Discrimination against adoptees rooted in fears of illegitimacy

(Note: To learn more about my forthcoming memoir and study of adoption in the United states, visit the You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are website. © 2017, Rudy Owens. All rights reserved. )

Rudy Owens, as a young child, and later someone denied equal treatment under the law because of my status as both an adoptee and someone born
Rudy Owens (the author), as a young child, and later someone denied equal treatment under the law because of his status as both an adoptee and someone born “illegitimately.”

One of the issues seldom if never discussed in the long-simmering debate over adoptees’ legal right to their original birth records is how deeply prejudice harms millions of adopted persons.

Discrimination can be seen in how adoptees seeking their birthright to know themselves and obtain copies of their original birth records are treated. By law, they are not considered equal to others in the majority of U.S. states. Many who enforce outdated state laws treat adoptees dismissively—even as threats. (See copies of emails written by senior Michigan public health officials how they responded fearfully to my request for my original birth certificate, as just one example.)

This prejudice is older yet also connected to the historic stereotyping of them by mental health professionals, who for decades described adoptees searching for records as mentally ill and classified this in their handbook on psychiatric disorders. Through the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identified the problem it labeled “identity disorder,” which consisted of “severe subjective distress regarding inability to integrate aspects of the self into a relatively coherent and acceptable sense of self.”

As adoption historian E. Wayne Carp writes, “No adopted person in the 1970s had imagined that asking the question ‘Who am I?’ would end up classified as an official psychiatric disorder.”[1]

This should not be a surprise, given how illegitimately born people have been treated, globally and throughout history. Denying this history in the larger policy discussion of discrimination of adoptees is to deny the role that bias and stereotypes play in our thinking and deeds. We know bias can be found in countless behaviors: those done personally and those made professionally.

There is no reason to think one of the greatest and most universal forms of stigmatization, against so-called “illegitimately” born people, who include most U.S. adoptees, would not persist and be masked and even not noticed by those who discriminate. This includes the actions of lawmakers who passed laws for decades discriminating against adoptees, of the media who stereotype adoptees, and of those who interpret and enforce these Jim Crow-style laws that treat adoptees as persons with lesser rights.

How Stereotyping Works Against Adoptees

Researchers in many fields—law, criminal justice, history, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology—have long investigated prejudice and how humans practice it. Researchers have even begun looking how prejudice works at the neurological level. Researcher David Amodio notes, “Although they are distinguishable by content and process, prejudices and stereotypes often operate in combination to influence social behaviour [sic]. Moreover, both forms of bias can operate implicitly, such that they may be activated and influence judgements [sic] and behaviours [sic] without conscious awareness.”[2]

Today, adoptees remain victims of systemic legal discrimination in seeking equal treatment under the law by requesting their original birth records. There is no credible evidence anywhere that the overwhelming majority of adoptees seek anything more than to be reunited with their kin in seeking their original records.[3]

However, defenders of closed records have made repeated and unsubstantiated claims from the 1940s onward that adoptees or birth mothers might wish to exact revenge or extortion. Adult adoptees seeking their records have been denounced by opposing attorneys and adoptive parents, who claimed the information could be used by the adoptee to “find and murder” biological parents or that granting a records request was the equivalent of giving away a “hunting license.”[4]

David Kirschner's imaginary diagnosis that stigmatized adoptees can still be found in publications, despite being discredted as a fabrication nearly three decades earlier.
David Kirschner’s imaginary diagnosis that stigmatized adoptees can still be found in publications, despite being discredited as a fabrication nearly three decades earlier.

The lingering urban legend that may have influenced lawmakers and those charged with managing adoption records from the 1980s onward was the so-called “Adopted Child Syndrome.” Some unethical lawyers used this controversial defense in several murder trials in the 1980s. These lawyers tried to show that adoptees accused of killing their parents suffered from a mental health issue called Multiple Personality Disorder. According to the argument fabricated by psychologist David Kirschner, the Adopted Child Syndrome could prove adoptees encounter more psychological problems in their childhood and adolescence unique to being adopted. The manifestations were promiscuity, lying, stealing, substance abuse, and more, all showing a “toxic potential of adoption.”[5]

The theory argues adoptees acted out of “extreme disassociation.” Though this entirely fictional and discredited theory attracted national attention from the tabloids, he later revealed he prepared the concept for a trial at which he testified in 1986. He admitted he had not done proper research and the sensational theory was in fact a product of his imagination.[6] Yet, the damage had been done and fed the old stereotypes many clung to.

Adoptees and Bastards Are the Victims, not Perpetrators, of Harm

This stereotype is one I personally encountered when I tried to access my records and later interviewed one of the managers whose office managed those records for the Wayne County Probate Court. In reality, it was illegitimate children and their mothers who were the victims, not perpetrators, of crimes and the ones who paid the price for societal attitudes, including with their lives. This is substantiated solidly in population health records, which provide actual data on health and mortality outcomes.

As a modern social institution, adoption laws only date to the 19th century in the United States. Labeling illegitimate children as society threats and bogeymen, however, far precedes the U.S. adoption system and the laws that govern it. Societies over time have addressed these fears, often brutally and lethally for the unlucky illegitimate. Normally, the “bastards” have been ostracized, but also outright killed not very long ago.

The United States inherited European and English legal traditions, which prescribed clear rules how infants would be classified as legitimate in the eyes of society and illegitimate. Roman law, canon law of the Catholic Church, and English law all adhered to the rule that only children born legitimately inside of approved marriages were deemed legitimate. Those who were conceived outside of wedlock were not. While there have been changes to parts of family law that cover how children are legitimized, the basic principle behind legitimation is still mostly unchanged.[7]

the-outcast-painting-in-royal-academy-of-arts-london-1851
The Outcast, by Richard Redgrave, 1851, Royal Academy of the Arts, London, documents the treatment of bastardy and birth mothers in England in the 1800s.

From a purely sociological perspective in human societies, the appearance of children has to be prevented for whom no adult male, permanently allied to the mother, can be held responsible as the father. This is required in order to safeguard the future of any given society.[8] This societal need is both ubiquitous and historic. This idea is at the heart of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s Principal of Legitimacy, which proposes “no child can be brought into the world without a man, and one man assuming the role of sociological father.” That man serving that role does not necessarily have to be biological, but must provide a link between the child and the community.[9]

Malinowski first published this idea in 1930. Others who have studied the issue since note that illegitimacy is a category that will be found at every point in the past of every society, as well as in all present societies. Many have since challenged this idea, pointing to high levels of out-of-marriage births in parts of the Caribbean and, since the late 1970s, the United States. That said, the idea of legitimacy prevails, even though it is not adopted in practice.[10] Overall, illegitimacy is and always has been regarded as a negative—the breach of an established rule, never considered an outcome of an approved sexual or child and reproductive behavior.[11]

Bastards and illegitimate children have always faced societal scorn, and they paid severe and deadly consequences for it. Today, a likely contributing factor to poor health outcomes for adoptees is societal stigma, and its multivariate impacts on unmarried mothers and their illegitimate kids. Despite the political correctness of the term adoptee, the underlying truth known to everyone, from the adoptive parents to the adopted children to society at large, is that adoptees are bastards. Adoptees more than any other person alive today know this fact. It is a fact I always knew, and so did nearly everyone around me, including peers my age. Today, such children still bear the stigma as being born illegitimately, despite the high prevalence of children born outside of marriage that has made their status ubiquitous.

Population Records Show High Mortality and Poor Health for Bastards and Illegitimate Children

bastard-examination1
William Hogarth depicts bastardy examinations (1729), in which justices enquired how a woman about to give birth to a bastard child had fallen pregnant. Legally a woman who knew herself to be likely to bear a bastard child had to present herself for examination, but in practice this only occasionally happened, and many examinations occurred after the birth. Bastardy examinations tried to discover the identity of the father, in order to force him to provide a bond to defray the parish against the costs of maintaining the child, many who were cared for in workhouses depicted in brutal form by Charles Dickens in Oliver twist. Courtesy of London lives, found at: https://www.londonlives.org/static/EP.jsp.

Historically, illegitimate infants in recent history have been among most vulnerable population groups, documented in birth and mortality records. In fact, the historical study of illegitimacy, or bastardy as many demographic historians call it, is among the best documented of any topics in history because the research has relied on mostly reliable demographic data, such as baptism and death records, in Europe from the 1500s on, as well as in pre-20th century America.

Cambridge historian Peter Laslett, who contributed to an exhaustive study of the topic in 1980, notes that illegitimacy has been viewed in many cultures for centuries as “pathological.” The mothers who gave birth to bastards were perceived as “victimized, disordered, even mentally abnormal.”[12] The numbers from these old data sets from across Europe and early America from the 1500 on paint often horrific outcomes for birth mothers. Outcomes could be worse for the infants who died at rates that suggest infanticide in many instances.

oliver-twist-cover
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist portrayed the harsh lives of “foundlings” (abandoned bastard infants), left to cruel fates in England’s workhouses.

In the 18th and 19th centuries in the United Kingdom, infants who were born out-of-wedlock were about twice as likely to have died before reaching their first year of life compared to their peers born in sanctioned marriage. Poor and unmarried pregnant women frequently took refuge in the country’s notorious workhouse, which housed and fed the poor and forced them to do often-brutal labor, captured in the writings of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Many of the children confined to them faced early deaths. In 1760, four in five infants born in workhouses or left there by their birth mothers died before reaching their first birthday.

A picture for the sheer lethality of being born as a bastard emerges from the records collected in the middle England market city of Branbury, between 1561 and 1838. The number of bastard children with baptism and burial records made up 18 percent of all recorded persons—a high number. However, the rates of infant deaths were at best catastrophic for those unlucky to being born a bastard. Records show that 70 percent of all of these bastards born during these 277 years died before reaching the age of 1. Only 21 percent lived to the age of 1, and just 5 percent reached the age of 5. A mere 1 percent of bastards made it to the age of 30.[13]

Other findings of higher infant mortality can be traced in the records of births and deaths of infants over the last 100 and more years in Europe. Jenny Teichman, author of Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy, reports “there is a persistent and significant difference between infant mortality rates of legitimate and illegitimate children.” Her study found that mortality ranges for the two groups ranged from 50 to 150 percent higher for both English and Norwegian illegitimate infants, looking at national records between 1914 and 1973 at four different points in time. Teichman notes even at English public hospitals through the 1960s, doctors and nursing staff “refused anesthetics to unmarried women in childbirth ‘to them a lesson.’”[14]

A bastard’s prospects in the English colonies in North America were not much greater than those born in Europe. Infanticide likely became a common practice in the United States in the 1700s. Virtually every colony in North America passed legislation that declared, unless witnesses would swear to seeing a childbirth, the mother of a dead infant would be presumed guilty of murder.[15] Things did not improve, even through the end of the 1800s. Nearly a century later in the early 1970s, infant mortality in the United States was 73 percent higher for children of unmarried mothers then their peers from families with married parents.[16]

The findings also are not unique to the Western world. One seminal study on the sociology of illegitimacy published in 1975 found that as of the mid-1960s, in every nation globally that tracked child health data, fetal and infant mortality were higher for illegitimate than legitimate children.[17]

While the penalty for illegitimacy as measured in infant mortality rates did fall in the last century, data from the first years of the 21st century shows illegitimate infants in England and Wales are still 30 percent more likely to die before their first birthday than legitimate infants.[18] Remarkably, evidence shows children reported as illegitimate but registered to both parents living at the same address are still 17 percent more likely to die in infancy.[19]

Today excess infant mortality tied to illegitimacy remains a legitimate health concern. Multiple risk factors contribute to the outcome. Single parents have less disposable income. They likely have worse housing. A single parent likely works full-time. Children likely are weaned off health breast milk earlier. The stigma of illegitimacy and societal scorn directed unfairly to unmarried mothers might reduce their ability to keep their children healthy. Unmarried women may also have come poor social positions, and thus be more vulnerable to having a child out-of-wedlock.

The Murder of Relinquished Infants in the United States, A Little-Known Crime

The New York Times covered the findings of the investigation of the horrific conditions that killed nearly four in five relinquished infants in Baltimore, in 1914.
The New York Times covered the findings of the investigation of the horrific conditions that killed nearly four in five relinquished infants in Baltimore, in 1914.

In the early 1900s, before reformers from groups like the Child Welfare League of America and other benevolent groups intervened, illegitimate babies were boarded and trafficked at so-called baby farms in the United States. One highly publicized 1914 report called the Traffic in Babies, by Dr. George Walker, reported on virtual charnel houses for unwanted, abandoned, and illegitimate children. These reportedly operated to “save” the single women from the disgrace of being unmarried mothers. The description by Walker is noteworthy because of his focus on maternal and child health practices that are unquestioned today. He also described how poor public health practices for abandoned babies served as the functional equivalent of homicide.

“Day after day, month after month, they received healthy, plump infants into their wards and watch them hour after hour go down to death,” wrote Walker. “They know that practically all of those that immediately after birth are separated from their mothers will die; yet year after year they keep up their nefarious, murderous traffic. We do not attempt in this study to settle the many complex problems relating to the illegitimate; but we believe that the facts show that society’s method in many instances is one of repression and virtual murder. This is a hard word, we grant, and we would fain substitute a gentler term; but, after all is said and done, that which we have recorded is virtual murder, and slow and cowardly murder at that. It would be bar more humane to kill these babies by striking them on the head with a hammer than to place them in institutions where four-fifths of them succumb within a few weeks to the effects of malnutrition or infectious diseases.”[20]

Even with the mortality rate of relinquished, out-of-wedlock children as high as 80 percent, this fact did not curb the practice of punishing the children born out-of-wedlock by professionals and religious leaders. Some doctors, nurses, midwives, clergymen, and hospital administrators actively referred the disgraced mothers who had sex out of marriage and became pregnant to these lethal, for-profit baby shops.[21] Some hospitals even took a cut from the baby trade that ferried bastard babies to their likely deaths. Walker’s summary notes hospitals had different methods of disposing of unwanted babies permanently: “There is an old woman, called ‘Mother—’, who carries the babies from the hospital to this institution; she gets $5 for this service. At another hospital, the nurses have charge of separating the infant from its mother; they make all the business arrangements; receive the money, and send the baby to Institution No. 1 by an old black woman, who carries it in a basket.”[22]

History of Bias Against Adoptees Not Acknowledged by Adoption System

These acts all occurred a mere five decades before my birth, as someone born illegitimately and as a bastard. They demonstrate how powerful stigmas against bastard-born children were in recent memory—strong enough to create a system that ensured bastard infants’ likely death in institutional care. Adoption, as a cause championed by Progressive reformers from 1910 through 1930 was a solution that offered a way to eliminate the stigma, mortality risks, and lifelong barriers posed by illegitimacy.

Today, most states still deny adoptees full equal rights and partially and outright restrict them from knowing their past by denying them their original birth records. If one polled any state public health office where these discriminatory laws are practiced on a daily basis, I would wager the staff would never admit their behavior and treatment of adoptees seeking those records is connected to these deeper underlying fears and biases.

My decades of experience and the dark but carefully documented record of human behavior to everyone who is not “legitimate” show me that I must accept that prejudice is still hardwired into how adoptees are treated and will be treated into the future. Like it or not, adoptees will forever be bastards and illegitimate children. Everyone knows that when someone says they are adopted.

An adoptee’s taboo status helps to reinforce biases they face and will continue to face from the record keepers. Those so-called public health professionals and adoption bureaucrats will fall back on these old tropes, frequently unknowingly, and fail to serve adoptees’ interests in states that discriminate against those seeking their birth records. The best remedy remains strong laws that ultimately open all birth records to adult adoptees, similar to national laws in many countries, including England.

Other suggested readings on bastardy in an English historical context:

  • Black, John. “Who Were the Putative Fathers of Illegitimate Children in London, 1740-1810?.” In Levene, Alysa; Williams, Samantha; and Nutt, Thomas, eds, Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920. Basingstoke, 2005.
  • Black, John. “Illegitimacy, Sexual Relations and Location in Metropolitan London, 1735-85.” In Hitchcock, Tim and Shore, Heather, eds, The Streets of London: from the Great Fire to the Great Stink. 2003.
  • Snell, Keith D. M. Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity, and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950. Cambridge, 2006.

Footnotes:

[1] E. Wayne Carp, Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. February 2014), 290.

[2] David M. Amodio, “The Neuroscience of Prejudice and Stereotyping,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(10) (2011), 670.

[3] Elizabeth J. Samuels, “The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry into the History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records,” Rutgers Law Review 53 (2001), 367.

[4] Samuels, 411.

[5] Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 282.

[6] E. Wayne Carp, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1998), 188.

[7] Jenny Teichman, Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 28.

[8] Peter Laslett, “Introduction: Comparing Illegitimacy Over Time and Between Cultures,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 5.

[9] Teichman, Illegitimacy, 89.

[10] Shirley Foster Hartley, Illegitimacy (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1975), 5.

[11] Laslett, Bastardy, 5.

[12] Laslett, Bastardy, 2.

[13] Susan Stewart, “Bastardy and the Family Reconstitution Studies of Banbury and Hartland,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 127.

[14] Teichman, Illegitimacy, 105.

[15] Robert V. Wells, “Illegitimacy and Bridal Pregnancy in Colonial America,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 360.

[16] Hartley, Illegitimacy, 8.

[17] Hartley, Illegitimacy, 8.

[18] Reid Alice, Davies Ros, Garrett Eilidh, Blaikie Andrew, “Vulnerability Among Illegitimate Children in Nineteenth Century Scotland,” Annales de démographie historique 1, no. 111 (2006), 89.

[19]  Alice, Ros, Eilidh, Andrew, “Vulnerability Among Illegitimate Children in Nineteenth Century Scotland,” 90.

[20] George Walker, The Traffic In Babies: an Analysis of the Conditions Discovered During an Investigation Conducted In the Year 1914 (Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Co., 1918), 3.

[21] Barbara Melosh, Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 19.

[22] Walker, The Traffic In Babies, 16.

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Detroit’s complex legacy in the National Florence Crittenton Mission

In researching material for my forthcoming book on the institution of American adoption, I have been collecting stories along with historical documentation and photos of the hospital where I was born in Detroit.

Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital Detroit, 1932. Source: Fifty Years' Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes
The Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1932. Source: Fifty Years’ Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.

At the time of my birth, the facility was called Crittenton General Hospital. It was created by the National Florence Crittenton Mission, a group started in 1883 to serve prostitutes, fallen and vulnerable women, and women who were pregnant out of marriage. This was a social group who were exploited and scorned, and the organization sought to assist them by giving them shelter, training in remedial women’s occupations, and, if possible, the space to build new lives.

As the mission’s 1933 publication states, the organization sought to rescue “young girls, both sinned against and sinning,” and to restore “them to the world strengthened against temptation and fitted in some measure to maintain themselves by work.”

In 1933, a half century after its founding, the organization had already served half a million women. Nearly all were white, and they were cared for around the country and even Canada–from sunny Florida, to rainy Oregon, to my home state of Michigan.

The Crittenton mission was uniquely reformist in the American progressive tradition. It was also deeply faith-based. Its strong public-health orientation proved equally important. It tried to improve the health and livelihoods of vulnerable groups and took an active role in training the newly created class of professional social workers.

Source: Fifty Years' Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.
Source: Fifty Years’ Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.

This combination made it a distinctly American institution. It touched the lives of generations of women who passed through its doors, and equally the children who were born either at the Crittenton homes and hospitals or cared for before and after the mothers’ pregnancies.

I am one of those persons who benefited from the organization’s original charitable mission. I was born in one of its hospitals.

But the organization’s much later and more hidden role in promoting adoption as a “solution” to out-of-wedlock pregnancies by the early 1960s had a much larger role. The solution in my case led to my relinquishment into foster care and eventual adoption. The hospital’s transformation during the boom years of American adoption occurred in the years surrounding my birth. Shortly after, in 1971, the hospital severed its ties with the national organization, ending an important chapter for an institution that played a critical role in Detroit’s social and medical history.

Preaching the gospel and saving lives

The mission began in New York City, under the guidance of businessman Charles Crittenton. A deeply evangelical man, he committed to helping one of society’s most vulnerable groups after the death of his 4-year-old daughter Florence from scarlet fever. Her demise created a deep bout of anguish. His autobiography describes how he turned to solitary prayer and saw the light, leading to his future mission. Today that mission lives on in the National Crittenton Foundation, now located in Portland, Oregon, my current home town. It is now dedicated to serving young women who are victims of violence and childhood adversity.

Charles Crittenton, founder of the Florence Crittenton Mission.
Charles Crittenton, founder of the National Florence Crittenton Mission.

At its start, in 1883, Crittenton worked the streets and promoted the Christian gospel, specifically to combat prostitution and provide service to exploited women and girls. The organization’s 50-year summary notes, “In its beginning the objective of Florence Crittenton efforts was the redemption of the fallen woman, the street-walker, and the inmate of houses of prostitution. The great agency in such redemption was the simple one of religious conversion.”

The organization slowly expanded its efforts, finding champions in many U.S. cities: St. Petersburg, Detroit, Boston, Nashville, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, and more.  By 1895 he was joined by activist Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, with whom Crittenton corresponded. She later became the only woman on the national Crittenton board, after it was incorporated by Congress in 1898.

The mission was involved in  anti-prostitution efforts during the early 1900s and focussed on training that would enable women to leave prostitution. Its primary focus remained on the rescue and care of unwed mothers, providing them appropriate medical care, and their right to raise their children free from the scorn of society.

Kate Waller Barrett, former president of the National Florence Crittenton Mission.
Kate Waller Barrett, former president of the National Florence Crittenton Mission.

By the 1920s, Crittenton policy opposed separating a mother and child for adoption and believed that children should be kept with their birth mothers. As the mission’s 50-year history notes that promoting this policy helped to deepen the “love of the mother for her child and strengthening her desire to keep her baby.”

Motherhood was viewed as a means of reform. A Crittenton home became the place to promote both responsible motherhood and self-support. “Our girls need the influence of child-life upon them. They need to have the qualities that are essential to a strong, well-regulated character trained in them,” wrote Barrett in an undated pamphlet that described the mission’s philosophy of keeping mother and child together.

Crittenton combats the stigma of illegitimacy and helps “fallen women”

Nationally, the mission also sought to combat societal stigma for children associated with illegitimacy. By the second decade of the 20th century, publicized exposes had revealed the horrors of illegitimately born babies–the bastard children scorned by family, church, and most of society in the United States.

One highly publicized 1914 report called the Traffic in Babies by Dr. George Walker reported virtual charnel houses for unwanted, abandoned, and illegitimate children. These reportedly operated to “save” the single women from the disgrace of being unmarried mothers. The mortality rate of the relinquished bastard children was as high as 80 percent. Some doctors, nurses, midwives, clergymen, and hospital administrators actively referred the disgraced mothers who had sex out of marriage and became pregnant to these lethal, for-profit baby shops. Some hospitals even made money secretively moving the unwanted children from hospital wards to the unsanitary baby homes where most died.

Thc Crittenton mission clearly understood that the stigma of illegitimacy for out-of-wedlock babies was the driving force that demonized both mother and child. Prophetically, the mission in 1933 foretold of larger changes a half century later. The mission’s 50-year history notes: “Nothing short of a revolutionary charge in the mores of the American people will put the unmarried mother on a par, socially, with the married mother. Until such change shall be effected and there is no longer any such person as an illegitimate child, the mother without a marriage ring will continue to be looked at askance by a large proportion of the population and will suffer, even occasionally to the point of suicide, the shadow of social and family disgrace.” By the 1990s, single parenthood largely was de-stigmatized, with one in every three children in the United States being born outside of marriage.

Barrett headed the mission after Crittenton’s death in 1909. She passed away in 1925. By the 1930s, when these photographs were all taken, the organization was providing charitable service to assist those “fallen women,” in order “to restore to her, as far as possible, this most precious asset of a respected standing in society.” At this time, this still meant keeping the mother and child together.

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

These pictures of the Florence Crittenton homes, published by the mission, reveal they projected a public image of being well-to-do. The facilities were all found in respectable areas, but had their actual mission hidden by the facade of upper-class and upper-middle-class gentility.

Well-to-do business people contributed to these charitable facilities in the cities where they operated, including my current home town of Portland. Detroit’s efforts at fund-raising, thanks to the Motor City’s new-found wealth from its booming automotive manufacturing sector, led to $700,000 to support the construction of a new hospital–a feat no others could match.

Crittenton General Hospital, the largest in the United States

The first Crittenton home in Detroit opened in 1897 over a store on what is now Broadway Avenue. The operation expanded and moved to a Victorian mansion on Brush Street, also in downtown Detroit. Within six years, it had outgrown its capacity. At any given time, the home was caring for 33 women, not counting the children, according to the mission’s published records. Thanks to the successful fund-raising efforts by the city’s wealthy to support women’s organizations, $700,000 in donations helped to secure land and build a new facility. This was meant to replace the old home, which was reportedly then in a “colored section” of the city. In 1907, the mission opened the Florence Crittenton Hospital on East Elizabeth Street. It offered inpatient and private patient care for indigent and unwed mothers. By 1922, it was offering up to 30 beds for mothers and their children.

National Florence Critttenton Mission convention, 1932, Detroit.
National Florence Critttenton Mission convention, 1932, Detroit.

The hospital and home on Brush street had already become established as a facility that trained new or resident obstetrician. It was certified by the board of health governing local clinics and affiliated with the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery. By 1927, the hospital had outgrown its capacity to meet the need to serve vulnerable women.

The new Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital, as it was identified in the mission’s records, was opened in 1929 at 1554 Tuxedo Avenue, about three miles from downtown Detroit. The new facility had three wings. Two of the facility’s wings were devoted to the care of the single and pregnant women and their infants. The mission’s records from 1932 note these two wings had 115 dormitory beds, 100 cribs, 40 bassinets, and a nursery that served this ever revolving population. Special recreation rooms were devoted to caring for the infants, and the roof was used for playtime and exposing the babies to sun and air.

According to the mission’s records, the hospital supplemented its operational costs with a third wing. It offered medical care mostly to lower-income women and children and was certified by American College of Surgeons. However, the third wing was separate from the two wings for the unwed women. The public wing also focussed on maternal care and general surgery.

By 1950, the hospital had to expand yet again to meet the growing demand for services. A separate maternity home called the Florence Crittenton Maternity Home, located at 11850 Woodrow Wilson, was built and opened in 1954. It was less than half a block from the hospital, which was then calling itself Crittenton General Hospital. The hospital and maternity home were connected by a service tunnel. The home could accommodate up to 60 young women, who had semi-private rooms. The home offered them class instruction, an auditorium, a dining facility, and even a “beauty shop,” according the mission’s records.

“Every effort was made to maintain a homelike atmosphere for the patient,” according to the official records. In reality, the young women were cut off from family and friends and faced with one of the most momentous decisions of their lives. In many cases, they would be pressured by a social workers, maternity staff, and medical professionals to relinquish their infant children to adoption.

Crittenton General Hospital was the largest of all Crittenton facilities in the country in the 1950s. Crittenton maternity homes–and in the case of cities like Boston and Detroit, combined Crittenton homes and hospitals–had become way stations. Pregnant women from their teens to their early to mid-20s stayed out the last days, weeks, or months of their pregnancy.

Meanwhile the hospital was reorganized after the home had opened. Only one floor of one wing was reserved for “unwed mothers,” like my birth mother. These single women  mostly stayed at the maternity home next door. I was born in that wing dedicated to single women, most of whom would never see their children again. There was also a nursery to care for babies. The rest of the hospital’s 194 beds provided private hospital care, including obstetrics, surgery, and pediatric services.

The hospital also continued to be a training facility for residents, from the University of Michigan and Harper Hospital. In my case, the obstetrician who delivered me was completing a residency. He came from overseas, like many other doctors who arrived in the United States and were employed to serve low-income and high-needs patients in inner-urban and rural hospitals.  When I contacted him for an interview, he told me how the hospital provided basic maternal services but also doubled as a residence to single and pregnant women, who lived next door at the home. He remembered the many “girls,” as he called those young, pregnant boarders. He suggested they worked in the facility, likely to pay part of their expenses.

In many cases by the 1960s, those women who stayed at Crittenton homes and hospitals were relinquishing their children to adoption agencies, at the urging of social workers, family, faith-based groups,  churches, and the systems that were created to address out-of-wedlock marriage and illegitimate children. This marked a radical change from the original Crittenton mission to keep mothers and children together. This coincided with societal change that led to hundreds of thousands of unplanned pregnancies and the American social engineering experiment that promoted adoption as “the best solution” to both restore fallen women and find homes for the estimated 2.4 million illegitimately born babies placed for adoption from 1951 through 1973, the year of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States.

One Crittenton center, in Sioux City, Iowa, claims that 98 percent of Crittenton babies were given up for adoption after World War II. (To learn more about how maternity homes functioned in the era of adoption shame and secrecy from the 1950s through 1973, read Anne Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away.)

A shot of some of the tens of thousands of babies relinquished for adoption through the maternity care facilities run by the National Florence Crittenton Mission. (Source: SIoux City Journal, "Wife of Nobel winner started life at Crittenton Center," Sept.18, 2011.
A shot of some of the tens of thousands of babies relinquished for adoption through the maternity care facilities run by the National Florence Crittenton Mission. (Source: Sioux City Journal, “Wife of Nobel winner started life at Crittenton Center,” Sept.18, 2011.

Crittenton’s legacy serving single, pregnant women disappears from history

A couple of years after I was born, the Crittenton hospital had moved from its inner-city Detroit environs to suburban Detroit, in Rochester. It became known as Crittenton Hospital Rochester. This came immediately after deadly race riots in 1967 that shook the city and left 43 dead and burned more than 1,000 buildings. Detroit was beginning a five-decade-long decay as a once great American city to one that has seen its population fall from 1.8 million souls in 1950 to less than 700,000 as of 2015.

The city’s declining population and expenditures made the Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit too expensive to operate. Occupancy dropped in half by 1973. The Detroit hospital permanently shuttered its doors on March 22, 1974. At the time, I was still a young boy in the St. Louis area. I was completely oblivious to my true origins as a Detroit adoptee who was born and then surrendered into the status of foster child at one of the nation’s preeminent maternal care facilities that promoted adoption. Only decades later I finally pieced together my life and discovered that I literally arrived into the world at the center of the American Adoption experience and experiment.

In 1975, the facility that served as the starting place in life for a generation of adoptees was demolished. The home remained open, run by the Henry Ford Hospital. Though Crittenton General Hospital was reduced to rubble and built over, its ghosts linger in the memory of thousands who were born there or who gave birth there. The former locations today of the hospital and home look more like a war zone, due to Detroit’s struggles to address economic decline and blight.

The suburban hospital that fled from the Motor City is now called Crittenton Hospital Medical Center. The facility’s current web site shows no record how the former and original Detroit facility once served a critical societal and local need helping vulnerable women and children.

Throughout August 2016, I have reached out with multiple emails and phone calls to the hospital in and its communications staff. I have not received any answer to many questions I submitted concerning the hospital’s older records about its service to those woman and adoptees like myself. I did receive some copies of official of pages from an official National Florence Crittention Mission commemorative book, but no answers concerning the number of births and adoptions that were performed at the hospital. I was told in one curt email reply, “Unfortunately we have no historian on staff, however, the website does have a brief description of our history. … Good luck with your endeavor.” Those birth and adoption records may not be available, or the hospital may be intentionally choosing not to draw attention to its former mission serving single, pregnant women and their bastard babies, like me.

The hospital in 2015 reportedly was bought by the St. Louis-based Ascension Health, a Catholic-run care system. It seems far from coincidental that a Catholic-run medical system would downplay or even omit critical historical information how one of its facilities had dedicated decades of service to those who got pregnant out of marriage and paid the terrible price that many organizations, including America’s many Christian faiths and institutions, exacted on those woman and their children. As an adoptee, I find this deeply saddening and at the same time no surprise at all.

It appears the shame and stigma of illegitimacy that the original founders of the mission sought so hard to overcome have not gone away at all in 2016. I doubt any of the tens of thousands of Crittenton babies like myself are surprised.

Note: All of these archival photos of the Crittenton facilities are taken from the 50th anniversary publication by the National Florence Crittenton Mission called Fifty Years’ Work with Girls, 1883-1933: A Story of the Florence Crittenton Homes.

This article was first published on Sept. 3, 2016. It was last updated on Sept. 13, 2016, after I found additional original source material outlining the history of the Crittenton mission in Detroit. I have found two different names for the hospital of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital and Detroit Crittenton Hospital. Because of this inconsistency in officials records, I have updated this blog and will use the former, which is cited more frequently.