The girls who went away, and the house they left behind
November 12, 2013 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Before the days of Roe v. Wade (and sometimes after) girls who got pregnant were sent away. Now one of the places that housed them is closing.

Further reading:
-The Florence Crittenton website
-Ann Patchett's first novel The Patron Saint of Liars takes place at a home for unwed mothers.
-Meredith Hall's Without a Map is a memoir by a girl who was sent away.
-Ceil Malek's essay about staying in a Florence Crittenton home (reprinted in Mothers Who Think).
posted by newrambler (18 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Was surprised to see that it was still open, and then read this in the main link:
Wickline said the home also served girls who were not pregnant.

"The home has been a safe haven for women and girls of all ages facing single pregnancy and parenthood, abuse and neglect ... . The staff provides medical, nutritional, educational and counseling services to the women they serve," Venezie said in a statement.

The home also has had an alternative school on the grounds, she said.

Although the number of people the home served was low, "the difference we were making in those girls' lives was just unbelievable," Wickline said. "It's breaking our hearts."
One of the biggest complaints some pro-choice advocates like myself have of the pro-life movement is their anti-abortion stance doesn't seem to give a damn about what happens to moms or their babies post-pregnancy. Here you have a place that was actually serving the needs of both groups and providing support and education for women in need as well as their babies, yet it can't muster the resources and support necessary to stay open. How frustrating and sad.
posted by zarq at 10:30 AM on November 12, 2013 [15 favorites]

Interesting - I'll comb through the other links later. These places bring up a lot of mixed feelings for me. Though I don't know a lot about my own history I've slowly figured out that I was born in one of these places. My discovery of this has been through a long journey of personal maturity which has produced a sequential bursting of my own rather naive personal expectations of what it was to be given up and adopted, and where I came from. I have not engaged my adoptive parents (my parents, as I refer to them) for more information because of complications and emotions which arise from that.

My journey around this has ended in the realization that my mother, 18 at the time of my birth, was sent to one of these places in western Alberta from parts unknown. I was supplied with information regarding my birth mothers' name and my own birth name of Jones, which I now believe to be a falsified name designed to be untraceable.

These places represent at once some of the worst and best aspects of Christianity. For the reasons behind why I was given up (and some others) I actively oppose and in many ways despise organized religion. Any institution which could lead to a family sending their scared teenaged daughter away to give up their own child is unfathomably cruel. I get angry thinking about it, and thinking about her, and how we will never know each other. I'm 38, so she's only 56. We could gain so much closure from each other. At the same time, the kindness of the people who have run these places is truly astounding. I owe everything I have to them.

I'll harden up and read the stories and memoirs but it will be difficult.

Thanks for this.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:33 AM on November 12, 2013 [30 favorites]

One of these institutions, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington's House of Mercy (now the Rosemount Center, a kindergarten) is a few blocks from where I live in D.C. I'd wondered about its history for over a decade, but very little information seemed to be available - so finally I started digging, and ended up collaborating with my parter on a short paper that we presented at a local history conference last year (Ann Fessler's book was really helpful for getting the context down).

The House of Mercy was effectively a prison for the teenagers that were sent there. The most eye-opening thing that we found were newspaper accounts from the 1910s - 1940s about young women escaping, sometimes "recaptured", sometimes not. The D.C. police hunted them as fugitives.

I can't walk by the wooded slope behind the place now without imagining them scrambling down it in the dead of night.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:40 AM on November 12, 2013 [14 favorites]

ryanshepard: I grew up within a block of there (on Klingle) and had no idea about the building's history. That's scary and fascinating at the same time. I'd love a link to your paper.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 10:51 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

ryanshepard, that sounds horrifying. I'm not surprised, however. I'd of course assume that these places ran the spectrum of compassionate shelter to outright prison as you describe, but would hope there was more of the former. What a disaster.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:53 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

ryanshepard-- wow, I also grew up only a couple of blocks away and drove past there every day on the way to school and I had no idea. I also would like a link to your paper if possible.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:26 AM on November 12, 2013

jimmythefish, you might try taking some of the big online DNA tests, like and 23andMe. I know 23andme has relative contact and matching, so if you find a fairly close relative you may be able to narrow things down.
posted by tavella at 11:31 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow. Ceil's piece called up memories for me. I had a child at the same place, in 1971, at 16.
It was a very different experience for me in many regards.

For one, I remember a distinct *lack* of shame - we were all there for exactly the same reason - we were pregnant out of wedlock. No one was better than anyone else, and we came from many backgrounds - small towns, cities, far away, local (I was from Denver).

Our reasons for being there also varied, although almost no one talked about that. I went there for two reasons: 1. It was a way for me to continue my HS education (at that time, in Denver schools, if the school knew you were pregnant, you were not allowed to attend, a "bad influence". 2. It was the least expensive place for me to have the baby - my mother was a single mom, and had to consider that as well. I'm pretty sure they had a sliding scale, but room, board, all doctors bills, and education was included.

One of the things I remember were the "doctor's talks" that we had two or three nights a week. The doctors on staff would talk to us about what was happening to our bodies - hormones, nutrition, what the fetus looked like, how it grew etc. They also showed us Navy/military training films of live births that covered everything from breach, normal (vaginal, no episiotomy), w/episiotomy, C-section, etc. I remember after seeing these, and knowing that the women 'survived', that I'd probably be okay too. My mother commented that I knew more about my pregnancy than she ever did after two childen.

I also found the nurses to be caring and very kind. I had false labor a couple of times, but when I was truly ready, they were there for me, and got the doctor there early in the morning to attend the birth.

The hardest moment was after my son was born - I had told the nurses that I didn't want to see him, because I knew if I did, it would be that much harder to give him up. He was crying about five feet from me, and the nurse put a damp cloth over my eyes so I wouldn't see him.

They fully supported why I also didn't want to hold/see him later - I (unlike many) had a choice; I could have had a legal abortion (they were legal in Colorado at that time, but you had to be under a doctor's care to get one), but couldn't make that choice at that time. I also knew I was in no way, shape, or form ready to be a parent. I felt that the best choice I could make was to ensure that my son would be in a family who really wanted him, and could provide for him in ways I knew (at 16) I never could.

I too have registered with Soundex, although I waited longer than Ceil, and have never heard from my son. None of this was easy, but I was trying to the best I could, with what I had.
posted by dbmcd at 1:05 PM on November 12, 2013 [69 favorites]

Wow...I'm pretty sure a friend of mine volunteered there when she was a student at the Univ. of Kentucky. If this is the place she told me about, they did amazing, incredible work.
posted by magstheaxe at 1:15 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was surprised to find that it had been still operating, until I read that it had been providing other services as well.

My uncle busted the girl who would become my aunt out of a similar place, and they drove to the nearest state where they could get married without her parents' permission. The marriage had its ups and downs, and didn't last forever, but it made for a romantic story. All three of their kids were born with serious health problems, so that first daughter probably wouldn't have been a great candidate for adoption, anyway. But any family would have been lucky to get her; she's one of my favorite cousins.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:26 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

dbmcd - I haven't explored any mothers perspectives, perhaps because I have tried to protect myself over the years. Maybe I've never really confronted these issues in a way I should. During times where I'm asked or forced to discuss these things I tend to get very emotional. I'm open about everything in my life except this one thing. Reading that - I dunno. I'll never scoff at a 'trigger alert' again.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:58 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Lazlo Hollyfeld and jetlagattict: We never formally published it, so I just have our presentation notes - I'll clean them up and MeMail them to you tomorrow, though.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:59 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Very interesting, thanks. I had no idea such places were still operating. Here in England we have assessment centres, which many of the homes for young unmarried pregnant women became - the parent/s (now not always single, just at risk of having their child removed from their care) have to demonstrate their parenting abilities and be assessed as capable after a certain period (often 12 weeks), otherwise their child will be removed. The parent/s are young, or have disabilities, or mental illnesses, or drug or alcohol misuse issues - if the local authorities determine the child is at risk of harm the parent/s must attend. The assessment centres cost an absolute fortune (paid by the government) and some are of course better than others, providing support and training as well as surveillance. It's interesting how the perspective has changed over the years.

Thanks for your stories, jimmythefish and dbmcd.
posted by goo at 6:28 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know of two girls in my Catholic high school who were sent to such places in the mid-1980s.
posted by HotToddy at 7:04 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I didn't think anything of the hospital my birth certificate says I was born in until I looked it up one day online and discovered that every major area in the US had a Booth Memorial Hospital for unwed mothers run by the Salvation Army until the late 1970s. "My" Booth is now a vacant lot in the middle of a rundown industrial area/ghetto, closed 5 years after I was born.

I don't think I would have been adopted anyway, as a black baby with an unknown father (my birth mother was a young adult when she had me, and has never told anyone the circumstances or who the father was, except to tell her oldest sister that he was white). I would've been considered a "low-background" baby. Isn't it awful the judgments we put others through, and for what?

I'm sorry that such a place as Crittenden is disappearing. This one in Lexington sounds like it provided a needed service to the community. It's too bad they can't be re-purposed as a sort of clearing house to help soon-to-be parents learn about childbirth and parenting. I think many people could use the help and support a place like that would provide. My mother sure could've used such an environment when I was on the way, because, oh my, she was up a creek without a paddle by the time she knew I was coming - and in those days, an adult woman, single, pregnant and with a very religious family pre-Roe v. Wade? Yeah, good luck, hon. December of one year she came home alone for Christmas, and the next she showed up with a 5 month old and hadn't told a soul anything in between. Yikes.
posted by droplet at 8:24 PM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm not sorry to see another Crittendon home closing. They are remnants of an era of abusive practices toward pregnant women and their children. I see some romanticizing in the comments of what US "homes" for unwed mothers have been like.

I was cared for by my birth mother for the first 31 days of my life in a home for unwed mothers similar to the prison model of some maternity homes that used to exist. (Some of the Crittendon homes skewed more prison-like, from birth mother accounts I have read since the 1980s.)

I found and was reunited with my birth mother just this summer, and together we visited the "home," Brookfield, though we weren't allowed inside. The schedule and strictures at Brookfield were similar to the ones in the above article by Malek, except my birth mother was allowed one phone call every other week, and only from her parents. No mail. No last names. Despite the fact it cost their parents a lot of money to stay there, every girl had chores such as gardening the vegetables they would cook, scrubbing floors, and nighttime nursery duties. All the exterior doors were locked; no one was allowed outside except to garden or to eat lunch at a picnic table, and that was only with supervision.

My birth mother says one pregnant girl "escaped" during her stay, and she was never spoken of again. They were friends, but my birth mother can't look her up to see what became of her, because there were no last names used.

They were never taught anything about their bodies or what was happening to them. Or what would happen to them: My birth mother was never spoken to about labor. Instead, they had weekly visits from clergy who volunteered to visit to tell the girls how they were sinners, fallen, that they might possibly recover if they could just forget they ever had a baby, that couples everywhere "needed" their babies, and that the best thing they could do for their babies was give them to more deserving people.

Brookfield was part of a business model, in combination with the adoption agency, to get healthy white babies to couples who wanted them. A 90 year-old social worker friend of mine says that when she was an adoption worker in the 1950s and 60s, there were "so many babies" that her office would routinely ask parents "why not just take two?"

I have seen the product of these homes for unwed mothers, ableit from another era, when social stigma was so strong and the lies and secrets so powerful that they wrecked women's and their offspring's ability to live fruitful lives with agency. I have also worked in social services in "homes" for developmentally disabled children and adults that are funded by states and nonprofits alike.

And most states' adoption laws still stipulate that adult adoptees are legally prohibited from knowing their original identities or any birth relatives.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:42 AM on November 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have seen such homes still in existence and while they have cleaned up some of their tactics, the goal still very much is to ensure the mother knows adoption is the most loving option, it is what she should do if she loves her child the most, and it is the best way to give her child a good life.

Meanwhile as the funds come in and these people's entire jobs exist because of the money from adoption-- none of this money goes to help the women who want to keep their children be good moms.

In 2002 a friend of mine stayed at Gladney (where I was given up) and she said that when the girls would realize they had no where to go after giving birth, or they didn't even have a car to drive anywhere or anyone to stay with it was called "the moment of truth" by the staff when the girls would realize they had no choice but to give up their children.

Having no choice is not actually much of a choice is it? But the agencies discovered that by using "choice" and empowering language about how many choices a woman gets to have about her adoption decision it increased women's willingness to give up their children.

And they are allowed to do all this while advertising "non-biased" counselling. For my mother, in 1982, she was given the ability to stay at the home but no recommendations about working or saving up in case she wanted to parent. After she had me she wanted to keep me but they told her if she wanted to keep me should have to come up with thousands of dollars for her expenses while staying there.

While there are some homes that ACTUALLY offer support to moms who want to parent, many claim to do this and are lying out their teeth. Because so many believe that adoption IS always the best thing for an unmarried mother, both the workers, and really society around them, often don't find the use of such tactics troubling since they are the means to societies desired goal which is to get babies from unmarried or low income mothers.

THERE ARE alternative ways we could help moms who need support other than designing MILLION DOLLAR advertising campaigns and counselling techniques to persuade more women to give up their children since most women know that would be hell and don't want any part of losing their children in such a terrible way. IF we chose to value moms having the support they need to be good moms.

The fact that systemically destroying mothers is what society sees as the ideal solution to unplanned pregnancy shows us how society feels about women in unplanned pregnancy. It's ok for them to be collateral damage when we look at solutions to assist their children. The level of hatred toward unwed, low income, or struggling mothers, not only from conservatives but evenfrom many liberals, feeds industries like this-- and further more-- LEAVES LIVING CHILDREN IN POVERTY AND FAMILIES IN CRISIS because if the wretched mothers dare to keep their children we want to make sure that mother suffers for her crime of either-- having sex, not getting an abortion, or not giving up the child for adoption-- depending on your political persuasion.

There is some women hating ideology across the political spectrum when it comes to single/struggling moms and their needs for support. I'm hoping reproductive justice and it's complexity will at least make it's way into liberal conversations a bit better than it has (and I'm really happy to see that happening!)--

As an aside I also hope/wish Christians would actually follow their faith and help low income children whether their mothers give them up for adoption or not, but I have less hope that could become a reality.
posted by xarnop at 6:30 AM on November 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

By the way, I want to add removing children for child abuse is one thing, removing children because the families need help, are faced with poverty, or need services they can't afford to become good parents is another.

Our current model is to send parents to parenting class, as if telling people to stop struggling is as useful as actually helping them with the things they are struggling with. This method usually fails and it really just a method people with more stability and skill sets use to shame people who are struggling and then claim they "Did their best to help".

There's some great family service programs out there but a lot of them are terrible, and ineffective and then we wonder why struggling families will avoid "helpful" services and pretend it's because "they don't really want help".
posted by xarnop at 6:35 AM on November 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

« Older The question was whether the mast was now just a...   |   "Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits" Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments