Chapter 3: A Place for Unwed Mothers

Rudy Owens’ memoir on the American adoption experience

© 2017 Rudy Owens.  All rights reserved.

My birth mother never told me where she had to live in self-imposed exile in a Detroit suburb, in a home that would house pregnant, single white women. I later learned the location of my birth mother’s maternity home through my records I eventually received after they were kept from me for decades. The home was located in the suburbs. From the outside, nothing could have been more middle-class and suburban. Inside lived a single, pregnant woman, and likely others before and after, who made life-changing decisions. Her pregnancy ended when she delivered me at Crittenton General Hospital. The facility served as a hospital and a temporary home for single women like her, where dozens of pregnant women lived before delivering their children.

My birthplace, Crittenton General Hospital, was one of the flagship facilities created by the National Florence Crittenton Mission, a philanthropic organization that eventually played one of the most important roles in the country’s bold new experiment in expanding adoption. Founded by a wealthy New York druggist, Charles N. Crittenton, the mission quickly grew from its street-ministry grassroots serving prostitutes in New York in 1883. It was incorporated by Congress in 1898, and by 1909 it had established 70 homes across the country, just 26 years after its founding by the millionaire businessman.

In addition to helping prostitutes, the mission served vulnerable and victimized women and women who were pregnant out of marriage. It gave them shelter and medical care. In the cities where it sprang up, Crittenton homes provided safe places for single mothers to raise their infants and receive vocational education in remedial women’s occupations to help rebuild their lives. By the early 1900s, it was providing training to the new profession of social workers and working to de-stigmatize single motherhood to the public. They would soon play a much larger role.

In the 1920s, Crittenton’s official policy opposed separating a mother and child for adoption. The organization strongly believed that children should be kept with their birth mothers as the best possible outcome for both. Many other Christian charities serving the same population shared this view. They offered employment and life skills for single mothers and supported keeping mothers and their children together. During the 1920s, the Crittenton mission matured into a modern social service organization that minimized its evangelical activities while promoting professional standards.

In 1943, the national organization began to break from its long-cherished original mission of keeping mothers and children together. It adopted standards for case planning for each resident and started working with local adoption agencies. This coincided with larger national trends, where homes came under the control of professional social workers.

Historian Regina Kunzel, in her study of the rise of social workers and maternity homes in the first half of the twentieth century, writes that the National Florence Crittenton Mission faced “enormous pressure from social workers” and from individual Crittenton homes to end their long policy of keeping mothers and children together. Some Crittenton officers complained the placing of babies for adoption was “no longer doing Florence Crittenton work.” But by the 1940s, “supported by the commitment of social workers to adoption, most homes were routinely arranging for the adoption of babies.” In 1947, the national mission finally surrendered its policy of keeping mother and child together, marking a new era and the victory of the professional ethos of social workers over the founding ideals of the organization’s original evangelical women reformers.

With its original mission abandoned by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the organization became a major American institution in the promotion of adoption for mostly single white mothers. Young women who stayed at these facilities were strongly encouraged to relinquish their children to adoption agencies rather than keep their infants, at the urging of social workers, family members, faith-based groups, and churches. The mission had transformed into an adoption placement service from a service group dedicated to the union of single mothers and their kids.

Return to Chapter 2: The Most Suitable Plan

Read More: Chapter 4: How Scott Became Martin: A Life Told in Records