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.

How Prejudice Harms Millions of Adoptees

The Outcast, by Richard Redgrave, 1851, Royal Academy of the Arts, London, documents the treatment of bastardy and birth mothers in England in the 1800s.

Today I  published a detailed essay entitled “Discrimination Against Adoptees Rooted in Fears of Illegitimacy.” In it I explore one of the themes that will be discussed at length in my forthcoming memoir, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are

My essay documents how the issue of prejudicial treatment of adoptees by states, courts, the media, and adoption agencies is almost never discussed in the long-simmering debate over adoptees’ legal right to their original birth records. As I show, discrimination can be seen in how adoptees seeking their birthright to know themselves and obtain copies of their original birth records are treated. By law, they are not considered equal to others in the majority of U.S. states. Many who enforce outdated state laws treat adoptees dismissively—even as threats. (See copies of emails written by senior Michigan public health officials how they responded fearfully to my request for my original birth certificate, as just one example.)

I highlight how this prejudice demonstrates a well-documented form of sociological behavior globally and throughout history. Historic and accurate records paint a grim picture of how this human bias translates into harmful actions. Bastards, birth mothers, and illegitimate people have paid a lethal price for their status. Remnants of that prejudice are alive and well today in laws that deny equal treatment to most U.S. adoptees by law, but also in how adoptees are treated when they seek their equal legal rights.

Boiling down my book pitch to two paragraphs

Rudy Owens’ Forthcoming Memoir

This weekend, I finished my draft book proposal for You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are. Like all creative endeavors, there are drafts upon drafts that describe any product of one’s imagination and experience. Here is how I chose to describe my story as a two-paragraph pitch. It starts when I first realized I needed to share my story of living a life as an adoptee and being a product of a system that has impacted millions of Americans:

“You Don’t Know How Luck You Are begins with a meeting between two family members, separated by the chasm of adoption, yet bound together by blood. One represented the villain in the other’s family lore, because he was denied, illegitimately born, and relinquished for adoption. I am that person, the bastard son of a man I never knew. The other was my younger half-sister, daughter of that successful and respected man, who for decades heard only dark rumors about me—all built on lies. During our brief meeting at her home on September 29, 2014, she shared these fateful words: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’

“At that moment, my lifelong adoption journey took on a new, more powerful meaning. At last the time had arrived to share this mythical story. But to tell that tale, I would need to start in another decade, when millions of birth mothers gave up their infants, leaving a legacy that impacts millions of Americans today. That story began in the Motor City, after a single woman found herself pregnant and faced on of the most difficult decisions of her life.”

I shared this my good friend, who is also an adoptee. He wrote this back to me: “I think this is really good.  If this doesn’t grab the attention of publishers then i don’t know what will.”

Soon, I will know if my proposal, the story of what adoption is, including a system the still denies equal rights to millions, may gain momentum and move to a larger audience. I remain convinced this story matters and it will matter to adoptees and non-adoptees alike.


Rudy Owens’ adoption memoir sheds light on institution impacting millions of Americans

Rudy Owens, three months old

In 2016, I finished writing my memoir on my lifelong journey navigating the world of American adoption, as an adoptee who was denied any record of his biological past. I will be publishing my memoir and public health history of adoption in 2017.

I was born in Detroit at one of the nation’s largest maternity hospitals that promoted adoption among non-related parents and infants. My single birth mother relinquished when I was three weeks old. My entire family past was erased when the State of Michigan approved my adoption to a new family in May 1965. That family remains my family to this day. However, the post-World War II adoption system that touched the lives of millions of birth mothers and infants like me created record-keeping practices and laws that ultimately withheld my family heritage from me when my name legally changed and I became another family’s child.

The medical, social work, and public health professionals who created this bold new experiment in family creation sought to remove illegitimate children from their kin. Adoptees were expected by society and their adoptive families never to know their true identity and biological relatives. I rejected this model and set out on a three-decade-long journey to find my biological relatives, my past, and ultimately justice. On the way, I overcame Michigan’s discriminatory legal barriers and found my birth family and kin on both sides of my family when I was 24. My years-long journey took me from Detroit to San Diego to a small Midwest hamlet. On the way, I learned about my past, met all branches of his families, and finally reclaimed my original birth documents state vital records keepers vowed to hide from me until the day I died.

On my hero’s quest, I overcame the discriminatory tactics of fearful records keepers and stereotypes by some  birth family relatives. I rose above those who denied me equal legal treatment because I was born a bastard and categorized by state law as an adoptee, with less rights than non-adoptees. My experience demonstrated that searching for one’s origins and asking, “Who am I,” are the most natural acts a human will ever take.

Rudy Owens launches his book website

Rudy Owens’ Forthcoming Memoir

Greetings. More information will be posted in coming weeks about my upcoming public health exploration of and memoir looking at the institution of adoption. Please follow all of my updates under the “What’s New” section of my web site for my forthcoming memoir, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are. Thanks for dropping in, and I hope to put a copy of my book in your hands soon.