© 2016 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 has shrouded it from the 1940s to the present. The list of parties is far-reaching. The most intimately aware of secrecy have been adoptive families and their larger family and personal networks, the adoptees, and the 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 says this creates tensions in every stage of adoption. “Everyone involved in adoption must confront at one time or another questions about secrecy and disclosure.”
The story how I was changed from one person with a past to one without any records of my family origins begins in a specific location. In my case as with many other adoptees, the place of our birth 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 original Florence Crittenton Home that opened in the Motor City in 1900. It was the third Crittenton mission facility in Detroit following its opening in 1929. When I was born, it was located adjacent to the affiliated Florence Crittenton Home, where up to 60 young, pregnant stayed until they delivered their infants. In 1965, a full hospital wing, the wing for unwed mothers, 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. The mission had fully adapted its mission from keeping mothers and their children together to facilitating 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 care. 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.
At Crittenton General Hospital and other medical facilities that handled deliveries, the medical and social service professionals performed their critical roles in a widely expanding national system that was ramping up to address a perceived social problem of rising rates of children born by single women. My review of the research on adoption and the its legal and medical history has not unearthed any reported study or memoirs if such practitioners ever discussed their personal views on the women they served or the adoption system they supported for decades. These professionals have provided no individual insights into their central role in promoting adoption as the preferred option for single mothers or in creating critical vital and medical records for infants who were about to have their identities changed. What is clear is that without the specialists in both fields performing their roles daily, the adoption system could not have worked.
Professionally the pediatricians and social workers in the late 1950s and early 1960s described a near harmonious and symbiotic partnership of their professions in the rapidly expanding enterprise of American adoption. They each recommended close collaboration to promote the health of the mother and child, but also the preferred outcome, notably the “best solution” of having a single white mother relinquish her child to address the surging demand of families seeking white infants. A panel of social welfare and adoption experts convened by the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1958 noted, “Doctors and attorneys in addition to giving direct services should be used as consultants to the [adoption] agency and members of agency boards and special committees.” The bureau’s panel of experts wrote, “Prompt service should be given to the unmarried mother and a good working relationship established with doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, teachers, ministers, and other individuals who are in a key position to refer her to the [adoption] agency for service.”
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.