Curtain lifts on decades of forced adoptions for unwed mothers in Canada

Kathryn Blaze Carlson /

blaKaren Lynn was 19 when her mother sent her to a home for unmarried pregnant women in Clarkson, Ont., in 1963. There, she was known as Karen No. 1 to protect her family’s reputation, and said it was clear she would not have been allowed to stay there if she did not agree to an adoption. A year later, Sharon Pedersen was 20-years-old when she was drugged and tied to her bed during labour and then shown four different babies through the nursery window at a hospital in Victoria, she said.

She ultimately signed adoption papers at the local children’s aid society, she said, but not before social workers held a pen in her hand and threatened to call the police because she was screaming and throwing furniture in protest.

Similar accounts have begun to emerge across Canada, and there is now a growing movement calling on the federal government to probe this country’s historic adoption practices. Many decades have passed, and many women have since reunited with their sons and daughters, but they are speaking out against what they say were coerced and forced adoptions.

Not every unmarried mother was coerced or forced into giving up her child, but the women going public today are not alone.

Their stories sound eerily like the hundreds of testimonies submitted to a recent Australian inquiry into adoption from the 1950s to the early-1980s, and last month an Australian Senate committee urged the government to apologize to the “many parents whose children were forcibly removed” from their care.

Beyond a push for an inquiry here, Canadian provinces from Quebec westward will soon be hit with class-action suits accusing the governments of kidnapping, fraud and coercion, according to the well-known lawyer heading the pending actions.

“Clearly, this story is a sad and difficult one, and we’re just beginning to hear more about it,” said Bruce Gregersen, a spokesperson for the United Church, which co-ran Winnipeg’s Church Home for Girls, where one woman said she was told she could be criminally charged if she tried to keep her child. “This will warrant a great deal of attention.”

Seven women spoke with the National Post, most telling their stories openly for the first time, in the hopes of airing what some say was more than a vague societal push for unmarried mothers to consent to adoption.

Teenaged and unmarried, Valerie Andrews said she was unknowingly given medication to block her breast-milk. Hanne Andersen said her B.C. hospital records say “Baby for Adoption” even though the teenaged single mother had planned to keep the baby. Social workers in Sudbury, Ont., never told Esther Tardif she was eligible for social assistance and said if she loved her unborn child, she would let him go.

Most of the mothers interviewed for this story said the coercion was systematic: From the church-run maternity homes where accommodation was sometimes predicated on adoption and where mothers had to write a letter to their unborn child explaining the separation; to the social workers who concealed information about social assistance and who told single mothers they could be charged with child endangerment; to the medical staff who called the women “sluts” and denied them painkillers, and who reportedly tied teenagers to their beds or obstructed their view of labour with a sheet.

“To the Canadian establishment, this will come as a big surprise,” said Ms. Lynn, who heads the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers, which aims to expose the negative treatment of mothers in adoption practice. “What we hear all the time is, ‘You gave up your baby.’ What I say is that, at very best, it was a tragic choice.”

Ms. Andrews has studied Statistics Canada data on illegitimate births from 1945 to 1973 and the rough rate of adoption among unmarried women at the time, and offers what seems to be an astronomical estimate: that 350,000 unmarried Canadian mothers were persuaded, coerced or forced into adoption.

But some unmarried women may have been grateful to know their child would grow up in a secure home and spared the stigma of being an illegitimate child, said Lori Chambers, who pored over thousands of archived children’s aid cases for her book, Misconceptions, about unmarried mothers in Ontario from 1921-1969. And not all ostracized women suffered in maternity homes — some would have appreciated the shelter, food and friendships that no one else would provide.

“The question becomes not why unmarried women gave babies up for adoption, but how some women had the fortitude not to,” Ms. Chambers said. “Most of them gave up and released their child for adoption.”

Ms. Andrews has spent much of the past four years documenting the treatment of unmarried teenaged mothers in church-run maternity homes, hospitals and children’s aid societies, at a time when abortion was illegal, birth control was not easily accessible, and unmarried mothers were seen as loose women too feeble-minded to parent.

Joyce Masselink, a social worker who dealt with unmarried single mothers in Toronto and B.C. in the 1960s, said Ms. Andrews’ estimate “does not sound realistic,” and said girls were “treated very well” in the church-run maternity home she often visited in Vancouver.

When Marilyn Churley found herself alone and pregnant in 1968, the former Ontario MPP said her social worker in Barrie, Ont., was the only friend she had — although she said the social worker never talked about alternatives to adoption and that she endured a “horrific” 24-hour labour without painkillers.

“I didn’t know any social workers who forced or coerced women into adoption, and I certainly didn’t myself,” Ms. Masselink said, adding that some social workers were, however, rigorous in promoting the social values of the day. “I do know that probably went on, though. Women’s stories attest to that.”

An April 25, 1961, Ann Landers column perhaps best illustrates how society viewed unmarried mothers. In describing a single mother’s love for her child, she wrote: “Such ‘love’ is questionable. It is a sick kind of love turned inside out — an unwholesome blend of self-pity mixed with self-destruction and touch of martyrdom.”

Most of the mothers interviewed for this story said they kept their secret for decades, having been “groomed for shame,” Ms. Andrews said. But with last month’s Australian report, the women said it is time for Canadian mothers to know they are not alone and for their children to know they were not unwanted. Ms. Andrews has planned a two-day conference airing Canada’s history of adoptions this fall in Toronto, and is hopeful hundreds of mothers and adoptees will attend.

The Australian committee called on the government to apologize — without reference to the social values of the day — and to compensate mothers, some of whom “recounted a pregnancy marred by systematic disempowerment,” according to the report.

“I still feel the shame,” said an Ontario woman named Katie, who asked that her last name not be used because her daughter does not know she was conceived in rape. “It wasn’t until I got my hospital records and saw what they did to me that I could start breathing without this horrible weight on my shoulders.”

Katie said she was given labour-inducing drugs and was not allowed to hold the child at a Winnipeg hospital, not far from the United Church home where she was living. The fair-haired 17-year-old was knocked out with what “felt like a chemical straight-jacket” and later shown a black-haired baby who was too big to be a newborn, she said.

Katie said she never signed an adoption paper but remembers nodding in a courtroom where she thinks she made her daughter a ward of the state.

Ms. Chambers said until Ontario children’s aid societies started receiving substantial government funding in 1965, they relied mostly on donations, often from adopting parents. She said the societies were in a conflict of interest, then, and at times struck a deal with the father: If he consented to an adoption and paid a small sum, the society would not represent the woman in a costly child-support battle.

Ms. Andrews, who heads Origins Canada supporting people separated by adoption, is urging the federal government to follow Australia’s lead and launch an inquiry here. She said roughly 100 mothers and adoptees have so far registered with the organization for a future inquiry, but said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s office told her this is a provincial matter. A spokesperson for the minister confirmed this is the government’s position.

Ms. Andrews said a July, 2011, letter written by her Ontario MPP, Reza Moridi, to the Minister of Children and Youth Services has so far gone unanswered.

“Nobody will acknowledge this because they don’t believe us, just like for years they didn’t believe the women in Australia,” said Ms. Andersen, who today heads Justice for Mother and Child, an advocacy group for those “unlawfully separated” at birth.

She plans to file a police report this month to prompt an RCMP criminal investigation into women she said were “targeted” for their babies, many of whom were white, healthy and in high demand, she said. Ms. Andersen, who became pregnant at age 15 in 1982 and said she was allowed to hold her baby just once, will also be the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit expected to be launched against the B.C. government in the coming weeks or months.

“My feet were still in stirrups and I had a sheet over my body so I couldn’t see the baby,” said Ms. Andersen, who claims her consent to adoption was invalid because she said she never actually had possession of her daughter in the first place. “They wrapped her up in a blanket … I said, ‘Stop! Where are you going with my baby? I asked three times and had to yell, ‘Bring me my baby now!’”

A draft of the statement of claim says the class action will cover women affected by the “Baby for Adoption (BFA) protocol” and seeks general and special damages for the lost opportunity to parent, medical treatment without consent, and mental distress.

“I don’t think there is any question there was a policy where, if a child was born outside of a marriage, that child was not to remain with the mother,” said Ms. Andersen’s well-known Saskatchewan lawyer, Tony Merchant, whose firm secured a $2-billion settlement in the 2006 Indian Residential School class action.

In Australia, the inquiry heard the “BFA” policy often led to treatment in line with the then-popular “clean break theory,” which said it was in everyone’s best interest to avoid contact between the natural mother and her child after birth.

A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development said ministry staff “don’t know of any concerted policy in the government back in the 1960s and 1970s that would have forced women to give up their babies.”

Mr. Merchant said the class-action suits will attempt to saddle the provinces with responsibility for the wrongdoings of church-run organizations because they were provincially funded agents.

John Murray, a spokesperson for the Salvation Army, said the government-funded maternity homes it ran — such as Maywood, the B.C. home where Ms. Andersen said she was starved, verbally abused and never told of any available social assistance — helped pregnant teens in a time of need.

“I can’t specifically comment on how the organization managed its operations 40 or 50 years ago,” said Mr. Murray. “That’s not to say there weren’t perhaps isolated situations … but certainly, I think historically the Salvation Army was welcomed and valued by people in the community.”

A spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, which owned the maternity home where Ms. Lynn stayed, said “there’s no one here now with any kind of living memory of what went on 40 years ago.” The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it is up to each specific diocese to comment separately. Neither the Canadian Medical Association nor the Canadian Pediatric Society would comment. The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies passed an interview request to the Toronto Children’s Aid Society, which did not respond to a separate request for comment.

Mr. Gregersen, meantime, said the United Church will now comb through its archives to find out what happened at its maternity homes, but said he invites mothers to come forward so researchers know where to focus their efforts.

“Canada is so far behind on this,” said Ms. Pedersen. “I’ve been breathless ever since the Australian report came out. It’s about time it was acknowledged that these were forced adoptions.”


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