Tuesday, June 28, 2011
My dear friend and adoptee, Celeste Billhartz, had a lovely article about her work in a recent article on the Akron Beacon Journal’s Ohio.com. Celeste is the author and performer of The Mother’s Project, multi media tribute to the Mother’s who have relinquished children to adoption. It’s an amazing and deeply moving, heartfelt moment when Celeste reads one of her poems or songs, as her compassion and true empathy and sorrow draw you in. She understands the mothers of the Baby Scoop Era so well as she was as a baby a product of this machine.
Ann Fessler who authored “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade” is, by nature, a multi-media artist, and like Celeste, Ann, was also an infant adopted during the Baby Scoop Era. Also like Celeste, Ann traveled around the country, finding and talking to the women who had been forced to give up their children to adoption during the Baby Scoop Era. For anyone who is going to have adoption in their lives, then this book is a must read for them to understand the very foundation from which modern adoption is built on.
Both Women are truly amazing to be around. Both The Mother’s Project and TGWWA are strong in a truthful message that adoption is not all what it seems. It’s not always a good thing at all and often, when you hear these stories, we have to admit that some things were very, very wrong.
The Baby Scoop Era Was a Dark Time for Adoption
Usually define as the period post WWII spanning until Roe vs. Wade, the Baby Scoop Era produced almost 5 million adoptees. Go to any adoption related event and you will see them all. It seems like everyone you meet is from 1964, or ’67, or ’68. Mothers, fathers and the now adult adoptees, sometimes, together, sometimes apart, but so many from the sixties alone; it’s remarkable. One study reported that 1 of every 40 children under 18 years in the United States is adopted (Kreider, 2003)and the number of American domestic infant adoption birthmothers is somewhere around 10 million. Though officially over in the early seventies, I personally know Mother’s as late as 1980 and 1986 who were treated with true lack of choice and coercion, not unlike the mother’s of the defined Baby Scoop Era.
The Central theme in the BSE, is the use of shame, lies, and outright fraud used by most religious or charitable maternity homes of Post War America. Bottom line was that if you were a blue collar or above, white “nice” girl from the shiny new suburbs, and you got yourself pregnant, then either you were getting married real fast and might never live it down, or you went away. In 1970, for instance, 80 percent of the infants born to single mothers were placed for adoption and it’s not because these girls wanted to. It’s because, by the end of World War II, the adoption industry in America had all their ducks in a row. It was considered one’s “patriotic duty” to reproduce and create greater numbers of free American’s to combat the numbers born in communist Russia and China. The American dream was in full force, creating the suburban sprawl and the perfect family values we now hold dear. Coupled by war wounds and just general infertility as suffered by women, being “barren” and unable to produce the requisite 2.5 children was seen as a social flaw, but not openly addressed.
Before the Baby Scoop Era, women who succumbed to love and found their fertility to be an enemy, had little hope of finding home nor employment and turned to various charitable organizations in desperate need of help. Some of these homes, such as the Florence Crittendon Homes, had ethical beginnings, housing and caring for women and children together until they were able to move on. They gave them support and medical care, parenting and job placement, but changed their focus as society’s and various “professionals” views were redirected.
Social Workers Experiment with Adoption
Newly embracing the study of the human mind, social work become a true profession and many a social worker thought themselves more knowledgeable and infiltrated the maternity homes which were dens of social woes waiting to be “corrected.” With Freud as their guide, a woman who dared to exercise her sexuality was seen as “immoral” and deviant in mental nature. Rather than helping mothers and children, the shift began to move to the realm of punishment:
“Unwed mothers should be punished and they should be punished by taking their children away.”—Dr. Marion Hilliard of Women’s College Hospital, Daily Telegraph, (Toronto, November 1956)
The stereotypical story of the girl who goes off to “visit her aunt” in the middle of junior year and comes home to whispers, is hauntingly accurately true. We all know that girl or, if too young, know someone that did. I always found it amusing when people would criticize the methodology of Fessler’s work by accusing her of only picking the mother’s who regret the relinquishment of their babies, but as I have heard Ann say, “If I had found some mother’s with a different story I would have told it. I never found any.” Sadly, in my almost ten years of being involved in the adoption arena, my experience is sadly the same. Most mothers I meet are regretful that they lost their children to adoption and most mothers’ from the Baby Scoop Era were forced.
In the Baby Scoop Era, mothers were shamed into surrendering their children if born out of wedlock and given no choice at all.
“Illegitimacy is taboo in our society. A child born out of wedlock carries a stigma for life, while his unwed mother is often treated as a social outcast—an irresponsible, sexual delinquent who must be forced into seclusion as punishment for her flagrant violation of our most sacred principles.”
Forced by their own families into maternity homes, ostracized by society, denied employment and a place to live, mothers signed away their children because they were “bad girls.” There was no redemption, just secrecy and false stories “moving on” and “getting over it”. What the professionals thought about adoption at that time was wrong. What they believed was truth for child rearing, child abuse, most diseases, addiction, wife beating, and rape was wrong, too. Adoption during the Baby Scoop Era was Pop Psychology results in a social experiment gone wrong.
The Baby Scoop Era and Today’s Adoption
Personally, I am sure that this is one of the main reasons the agencies lobby so hard to continue sealed records. If adoptees have access to their OBC and wish to find their birthmothers, there is a good chance that the story that mother tells is much closer to one you would hear from Celeste at TMP rather than the vanilla version reported down from the adoption agency file.
I think they fear the sheer numbers who will tell their stories and realize that there was a great miscarriage of justice. The adoption agencies know that they have secrets and lies to cover up, and open records would expose the truth. Don’t people have the right to the truth? It might not be about you, but it is because you have a stake about what it means to be involved in adoption.
I think we have to do more than just say “well, adoption is different now” and try not to see the dark side of adoption as shown by the Baby Scoop Era. It not only was very real and caused much unnecessary heartache, but also shaped current adoption practices today. After many years of making substantial monetary benefits from the practice of adoption, the decline in the number of relinquishments caused these now long established agencies to examine adoption and repackage the message. Studies were conducted on Baby Scoop Era mothers and the results of those studies were used to help redefine how the public views adoption.
Studies like such continue into “modern adoption.” Also using Mothers who had previously surrendered A well know public research marketing group advertised for mothers to come forth for research from Texas and Chicago areas. They paid fifty-one mothers $100 each. Mothers did not know what they were being question for or who the final “client” was. They report being blindfolded the whole time, making them relive the trauma of their experiences so that the researchers could:
“take an inside look at the psychological pressures that come to bear when a women decides how to address the painful question of abortion, adoption, or motherhood … and understand more about how the counseling process can affect women’s choices as they decide their futures.”
The results of this research became the grand NCFA publication, Birthmother, GoodMother: The Heroic Story of her Redemption. The findings conclude that:
“After working through their fears and conflicts, birthmothers choose adoption because they believe that it is best for their children. They realize that adoption is not abandonment; it is a loving, responsible act. By choosing what is best for their children, birthmothers see themselves as good mothers. Instead of feeling like bad mothers for abandoning children or “giving them away,” they now begin to see that placing their children with loving couples is what it means for them to be good mothers. They redeem themselves, transforming their mistakes into positive outcomes. Adoption allows them to recover their self-esteem, restore their identity, and renew their dreams and goals.”
I don’t know. That still sounds like social engineering to me.
Understanding the Baby Scoop Era Means Understanding US Adoption
No matter how much we want adoption to be ethical and right, we cannot achieve that until we see what is dark and wrong. You can’t fix something if you refuse to see that it can still be broken. What’s more, you can’t truly fix what has been broken until we acknowledge that people have been wronged. It can’t be denied in existence, or dismissed in its importance, nor ignored as an influence. You are here, you are involved in adoption in some way or thinking about it, this is the history, this is the heritage.
This is the Baby Scoop Era and it is your story too.
When not found ranting about life as a birthmother for over twenty years on her blog, Claudia longs to attend adoption related confences where she can talk about adoption for days at a time.