Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The American Adoption Era, and Louise Wise Agency

Lakeview Home for Unwed Jewish Mothers, Staten Island, NY
For thirty years, from 1945 to 1975, there was an increased rate of pregnancies outside of marriage that did not immediately result in either speedy ‘shotgun’ marriages or adoptions into the mothers’ extended families, and hence an increase of babies channeled into the adoption business. And business it was. In the United States, well-to-do parents of pregnant daughters would pay to send their daughters “away” to places such as, Florence Critterton Homes, or in New York City, the Lakeview Home for Unwed Jewish Mothers. Girls from poorer families often ended up at homes operated by religious organizations. At the other end of the process, thousands of families were clamoring to adopt children. The numbers were staggering; for a time, for every child that was placed, there were ten families still waiting for a baby. Whether by fee or ‘donation,’ money flowed in from that end, too.  

Estimates of the total number of adoptions during the ‘adoption era’ range from 1.5 to 4.0 million. Most of the women giving up children were young and unmarried, trapped by conservative postwar mores that forbade premarital sex and restricted birth control, even as the sexual revolution simmered.

The hardship on these birth mothers was intense and long lasting. Once ensconced in a ‘home’ they were not given any option toward choosing to leave with their child. They were counseled to never tell anyone, even their husbands if they later married. One woman recounted pretending she was a ‘virgin’ after her wedding and how ironic that felt given that she had already been in a sexual relationship and given birth.

The end of the adoption era – meaning, specifically, the decline of a supply of white babies from birth mothers living in the United States – was the consequence of several changes. Major among these were the growing availability of effective birth control, legalization of abortion and acceptance of single parenthood. It was in 1965 that the Supreme Court ruled for a constitutional right of married couples to use birth control, and then in 1972 that the same right applied to unmarried people. January 1973 saw Supreme Court legalization of abortion. The U.S. prevalence of single parenthood (which includes children of divorce in addition to never-married) is among the highest in the world.   

And what has all this to do with Maynard? Nothing. It’s about me. I was one of the products of Lakeview Home, which channeled its babies to the Louise Wise Adoption Agency. Louise Wise closed its doors in 2004, after 90-plus years of infant brokering. All records were turned over to another agency. According to what I received from Spence-Chapin in 2007, I was born in 1951, with a document showing a birth name given by my biological mother. The records go on to state that my birth mother was Jewish, single, 20.5 years old, born in the U.S., 5'6", blond hair, blue eyes, high school graduate, working in textile design, interested in arts and music. My birth father was described as Jewish, single, either 20 or 23 years old, born in U.S., 6' tall, black hair, brown eyes. Each had a brother, so out there, somewhere, two uncles, and cousins.  

All of this possibly false. The Louise Wise Agency became notorious for having given out bogus information about birth parents. For example, children surrendered by women who were institutionalized for mental illnesses were given similarly detailed ‘glowing’ backgrounds. The thinking at the time was that schizophrenia, depression, autism and bipolar disorders were the results of how children had been raised, so giving an adopted child a ‘clean’ family medical history would allow the nurture of the adopting parents to outweigh any presumed influences of nature, i.e., genetics of the birth parents. Louise Wise also did some secret twins splitting, and in one infamous instance triplets splitting, to see what the outcomes were when the infants were placed with families of different socioeconomic states.  

There was a five-month gap between my birth and adoption. This was not unusual. Babies were often kept in foster care for months to a year, some times more, so that placement social workers could observe their health and responses to rudimentary intelligence tests, so that they might be matched with appropriate families. During the holding period, some were made available to home economics classes, so that unmarried women could practice being mothers. (Eeeek!)

Louise Wise fostered infants with families. There is not enough information to determine if families had more than one infant at a time, or how closely infant health was monitored. In my records and others, it appears that a 'psychological examination' was conducted at age three months. I was described to be "...an alert and responsive child functioning in the superior range of intelligence." There are no authenticated tests for infants that measure intelligence, so no idea what this is about.

A few years back I went through DNA analysis, not it the hope of finding biological relatives (and relieved I did not), but rather to get information on genetics of my biological father. The answer confirmed Ashkenazi Jewish on that side, too.   

 

2 comments:

  1. Hi David,
    I’m also a product of Louise Wise and the lake view home in 1954.
    I have reunited with my birth family and it’s been a very happy experience. I consider them as much my family as my adoptive one, and more so in the siblings.
    If you’d like to chat, I’m available
    Suzy Saffitz Tisinger on Facebook.

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  2. Leaning toward not trying to find a birth mother who would be 90-91 if still alive. Furthermore, relieved that DNA testing did not discover any close relatives, such as father, aunts, uncles, half-sibs, niece or nephews, or first cousins.

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