Monday, July 28, 2008

On Being Flat Out Wrong: A Brief History Of Adoption Theory During the BSE

In 1940, Columbia University established a graduate program in Social Work. The discipline had ambitions to elevate its status to that of other professionals. Columbia began awarding Masters' Degrees in Social Work in 1940 and Doctoral Degrees in 1952. Importantly, Columbia also pioneered the field of psychiatric social work.

Freudian thought was much in vogue after WWII, and the developing discipline of psychiatric social work was heavily influenced by his theories. This was a boon for social workers striving to raise the professional profile of their discipline. By claiming expertise in an esoteric and poorly understood field (psychoanalysis), social work could stake out some professional territory for itself.

In 1963, Social Worker Leontine R. Young was awarded her Doctoral Degree from Columbia University. Although her dissertation was titled The Behavior Syndrome of Parents Who Neglect and Abuse Their Children, she also claimed expertise in the area of unmarried mothers. Young's view of unmarried mothers was directly informed by Freudian theory. Her view was that unmarried mothers were mentally ill individuals who came from sick families.

Nope. No kidding. This is what she believed.

From The University of Oregon's Adoption History Project

Leontine Young was considered one of the country’s foremost authorities on unmarried mothers in the early postwar era. She contends here that non-marital pregnancy expressed deep neuroses and required sophisticated psychological
interpretation and adjustment. Illegitimacy, Young believed, was the result of emotional conflicts rooted in predictable, negative patterns of childhood development and family life. The study on which this conclusion was based deliberately excluded “girls coming from a cultural background where illegitimacy is more or less socially acceptable.” This was an indirect reference to African-Americans and other minority communities whose supposed toleration of nonmarital pregnancy frequently justified racial discrimination in the delivery of adoption services. The perception that illegitimacy was most problematic among white Americans was widely shared, by professionals and laypeople alike, at a time when Freudianism—and therapeutic culture generally—had reached its zenith in the United States.

The above is an abstract of an article Young penned titled Personality Patterns in Unmarried Mothers, 1945-1947

An excerpt from the article:

Some Inferences

Certainly there are common elements in the backgrounds of these girls. Most conspicuous is the fact that none of them had happy, healthy relationships with their parents. Whatever the particular family situation, the conflicting feelings of love and hate remained a basic and potent source of unhappiness and trouble. Almost equally noticeable was the dominance of the mother, the strength and the pervasiveness of the role she played in this complex drama. . . . The more dominating, the more sadistic, the more rejecting the mother, the sicker and more hopeless was the girl. . . .

All these girls, unhappy and driven by unconscious needs, had blindly sought a way out of their emotional dilemma by having an out-of-wedlock child. . . . None of these violent neurotic conflicts are helpful ingredients in creating a good mother. . . .

Young went on to author four books and became a professor at Ohio State. Her writings became vastly influential and were cited numerous times by scholars. The influence of her theory on field workers was enormous. Leontine Young became a Social Work Goddess. Her theory became CW, and was widely disseminated to physicians, pastors... anyone who might have contact with these young women. Her theory was exported to other English speaking countries, even making it into the British Medical Journal in 1966.

An excerpt: Leontine Young and "Tess of the d'Urbervilles "-Some Thoughts on Illegitimacy by ALFRED WHITE FRANKLIN, M.B.,B.CH., F.R.C.P. reads as follows:


Immoral, wicked, vicious, unfortunate, wronged, ignorant- all these diagnoses colour the picture. Few concerned try to discover what is really wrong. The too-ready pity of the doctor may lead to unwise advice. Perhaps only through fully experiencing the pregnancy, facing the result, and possessing and caring for the baby can the girl penetrate the obscuring veil of fantasy, self-deceit, self-torture, to emerge into the necessary world of reality. Cold and hard this may be, but perhaps it is -her one chance to be freed from her crippling involvement in the web of family emotions. Many of these girls are mentally sick people whose self-prescribing of a pregnancy has only added one more social problem for themselves, their families, and the community. (Emphasis added.)

For the complete article, please see: (warning: pdf)

The interesting thing about this article is that while Franklin is in agreement with Young about the diagnosis, he is in disagreement with the treatment for the problem. More on this further down this entry.

The bottom line here is that this psychosocial theory of single motherhood as neuroses rapidly gained ascendancy in the United States and in English speaking countries around the globe. It had currency anywhere that single mothers contacted the social welfare system - maternity homes, doctors' offices, hospitals,the psychological consulting room, the pastor's office. Single mothers were not viewed as healthy, sexually active women who were trapped between their biology and the culture of their times. (Please remember that in the U.S. Griswold was decided in 1965 and only applied to married couples, and that Roe was years off into the future.)

As a result, single mothers were regarded everywhere as living examples of infantile sexuality run amok... neurotic sex delinquents.

BUT, happily, scientifically, in the best American spirit of ingenuity and can-do, the system offered hope of a cure, too. The claim was that the unmarried mom could be cured of her neurosis IF she released her baby for adoption. The result was that, in the United States and in Canada, the UK and Australia, (all of whom followed the American model) the pressure on white unmarried mothers to release their newborn babies for adoption became enormous.

It must be mentioned that this pressure dovetailed nicely with the political agendas of people who wished to keep single mothers off welfare, people who wished to advance their moral agendas by punishing women who exercized sexual agency,people who made a profit from adoption fees, people who were infertile, and garden
variety misogynists.

For instance:

. . . babies born out of wedlock [are] no longer considered a social problem . . . white, physically healthy babies are considered by many to be a social boon . . . " (i.e. a valuable commodity..). - Social Work and Social Problems (1964), National Association of Social Workers.
(quote courtesy Karen WB of BSERI)


. . . society has seemed more interested in punishing the unwed mother and her illegitimate child than in understanding the social, economic, and psychological forces which have placed them in a deviant social position." The Unwed Mother, edited by Robert W. Roberts, (Harper & Row) copyright 1966
(quote courtesy Karen WB of BSERI)


Unwed mothers should be punished and they should be punished by taking their children away." - Dr. Marion Hilliard of Women's College Hospital, Daily Telegraph, (Toronto, November 1956)
(quote courtesy Karen WB of BSERI)

It should further be mentioned that the adoption option was an ahistoric one. The redemptive aspects of responsible single motherhood had long been regarded by the child welfare community as the prescription for the sin of premarital sex. Social workers entering the field changed all that during the Baby Scoop Era. Unmarried mothers became a boon to people more powerful than us. Some coveted our babies - for profit, or to raise. To others, we were just another political tool.

This was all, of course, regardless of the costs to us moms.

Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!

These social and political pressure played out in maternity home policies that kept women isolated and immersed in a carefully cultivated atmosphere of intense powerlessness and shame. Women in these homes were subjected to a thoughtfully designed counselling program whose goal was to lead them to the "inescapable" conclusion that adoption was not only best for their babies, it was also their ticket out of the neuroses the experts alleged was the cause of their pregnancies.

On admission to these homes, women were stripped of all ties to their previous lives - clothing, possessions, personal money - none of it was allowed. False names were assigned to be used in the home. Incoming and outgoing mail was read. Phone contact was extremely limited. Leaving the premises was tightly controlled and never, ever, ever, allowed without a chaperone of some kind.

Women were routinely and by design not advised of the rights, nor of any specific social welfare resource available to them to help them keep and raise their babies. Women have testified repeatedly that if they asked, they were informed that welfare was not going not be sufficient for their needs. They were further told that they and their children would be outcasts for life. They were told they had nothing of value to offer their own children, and in fact, they would be harmful, even toxic to their own children.

Women were not permitted access to attorneys, personal friends (including the baby's fathers), or anyone else who might act as a social support, offer help, or offer a different view of alternatives to adoption. Only mortified grandparents-in-waiting were permitted visitation for a few hours on Sundays.

A few quotes from contemporaneous writings:

An unwed mother who releases her child for adoption needs legal counsel, as to her rights and the termination of same. Only an attorney is qualified to spell out and interpret these rights to her..... Unfortunately, most mothers of children born out of wedlock .... are frequently in fear or shame, misguided legally by persons not qualified to interpret these rights." Counseling the Unwed Mother, by Helen E. Terkelsen, copyright 1964
(quote courtesy Karen WB of BSERI)

Here's another:

The first thing the unmarried mother is likely to lose is her right to make important decisions. The agency or community tells her what she must do if she is to receive the services she needs . . . In most instances the plan for the baby is pre-determined. Often these matters are decided without her being able to state her own preferences. HELPING UNMARRIED MOTHERS, by Rose Bernstein, copyright 1971 (Emphasis added)
(quote courtesy Karen WB of BSERI)

These pressures played out in hospital policies as well. Young mothers were frequently left to labor alone. Many women have testified to punitive obstetric practices such as not administering pain medication in a timely manner, if at all. Other places practiced veterinary obstetrics; heavily sedating women, and then delivering the babies via forceps while mom was in full leather restraints. Many hospitals did not allow the newly delivered woman any access to the baby at all. In fact, many women were never even allowed to see their children after birth. It can not be emphasized enough that these women were the legal mothers of these babies, yet their babies were forcibly removed and secreted away.

It also must be said that practices varied from place to place. Some women were allowed to see, hold and feed their babies, even for up to 10 days afterwards. It was thought that at the end of the ten day interval, removing the baby taught a more
memorable lesson to the youthful sex deviant than merely removing her baby from her at birth.

Surrender practices also varied. Some women succumbed to the pressures and signed surrender papers, believing it was best. There are women who have stated that the baby was snatched from their arms as they tried to leave the hospital. There are women, like me, who were threatened with involuntary incarceration in mental health facilities and removal of any subsequent children if we did not sign. (Remember: we were "neurotic" and possibly even "psychotic"). There are women who have stated they were incarcerated in mental health facilities during their pregnancies. There are women who have stated that they were made to sign papers while sedated. There are women who still have amnesia for the signing of the papers down to this very day.

And there are women, many many women in fact, who have remained silent all their lives about their adoption experiences. One can only conjecture why -- there are a lot of possibilities.

But the final outcome of these practices was that all these women lost their babies to closed, stranger adoption.

The consequences of this loss have been life long for many of us. Known consequences range from secondary infertility to clinical depression, with many varied grief reactions. The stories so many of these women tell are enlightening and depressing.

What subsequent social history and these narratives show is that Leontine Young was simply, baldly, flat out wrong. Unmarried mothers are not neurotic sex delinquents. They are by and large healthy young women exercizing their human right to autonomy. Babies are the product of sexual activity, not neuroses. Emotional ills are not CAUSES of adoption, as Leontine Young maintained. But they are its EFFECTS.

Uncounted numbers of women lost their babies to adoption during the BSE because of Young's untested, unfounded, incorrect theory. Real women sustained real damage and suffered real pain for a really long time because Leontine was wrong.

The coerced, forced, or othewise illegal methods used for taking adoption consents from unmarried mothers during the BSE has never been acknowledged or addressed in any way, shape or form by the NASW. The consequences of these adoptions in the lives of women who lost their babies have never been addressed. The records remained sealed to this day, partly because, in my opinion, the contents of those records may be legal poison for the individuals and institutions who participated in these practices.

Adoption practice during the BSE is, as of this writing, a matter of serious social injustice that has never been addressed.

Barb, for BSERI

For more information and research on the Baby Scoop Era, please vist our website , The Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative


Anna Belle said...

WOW. Color me informed. Check this out: My MOM was part of this phenomenon! Reading your post made me realize that my sister, whom I talked about in Dreams From Our Mothers, was almost given up for adoption. So I called my Mom and asked her about it. What she told me confirmed everything you've said here. She was driven to near insanity in the effort to convince her that she should give my sister up for adoption, but she remained firm in the end. Thank you for sharing this information, which allowed me a new connection with my own Mom.

....for BSERI said...

Thanks for your original post "Dreams from Our Mothers" regarding single moms and how they are so often overlooked and marginalized, Anna Belle. For others who may not have read Anna Belle's original post, it's at her blog

Moms are marginalized in so many ways.

Women are considered to be less valuable human beings then men, all the way around.

Moms are blamed for so many of society's ills...So many problems later in life are pinned on poor mothering instead of any number of other etiologies.

Single moms REALLY bear the brunt of it.

Single moms in the 60s were the lowest of the lowest of the low.

Talk about polymarginalized.

All I can say is your Mom must be a very strong woman.

Robin said...

Boy, can I relate. As one of those "sexually delinquent teens," I had every shred of self-respect I had stripped from me by these "helpful" social workers. It took me a lot of years to get it back and get really, really mad about what they did and the misinformation they strewed about like Mardi Gras beads. Good blg, here, Oh Shameless One. heh heh

Chris said...

Thank you Barb for a most excellent, cut to the chase, informative Blog for any mother who still wonders how or why her baby was taken for adoption during the BSE. I also hope that this current writing will be just as informative to any BSE adult adopted person who has also wondered about the hows and whys. You are Right on the Mark, your 'facts' are TRUTH and backed up by 'real' studies, articles, research, etc....written by 'real' people, who were not a surrendering mother. So no one can argue...that it is just some ole bitter burfmuggle trying to escape the responsibility of her supposed 'choice'. (sarcasm heavily implied) Thank you again Barb for bringing the Truth into the Light of Day!!

....for BSERI said...

Thanks, Chris.

Karen does the real work. I just write it up.