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Smashed by Adoption

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Shelby Cunningham

26 May 2010

The Baby Scoop Era: Generations Changed by Adoption

            Most history students become familiar with the sexual and familial changes of the mid-twentieth century in a revised context.  Marriage and natalism gave the impression of wide-scale fertility, but infertility drove more couples than ever to seek children.  At the same time, a sexual revolution without birth control led to a boom in illegitimate white babies.  Out-of-wedlock pregnancy and birth carried great shame for both mother and child.  Social workers found the perfect solution for the growing problems of illegitimacy and infertility: adoption.  The period from 1945 to 1973 marked a massive swell in adoptions cloaked in secrecy and shame, a dark period in history known to few but those who experienced it. The Baby Scoop Era forever changed a generation of mothers and adoptees.

In the early twentieth century, benevolent Christian women operated “homes” where unmarried mothers could learn how to raise their children and support themselves despite the stigma of illegitimate birth.  Those who could not or would not marry the fathers of their children had an opportunity for single parenting.  After World War II, however, professional social workers began to replace charity-driven amateurs.  Maternity homes became warehouses for young pregnant girls until they could relinquish their babies.  The era of adoption began, writes Ann Fessler in The Girls Who Went Away, “in 1947, when the National Florence Crittenton Mission abandoned its policy of keeping mother and child together” (Fessler 147).  The change in attitude toward single mothers came, in part, from the growing demand for adoptable infants.  Leontine Young explained at the 1953 National Conference of Social Workers: "[T]he tendency growing out of the demand for babies is to regard unmarried mothers as breeding machines . . . (by people intent) upon securing babies for quick adoptions" (“How the Adoption Industry ‘professionals’ Saw Us and Our Babies,” par. 1). 

This movement coincided with the hyper-conservative social environment of post-World War II America.  The pressure to avoid unplanned pregnancy became as strong as the pressure to marry and build a family.  Although young people in the 1950s and 1960s engaged in sexual experimentation, their parents and society could not condone such activity, and sex education and birth control remained off-limits.  The birth control pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, did not become widely available to single people until the Supreme Court case Einenstadt v. Baird in 1972.  Nancy III, one of the mothers lost to adoption in The Girls Who Went Away, says of the time: “[T]he lack of information in 1966 was astounding.  If you wanted to get birth-control pills, you had to be flashing a diamond solitaire. Doctors didn’t really give them to you. Why would you need those?  You shouldn’t be having sex anyway” (Fessler 41).  Use of rudimentary birth control (i.e. the rhythm method, withdrawal) proved largely ineffective.  Another mother, Judith III, says: “[My partner] knew all about the rhythm method . . . What else was there in 1963?  There wasn’t anything” (Fessler 43).  According to the Guttmacher Institute, "A sexually active teen who does not use contraceptives has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year" ("Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health," par. 2).  As a result, many teens with insufficient knowledge about reproduction conceived.

When pregnancy occurred, teens during the Baby Scoop Era had limited options: marry or surrender the child for adoption.  The expecting couple, however, did not make the choice; their parents did.  For those unable or unwilling to marry, the shame and stigma of single parenthood made raising the child alone nearly impossible.  High schools and colleges ejected pregnant students from their campuses, and neighbors and friends often turned on the family of the unwed mother with scorn.  Families of the day had a married mother and father, and deviating from that norm proved taboo.  First mother Carole II says of the atmosphere: “When I grew up . . . [y]ou had two parents . . . To be a single, unwed mother was just something you didn’t do . . . You were an outcast, so there wasn’t a lot of help for you” (Fessler 109).  Social workers and agencies certainly did not decry this atmosphere when it led to relinquishment of babies, and some even used the stigma of single parenthood as a reason for surrender.  Social worker Joseph H. Reid elaborates on the attitudes of adoption professionals in the 1956 document Principles, Values, and Assumptions Underlying Adoption Practice:

An agency has a responsibility of pointing out to the unmarried mother the extreme difficulty . . . of raising her child successfully in our culture without damage to the child and to herself . . . The concept that the unmarried mother and her child constitute a family is to me unsupportable. There is no family in any real sense of the word (“Quotes from Social Workers,” par. 8).


In the decades preceding World War II, single mothers could often count on the extended family to assist them in rearing their children.  However, the conformist culture of the middle class of the 1950s demanded unmarried individuals abstain from sexuality and families shun the deviants.  Fearing stigma and scorn, the parents of the young mothers-to-be turned to maternity homes – places where their daughters could wait out their pregnancies in isolation from the judgmental community, give birth, and give up their parental rights.

            Under the care of social workers and maternity home staff, residents faced manipulative coercion that would convince them to surrender their babies.  Previously a haven for single mothers to care for their children, maternity homes became adoption mills.  Explains Ann Fessler:

[B]y the end of World War II a sea change had occurred in the mission and philosophy of the homes.  Maternity homes of the 1950s and 1960s were, to a great extent, places to sequester pregnant girls until they could give birth and surrender their child for adoption.  If a young woman was unsure of or uninterested in relinquishment, the staff attempted to convince her that it was the best, and perhaps only, option (Fessler 143).


Residents were forbidden from speaking to the fathers of their children or anyone who might prevent the adoption from going forward.  Maternity home staff censored the mail and limited phone calls to the girls’ parents, or anyone else on an approved contact list.  Coupled with isolation came criticism and shame, comparing the helpless mothers to the opportunity their children would have with the adoptive parents.  Social workers used the young mothers’ lack of spousal support and education as reasons for surrender, claiming that married, financially stable adoptive parents could provide the same love as the natural parents but with more material comfort.  One common coercion tactic involved asking the mother-to-be to write everything she could give her child on one side of a piece of paper and everything the adoptive parents could give the child on the other.  Mothers faced with this pressure felt they had no choice but to give their babies to “deserving” couples.  Some young women, such as Fessler interviewee Sheryl, rationalized their situations as fate – “I am growing a baby for a family that could not have children” (Fessler 154).

            Distancing themselves from the role of parenthood did not make relinquishment and its aftermath easier.  Shame pervaded the adoption process, at this point feeling like inevitability, as exemplified by the interview of first mother Claudia:

I don’t remember any dialogue around having choices . . . You’re gonna give that baby to good people, decent people, people who can take care of [the child] because you are so bad and so flawed for just having this happen, and there’s no way you could possibly provide what a child would need . . . I definitely believed I was flawed (Fessler 59).


After signing the papers and returning home, the emotional issues and shame did not subside; they only compounded.  Most mothers could not express their grief to their families, who pushed for surrender, or the society that expected them to “move on” from their experiences.  The 1999 study “Postadoptive Reactions of the Relinquishing Mother: A Review” observes,

A grief reaction unique to the relinquishing mother was identified. Although this reaction consists of features characteristic of the normal grief reaction, these features persist and often lead to chronic, unresolved grief. Conclusions: The relinquishing mother is at risk for long-term physical, psychological, and social repercussions. (“How Did Baby Scoop Mothers Fare Later in Life?” par. 2).


As time passed, this unique grief did not resolve.  Virtually no mothers had contact with the children they relinquished.  Many states, including Pennsylvania, passed laws sealing adoptees’ original birth certificates to prevent reunion with their natural relatives.  Seeking to change this situation, lost mothers and adoptees gradually began activism.

            The Baby Scoop Era declined in the early 1970s.  The Supreme Court banned the practice of expelling pregnant students from schools and colleges in 1970, and Roe v. Wade in 1973 permitted first-trimester abortion.  As the 1970s and 1980s progressed, single parenting became more acceptable.  Ann Fessler writes that caucasian mothers' relinquishment rates plummeted from 40% of extramarital births in 1964 to 1.5% in recent years (Fessler 110).  During this time, also, adoptees born during the Baby Scoop Era came of age and searched for their identities, and formerly disenfranchised first parents found their voices in the adoption community.  The last decades of the twentieth century and the early 2000s saw a steady growth of adoption reunions, adoptee-rights activism, and family-preservation advocacy.  Concerned United Birthparents formed an adoption reunion registry in 1976.  Origins Inc., founded by Dian Wellfare in the late 90s, established a virtual network of advocacy and information for mothers who lost children to adoption and young mothers who want to raise their children.  Bastard Nation sprouted in 1996 to campaign for the right of adoptees to access their original birth certificates.  Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh began The Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative in 2007 as a collection of primary-source documents concerning adoption practices of the mid-twentieth century and beyond.  The generations of mothers and children separated by adoption began to demand information, to know their identities and the fates of their long-lost relatives.

            The Baby Scoop Era left a generation of young mothers stripped of their firstborn children and a generation of adopted individuals embroiled in conflicts of identity.  The ramifications of the adoption epidemic leave aftershocks in our society today.  The wounded mothers have lived for decades in shame and silence over their secret children.  The adoptees struggle to fight the government policies that sealed their birth records, supposedly to “protect” them and prevent the dissolution of the adoptive bond.  Widespread pro-adoption attitudes permeate cultural values, telling the stories of adopters and agencies while leaving the pain of mothers and adoptees untold – until recently.  Says first mother “Karen I” (Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh) in The Girls Who Went Away:

The only way to heal from this is to be accepted by your child and for the public to know the truth of what really happened.  And understand it’s the truth.  Instead of always pushing adoption as this loving, wonderful rescuing thing.  Yes, that may be the case for people who adopt.  It is not the case for us . . . It’s an enormously injuring, painful, fracturing amputation of families (Fessler 163).


Only when their dark, painful chapter in American history becomes public knowledge will mothers and adoptees have justice: reunion, identity, forgivness and understanding