assuming the role of sociological father.” That man serving that role does not necessarily have to be biological, but must provide link between the child and the community.[9]

Malinowski first published this idea in 1930. Others who have studied the issue since note that illegitimacy is a category that will be found at every point in the past of every society, as well as in all present societies. Many have since challenged this idea, pointing to high levels of out-of-marriage births in parts of the Caribbean and, since the late 1970s, the United States. That said, the idea of legitimacy prevails, even though it is not adopted in practice.[10] Overall, illegitimacy is and always has been regarded as a negative—the breach of an established rule, never considered an outcome of an approved sexual or child and reproductive behavior.[11]

Bastards and illegitimate children have always faced societal scorn, and they paid severe and deadly consequences for it. Today, a likely contributing factor to poor health outcomes for adoptees is societal stigma, and its multivariate impacts on unmarried mothers and their illegitimate kids. Despite the political correctness of the term adoptee, the underlying truth known to everyone, from the adoptive parents to the adopted children to society at large, is that adoptees are bastards. Adoptees more than any other person alive today know this fact. It is a fact I always knew, and so did nearly everyone around me, including peers my age. Today, such children still bear the stigma as being born illegitimately, despite the high prevalence of children born outside of marriage that has made their status ubiquitous.

Population Records Show High Mortality and Poor Health for Bastards and Illegitimate Children

bastard-examination1

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

Historically, illegitimate infants in recent history have been among most vulnerable population groups, documented in birth and mortality records. In fact, the historical study of illegitimacy, or bastardy as many demographic historians call it, is among the best documented of any topics in history because the research has relied on mostly reliable demographic data, such as baptism and death records, in Europe from the 1500s on, as well as in pre-20th century America.

Cambridge historian Peter Laslett, who contributed to an exhaustive study of the topic in 1980, notes that illegitimacy has been viewed in many cultures for centuries as “pathological.” The mothers who gave birth to bastards were perceived as “victimized, disordered, even mentally abnormal.”[12] The numbers from these old data sets from across Europe and early America from the 1500 on paint often horrific outcomes for birth mothers. Outcomes could be worse for the infants who died at rates that suggest infanticide in many instances.

oliver-twist-cover

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

In the 18th and 19th centuries in the United Kingdom, infants who were born out-of-wedlock were about twice as likely to have died before reaching their first year of life compared to their peers born in sanctioned marriage. Poor and unmarried pregnant women frequently took refuge in the country’s notorious workhouse, which housed and fed the poor and forced them to do often-brutal labor, captured in the writings of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Many of the children confined to them faced early deaths. In 1760, four in five infants born in workhouses or left there by their birth mothers died before reaching their first birthday.

A picture for the sheer lethality of being born as a bastard emerges from the records collected in the middle England market city of Branbury, between 1561 and 1838. The number of bastard children with baptism and burial records made up 18 percent of all recorded persons—a high number. However, the rates of infant deaths were at best catastrophic for those unlucky to being born a bastard. Records show that 70 percent of all of these bastards born during these 277 years died before reaching the age of 1. Only 21 percent lived to the age of 1, and just 5 percent reached the age of 5. A mere 1 percent of bastards made it to the age of 30.[13]

Other findings of higher infant mortality can be traced in the records of births and deaths of infants over the last 100 and more years in Europe. Jenny Teichman, author of Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy, reports “there is a persistent and significant difference between infant mortality rates of legitimate and illegitimate children.” Her study found that mortality ranges for the two groups ranged from 50 to 150 percent higher for both English and Norwegian illegitimate infants, looking at national records between 1914 and 1973 at four different points in time. Teichman notes even at English public hospitals through the 1960s, doctors and nursing staff “refused anesthetics to unmarried women in childbirth ‘to them a lesson.’”[14]

A bastard’s prospects in the English colonies in North America were not much greater than those born in Europe. Infanticide likely became a common practice in the United States in the 1700s. Virtually every colony in North America passed legislation that declared, unless witnesses would swear to seeing a childbirth, the mother of a dead infant would be presumed guilty of murder.[15] Things did not improve, even through the end of the 1800s. Nearly a century later in the early 1970s, infant mortality in the United States was 73 percent higher for children of unmarried mothers then their peers from families with married parents.[16]

The findings also are not unique to the Western world. One seminal study on the sociology of illegitimacy published in 1975 found that as of the mid-1960s, in every nation globally that tracked child health data, fetal and infant mortality were higher for illegitimate than legitimate children.[17]

While the penalty for illegitimacy as measured in infant mortality rates did fall in the last century, data from the first years of the 21st century shows illegitimate infants in England and Wales are still 30 percent more likely to die before their first birthday than legitimate infants.[18] Remarkably, evidence shows children reported as illegitimate but registered to both parents living at the same address are still 17 percent more likely to die in infancy.[19]

Today excess infant mortality tied to illegitimacy remains a legitimate health concern. Multiple risk factors contribute to the outcome. Single parents have less disposable income. They likely have worse housing. A single parent likely works full-time. Children likely are weaned off health breast milk earlier. The stigma of illegitimacy and societal scorn directed unfairly to unmarried mothers might reduce their ability to keep their children healthy. Unmarried women may also have come poor social positions, and thus be more vulnerable to having a child out-of-wedlock.

The Murder of Relinquished Infants in the United States, A Little-Known Crime

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

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

In the early 1900s, before reformers from groups like the Child Welfare League of America and other benevolent groups intervened, illegitimate babies were boarded and trafficked at so-called baby farms in the United States. One highly publicized 1914 report called the Traffic in Babies, by Dr. George Walker, reported on virtual charnel houses for unwanted, abandoned, and illegitimate children. These reportedly operated to “save” the single women from the disgrace of being unmarried mothers. The description by Walker is noteworthy because of his focus on maternal and child health practices that are unquestioned today. He also described how poor public health practices for abandoned babies served as the functional equivalent of homicide.

“Day after day, month after month, they received healthy, plump infants into their wards and watch them hour after hour go down to death,” wrote Walker. “They know that practically all of those that immediately after birth are separated from their mothers will die; yet year after year they keep up their nefarious, murderous traffic. We do not attempt in this study to settle the many complex problems relating to the illegitimate; but we believe that the facts show that society’s method in many instances is one of repression and virtual murder. This is a hard word, we grant, and we would fain substitute a gentler term; but, after all is said and done, that which we have recorded is virtual murder, and slow and cowardly murder at that. It would be bar more humane to kill these babies by striking them on the head with a hammer than to place them in institutions where four-fifths of them succumb within a few weeks to the effects of malnutrition or infectious diseases.”[20]

Even with the mortality rate of relinquished, out-of-wedlock children as high as 80 percent, this fact did not curb the practice of punishing the children born out-of-wedlock by professionals and religious leaders. Some doctors, nurses, midwives, clergymen, and hospital administrators actively referred the disgraced mothers who had sex out of marriage and became pregnant to these lethal, for-profit baby shops.[21] Some hospitals even took a cut from the baby trade that ferried bastard babies to their likely deaths. Walker’s summary notes hospitals had different methods of disposing of unwanted babies permanently: “There is an old woman, called ‘Mother—’, who carries the babies from the hospital to this institution; she gets $5 for this service. At another hospital, the nurses have charge of separating the infant from its mother; they make all the business arrangements; receive the money, and send the baby to Institution No. 1 by an old black woman, who carries it in a basket.”[22]

History of Bias Against Adoptees Not Acknowledged by Adoption System

These acts all occurred a mere five decades before my birth, as someone born illegitimately and as a bastard. They demonstrate how powerful stigmas against bastard-born children were in recent memory—strong enough to create a system that ensured bastard infants’ likely death in institutional care. Adoption, as a cause championed by Progressive reformers from 1910 through 1930 was a solution that offered a way to eliminate the stigma, mortality risks, and lifelong barriers posed by illegitimacy.

Today, most states still deny adoptees full equal rights and partially and outright restrict them from knowing their past by denying them their original birth records. If one polled any state public health office where these discriminatory laws are practiced on a daily basis, I would wager the staff would never admit their behavior and treatment of adoptees seeking those records is connected to these deeper underlying fears and biases.

My decades of experience and the dark but carefully documented record of human behavior to everyone who is not “legitimate” show me that I must accept that prejudice is still hardwired into how adoptees are treated and will be treated into the future. Like it or not, adoptees will forever be bastards and illegitimate children. Everyone knows that when someone says they are adopted.

An adoptee’s taboo status helps to reinforce biases they face and will continue to face from the record keepers. Those so-called public health professionals and adoption bureaucrats will fall back on these old tropes, frequently unknowingly, and fail to serve adoptees’ interests in states that discriminate against those seeking their birth records. The best remedy remains strong laws that ultimately open all birth records to adult adoptees, similar to national laws in many countries, including England.

Other suggested readings on bastardy in an English historical context:

  • Black, John. “Who Were the Putative Fathers of Illegitimate Children in London, 1740-1810?.” In Levene, Alysa; Williams, Samantha; and Nutt, Thomas, eds, Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920. Basingstoke, 2005.
  • Black, John. “Illegitimacy, Sexual Relations and Location in Metropolitan London, 1735-85.” In Hitchcock, Tim and Shore, Heather, eds, The Streets of London: from the Great Fire to the Great Stink. 2003.
  • Snell, Keith D. M. Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity, and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950. Cambridge, 2006.

Footnotes:

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

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

[3] Elizabeth J. Samuels, “The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry into the History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records,” Rutgers Law Review 53 (2001), 367.

[4] Samuels, 411.

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

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

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

[8] Peter Laslett, “Introduction: Comparing Illegitimacy Over Time and Between Cultures,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 5.

[9] Teichman, Illegitimacy, 89.

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

[11] Laslett, Bastardy, 5.

[12] Laslett, Bastardy, 2.

[13] Susan Stewart, “Bastardy and the Family Reconstitution Studies of Banbury and Hartland,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 127.

[14] Teichman, Illegitimacy, 105.

[15] Robert V. Wells, “Illegitimacy and Bridal Pregnancy in Colonial America,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 360.

[16] Hartley, Illegitimacy, 8.

[17] Hartley, Illegitimacy, 8.

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

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

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

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

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