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Baby Scoop Exposed

June 10, 2012 permalink

Following the earlier series by Kathryn Blaze Carlson in the National Post the Ottawa Citizen is taking its turn at exposing the forceful separation of babies from single mothers at birth a half-century ago. There is no hint that just as many children are taken now, though not always at birth. Instead of sin the justification has morphed to best interest of the child.



Victims of the ‘Baby Scoop Era’ speak out

Young unwed mothers were once sent to institutions like Ottawa’s Bethany House where they forced to relinquish their babies at birth. Several of these women share their story of suffering with Shelley Page.

Sue Foster
Sue Foster and one of her dogs “Sassy” is a birth mom who was forced to give up her daughter for adoption 42 years ago. She was hidden away in a home for unwed mothers, called Bethany, in Ottawa. She has searched for her for many years.

Sue Foster and one of her dogs “Sassy” is a birth mom who was forced to give up her daughter for adoption 42 years ago. She was hidden away in a home for unwed mothers, called Bethany, in Ottawa. She has searched for her for many years.

OTTAWA — Sixteen, pregnant and scared. That was Evelyn Morin in 1964. She dreamed of marriage to her boyfriend Rolly. Instead, she was forced into Bethany House to protect her family’s reputation, give away her baby, and be “remade a virgin.”

At the Salvation Army’s secrecy-shrouded home for unwed mothers on Wellington Street West, Morin fell into a strict life dominated by chores and chapel, shame and silence.

She rose at daybreak, lined up for breakfast and then went to chapel. She practiced sewing and needlework, peeled potatoes and turnips, then went to chapel, again. On Sunday afternoons she took the bus to visit the boyfriend who is now her husband.

“I felt like I was in jail,” she says. “I celebrated my 17th birthday alone.”

Her water broke during evening prayer and through her long labour next door at the Grace Hospital she was denied painkillers. When she screamed the nurse told her, “You girls like the game but you can’t stand the pain. You’re getting all that you deserve.” Afterward, Morin wasn’t allowed to hold her son. “The nurse held him up at the window so I could look at him,” she says. Then her parents’ lawyer took the baby away and gave him to his new mother.

Morin is one of the handful of women who shared stories with the Ottawa Citizen — some speaking openly for the first time — about having their children taken away from them at the Hintonburg institution during the “Baby Scoop Era,” between 1942 and 1972.

Most of the former Bethany “inmates,” as they were called, say they were offered no option but to go into hiding and then, after giving birth, to relinquish their children. The social workers who visited the mothers-to-be from the Children’s Aid Societies concealed information about social assistance. Later, at the nearby Grace Hospital, medical staff refused to supply painkillers, but instead doled out drugs that dried up the teenagers’ milk. In some cases, the girls were tied to their beds to suffer labour alone.

Their stories, so long untold, are particularly relevant now: City staff has recommended granting heritage status to the building that has housed Bethany House, now Bethany Hope Centre, since the 1920s.

Experts say the three-storey red-brick structure is a noteworthy example of early 20th century “institutional architecture,” with such classical design elements as pillars on the front porch, a central pediment, and a massive front lawn.

But some of the mothers who passed through Bethany’s doors say more attention should be paid to what occurred within its walls.

“There should be a plaque,” says Thelma Verreault, who stayed there in 1965. “Recognize what we were made to go through.”

Says Sue Foster, who is still searching for the daughter she gave birth to 42 years ago: “They should burn it down.”

Ottawa’s Bethany House was whispered about, but most teenaged girls had no idea of its location until their parents dropped them there. It, along with other homes for unwed mothers across Canada, was the site of a social experiment.

Before the post-War period, mother and baby weren’t routinely separated. instead, they were cared for in maternity homes, bound together in a life of shame and limited opporunity. The mom was a “fallen women” and her baby, “illegitimate” or a “bastard.”

After World War II, with the rise of the professions of Social Work and Psychiatry, it was decided that unmarried mothers could be made marriageable.

Instead of being saddled with a ruined reputation and a baby, these girls were returned to society to fulfill their proper role as wives and mothers at a later time.

“There was a perfect storm to create the conditions of the Baby Scoop Era,” says Valerie Andrews, an unwed mother who stayed at a Salvation Army home in Toronto and is executive director of Origins Canada.

“White, single, unmarried women had their babies taken away in a mass way. At no other time in history has this taken place.”

Origins Canada, which advocates on behalf of “natural’ mothers, has called for an inquiry into the religious institutions that ran homes for unwed mothers and were involved in a “conspiracy of coerced and forced adoptions.” These homes received a substantial portion of their funding from provincial governments.

These babies were often put in the arms of childless couples, which addressed another social imbalance. “Post-war, there was a significant emphasis on the nuclear family,” says Lori Chambers, author of Misconceptions: Unmarried Motherhood and the Ontario Children of Unmarried Parents Act, 1921 to 1969. “Childless couples felt society was judging them a bit. It was very intense in the Ozzy and Harriet era. Adoption was the solution.”

For the unwed mothers, the homes could either feel like jail or an escape from a hostile home environment. Some girls were happy to be cloistered with others in their predicament, relieved to place their baby in a good home with more mature parents and return to their pre-pregnancy lives.

But Andrews maintains the girls were shown no other options than giving away their babies. The techniques used to dehumanize and weaken the girls included taking away their identity, freedom, power and choice.

Fifty years after her experience at Bethany House, Sandra still is not comfortable sharing her last name.

“The shame I feel is overwhelming,” she says.

She became pregnant by her soldier boyfriend in 1961. Nineteen years old at the time, she worked for the government as a data entry clerk but lived at home. Her parents made her quit her job in her fifth month and stay in her bedroom wearing a housecoat to hide her stomach.

When her dad couldn’t stand to look at her any longer, she was taken to Bethany.

Her father visited her once during the three months she was there. It was hot out that day, but when she walked across the street to his car she wore a heavy coat to hide her pregnancy. When she got in the back seat of his car, “He wouldn’t turn around to look at me,” she remembers.

“I was actually relieved to be [at Bethany]. It was better than home. But they really made me understand that adoption was the only option. I didn’t have a husband. They told me I couldn’t make it on my own. What I’d done was wrong.”

Her freedom of movement was strictly limited. She was sometimes allowed to go to a nearby corner store with other inmates. “We’d wear gloves so no one would see we didn’t have wedding rings,” she says.

The girls called these their “gloves of shame.”

Sue Foster’s parents told friends and neighbours that she was going away to a boarding school for a semester. “Switzerland would have been nice,” she says dryly, 42 years later.

The waiting room at Bethany House was beautifully appointed and the Major who ran it had an elegant office. But once past the locked doors, it was like a ward. Each room had a bed, a Bible and a night gown laid out.

Bethany’s inmates gave up their own clothing, money and belongings. They wore clothes that had been donated.

They also had to submit to a greater authority, whether the home administrators or God. They followed strict rules that included daily chores and chapel twice a day. If they did their chores properly, they were given money for the payphone.

Foster’s job was to sweep and mop the multiple flights of stairs. She had a dust allergy, and her coughing fits meant she didn’t finish on time. “I didn’t get a lot of rewards.”

She did get a lot of criticism.

“There was a daily barrage reminding us that we were there to give up our babies. We were bad people who disgraced our families.” she says.

One of Sandra’s jobs was to set the table for the Bethany House administrators and make sure it was “just so.”

She liked the strictness because she felt, in some ways, she needed to be punished for getting pregnant.

Some of the pregnant girls were sent to “wage homes” as “mother’s helpers.”

Verreault, 18 and pregnant, was sent to be a domestic servant for a mother who had five children. “It didn’t work out so well. I lost a lot of weight because I was working so hard.” She was moved to another home to assist a woman who had just adopted a baby from one of the unwed mothers at Bethany.

“Taking care of a baby when you were about to lose your own was pretty cruel,” says Verreault.

And the inmates also say they weren’t readied for labour, delivery or the aching emptiness that remained after their babies were gone.

Following a 20-hour labour, Foster was kept in a private room off the maternity floor, according to her father’s wishes.

A few days later, a nurse came up to the room carrying her baby. She asked Foster, “Do you want to see the most beautiful baby in the world?” Foster replied, “My father won’t let me.”

She only ever saw her baby’s back.

She still recalls how the emptiness felt. “There is a profound emptiness which is almost indescribable. The ache in my body was so horrible. I wanted to hold my child, my milk was there to feed her and I was supposed to act like none of this happened and go back to my normal life.”

After the birth, her mother bound her chest with a tensor bandage to hide her engorged breasts.

Sandra’s experience was different. She was allowed to hold and nurse her baby for several days before she was taken away by her parents’ lawyer. “Apparently, once I knew what it felt like to loose a baby, I’d never let myself end up pregnant and unmarried again.”

She can’t remember the baby’s face, but will never forget the yellow layette in which she was swaddled.

Morin, who had wanted to run away with her boyfriend, ended up marrying him. They wished they could have kept their first child.

“If we would have known we could have put him in foster care until we were the marrying age, we would have,” she says. “We were told we had no choice.”

Afterwards, they were told to move on, and Morin put up a moat around her heart.

“I was numb. I never cried. My dad would ask me, ‘What is the matter with you? Your house could blow up around you and you would just stand and laugh.’”

Bethany House evolved into a home that helps teenage mothers keep and care for their babies.

The Salvation Army declined to comment for this story, other than to say:

“These homes were operational during a time when there was a tremendous social stigma attached to being an unwed mother . . . The Salvation Army is currently conducting an internal review of the operation of these centers, including the treatment of our residents.”

The former inmates of Bethany House say they welcome such an investigation. Their stories remain a painful reminder of a time before the sexual revolution when girls who broke the rules were hidden away.

Source: Ottawa Citizen