Moxie Magazine, April 6, 2001

Domestic Infant Adoption: Setting the  Record  Straight

 by Karen Wilson Buterbaugh

 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>

 Transfer interrupted!

 er 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

 "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

 ". . . 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

 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.


The author, Karen Wilson, is co-founder of Mothers for Open Records Everywhere (M.O.R.E.) and OriginsUSA, and is a mother who lost her daughter to adoption in 1966.


More Adoption Articles | Adoption Crossroads HomePage