Four actions Michigan can take now to improve its treatment of adoptees

Rudy Owens in T-Shirt
Author Rudy Owens sports his advocacy shirt with a simple idea that equality is a human right.

One of the reasons I wrote You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, my recently published memoir and critical examination of the U.S. adoption system, was to promote equal treatment of all adoptees by law. The way this ultimately will happen is through the force of law, and in the United States, that will be legislative changes on a state by state basis, given past failures to mount a congressional effort to allow adoptees to receive their birth records by a national legal standard. I am not expecting change to happen fast.

Because I am a realist and know that real grand strategy is a long game, played by deeply committed interest groups and persons who understand power, I also am advocating for shorter term victories that can be accomplished as part of incremental progress. Ultimately, I want my work to contribute to changing Michigan’s outdated and discriminatory adoptions adoption records laws that deny most Michigan adoptees, like me, their family ancestry, birth records, and equal legal status.

I will be promoting these very simple and mostly bureaucratic changes this week (first week of June 2018) when I head to Michigan and meet with lawmakers in person and tell them my story about being denied my identity and records by the state and its public healthy bureaucracy, simply because I was born a bastard and adoptee.

FOUR EASY STEPS THAT WILL HELP AND PROVIDE NO HARM: 

1. Provide Accurate Data on Adoptees Born in Michigan: The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) can use minimal resources to estimate the number of adoptees and adoptee relinquishments in Michigan and make that information public. Right now there is no accurate figure that is published showing how many Michigan natives were adopted. Knowing their numbers can highlight the impact of laws impacting all adoptees. This figure can be made public and easily accessible on the state’s/MDHHS’s web sites.

2. Track All Requests for Birth Records by All Michigan Adoptees: The MDHHS claims it doesn’t track how many requests are made by adoptees seeking their birth records. Without accurate data, the impact of state laws cannot be measured. The public has a right to know who and how many people are impacted by state laws that deny a class of people equal treatment by law in accessing their records of origin. A tracking system can easily be created in a database with simple information: date of birth, names of adoptee, location of birth, and even reasons for requests. Reports can be prepared that hide the identity of adoptees when they are made public annually or upon request by the legislature or the media/public.

Instead of tracking all adoptee records requests, the state, as of 2009, uses a log of records released only. This does not count requests rejected or all requests for records assistance, according to an MDHHS spokesperson’s statement from July 2016. As of that month, 549 records requests were fulfilled since fall 2009, and it is unknown if those included original birth records. There is no data on adoptee records requests fulfilled prior to fall 2009, according to MDHHS.

3. Conduct a Performance Audit of the Central Adoption Registry (CAR): The CAR, run by Connie Stevens, is a one-person office with extensive gatekeeper authority to manage all birth records requests from adoptees sent from courts or agencies if adoptees’ birth records information may or may not be released. Even the office’s superior, Glenn Copeland, defers decisions to the CAR. Though the office has authority to approve the release of adoptee birth records, it claims it cannot be contacted by adoptees, many of whom report consistent unprofessional treatment when they seek help from the CAR with Michigan’s overly complex adoptee records system. To ensure the office is treating all requests fairly and acting impartially to serve all residents, a basic performance audit can be conducted to highlight problems and solutions that ensure equitable service to the public. (FYI, here is where you can contact the CAR, and do not expect calls back quickly, if you get them.)

4. Provide Additional Staff Resources to Answer Adoptee Questions: Because the CAR claims it does not help adoptees, the state can dedicate staffing time from other vital records personnel to handle questions from adoptees trying to navigate Michigan’s complex adoptee records laws. This is a principle of basic good governance, to assist and help the public navigate state systems and provide good customer service. A contact number and email should be made visible on the MDHHS website for adoptee records information.

Author note: I published a nearly identical version of this post on my memoir website on June 2, 2018. 

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Dear State of Michigan: I just want my original birth certificate, now!

I am attempting to secure my original birth certificate from the State of Michigan. You can watch my video highlighting my request for my original record of birth.

If you were not adopted, you are entitled to this document. It provides you legal proof of who you are and, as important, information about your family, which is the foundation to knowing your ancestry. If you are not adopted, you will never have to face obstacles for the most basic information and not know what it means to be denied essential information about who you are.

Today,  one’s ancestry is widely considered one of the important pieces of information for a human to have. Medically, having access to one’s family history is considered a best health practice by all medical professionals. Nearly all dental and medical professionals ask for this information.

Access to original birth records is a national health and public health priority

The National Institutes of Health highlights why every person needs to know their family history--it can be a matter of life and death with cancer.
The National Institutes of Health highlights why every person needs to know their family history–it can be a matter of life and death with cancer.

Adoptees like all other Americans should by legal right be entitled to this potentially life-saving information. The National Institutes for Health reports there are more than 6,000 genetic and rare diseases. These afflict more than 25 million Americans, and about 30 percent of early deaths can be linked to genetic causes. Genetic mutations play a major role in about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers, the second leading killer of all Americans, topped only by heart disease. Researchers have associated mutations in specific genes with more than 50 hereditary cancer syndromes, which are disorders that may mean some individuals are more likely to develop certain cancers.

For its part, the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) identifies the role of genomes in other health issues, such as birth defects, chronic diseases, and congenital heart defects, and the CDC has created the Office of Public Health Genomics to promote research in the field. The U.S. Surgeon General in 2004 declared a Family History Health Day, on Thanksgiving, to promote greater awareness on the critical role of family medical history to promoting health—and by family history the nation’s leading medical advocate means only genetic family history. Family medical histories can identify people with a higher risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. A family medical history can also provide risks of rarer conditions caused by mutations, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

Groups like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also use family health history information to recommend national screening and preventive services for conditions such as osteoporosis, hyperlipidemia, and breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommendations for early breast cancer detection recently included changes in mammography recommendations that use family health history in decisions when a woman should begin mammography in persons with a family history where breast cancer is a known risk.

Ignore science and evidence and deny, deny, deny

To date, Michigan has prevented me for more than a quarter of a century from getting this document, by law. This is, on its face, discrimination against me simply because I am an adopted person. No other group of persons in Michigan, not even convicted felons, are denied this document on the basis of their status at birth.

The Wayne County Probate Court and my adoption agency, formerly Lutheran Children’s Friend Society of Michigan, did release most of my identifying information to me, however. But that was only after I found my birth family, spending two years searching, at great investment of my time, financial resources, and energy. They were compelled by law to release this information they once hid from me, in theory to promote some abstract benefit that is not proven anywhere in any research. I received no help from the adoption bureaucracy to secure my original records. Even though I have a copy of documents bearing my original birth name, my medical records during my adoption, my adoption decree, and other legal documents, the state’s outdated and archaic adoption bureaucracy has refused to discuss and work with me to obtain what I am legally entitled to: my original birth certificate.

To try and speed up this process, I am communicating directly with Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services asking the leader of this state agency to resolve this simple bureaucratic records request without delay. I will have sent that document to Director Nick Lyon on March 21, 2016. I am excerpting below some of that request. In that note I outlined how Michigan openly discriminates against people by status of being adopted.

Legalized discrimination against adoptees, Michigan style. Yes, felons can get their certificates, but adoptees cannot.
Legalized discrimination against adoptees, Michigan style. Yes, felons can get their certificates, but adoptees cannot. This is published by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, outlining state law restricting rights for adoptees.

My goal is only to obtain what I should have been given years ago, and without further delay. By writing about this issue, I also hope to highlight how discriminatory state adoption laws continue to harm hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and deny them equal treatment under the law. Closed records are widely acknowledged by nearly all evidence to be harmful to birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive families. My story is just a small piece of that larger story. One story at a time, state laws might be changed. I am not expecting that to happen any time soon, however.

Excerpt of Letter to Director Lyon:

Laws that your legislatures have passed concerning adoption no longer apply to me, as I have already found my birth families, now for more than 26 years, in 1989. There is no longer any compelling state interest or legal or other rationale that justifies the state of Michigan holding an original record and what is mine by birthright. I know my original name (Scott Douglas Owens). …

However, your adoption staff personnel refused to discuss this situation with me when I called the Central Adoption Registry in October 2015. A staff member there returned my call but refused to discuss my legal reality that bypasses the need for me to fill out Form 1919 (Parent’s Consent/Denial to Release Information to Adult Adoptee). … When I tried to explain I already know everything about my birth family and birth records, she still told me, in essence, “Fill out the damn form.” It was one of the most embarrassing calls I have had with anyone in public service in my life, and I’ve spent decades serving the public now as a professional.

… this form is no longer legally required. The alleged purpose of the law is to supposedly provide a benefit to birth parents and adoptees, even in the face of overwhelming evidence such legal barriers are antiquated and all sides in adoption want to know each other. In this case, there is no longer any compelling legal justification to delay the release of my original birth record now. I already know my family. I already have my other birth records. I just want my original birth certificate.