One of the unexpected outcomes of the American adoption experience is how the stigma of illegitimacy and out-of-wedlock pregnancy created a virtual cloak of invisibility around the birth of adoptees and their presence in the general population. That shame and stain of illegitimacy lives on in the form of laws that discriminate against adoptees who are denied the human right to their birth records and equal treatment under the law.
I was born at Detroit’s Crittenton General Hospital, one of the nation’s largest maternity hospitals that served unwed mothers and ultimately where thousands of infants were relinquished into the adoption system. The facility opened at Tuxedo and Woodrow Wilson in 1929, at a time when Crittenton homes and hospitals served the needs of “problem girls” and gave them a place to give birth and bond and stay with their children.
By the late 1940s, the Florence Crittenton Mission, later Florence Crittenton Association of America, had transformed its maternity homes and hospitals into temporary residences for thousands of single moms, who gave up their children at these facilities across the country. The infants today sometimes call themselves Crittenton babies, and I am one of an uncounted group who today still face legal discrimination accessing their birth records.
The photo seen here was taken on Jan. 24, 1974, two months before the hospital closed permanently on March 22, 1974. The building was demolished a year later. It closed due to financial strains, the decline of adoptions, and the gradual economic decay of Detroit.The story in the Detroit Free Press that accompanied this photo that I bought failed to mention the hospital’s historic role serving unwed mothers and then relinquishing those infants to new families.
I was one of those infants, born about a decade before this picture. This journalistic oversight was not accidental—it fits into a larger pattern of hiding adoption from the public and erasing the story of adoptees from American history.
In 1967, the Crittenton General Hospital opened a new facility in Rochester, Michigan, in the suburbs, and became a general hospital that did not serve single birth moms and their children like all previous Crittenton missions and maternity homes. The two operated under the same names, but only the Rochester facility remains, still bearing the Crittenton name. Nationally, it is a name tied forever to the service of single, pregnant women, and later adoption.
Today, the Crittenton Hospital Medical Center in Rochester also has whitewashed its past and does not acknowledge who it once served, how that hospital helped to hide illegitimacy from the public, and its pivotal role transferring babies from a birth mothers to adoptive parents during the boom adoption years after World War II, through 1975.
The stigma surrounding illegitimacy drove the institution of U.S. adoption in the decades after the war and helped turn it into one of the largest social engineering experiments ever in U.S. history. That stigma is deeply woven into how state laws impact birth parents and adoptees today.
The new hospital in Rochester claims, after many efforts to contact its communications team in 2016, that it has no records of the number of adoptee births at the Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit—its predecessor. The hospital spokesperson did not return multiple calls and repeated emails for interviews and records. The only two documents the hospital shared were photocopies of short institutional histories, which did not outline the hospital’s important historic role as way station for birth mothers and adoptees. The summary documents did not offer a count of patients served or babies delivered by single mothers.
There are no records of the number of adoptee births kept by the National Crittenton Foundation, the mission’s successor group now located in Portland, Oregon. The official repository of all National Florence Crittenton Mission records, at the University of Minnesota Library, also did not have any documents that showed how many babies were born in Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit or in the multiple maternity homes in the city that opened first in 1900.
From a public health standpoint, it is practically scandalous that we still, to this day, have no accurate record of the number of adoptees who were relinquished in the United States. The U.S. Census in its last two counts failed to account for all adoptees in the way it counted adoptees and foster children, which missed entire generations of adults like me. The lack of data ultimately undercounts adoptees, and thus undermines their efforts to restore adoptees’ rights to receive copies of their original birth records in most states, where they are denied access unlike all non-adoptees.