In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, being an unwed mother carried a significant stigma in America. It’s now called the “baby scoop” era and during this time young women -- usually in their teens -- were either hidden at home, sent to live with distant relatives or quietly dispatched to maternity homes to give birth.
Estimates are as many as 1.5 million young mothers who say they were forced -- some just minutes after delivery -- to hand over their babies for adoption during this period. It was a decision that they seldom made on their own. Mostly, it was preordained by the young woman’s church or her parents. Often too, it was a decision that was dictated by the social customs of the time because having a baby out of wedlock was seen as a disgrace to a family.
Since last October, Dan Rather Reports has interviewed nearly one hundred women from around the world who shared a common experience: They say during this time they were lied to, denied their rights and duped into handing over their babies for adoption. And, they believe, it is time to lift the veil of secrecy.
Last month I interviewed two people with very different stories to tell that suggests perhaps some of the policies and practices of the past that led to forced adoptions lingered into the 80’s and beyond.
Marc Mezibov is an attorney who represented a woman who claims to have been manipulated into handing over her newborn for adoption in 1965 when she was 16 years old. But the story is much more sordid than that.
In a lawsuit filed against the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2004, Mezibov’s client, known as “Jane Doe”, claimed that the father of her child was her parish priest.
“The priest and her elementary school teacher, who's a nun, and her parents, are all telling her basically, ‘You need to get things right with the church’,”Mezibov told me. “And to do the right thing means to keep quiet about the parentage of your child and not to bring any trouble to the church's door.”
Mezibov says his client was intimidated into relinquishing her parental rights to the baby and as a result had been separated from her child for about 40 years.
“She was told, ‘The fact that you have this out-of-wedlock child with a priest is your fault and your fault alone. The public must never know that the father of your child is a priest.’”
“And the priest told her, ‘Look, you have to do the right thing. The right thing is -- give up the child -- don't ever tell anyone that I was the father. And, by the way, I'll have to leave the church if the church is required to pay child support for this child.’”
It took about 40 years for “Jane Doe” to come forward with the allegations. When asked why it took so long Mezibov said, “This was a question of coming to grips with the reality of the situation and having the courage to face the situation. This is many years after considerable psychotherapy, some hospitalizations and a lot of emotional pain to get to this point.”
And then there is Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy. She claims at age 19, she experienced a much more subtle form of coercion that led her to hand over her son for adoption in 1987.
As an unwed teen, D’Arcy says the social stigma against keeping your baby was not much better than it was in 1965.
D’Arcy told me, “If you were stupid enough to get pregnant, and then to keep your baby there was something wrong with you. Smart girls didn't do that.” She added, “I was a smart girl.”
During an in-depth interview in New York City at the beginning of April, D’Arcy told me how she was sent from the comfort and familiar surroundings of her Long Island home to the Boston area during her last month of pregnancy.
D’Arcy says she didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back feels that the adoption agency was actually a place where helpfulness and support masked a hidden agenda.
“Leaving my home, leaving my family, leaving the people around me, going amongst strangers. It was a very supportive environment because everybody had a vested interest in my relinquishment once I was in the agency.”
I asked her if she considered her experience with the agency in Massachusetts coercive. “At the time, no,” she said. “ With the knowledge that I have now, yes.”
Meanwhile, Ohio attorney Marc Mezibov says his client “Jane Doe”, was from a devout Catholic family. She was taken out of her parochial high school and shipped off to a maternity home soon after her family learned that she had become pregnant.
Nearly fifty years after the relinquishment, “Jane Doe” continues to maintain her anonymity, but her story made headlines after the lawsuit was filed in December 2004.
Mezibov says he feels the most troublesome aspect of what the Catholic Church did was taking a mother and a child and separating them for life. “It shouldn't be because some outside force is imposing their will on you,” he said.
We heard lots of stories from women of “Jane Doe’s” generation, but we were surprised to learn that women a generation younger still felt manipulated or coerced into giving up their baby for adoption.
But the approach in 1987, according to D’Arcy was different. She says the adoption agency wanted her to feel good about helping to “create a family” in order to secure a signature of relinquishment. The end result was the same for D’Arcy and “Jane Doe.”
D’Arcy says she spent a two days together with her son before signing the papers to relinquish him.
“Adoption was supposed to be this one thing that happened that was going to allow me to continue on my life as if I did not have a baby. And yet, 25 years later, I'm sitting here talking to you because this has been the single most life altering thing that has ever happened to me and has changed the course of my entire life,” she told me. “And not just for me, but for my other children, for my husband, for family members. The ripples and the effect on everybody, and yet they don't tell you that.”
When asked what had happened to change her opinions about adoption, D’Arcy stated simply, “I got the Internet.”
In 2007, D’Arcy was reunited with her son, which she continues to refer to as “Max,” the name she had given him at birth 20 years earlier.
About ten months after D’Arcy and Max happily reconnected, Mezibov and his client had a less happy ending -- their lawsuit was thrown out in January 2008 by the Ohio State Supreme Court on grounds that the statute of limitations had run out.
Mezibov told me, “It remains my opinion that the court was wrong to give the church a pass when they got what they wanted. And for her to give up the child and for her not to pursue any claims.”
Today, D’Arcy is the mother of four, and lives in upstate New York, and has a blog dedicated to adoption reform.
“People need to realize that adoption is not warm and fuzzy,” says D’Arcy. Adoption is supposed to be about finding homes for children that need it, not finding children for parents that want them.”
We should point out that adoption is not always about painful separation. Thousands of successful adoptions take place every year across the country and many new families are created. And the percentage today of forced adoptions is a fraction of what it was during a time in this country called by some scholars as the perfect storm. It was a period before oral contraception, before abortion and at the height of the sexual revolution. At its peak, nearly nine percent of babies born to never married mothers were adopted. Today that figure is around one percent.