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 Ultimately, I want my work to contribute to changing Michigan’s outdated and discriminatory adoptions adoption records laws that deny most Michigan adoptees, like me, their family ancestry, birth records, and equal legal status.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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A Guide to Michigan Adoptees Seeking Court Orders for Original Birth Certificates

By advocating for your rights, you reclaim your story, your name, your power, and your dignity.

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 provides practical advice and logistical assistance. You also will need to review the FAQs I have published on my website for my forthcoming book on adoption. Also consult tips published by Bastard Nation’s Shea Grimm (dated but still relevant) on accessing your adoption records. This is not Michigan specific, however.

Click on this image to see adoptee rights lawyer Greg Luce’s illustration of the Michigan “donut hole” that denies thousands of Michigan adoptees access to their birth record. Image courtesy of Greg Luce, https://adopteerightslaw.com/.

Michigan Adoptees Born Between 1945 and 1980

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.

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

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 the MDHSS, 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. The Michigan Central Adoption Registry is a mostly unaccountable bureaucracy of one employee (Connie Stevens; stevensc2@michigan.gov) 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 media may 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 (Form FIA 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).
  • A completed Request by Adult Adoptee for Identifying Information (Form FIA 1925).
  • A Form PCA 327 Petition For Adoption Information and Order (note, this is not listed in required forms, and this was added as a last-minute requirement before my court date—so it won’t hurt to do it now).
  • 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.

Please visit this page to review the FAQs for court order requests and hearings. I also published a copy of this article on the website for my forthcoming book on the American adoption experience, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are. Find that article here.