Category Archives: Rudy Owens

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the status of being adopted both constitute legitimate public health areas of interest that can be improved by changing outdated and discriminatory laws and policies.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.”

A Guide to Michigan Adoptees Seeking Court Orders for Original Birth Certificates

This is the feeling I experienced when i finally achieved justice and received my original birth certificate copy (adulterated however) from the state of Michigan in July 2016.

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.”

That is me, Rudy Owens, holding up a copy of my original birth certificate. The words “SEALED” were added to it by state officials–a practice not required by law and further evidence how the state treats adoptees who advocate for equal rights.

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.

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.

Does bias influence how publications choose to tell stories about adoptees and adoption history?

This historic photo of a Crittenton mission from the late 1950s or 1960s shows how expecting mothers who stayed at Crittenton homes and hospitals were given maternal health instructions. Almost all of those mothers gave up their infants for adoption at the encouragement of doctors, social workers, and staff at Crittenton and other maternity homes in the decades after World War II. (Photo courtesy of the National Crittenton Foundation.)

This week I was informed by a Michigan historical publication that its editorial committee rejected my proposed article on the historical significance of my birthplace, Crittenton General Hospital. “While the committee appreciates the article you submitted, it unfortunately does not meet our magazine’s editorial needs and we will be unable to accept it for publication,” the editor wrote. 

This means that an article I proposed to tell the story of thousands of single Michigan mothers who gave up their children for adoption in the decades after World War II in Detroit will not reach a wider audience in Michigan. For that, I am disappointed. 

I respectfully asked for feedback how I did not meet their needs, and did not get a reply. I do not expect a response, and to date have not received one.

[Author’s update, 9/15/2017, 1:05 p.m.: Hours after publishing this article, I received a reply from the publication I had contacted that its editorial committee thought my article was a “personal opinion piece,” which they do not accept in their publications. That reply arrived only after I had provided the publication a courtesy email to let them know I had published this article.]

No publication is obligated to tell any writer why they are rejected. Rejection is the norm in the world of writing and publishing. It also inspires good writers.

However, this outcome, which I have experienced when reaching out to many different publications to engage them on the history and problems in the U.S. adoption system, likely has other issues beyond my storytelling abilities or even the merits of the stories I am trying to tell.

The outcome falls into a trend of editorial bias by people who likely do not recognize how their decisions about covering the story of the U.S. adoption system and its history are influenced by their own subconscious views. My forthcoming book on the U.S. adoption experience investigates how bias influences individuals’ and society’s views about illegitimately born people (bastards like me), including adoptees. I also have published an essay on that topic on my blog.

Is it Bad Writing/Research, Bias, or a ‘Suspect’ Writer/Researcher?

Source: Pannucci, Christopher J., and Edwin G. Wilkins. “Identifying and Avoiding Bias in Research.” Plastic and reconstructive surgery 126.2 (2010): 619–625. PMC. Web. 15 Sept. 2017.

The larger issue of research bias is well documented in human-subjects research. That field boasts a staggering list of biases that impact the research outcomes, before, during, and after clinical trials. It also is a well-documented issue in communications.

The open-source scientific publication PLoS noted in a 2009 editorial, “A large and growing literature details the many ways by which research and the subsequent published record can be inappropriately influenced, including publication bias, outcome reporting bias, financial and non-financial, competing interests, sponsors’ control of study data and publication, and restrictions on access to data and materials. But it can be difficult for an editor, reading a submitted manuscript, to disentangle these many influences and to understand whether the work ultimately represents valid science.”

When a writer or researcher is rejected, they have almost no chance of persuading a potential publisher to chance its views. If you push your case, you also are further discounted as too “attached” or “engaged.”

In the world of investigative journalism, you are even considered dangerous, and your own publications may turn against you if you fail to accept outcomes that can squash controversial stories. This is a common experience to anyone who has mattered in the world of journalism. 

The celebrated investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in 1993 that telling stories that some people do not want to read but should be told is often a thankless, even dangerous task.

Author and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Reporters write a story once, and then there’s no response and they stop,” says Hersh. “Somehow the object [is] to keep on pushing. The problem is, what do you do when you make yourself a pain in the ass and you become suspect? Because as everybody knows, for some mysterious reasons, if you have a point of view in a newspaper room you are suspect. Or if you’re a true believer you’re dangerous, you’re political. That’s really crazy. Because it seems to me the only good stories that come out of anything come from people who have a passion about right and wrong, and good and bad. It’s a terrible tragedy. It’s very tough.”

I always turn to Hersh’s quote that I jotted down when I first became a journalist, when I need to remember that telling important stories, including ones that challenge orthodoxy and prejudice, will never be an easy road to travel. That is why I wrote my book about the American adoption experience, knowing it would not be an easy story to tell or to sell.

But anything that matters, really and truly matters, requires overcoming such obstacles. That is how you find personal meaning and how you make positive and meaningful change that may take years to achieve.