Your baby is dead: Mothers say their supposedly stillborn babies were stolen from them

Kathryn Blaze Carlson /

This is how the woman, then young, remembered the August day in 1963 on which she gave birth to her illegitimate daughter: She was in an Edmonton hospital; the doctor ordered she receive an injection. She blacked out, and when she started to come to, a male voice said: “knock her out.”

She claimed she woke up sometime later and was told she had given birth to a girl, but the baby had died.

Her baby girl didn’t die, though. She was adopted by a married couple.

“I never wanted to give up any child of mine for adoption,” the Edmonton mother swore in an affidavit before her recent death. “I went through my entire life believing that the baby I carried in 1963 had died…. I believe that I was lied to and my baby was stolen from me.”

Since the National Post launched an investigation earlier this month into coerced adoptions between the 1940s and 1980s, dozens of mothers have said they were forced by social workers, medical staff and churches into surrendering their child because they were young and unmarried.

But some of these women say they never surrendered their child at all: They say they were told their child was stillborn or died shortly after birth, when in reality they allege their baby was adopted or essentially handed to a married couple.

“In those days, it was just said the child was dead because that way the mother wouldn’t look for it,” said Lise Pageau, a regional director at Mouvement Retrouvailles supporting adoptees and natural parents, adding that she has personally spoken with at least a half-dozen mothers who allege this happened to them. “[Nurses and doctors] would show the mother a very, very, very sick baby and say the child would not pull through the night. Sometimes the child was already promised to a couple.”

The Edmonton mother’s daughter, who cannot be identified because of a publication ban, is suing the woman who raised her and the hospital where she was born, alleging that her adoptive mother and a doctor wrongfully arranged for her adoption some 40 years ago.

The daughter found her natural mother in 2004, but her mother thought she was “crazy,” court documents say. A DNA test later confirmed they were kin.

It is difficult to know for certain how often Canadian women were lied to about their baby dying. Unless a woman was contacted by her child later in life, she would not know that her allegedly dead child was actually alive.

Still, the accounts of mothers, such as the one who swore the affidavit, suggest the possibility that at least some babies born to single women were immediately or eventually transferred to married couples. In her 2011 book, The Traffic in Babies: Cross Border Adoption and Baby-Selling Between the United States and Canada, 1930-1972, McMaster University professor Karen Balcom wrote that in Nova Scotia there were “numerous examples of birth mothers who were falsely told that their children were dead so they would not interfere in adoption placements.”

Gary Whitbourn said his mother was 17 years old and unmarried when she gave birth to him in London, Ont., on Oct. 8, 1975. She named him Jason Albert, but hours later she was told he died, Mr. Whitbourn said.

“Part of me was skeptical — maybe she just didn’t want to admit the guilt of giving up a baby and would rather blame it on someone else, but I’ve come to realize that can’t be true,” said Mr. Whitbourn, who met his natural mother in 1997. “It’s unnerving. You assume these things don’t happen in Canada.”

A Canadian named Tina Kelly filed a UN report a decade ago alleging that, as an unmarried woman in 1970, she was falsely told her baby died overnight because of heart trouble. She claims she was not allowed to see her son, whose adoption she alleges was arranged by a doctor who took a bribe.

The Australian Parliament says the so-called dead baby scam happened there, and a nun in Spain was charged last weekend with allegedly committing this very crime over the course of the 1950s to the 1980s. During those decades in Canada, abortion was illegal or difficult to access, birth control was not readily available and unmarried mothers were seen as loose women too feeble-minded to parent.

An Australian Senate committee investigating that country’s historic adoption practices recently reported that especially swift transfers had a formal title, rapid adoption.

“This generally referred to the process whereby a married woman whose child had been stillborn was offered a child for adoption in its place,” says the committee’s explosive February report, which urged the government to apologize for forced adoptions.

One Australian woman named Valerie Linlow testified she was heavily drugged during labour and that medical staff told her she gave birth to a stillborn. Three decades later, she said a man knocked on her door saying he was her son.

Here in Canada, Ms. Kelly claims a doctor told her he would work with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto to arrange for her baby’s baptism and burial. She alleges she was heavily drugged when a social worker from the society asked her to sign a document, which she says she thought was the paperwork for his baptism.

The 2003 UN report says she later requested a death certificate from the Toronto hospital where she gave birth, only to be told the records say her son was born healthy and went home with her. The Catholic society said its records show Ms. Kelly was a client in 1970, and that her son was made a Crown ward and ultimately placed for adoption.

“Ms. Kelly’s version of events reflected in the UN report bear no resemblance to the information in our records,” executive director Mary McConville said in a statement.

Ms. McConville also confirmed that in 2001 Ms. Kelly filed a lawsuit against the society, two physicians and the Toronto hospital. She indicated the suit was dismissed “on the consent of all parties.” Ms. Kelly declined an interview request.

Other women, such as the Edmonton mother, say they are positive they did not sign an adoption paper. The lawyer in that case, Robert Lee, said his client alleges her mother’s signature was forged.

“Most people would think my client is crazy for thinking she was stolen from her mom at the hospital,” said Mr. Lee, whose client declined an interview request for fear of legal repercussions. “It seems as if people thought they were acting in the best interests of the child or the mother, and out of their beliefs, they went on violating the rights of these families.”

The defendants deny any wrongdoing, and none of the allegations have been proven in court.

Sharon Pedersen, a B.C. woman who was unmarried and 20 years old when she gave birth in 1964, said she was not told her baby was stillborn, but said a social worker at the local children’s aid society nonetheless demanded she sign a death certificate, saying “Dear, this is just to help you realize this baby is gone.” Ms. Pedersen said she ultimately signed adoption papers, 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.

Sheri Sexton said her mother was not told she was stillborn, either, and instead signed surrender papers after hours of coercion at the hospital in July 1968. Still, Ms. Sexton said she is listed as a prior stillborn child on hospital records a year later when her mother gave birth to a girl, who was apparently born dead. Ms. Sexton suspects her sister is alive and was unknowingly raised by adoptive parents.

Ms. Sexton believes her own adoption is suspicious, too: She said her adoptive grandmother was her natural mother’s nurse, and said that while she was born in Ontario, her original birth certificate was from Quebec. She said the Ontario government has no record of her adoption, and that the Quebec government told her the adoption was private. She also said the same doctor is listed on both her and her stillborn sister’s hospital records.

Ms. Sexton’s natural mother declined to participate in the story.

Mr. Whitbourn, the Ontario man born in 1975, said he tracked down his natural mother after registering online at an adoption reunion site. He said she eventually knew to look for him because she received information from the London Children’s Aid Society suggesting her child had been adopted. But one of the society’s adoption supervisors said she finds it “surprising” that a mother would be contacted “out of the blue” with information about a child.

Mr. Whitbourn said he was born healthy but that his mother was told he died overnight. His mother tells him she held her child, then named Jason, just once.


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