Tag Archives: Adoptee Discrimination

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.”

‘The Art of War’: the essential text for any U.S. adoptee

Sun Tzu, the brilliant Chinese strategist, reportedly born in 554 BC, should be studied and read by every adoptee in the United States who is denied equal treatment under the law and their original birth records. His classic treatise, The Art of War, remains one of the most frequently studied, quoted, and referenced tools in human civilization for anyone who engages in advocacy and, yes, war. 

Everything is there for the adoptee or birth parent seeking his/her records and past and for advocacy groups seeking reform and justice from a system that denies basic justice and equality to millions.

For adoptees who are plagued by insecurity, doubt, and depression about the injustice of discriminatory state adoption laws and historic and unspoken prejudice against illegitimately born people like adoptees, I first recommend drawing from your wisdom and discipline you have gained from your experience. Finding wisdom in books will be meaningless unless you can first put that knowledge into a perspective you have lived yourself.

So Why Sun Tzu and an Ancient Text?

My tweet to adoptees on preparing for long campaigns for equal rights: read Sun Tzu.

Most adoptees will learn that their path to wisdom and later action will eventually require discipline, awareness of one’s adversaries, and adapting successfully from tough experience. Luckily, Sun Tzu provides one of the easiest to access toolkits to guide you as you embark on your journey that only you can make.

If your mind is open to new ideas, Sun Tzu’s timeless observations and tactics allow anyone to become an irresistible force. As Sun Tzu says, “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.”

In my case, I embraced many of these strategies to overcome the country’s discriminatory adoption system and achieve a measure of justice and wisdom, which I describe in my book on my adoption experience. Sun Tzu correctly notes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” 

Many U.S. adoptees become expert researchers because of legal discrimination

Photo of Adoptee Records and Research for Book on Adoption in the USA

My vital records and research on my adoption experience now fill a box. For most people, they have a single file, with their original birth certificate. I was denied that by the adoption system and discriminatory laws.

Many adoptees may have a box or several boxes that look like mine. It is my adoption records box. I have taken it everywhere I have moved over the last three decades. 

Unfortunately I had to become an archivist just to know who I was. That is because the state where I was born, Michigan, had laws that denied me my human right to know who I was and where I came from. I was forced to play a game that unfortunately went on for nearly 30 years, without any apology from anyone in state government who did everything they could to prevent me from rightfully knowing my past.

However, I was really good. Records I kept and used were instrumental in my later and final battle with Michigan’s discriminatory public health  system that did all it could to keep my birth certificate from me, even though I knew my birth family and mother for decades. Welcome to my world and the world of tens of thousands of adoptees.

Most people’s vital records files have one document, and that is it. My story has a box. My book tells that story that is contained in papers in that box. 

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.