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A Michigan adoptee’s decades-long fight to get birth records from the state

Jun 11, 2018

 


Most Michigan residents can get a copy of their birth certificates within weeks by simply placing an order online. 

But for Detroit native Rudy Owens, attempts to obtain his birth records took decades of legal battles. 

Why? Because he is an adoptee. 

Owens is the author of a new book You Don’t Know How Lucky You are: An Adoptee’s Journey Through the American Adoption Experience. He spoke with Stateside about his personal experience with the Michigan's adoption system and the changes he would like to see. 

Check out a bonus interview with Owens and Stateside producer Mercedes Mejia about his experience as an adoptee in Michigan here. 

Put up for adoption in the mid-1960s, Owens found his birth mother in 1989 at the age of 24. He had his mother sign a consent form stating that Michigan could release his birth records to him. 

Even though he knew his birth mother, his birth father, and their families, Michigan still refused to give Owens his birth certificate until he obtained a court order. Fifty-one years later, Owens finally has these documents. 

Owens spent this past week in Lansing meeting with lawmakers about ways to improve this process. He has four suggestions for Michigan to better ensure the human rights of adoptees. 

1. Provide accurate data on adoptees

Owens said there was a voluntary system that counted adoptees between 1945 and 1975. That system estimates there were about three million adoptees during that time. The U.S. census only began officially counting adoptees in 2000, but that does not include adult adoptees. 

“We have this large group of people who were born as adoptees, and I think it's important to have data because when you are counted, you count. And when you count, people pay attention,” Owens said. 

2. Track all requests for birth certificates by adoptees. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services does not currently count requests, said Owens, so there is no documentation of how many people are asking for help. 

“What would be really helpful for lawmakers, and I think for everyone else, is just to know what the volume is of people coming in, and then we can know what the success rate is or the failure rate,” Owens explained. “And again, if we find that there are some disparities, maybe we can address those disparities.” 

3. Performance audit of the Central Adoption Registry office  

Owen believes the state office that handles requests from courts and adoption agencies isn't set up to help adoptees. He said when he contacted the office, even though he already knew his birth parents, he was told to “fill out the dang form.” 

“If you call, you're not going to talk to anyone,” Owens said. “They may call you back. There is no email that you can ask ‘I, born in this circumstance, here is my question, what can I do?”

4. Provide more staff to answer adoptee questions 

“Make sure that staff can at least take questions,” Owens said. “You can log questions during the day, you can get an answering machine, you can set up an email where people could send questions and, in a reasonable amount of time,  people can answer those questions in a professional and courteous manner. It’s not that way right now with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.” 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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