Adoption History – Setting the Record Straight

Adoption History – Setting the Record Straight

by Karen Wilson Buterbaugh
first published in Moxie Magazine, April 6, 2001

More 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.

It 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 me.

When 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.

Closed Adoption Era

During 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.

It 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 adoption industry.

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.

After 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 maternity homes.

The 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:

“Would it be better for mother and child if the baby were given away (adopted)?”

“Not 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 . . .”

As 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.’)”

In Unmarried Mothers (1961), sociologist Clark Vincent commented on an “emerging pattern”:

“We 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’ . . .”

Rights Were Violated

Many 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.

Marriage 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?

Many 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.

Questions Remain

While 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 own babies.

How 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.

Why 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 Mothers Return

These 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.

Today, 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 Wilson Buterbaugh