Updated: Jun 12, 2022
At the beginning of 2021, Ireland's leader issued an apology to women who endured the humiliation, emotional and psychological abuse inflicted by state and church-run mother-and-baby Homes during the last half of the 20th Century. In November, National Adoption Awareness Month in the United States, the Irish government went a step further and promised financial reparations to these mothers.
The issue was first explored in the film, The Magdalene Sisters, and gained increased international attention when the movie Philomena,
starring Dame Judy Dench in the title role of Philomena Lee, who was forced to surrender her son, received international acclaim and twenty-two awards. Lee has been a tireless advocate, raising awareness and even receiving an audience with Pope Francis in 2014.
Actor Liam Neesen has recently announced plans to produce a major film about the Tuam mother and baby home, where some 800 infants and children died and were discovered to have buried in what euphemistically have been called unmarked graves, but were in fact sewer pits.
Government officials in Australia and Canada, along with the United Church of Canada, have made similar gestures in recent years, acknowledging coercive relinquishment practices and resultant trauma and loss inflicted upon mostly unwed mothers who were declared unfit and separated from their babies.
Some have sought to minimize similar damaging practices in the US during the last half of the 20th century, a period dubbed the "Baby Scoop Era" when shame and secrecy, rather than truth and transparency, dominated - and in many states still dominate - adoption policy. But books like Anne Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away and subsequent documentary A Girl Like Her, along with The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond chronicle the traumatic experiences endured by American unwed mothers.
Denver became a destination for pregnant girls and women, attracting unwed mothers from the Midwest and Rocky Mountain region sent away by their families, who often explained to neighbors that "Susie" had gone to visit an aunt or study in another city for a few months. Organizations like Florence Crittenton Services and Booth Memorial (shown in photo below), The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Fairhaven (whose tag line was "Better Girls, Better Babies, Better Homes") housed thousands of expectant mothers over a period of decades, sometimes requiring that they use fictitious names and censored their mail.
Some mothers who surrendered their parental rights, often under duress, report more compassionate treatment that others, but leaving their babies to be placed with strangers was excruciating, with long-term emotional impact. Several mothers have told me that they were threatened with jail time by a prominent Denver Juvenile Court Judge if they ever sought to find their child.
A small group of Colorado birth-first mothers did receive an apology from the State Senator Mike Johnston in a 2014 committee hearing, after they testified in favor of a bill that would codify their right to receive copies of documents they signed during the relinquishment process. The committee was stunned to learn that many women had - and still have - no legal representation during the process and received no copies of records they signed. The emotion in the room after Sen. Johnston's apology was palpable, and mother in attendance a
told me, after the bill moved unanimously out of committee, that is was a powerful, healing experience.
It was a meaningful start, but due to its small scale, it was not enough. If Australia's Prime Minister can issue a formal apology in a press conference, and the nation can dedicate a park and erect a sculpture in honor of its mothers who lost children to adoption against their will; and if Canadian officials can acknowledge similar wrongs, along with injustices that essentially amounted to state kidnapping of children from indigenous tribes, which some have described as cultural genocide; and if Ireland can offer an apology and financial reparations to generations of mothers, then each US state - and the nation as a whole - would do well to pay close attention and follow the examples set by other nations.
Time for healing is running short, as many of these women are nearing, or have already reached, the end of their lives. Which state will have the courage to step up and lead the nation in this important, long overdue gesture of atonement and reconciliation?