© 2017 Rudy Owens. All rights reserved.
Everyone who has been involved in the American adoption system has been aware of the underlying issues of secrecy that have shrouded it from the 1940s to the present. The list of parties is far-reaching. Those most intimately aware of secrecy have been adoptive families, adoptees, and birth parents. Beyond the families, participants also included the state agencies and workers managing adoptions and records. Other participants were public health agencies, probate courts, the lawmakers who passed legislation restricting records for adoptees and birth parents, the homes for pregnant birth mothers, and the hospitals and health professionals who delivered and cared for hundreds of thousands of young children.
This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that to this day is largely ignored, except by those trying to reform regressive state adoption laws. Adoption historian E. Wayne Carp describes that secrecy creates tensions in every stage of adoption. “Everyone involved in adoption must confront at one time or another questions about secrecy and disclosure,” he writes.
The story how I was changed from one person with a past to one without legal access to any records of my family origins begins in a specific location. In my case as with many other adoptees, my birthplace represents an important piece in the story how American adoption created a new person, wiped clean of one’s history.
I was born in Detroit’s Crittenton General Hospital, the successor to the first two Florence Crittenton Homes that opened in the Motor City starting in 1900. The hospital first opened its doors to single pregnant mothers in 1929, when the organization’s mission intended to keep mothers and children together. When I was born, it still served single, pregnant women in the Detroit area like my birth mother. Up to 60 young, pregnant mothers at any given time stayed at the adjacent Florence Crittenton Home. In 1965, one of the hospitals three wings was dedicated to serving those patients. By the 1960s, the facility was the largest National Florence Crittenton Mission hospital and home complex in the country serving the needs of single mothers. By this time, the hospital and home had become one of dozens of maternal care institutions that facilitated the adoption for infants born by the single and vulnerable women the mission served.
Health facilities like Crittenton General Hospital, and its affiliated Florence Crittenton Home, served as an official crossroads where different players in the expanding adoption system intersected. These forces made out-of-wedlock births medically safe for birth mothers and their children. It also where children and their mothers often said farewell to their relinquished sons and daughters, in some cases forever, and the state and its proxies assumed control for the destiny of the children.
In 2016 I interviewed the long-retired doctor who delivered me at this one-of-a-kind hospital that specialized in deliveries of children born out of marriage. The former obstetrician told me all of the pregnant women he cared for and who passed through the hospital’s doors received excellent medical care from competent doctors and nurses, social service supports, and the best possible treatment available. He said he and his fellow residents, along with attending nurses and other birth care specialists, were well-trained and well-supervised by physicians who managed the care of pregnant, single women like my birth mother. Birth mothers’ status as shamed women, he added, had no influence on that medical care.
The growing national adoption system could not have worked without the quiet but critical involvement of the U.S. medical establishment. They delivered the babies, cared for the women giving birth, and approved adoption placements of children who were “relinquished” to the adoption agencies by birth mothers with states’ formal legal blessings. Though the medical staff did not manage the adoption cases or set state policies for records once a child was relinquished, national medical groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics promoted adoption as the “best solution” for single white women and played a central role in nearly every safe and legal adoption placement. In hospitals and clinics, they did their jobs as competent professionals, like my delivering obstetrician. In my adoption, multiple doctors delivered me, provided medical checks before I was placed for adoption, and did follow-up medical screening—all meticulously documented in my adoption file records.
Return to Chapter 3: A Place for Unwed Mothers
Editor’s note: Citations are listed in the original chapters but omitted in this chapter excerpt.