For decades in the mid-20th century, adoptions in the U.S. were shrouded in secrecy.
Millions of expecting, unwed mothers were sent away to hide their babies from the disapproving public eye. Their infants were often given to couples in closed adoptions, which meant the birth mother and child would lose their shared history — permanently.
In "American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption,” journalist and author Gabrielle Glaser weaves the troubled history of adoptions through the story of one mother and her child.
Margaret Erle gave birth to her biological son, Stephen Mark Erle, whose name was later changed to David Rosenberg, in 1961. She was pregnant out of wedlock, an illegal act at the time in New York state, Glaser says.
“Her baby was taken from her by a very predatory adoption system that existed in New York but also existed nationwide,” she says.
It didn’t matter that 16-year-old Erle and George Katz, her boyfriend who eventually became her husband, were deeply in love, in a committed relationship and willing to care for the child, she says. They desperately tried everything to prove to New York City social workers that they were fit to be parents, she says.
The system simply did not care, Glaser says, and neither did Erle and Katz’s parents.
Erle, whisked off to a repurposed estate for unwed mothers, was “kept under lock and key” around the clock, she says. At the maternity home, a strict regime of chores was to be performed each day. Glaser says workers would read the young women’s diaries and incoming and outgoing letters.
“They were watched as if they were toddlers at a preschool,” she says.
When a baby was due, a mother would be taken to the hospital where she would often be pressured to sign papers that were then sealed and kept from her, essentially erasing records and any connection to the child, Glaser says. As Glaser writes in “American Baby,” Erle was threatened with jail time if she didn’t sign away her parental rights.
The original birth certificate would be sealed and an amended one would be created with the adoptive parents’ names, she says. The state’s system had, by design, successfully held information from Erle and many other mothers so they couldn’t track down their children.
“The theory was that it would protect the child from the taint of illegitimacy, protect the mother from the legacy of her alleged wantonness,” she says, “but most importantly, it would protect the adoptive parents from anybody ever coming to interfere with their newly created family.”
This occurred on a profound scale across the country, she says.
At the time, “the sexual revolution was simmering” in the post-World War II era and the culture was beginning to shift, she says. U.S. soldiers were coming home and were unlikely to remain celibate with their girlfriends.
Simultaneously, middle-class Americans were fueling the explosive suburban expansion, where for the first time, teenagers were able to revel in the privacy of their own bedrooms and back seats of family Buicks, Glaser says.
“The rate of unwed pregnancies skyrocketed between 1946 and the late 1960s, and there was no abortion. That was illegal,” she explains. “There was no birth control, even for married couples in some states until the late 1960s, and there was certainly no sex education.”
Those factors combined led to about 3.5 million young women getting pregnant outside of marriage, she says.
Here & Now host Peter O’Dowd’s mother was one of them.
Two and a half years ago, O’Dowd received a phone call from his mom. She asked if he was sitting down for what she was about to reveal to him — that he had a half sister he didn’t know about.
O’Dowd’s mom explained that in 1970, she was sent to a maternity home to have her baby, just like Erle was coerced to do. Now 50 years later, on the phone with her son, she cried as she recalled the painful memories of giving away her daughter.
She was able to find her daughter through a DNA test — the same experience that connected David Rosenberg to his biological parents, Erle and Katz, after so many years of longing to meet.
When Rosenberg was searching for his biological parents, he told Glaser he thought his mother probably had forgotten about him. Glaser found that to be “impossible,” she says, and became convinced that somewhere out there, Rosenberg’s mom was scouring for him.
“And it turned out that I was right,” Glaser says. “She had been looking. She had doggedly, indefatigably left medical records once she and George [Katz] had gotten married. And she thought that this information was reaching him.”
Erle’s efforts over the years to leave records out for her son were fruitless, a gut-wrenching scenario that could have been avoided if the original birth records weren’t sealed for an eternity.
Little has changed in the U.S. since unethical adoptions and maternity homes were commonplace, Glaser says. Many of these women continue to carry the burden of shame, a weight put on their backs by their own families, communities and religious institutions, she says.
Today, only 10 states have completely opened their records, she says, meaning adoptees have the option to access their original birth certificates. Kansas and Alaska never sealed their records, she says.
The other 38 states either contain restrictions to original records or remain closed, she says.
Adoptees or biological parents often rely on private investigators or “hit or miss” DNA testing to find their family members, she says, something that “is certainly not a substitute for having access to one's original vital document — that piece of paper that tells you who you are.”
If you're searching for your birth family or your own child, or if you've been reunited, share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet host Peter O'Dowd.
This segment aired on January 26, 2021.