Category Archives: Adoptee

Media’s focus on shooter’s family status harms adoptees and ignores national failures at gun control

The column below is an op ed I submitted to the Sun Sentinel media corporation of Florida on Feb. 15, 2018. I had requested that the column be printed to correct the company’s initial profile of Nikolas Cruz, the suspect who was arrested in the shooting death of 17 people in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018. I did not hear back from the company’s editorial team. Because this issue is still timely and important, I am printing a full copy of my column below.

In my communication to the editorial team, I noted its Feb. 14 story (“Nikolas Cruz: Troubled suspect had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School“) failed to cover the larger issue of the proliferation, sale, and use of weapons of war like the AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and how money influences gun legislation. I also wrote the coverage perpetuated harmful stereotypes against adoptees (like me). I have published a related article on my website on Feb. 16, 2018 (“Telling the wrong story of the alleged Florida shooter and why it matters“), written after I sent the Sun Sentinel my op ed proposal.

Media’s Focus on Shooter’s Family Status Harms Adoptees and Ignores National Failures at Gun Control
Guest Column for Sun Sentinel by Rudy Owens, MA, MPH

Like millions of Americans, I am outraged and numb how a lone gunman could lawfully acquire a weapon of war and murder students and teachers at a Parkland, Florida high school on Feb. 14. My heart goes out to every student, employee and family member impacted by another gun-related mass murder.

I also am troubled how the media avoided the larger issue of failed gun control and the suspect’s ease in acquiring a war weapon. Instead many media tried to find a root mental problem with the alleged 19-year-old killer, Nikolas Cruz.

Within hours after the rampage, the Sun Sentinel media company and national news media—Time, the New York Times, the Washington post—had identified an irrelevant fact in the first profile stories of Cruz. The shooter was reportedly a mentally unbalanced adoptee.

The Sun Sentinel article first posted the day of the killings (“Nikolas Cruz: Troubled suspect had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School”) both beatified Cruz’s adoptive parents and singled out his adoptee status in the first sentence: “Adopted at birth by a loving older couple, Nikolas Cruz seemed to struggle in recent years.”

The article referenced his adoptive status no less than five times, yet failed to mention more important facts, such as why lethal weapons like the AR-15 rifle used in the rampage can be bought legally anywhere in the United States, including a stores like Cabela’s.

The pattern of associating adoptees with psychological pathologies is long-running among U.S. media. It is also continues historic bias that goes back centuries, stereotyping illegitimately born persons as demons seeds and vile people. Today most Americans still see adoptees through this persistent stigma, as illegitimately born people—it was the shame that lead to millions of infant relinquishments from the 1940s on.

Psychologists for decades have labeled adoptees as prone to mental illness with unscientific studies. Adoptees who searched for their past, and who were denied their records because of state laws that denied them their heritage and treated them unequally by law, were deemed mentally imbalanced. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders through the 1980s identified adoptees as having an imaginary problem it called “identity disorder.”

As an adoptee who has spent decades dealing with stereotypes and discrimination by state officials, the public, my own family, and media, I am not surprised how the media framed the suspect as an “adoptee” killer.

This stereotype is an easy story. It sidesteps harder ones, such as donations by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to mostly Republican members of Congress, and some Democrats. Politico reported last fall that in the 2016 election cycle, the NRA gave $5.9 million to GOP members and $106,000 to Democrats. A mentally unhealthy gunman is easier to grasp than the ways corporate money and access shape U.S. lawmaking, including the failure to renew the assault weapon ban in 2004.

In the weeks to come, likely more attention will be paid to the mental state of Cruz, and less given to the dealer who sold the reported killer his AR-15 or the lack of any meaningful national regulation that allowed for that purchase.

As an adoptee who speaks out on behalf of adoptees and their rights, I am sure I and other adoptees who talk openly of our status as adoptees will have to answer questions later from the public: Are adoptees potentially dangerous like Cruz?

Sadly, thanks to this initial coverage of Cruz, the public will likely will forget the killer’s name, the school’s name or the many victims’ names. I am less certain they will forget the alleged mass murderer was that unhappy adoptee, the one with a mental health disorder.

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Telling the wrong story of the alleged Florida shooter and why it matters

Within hours of one of country’s deadliest school mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, multiple national and local media outlets published profiles of the suspect, Nikolas Cruz.

Rather than covering the absurdity that war weapons can be purchased by nearly anyone in every city of America in minutes in some locations, and the corrupting influence of groups like the National Rifle Association on politics, the media searched for clues to create a mental profile of the killer. (This is profoundly insulting to the victims of such crimes.)

The Washington Post was among many national media outlets that focussed on the suspect’s profile, including his adoptive status, shortly after the Parkland, Florida shootings.

A prominent fact in those first stories in the Sun Sentinel media company, Time, the Washington Post, and the NY Times was Cruz’s adoptive status.

The Sun Sentinel’s Feb. 14 story on the reported murderer (“Nikolas Cruz: Troubled suspect had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School”) both beatified Cruz’s adoptive parents and singled out his adoptee status in the first sentence: “Adopted at birth by a loving older couple, Nikolas Cruz seemed to struggle in recent years.”

The story referenced his adoptive status no less than five times.

Missing: The Real Story of U.S. Gun Violence

The AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, and its variants, are the preferred murder weapon for U.S. mass shooters.

Missing from that story was the elephant-sized issue of the United States’ failure to control the proliferation, sale, and use of weapons of war like the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and how money and political access influence gun legislation at the state and national level.

Focusing on individual murderers, not the larger system, typifies how many U.S. media cover our nation’s outlier status as the gun-death leader among high-income countries. The rate of death by gunfire is 25 times higher in the United State than other high-income nations.

In the United State this year, we know that about 33,000 people will die from gun violence, and yet the United States has almost no gun restrictions found in countries like Japan, England, and Australia, despite the annual carnage.

So Why Should Adoptees Care Beyond Their Outrage over this Preventable Violence?

The suspect is shown in a photo released by Broward County.

The coverage of the shootings also perpetuated harmful stereotypes against adoptees (like me), who number 5 million or more.

I have submitted a guest column to the Sun Sentinel to challenge this type of distorted news coverage and to document how it will feed into historic stereotypes of people born illegitimately—a status we know that most Americans associate with adoptees.

If the Sun Sentinel does not reply by Saturday, Feb. 17, I will publish the column in its entirety on my book website. (My forthcoming memoir examines the larger issue of prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. adoption system against adoptees and birth parents.)

It is almost certain that this news coverage has already left its mark.

Long after the media move on to the next shooting tragedy, the public will likely forget the killer’s name, the school’s name, and the many victims’ names. I am less certain they will forget the alleged mass murderer was that unhappy adoptee, the one with a mental health disorder. And when key adoptee rights legislation makes its way through state legislatures–if it ever does–how many lawmakers and lobbyists will recall this incident and the bogeyman adoptee in their minds and wonder if they can really, ever, consider all U.S. adoptees as deserving equal rights by law.

That is why this matters.

[Author note: Having not heard back form the Sun Sentinel media corporation, I published my guest column addressing problems in the coverage of the shootings and the alleged shooter, which I reference above. You can find a full copy of the op ed I submitted to the company here. I never heard from the company’s editorial team; I sent the column to the company on Feb. 15, 2018, and decided to publish it on my website because of the timely nature of the ongoing story.]

 

Why adoption and the rights of adoptees must be seen as public health issues

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide this model to explain how a public health approach addresses problems and promotes population health.

My memoir, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are: An Adoptee’s Journey Through the American Adoption Experience, will stand apart from most books and memoirs that focus on adoption and adoptees’ stories.

Unlike other works this field, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are describes the American adoption experience through a public health lens, and it is written as a “public health memoir.” Please see the CDC Foundation’s definition of public health if you are not sure what public health means or how it approaches health issues.

In terms of policy, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are will show how the institution—past and present—and the status of being adopted both constitute legitimate public health areas of interest that can be improved by changing outdated and discriminatory laws and policies. This will require the active collaboration of health and public health groups. Both have a moral obligation to advocate for the well-being of all adopted Americans as a population. Both also have a responsibility to correct their past historic roles creating system that denies adoptees rights and also health information that could potentially be life saving for some.

These are some of the public health issues my memoir will address:

  • It will show that being adopted can be measured in long-term health impacts (there are anywhere from 5 million to 9 million U.S. adoptees, and that imprecision is part of the larger problem of counting them, and thus ensuring they count in all public-health decision-making).
  • It will show how and why health and public health professionals need to be involved in policy changes that improve the health for this diverse but large group of Americans, including advocating for legal changes to harmful adoption-records-secrecy laws now used in most U.S. states. Giving more adoptees access to their records will allow them to know their health and family ancestry—something recommended by nearly every leading health and scientific expert.
  • It will show how public health professionals today, namely in state vital records offices, contribute to legal inequality in the treatment of adopted persons seeking equal treatment by law and their family ancestry and medical history.
  • It will show how implicit bias against illegitimately born people—adoptees are viewed that way, even if that is not acknowledged—is seen in longitudinal health outcomes. There are tragic and meticulous historic and current data on mortality and morbidity of those born outside of marriage, which should be of interest to anyone in public health and health who thinks that bias matters in the treatment of people/groups.
  • It will show how doctors and social work professionals from the late 1940s through the 1970s promoted practices that separated infants and their birth families without any peer-reviewed or demonstrable evidence documenting how this would provide a long-term benefit to millions of Americans, namely the relinquished infants and their mothers/birth families. Those impacted were usually vulnerable, young, and powerless women who had few advocates for maintaining family relationships.
  • It will show how the United States’ state-level adoption records laws promoting records secrecy are out of alignment with most developed nations that allow adoptees to access birth records, and all without any evidence of harm. This discussion will also highlight how this represents another form of “American exceptionalism” in health issues, such as the United States’ lack universal health care, and how the GOP in promoting adoption as a Christian/moral “alternative to abortion” has promoted this exceptionalism that harms adoptees as a population.

A Guide for Reporters Covering Adoptees and Adoption

Stories by reporters who often know nothing about the complex system of adoption are the primary ways most Americans not personally connected to it learn about the issue. To help reporters tell more fact-based and less biased stories, I have provided 16 questions for the media to consider when covering adoptees, birth families, and adoption (see below). I also have included an extensive collection of links to provide reporters this information. Several suggested contacts for the media are also listed below as well—all who can speak eloquently on adoptee rights and adoption law.

Number of Adoptees in the United States Adoption Boom Years

Penelope Maza published the most frequently cited population data study on the number of U.S. adoptees born in the United States from the 1940s through the 1970s in her paper called “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975” in 1984.

Background on How the Media Fail to Cover Adoption Issues and Adoptees

Today most Americans do not know about the history of adoption in the United States or how the United States’ legal system openly discriminates against millions of Americans solely by status of their birth as adoptees (and, as in most adoptees’ cases, illegitimately born babies).

What’s more, only academic experts likely are aware of the larger historic issue of illegitimacy and how that sociological idea—universal to the human experience throughout human history the world over—impacted and still impacts the way America’s adoption system and laws work.

Because of this knowledge gap and a long history of feel-good, adoption-reunion storytelling, most adoption stories fall into a typical pattern. The reporter finds an adoptee, now an adult, who is seeking their mother, or maybe siblings. Or siblings or half siblings in the same town or even in the same store or factory discover they are biologically related. Or an elderly adoptee finally meets their even older birth mother in a tearful reunion.

In nearly all of these stories, reporters avoid the basic facts about “why” this harm and long separation has happened in the first place to the adoptees and their biological families, notably the birth mothers. The “who,” meaning the people who created this legal system through lawmaking and policy, is never discussed. The “when” questions, concerning the circumstances and periods when the laws that promoted the separation of biological families were passed, are certainly ignored.

Instead, adoptees searching for their past are presented to the public as media spectacles for their momentary entertainment (think of Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator, yelling at the crowd he just amused with his lethal skills). Adoptee critics of this style of reporting have every right to refer to this brand of fact-lite news storytelling as “adoptee reunion p0rn.” [Note, I misspelled the word using a zero intentionally to prevent it from being blocked if shared.]

This pattern of lazy and often prejudicial storytelling by media outlets and their reporters can be fixed with the basic principles of good journalism. The solution should be that simple, if media outlets exercise common journalistic standards. Good journalists provide background information as well as key facts about the politics and history of their subjects. Good journalists questions those in power and help the powerless and the vulnerable. That should be no different for any story about adoption and adoptees denied their rights forcing them into expensive, time-wasting efforts to claim what legally is theirs as a human right.

Here are questions and some basic facts any reporter should ask and ask of themselves for any story that deals with the American adoption system, birth families, and adoptees.

16 Essential Questions for all Media and Reporters Covering Adoption and Adoptees

  1. How many adoptees in this state (of the adoptee) and in the United States were relinquished for adoption?
  2. How is this individual story part of the larger national story (transnational adoption, transracial adoption, single white mother relinquishment, black market adoptions, the treatment of women by U.S. churches, society, social service institutions, and government)?
  3. Is this adoption story typical of or different from the historic experience of U.S. adoption?
  4. What is the law of the state where the adoptee was born that prevents the adoptee from getting his or her records (not all states block adoptees from getting records)?
  5. When was the state law changed or written that created barriers that deny an adoptee their human right to know their ancestry and past?
  6. What do the primary vital records keepers, notably the state’s most senior vital records officials, have to say about denying adoptees their records, particularly in the era of DNA testing that is making adoption privacy laws even more obsolete?
  7. What do the senior officials at the adoption placement agency who handled the adoption (if there was an agency) have to say about denying adoptees their records, and about how many infants were relinquished by that agency in its history promoting adoption?
  8. Do the state vital records keepers know about the history of adoption that once allowed adoptees and birth parents to access records in most states before the 1950s?
  9. Question for the reporter: Is the reporter aware that most medical, scientific, and public health experts promote awareness of one’s medical and family history as a way to promote individual and population health?
  10. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter think that denying millions of adoptees this important health and medical information harms adoptees? (Yes, this question needs to be asked with every story, because of the overwhelming evidence that denying family and medical information may cause provable harm to many of the millions of adopted persons.)
  11. Question for the reporter: Has the reporter asked state vital records keepers or state lawmakers who may oppose opening adoption records their views on this issue of providing adoptees their records for health and public health reasons?
  12. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter know that many developed nations in the world with adoption systems provide adult adoptees unfettered access to their birth records when they turn 18?
  13. Question for the reporter: Is the reporter aware of the United Kingdom’s adoptee records law that has been implemented successfully since 1975, without any public policy or social problems?
  14. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter know what states provide adoptees and birth parents access to birth records of adoptees and what states do not through a series of legal barriers?
  15. Question for the reporter: Can the reporter answer this question if the adoptee cannot get their records by law: Why should everyone else who is not adopted, including convicted felons, be allowed to access their vital records and an adoptee be denied this legal right by law?
  16. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter think that having laws that deny equal legal rights to millions of persons represent a form of inequality? Note: This is not a trick question—it is the most obvious one, and therefore the one evaded because it forces the reporter to confront the cognitive dissonance that underlies the storytelling they may want to do by focusing on “reunion p0rn.”

Key contacts for reporters who focus on adoptee rights to records should include: Bastard Nation, the Adoptee Rights Law Center run by attorney Greg Luce of Minneapolis, and any of the state groups who promote adoptees’ legal and human rights to their records. If you want to speak to an academic expert, please contact Prof. Elizabeth J. Samuels (Harvard, JD), University of Baltimore, School of Law. The author, Rudy Owens, can speak about the history of adoption, adoption as a public health issue, and Michigan’s treatment of adoptees seeking their birth records. 

Note: The author, Rudy Owens, is a former journalist who holds an MA in journalism from the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as an MPH from the University of Washington School of Public Health. His memoir exploring the American adoption system, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, will be published in March 2018. The author is not affiliated with any of the media contacts listed above and is not a partner or member of their organizations. 

The Detroit Adoptee Manifesto: Time to change the battlefield

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 most developed nations. Not so in the United States, the country with the greatest number of adoptees than any developed country in the world.

Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War

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 believe its time to reset the chessboard and start anew, starting first with each individual adoptee.

recommend that adoptees read 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.

I just published The Detroit Adoptee Manifesto. In it, I draw from key concepts explained by Greene in The 33 Strategies of War, which I think adoptees should consider as they choose how they want to live their lives and then change the world around them, including the adoption system that denies millions of Americans basic human rights. Most of these ideas are explained in greater detail in my forthcoming memoir on the American adoption experience, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are: An Adoptee’s Journey Through the American Adoption Experience. The strategies I describe in my essay are:

Author Robert Greene

  • Projecting Strength, Not Vulnerability
  • Learning from the Masters and Applying that Wisdom
  • Having a Grand Strategic Vision
  • Learning from Defeat
  • Defining your Opponents and Exposing Them and Their Weaknesses
  • Becoming a Fighter, Not a Victim
  • Defining The Battlefield
  • Knowing Your Enemies
  • Launching a Revolution of Thinking

Greene notes that all persons can benefit from thinking strategically, to achieve critical life goals: “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.”