Please visit this page to review my overview of issues and logistics for adoptees seeking a court order from the state of Michigan.
Who has Michigan adoptees’ original birth certificates (OBCs)?: In Michigan, OBCs may be located in two places: at the local county level and in Lansing, the capital. Local public health agencies share records of births with the state. Adoption agencies, if they still exist, often have a copy in their files as well but not always. Agency records may be transferred to successor groups. Agency copies of the OBC are stamped unofficial. It appears that the Central Adoption Registry, run by Connie Stevens, has issued an agency order to control the release of all OBCs that prevents adoptees from getting their records in the county of their birth. Wayne County, covering Detroit, also has additional rules. For those born before 1978 who do not have a father listed on a birth certificate, records are at the Wayne County Clerk’s office. That office issues adoption birth records only for the years 1960 to 1968 for children adopted in Wayne County. All other years for adopted birth records must be obtained from the State of Michigan.
How much does this cost?: You will have to pay the court a filing fee for one of several forms you submit. At the time I did, I paid $20. If you count up costs for copying, sending mail certified, and other similar items, you may spend $40 to $50 if you get a phone hearing. If you have a hearing in person, add travel costs. There are additional costs for filing a request with Michigan Vital Records if you win your court case. These costs do not count the hours you will spend preparing your documents and calling the court and the state. Lost time remains lost, and the emotional and personal toll can be draining because of the innate inequity of a system that is openly discriminatory against you simply because of your year of birth and status at birth.
Do I need a lawyer? No. A lawyer is not required for a hearing, if one is scheduled. The process involves a judge, joined by his staff, asking questions about your petition. There is no legal requirement to have legal counsel. I did not use a lawyer.
How does a judge determine the merits of your petition for your OBC?: This is not clear in any written documentation. The judge in my court hearing in June 2016 said he had no idea how to make a determination of “just cause” for my OBC because that standard was not defined for him by the state or statute. This is a national problem for adoptees requesting court orders. The judges and courts can be as confused about this process as you. In my case the judge noted during my phone-enabled hearing that he agreed with facts of the case. He stated that I knew my birth name already, had nearly three decades of contact with his birth families, and that the legal consent was already in state records in 1989, when my birth mother signed a consent form. It is not clear if someone who did not have a relationship with his or her birth family would be seen favorably or as deserving of their OBC.
Who does the judge work for?: The judge is an advocate for the court, and part of a mandate for a family-juvenile court, which handles such hearings in Wayne County, is to promote the institution of adoption. So theoretically the judge is not an advocate for adult adoptees because their requests for an OBC threaten the adoption system the judges promote professionally.
Do I have to attend a court hearing in person?: No. An adoptee out of state can make a claim to be accommodated by a phone hearing because of the cost burden and distance. You should be courteous when requesting such accommodation with court staff, who set up your hearing. Be sure to develop a personal relationship with the staff. They make everything happen. You will have to lobby them if they are not helping you. It is a delicate dance.
Will a hearing appear in a court docket? Any court proceeding should appear in official court records that are searchable online. This did not happen with my case. I never learned why adoptee cases are not entered into the official record in Wayne County. That sounded wrong.
How do I get a court date?: This is not clear. After you send in your paperwork, following the court’s instructions, the court should reply. Give them a couple of weeks. If you do not hear a reply, call them. In my case, I had to become very forceful when I pressed for a hearing date and call them repeatedly. I followed up every phone call with emails and/or certified mail confirming our conversations. This put the staff on record I was tracking their actions, legally. The decision for a hearing date ultimately depends on the court docket, a judge’s schedule, and your ability to make yourself heard. If you are quiet, they will ignore you. You need to assert your right to a hearing, but always with courtesy. In my case, it took nearly three months to get on the judge’s hearing docket after repeated phone calls and having a hearing cancelled once without notice.
What will happen during a hearing?: The judge may ask you about your family relationships, the facts of the case you have provided in writing, or even irrelevant questions that have no bearing on your right to your OBC. In my case, the judge had no real interest in my rights, my status as an adoptee, or the fact that the state had withheld my OBC for nearly three decades even after I knew my birth mother. He was most interested in my birth father—the person who had no bearing on the case and who was mostly responsible for me being born as an illegitimate child. Do not expect a judge to care about adoptee rights or your rights. You have to be prepared to make a strong petition how you have “just cause” to your records. Sadly, there is no script. Only you can figure that out.
How long will a hearing last?: My hearing lasted less than 10 minutes. I was given only a short amount of time to make my case why I had a legal right to a record that should already have been given to me in 1989, by law. I only had time to give a 30-second summary of one of the most important matters in my life.
Will state officials try to intervene against you?: This is not clear. It is highly likely your legal paperwork and forms will have been authenticated by MDHHS staff, who have your files and know the facts about your origins and your birth family through your adoptee case number. It is unclear if they have a negative role advocating against adoptees with the courts. During my hearing, the judge did not mention if he had any conversations with MDHHS officials prior to his ruling.
How successful are adoptees requesting their OBCs?: This is not reported by either the MDHHS or the courts. For the court serving adoptees born in Wayne County, they processed 208 requests for release of post-adoption information in 2014.
What if I lose my case?: This is not clear. It is likely you can bring your petition to a court of appeals. I found no resources that explain this possibility.
What if I win my case?: After your hearing, you likely will speak to court staff, usually the clerk working for the judge. They will give you a call after the hearing. In my case, an attorney said a signed court order would be sent to me. It would then be my responsibility to send the court order to Michigan Vital Records to demand my original OBC. The court said it had no role in the process and that the responsibility for facilitating the release of an OBC was with the adoptee, not the judiciary. In my case, the court order arrived in about two weeks. I then had to send the court order to the Vital Records office. The office can be reached at:
Michigan Department of Community Health
Vital Records Requests
PO Box 30721
Lansing MI 48909
What does Vital Records need?: In addition to your court order, you will need to complete a Form DCH-0569-BX (Rev. 3-16): Application For A Certified Copy — Michigan Birth Record, Michigan Department Of Health And Human Services. There is also a fee. I included all documents needed to prove my identity (my amended birth certificate, my name change order), the records my birth mother signed in 1989 to release my records, and even emails I obtained through a state freedom of information act request that showed senior Michigan officials were on record stating my OBC had to be released if I got a court order. Even then, the staff at the vital records office claimed they didn’t understand the court order—a likely effort to defy the judge’s order. They called back this bluff when I called them out as either incompetent or in violation of a judicial decree. I also told them I would be telling the judge they were threatening to withhold my OBC. They backed down.
What does Vital Records send you?: The Vital Records office sent me a copy of my original birth certificate that was adulterated with three “SEALED” stamps affixed on it. This is not a legal requirement or spelled out in law. It is a practice used by State Registrar Glen Copeland and staff employed by MDHHS and not in other states. My OBC, with my original birth name and birth mother’s name, which was intentionally adulterated by state officials, bears Copeland’s name and signature. Copeland previously was on record claiming I had no legal right to this document, even in possible violation of law that shows I did.
How long does it take for Vital Records to send an OBC?: The office states it has five weeks to process any request. An adoptee can order a rush service with a two-week promise of service. All told I spent $46 for the document with rush service.
Really, no one in the state or the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) can help me?: No, they cannot and will not help an adoptee get his or her birth certificate. The MDHHS overseas all vital records functions for the state and holds copies of original birth certificates for most Michigan-born adoptees. It has published a guide for adoptees. This does not help adoptees navigate the court process—a likely intentional effort by the state. The MDHHS also is attempting to prevent adoptees from finding that guide now online—it is buried/listed on this page, and making it harder for adoptees to find it.
Some FAQs published by MDHHS are also found here. These do not help most adoptees understand how to overcome the MDHHS’s bureaucracy. My experience revealed that its professional staff, including senior officials, work purposefully to deny adoptees their records. (Note: I published copies of private emails from senior MDHHS officials documenting their discussions to withhold adoptee records and showing how they denied me my birth certificate, in likely violation of state law, even after my birth mother signed a consent form that should have released it in 1989.)
What is your advice for doing this?: I am not a lawyer and do not provide legal counsel. I strongly believe that an adoptee should do what they can with the time, emotional energy, and resources they can muster. In my case, I was committed to achieving justice and reclaiming what was taken from me because of discriminatory laws the denied me equal rights. I had in my 20s made a lifelong commitment to justice and reclaiming my identity. With that frame of mind, I created this opportunity and victory.
As I wrote on my blog after I finally claimed my OBC back from the state, “The only reason—and I repeat only reason—I now have possession of what is and always has been mine is because I never once recognized the legal or moral authority of the state’s so-called vital records professionals to deny me equal treatment and equal status by law.”