Category Archives: Rudy Owens Memoir

Where Detroit adoptees were born and ‘relinquished’

The Florence Crittenton Maternity Home, at 11850 Woodrow Wilson, in Detroit, was located next to the Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit. The maternity home, as shown in in this photograph, was under renovation and construction. Women who stayed in the home would deliver their infants next door, at the hospital, located at 1554 Tuxedo Avenue.

I was born in Crittenton General Hospital, one the nation’s largest hospitals created to serve unwed mothers and their infants and later a major health center delivering infants relinquished for adoption. It was located at 1554 Tuxedo Avenue, and closed in 1974. This photo dates from 1929.

This week, I finally received a copy of one of the few pictures that may be publicly available of the former Florence Crittenton Maternity Home of Detroit from the 1950s. This was the third Crittenton maternity home that the national organization opened in Detroit. It was located adjacent to the Crttenton General Hospital, where I was born. 

The hospital provided both maternal health services and boarding for single, pregnant mothers. I and literally thousands and thousands of other adoptees were born in such facilities during the boom years of American adoption, from the 1950s through the early 1970s. 

The National Crittenton Foundation of Portland, Oregon, in my home town, provided me the image of the maternity home, and I am grateful for their support and for meeting with me to discuss my upcoming book and the larger story of this foundation’s predecessors.

I have written at length about the original Florence Crittenton Mission and its successor agencies on my blog, documenting how this benevolent and originally Christian group that first served prostitutes and “fallen women” became an organization that sought to help abused, vulnerable, and single-parent women. Part of its original core mission was to fight and eradicate the stigma associated with illegitimacy and to keep mothers and their infants together.

The issue of illegitimacy, ultimately, drove the booming adoption system into which people like me were placed.

Most bastards born into this system–the word “bastard” accurately describes my status in life and my life story–were told we did not have the equal legal rights of all non-adopted U.S. citizens to know who we were by so-called “adoption professionals” and state agencies and legislatures. This inequality and human rights issue remains to this day, without much public interest outside of adoptee advocates themselves.

The national Crittenton organizations that succeeded the original mission evolved into adoption placement centers, starting in the late 1940s, as so-called “adoption professionals” such as social workers assumed greater control of maternity facilities that were ubiquitous in most large U.S. cities (see Regina Kunzel’s study of this movement: Fallen Women, Problem Girls). The Crittenton facilities, like my birthplace in Detroit, became essential facilities in a national movement to promote adoption as the “most suitable plan” to separate bastard babies like me from their birth mothers and biological kin and place them in new families.

According to the Child Welfare League of America, 98 percent of all babies, like me and thousands of others, who were born in Crittenton facilities or served by them during the peak adoption years were placed for adoption.

This story is my story, and also the story of thousands of others like me who passed through the halls of this building and its earlier maternity home facilities and maternity hospitals in Detroit and dozens of other cities. My forthcoming memoir and critical examination of the American adoption experience, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, offers a detailed look at the history of this now demolished hospital and how its legacy still remains today.

The former maternity home building is now run by Cass Community Social Services. You can see photos of the old maternity home, as it appears today, on Google maps

(Editor’s note: I have updated this post on July 14, 2017, to reflect new information shared with me that the photo of the maternity home, seen on this page, was incorrectly identified as the hospital. I have updated this page to now include an image of the original Crittenton General Hospital of Detroit, dating from 1929.)

 

 

Who has the right to lead on adoptee rights?

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

On May 20, 2017, I published an article on my policy blog that replies 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.

In my piece (“Adoptee Rights Advocates Must Critically View Any Group Lacking ‘Street Cred’”) I 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.

I have shared this article with numerous adoptee rights advocates I know on Twitter and now await a possible reply by the DAI to my piece. I alerted the DAI about my article with two tweets.

In my article I said I would publish a reply, but I will need to see how the group responds first. As I stated in my article, “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.”

How my memoir stands out in a crowded market

Moses, a prophet to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, likely is the world’s best-known adoptee. His lifelong journey also embodies the archetypal hero’s journey, as described by writer Joseph Campbell.

As I reach out to agents and publishers, one of the first things they want to know is where my books fits in the publishing world and if this book will sell and be worth their investment. Great questions. Here is how I reply.

When I walk into the biggest new and used bookstore in the United States, Powell’s Books in Portland, I see my memoir standing among the freshest new titles on the front shelf. It will be among other nonfiction works that are must-reads for the book-buying public who will purchase it and tell their friends to do the same.

It is at its heart an investigative memoir, which understands the importance of a good detective and mystery story to engage readers. It is a hero’s story in its purest, most archetypal form.

It combines research of biology, history, sex, taboos, and social engineering and makes sense of what appear to be unconnected fields. Like many great personal stories that tell a larger story about society, it draws from a deeply personal experience and backs it up with rock-solid research that challenges deeply held prejudices of most readers.

Lastly, it breaks form all personal narratives ever written by adoptees by rejecting the prevalent view of an adoptee’s experience and turns it into a reflection on making the most of life, the way Viktor Frankl masterfully did in his global bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning.

Health professionals have professional responsibility to help adoptees change state laws

Yesterday, I visited a medical specialist for a routine visit. Like every office of doctors and dental professionals I have seen for well over three decades, this office asked for background about my medical history. Such information can be helpful as shown by nearly all peer-reviewed science to offer information to help patients receive appropriate and responsible health care. 

For the majority of American adoptees, however, this simple process can be insulting and demeaning. It is another reminder how laws in most states deny potentially life-saving information to them because they are adopted. No other group in the United States is denied this critical health information based on status of birth alone. I devote a chapter to practice and problem in my forthcoming book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are (Chapter 8: Who Am I?).

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.

Health professionals more than any other group are aware of the role genetics and family history play in determining a patient’s likelihood for disease, health problems, and risks from illness. I wrote at length about his in my post from March 20, 2016, when I was advocating to get my original birth certificate from the State of Michigan (I won that battle three months later). I noted, “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.”

Yet there is almost no support from anyone in all of the health professions or groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the rare exception of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has taken a public stand advocating for this at the national policy level as a matter of science and public health. (Note, this group also was among many health experts who advocated in 1960 for adoption as a social-engineering policy decision that relinquished hundreds of thousands of infants–a little-known and controversial position I explore at length in my forthcoming book [Chapter 2: The Most Suitable Plan]}.

To my surprise, the office I visited did ask if I was adopted or if I did not have access to my family medical history. I was astounded. This was the first time I have ever seen any health facility acknowledge adoptees and that adoptees may not legally have access to their family health history as a matter of legal discrimination denying them their original birth records. 

When I completed my intake forms, I noted this fact and specifically wrote on the form saying it was the first time any health provider acknowledged the existence and reality of an American adoptee. When I completed my exam, I thanked my doctor for this evidence-based protocol and told her it acknowledged millions of Americans may not have their medical history at no fault of their own. She told me her practice absolutely needed to know a patient’s background because many of the health problems they address have genetic precursors. 

I also told her that my forthcoming book would be examining this topic at length. She was excited to hear about this and told me she would like to see the book. That conversation also told me many doctors may also like to know about the issue linking health, public health, and adoption and that my book can reach a large audience of readers who could become advocates for legal reform to change discriminatory state laws.

My immediate proposals to address this are two-fold. For anyone who is an adoptee, I encourage them to tell all of their health providers to change their intake forms to acknowledge health history is a legal issue that adoptees cannot change alone, and that medical professionals have moral and professional responsibilities to issue statements supporting birth record access for all adoptees, without exception. For medical professionals, I encourage you to become familiar with state laws that seal adoptees’ records and explain to the public how this undermines public and human health. This is within your range of practice to encourage healthy lives for everyone. Public health practitioners also need to be part of this, including the CDC. 

The critical role of kinship in child-rearing

My forthcoming book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, takes a closer look at the strong evidence that shows the critical role of genetic relations in child-rearing and adoption.

The debate of the role over nature and nurture in raising adopted children has been the central issue of the institution since its inception and later growth into a global business and social engineering system that literally has created millions of family relations involving people who have no genetic relationship. Adoption historian Ellen Herman, of the University of Oregon, calls adoption as practiced in the United States “designated kinship by design.” It has been a large-scale experiment from the beginning, testing what Herman calls “enduring beliefs in the power of blood, and widespread doubts about whether families could thrive without it.”  

A shot of some of the tens of thousands of babies relinquished for adoption through the maternity care facilities run by the National Florence Crittenton Mission. (Source: Sioux City Journal, “Wife of Nobel winner started life at Crittenton Center,” Sept.18, 2011.

Today, those who defend adoption, including social workers, adoption advocacy groups who champion closed birth records that harm adoptees, and many Christian and fundamentalist groups who embrace orphan adoption, argue that nature has a minimal or little role in the rearing of an adopted child.

The wealth of evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology and from studies of child abuse of stepchildren by a non-related parent show that genetic relations greatly impact child care in families, in most cultures globally. As Canadian evolutionary psychology researchers Margo Wilson and Martin Daly note, “There is nothing magical about parental discrimination: preferential treatment of one’s own young exists only where a species’ ecology demands it.”

Stories of abuse of adopted children crop up routinely, usually shared by adoptees on social media and not covered rigorously by the mainstream press. Occasionally a sensational story of a harmed adoptee does get extra attention.

Book cover to Kathryn Joyce’s book on the Christian adoption movement, The Child Catchers.

The 2011 killing of one young Ethiopian born orphan and adoptee, Hana Williams, in rural Sedro-Woolley, Washington, did lead to moral and political outrage and more nuanced reporting of the Christian transnational adoption movement. The writer Kathryn Joyce has profiled the business of global adoptions by evangelical U.S. Christian families  and the underlying issues of creating families among non-related parents and children in her book The Child Catchers. Joyce provides one of the most detailed profiles of this tragedy, taking on mostly taboo topics that many people involved in adoption do not wish to discuss, even professionally. Such discussions harm the very real “business of adoption” and what I sometimes call the “adoption industrial complex.”

Adoptees’ Experiences Often Go Unnoticed, But Their Stories Matter

Outside of these news flashes, adoptions happen daily and touch millions, and the tragic story of Hana Williams is an outlier. But the issues in her story matter.

Most adoption stories involve the mundane reality of simply growing up and having family relations, over decades. That experience is different for many adoptees. The long view of it over time can be hard to convey to nonadoptees, many of whom carry hidden biases against adoptees that also are rooted in most adoptees’ status as being illegitimately conceived.

The most recent episode of This American Life presents a story–360: Switched At Birth–that describes how two girls were switched at birth and brought up in two different families who lived near each other in Wisconsin. Both of the women described feeling lifelong differences from their family and even how their parents provided less interest in their well-being growing up. This is not remarkable nor even an indication of the two mothers acting badly to the girls they raised who were not their blood kin. The parents were acting as people will naturally do–showing discrimination that evolutionary biology research shows will ultimately favor one’s blood kin over someone who they know is not their genetic offspring.

As an adoptee listening to this story, I did not hear anything new or remarkable in this episode. I heard what sounded very normal to me, having grown up as an adoptee. It is called “being adopted.” It is how you live your life.

Likely the producers of This American Life wanted a story that was quirky and unique, because it was a classic “switcheroo story” straight from Mark Twain’s pantheon of stories, namely Pudd’nhead Wilson. It was not the boring adoption story about life as an adoptee–stories that do not get told well by most media. Adoptees’ lives do not qualify as news, except in these extreme moments. But these stories do matter because the taboo topics of illegitimacy and adoption, including how adoptees experience adoption throughout their entire life, impact millions of adoptees and their families.

You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are will explore the themes of kinship and parental discrimination in greater depth. For a sample, read a preview of Chapter 6: Blood Is Thicker than Water.