published in Moxie Magazine, April 6, 2001
than six million American mothers surrendered children
for adoption. In the wake of Oregon's decision to open records,
society has a renewed interest in these heretofore invisible women.
America has been unwilling to look behind the scenes at adoption
practices. After all, adoption is so sacred that it was enshrined
on a postage stamp. Myths surround these mothers, who are
either cast as sacrificial heroines or vilified as unnatural women
who abandoned babies. Society believes that these mothers willingly
gave up their babies and that they want privacy from their
adult children. Fact is, these women long for contact and
were never promised privacy.
is important to hear this story so you understand that these women
were pressured on all sides into surrendering their children and
that in many cases their human rights were violated. I know this
story because it is my story and the story of many others like
a mother loses her child to closed adoption, it feels as if her
child has died, yet there is no wake, no funeral, no sympathy
cards, no public acknowledgment. There are no friends or relatives
to offer comfort and support. There is no obituary, no grave
to visit, no flowers to bring, no grieving permitted and no closure.
the era of closed adoption (1950s - 1970s), this was the experience
for hundreds of thousands of young women who were unmarried and pregnant.
They disappeared into shame-filled prisons called maternity homes.
The babies' fathers went forward with lives uninterrupted, their
part not criticized, not punished.
was the era of rock n' roll, the assassinations of both Kennedys
and Martin Luther King, civil unrest, hypocrisy and enormous social
change. The media played up the swinging 60s, while "unwed
mothers" paid a heavy social price. Once their "problem" became
known, they were at the mercy of their parents, society and the
largest residential facility for unwed mothers, Florence Crittenton,
had "homes" throughout America. The evangelical women there offered
help to "unfortunate girls" by providing food, clothing and shelter.
They taught job and parenting skills and provided childcare while
mothers worked. When mothers left, they visited frequently bringing
food, clothing and money until the mother could fend for herself
and her baby.
the 1940s, things changed. Adoption history indicates that social
workers specialized in unwed motherhood. They felt that this would
elevate their professional status. Viewing themselves as authorities
in adoption and unwed motherhood, they insinuated themselves into
social workers at the Washington, D.C. Crittenton appeared to
agree with the evangelical women's position of helping unwed
mothers keep their babies. Their 1950s brochure states:
it be better for mother and child if the baby were given away (adopted)?"
in most cases . . . social workers have learned that no material advantage
can make up for the loss of its own mother. Better a poor home,
with mother love, they say, than an adopted home in luxury .
social workers recognized the market for white babies for infertile couples,
they decided girls were not worthy to parent. These attitudes freed
white babies for adoption by two-parent families. Social Work
and Social Problems (1964), published by the National Association
of Social Workers, insinuates half-jokingly that unwed mothers
served as "breeders":
. . babies born out of wedlock [are] no longer considered a
social problem . . . white, physically healthy babies are considered
by many to be a social boon . . .
Because there are many more married couples wanting to adopt
newborn white babies than there are babies, it may almost
be said that they, rather than out of wedlock babies, are a
social problem. (Sometimes social workers in adoption
agencies have facetiously suggested setting up social provisions
for more 'baby breeding.')"
Unmarried Mothers (1961), sociologist Clark Vincent commented
on an "emerging pattern":
predict that-if the demand for adoptable infants continues to
exceed the supply . . . unwed mothers will be 'punished' by
having their children taken from them right after birth. A policy
like this would not be . . . labeled explicitly as 'punishment'
. . . it would be implemented through such labels . . . as 'scientific
findings', 'the best interests of the child', 'rehabilitation
of the unwed mother' . . ."
of these mothers were never told about government programs nor
were they advised about child support. They did not receive psychological counseling
or legal advice. They were not directed to read surrender documents
nor asked if they understood them. These mothers never spoke
to a lawyer. Instead, they signed legal papers drafted by adoption
agency attorneys. Many mothers now question the ethics of this
arrangement and raise issues of signing under duress, lack of
informed consent, and conflicts of interest.
was discouraged by maternity homes. Maternity home "inmates" were
forbidden communication with the fathers. Most homes censored mail
according to "approved lists." Were these restrictions designed
to ensure that fathers could not propose a marriage that
would allow them to keep their babies?
mothers were forbidden to see their newborns. Some were told to sign
surrender papers before giving birth. Others were told to sign
while heavily drugged or still recuperating. Some were drugged
to unconsciousness during the birth while others were given no
medications at all. These mothers now raise issues of coercion,
pressure tactics, and abuse.
living in "wage homes" contracted by the maternity homes, mothers
were entrusted with the care of other people's children as unpaid
nannies. Yet they were deemed incapable of parenting their
strange that the state paid foster parents - complete strangers
- to care for babies rather than allowing their own mothers to
care for them for free. Why weren't they told that they could
see their baby in foster care or of the waiting period during
which they could reclaim their babies? Were agencies afraid
that they would bond even more and not sign surrender papers?
We hear stories from mothers who wanted to keep their babies only
to be warned severely by social workers that, if they did so,
they must pay all costs: hospital, doctor, lawyer and foster care.
are surrender documents the only legal contracts in America that
can be signed by a minor? Because these babies were wanted by
the adoption industry, a tremendous market with high demand
for "the product." According to Marketdata Enterprises of
Tampa, the adoption industry earns $1.4 billion annually
in the U.S. The company estimates gross income for even small
agencies at $400,000 a year and at $10 million or more for larger
agencies. It states that "stories of unscrupulous operators abound
in this loosely regulated field."
invisible, non-mothers have been ignored when requesting information
that pertains to their experience. Requests are met with refusal
even when some policy manuals state that they could be provided
with access to their files.
the stigma of unwed motherhood may be gone but the perception
that these mothers willingly gave away their babies is not.
Mothers who lost their children to adoption are now coming forward
in record numbers. Having walked out of the fog of enforced
silence, we are angry and we will be heard. We are here
to set the record straight.
Copyright © 2001 Karen