(This article was published in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Valerie Andrews says the memories are burned into her mind. She was 17 when her family sent her to stay in a maternity home for unwed mothers in 1969.
On the surface, these homes-many of which were run by or supported by churches or individual church members-provided a refuge, shielding girls and women from the social stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock, but Andrews and other women say there is another side to the story. They say they were coerced into giving up babies they wanted to keep, by methods that included shaming, intimidation and withholding information about alternatives.
Andrews recalls her amazement when a new roommate told her she was keeping her baby. “Are we allowed to do that?” Andrews asked. She went to see one of the matrons in charge of the home, a brigadier of the Salvation Army who greeted her pleasantly, but when she said she wanted to keep her baby, the woman’s demeanour changed. “‘How dare you come in here with a [request] like that? You selfish girl…’ ” She just took a strip off me,” Andrews said. The matron dismissed her roommate’s situation as exceptional and told her to get back to work. Afterwards, Andrews said the woman “was doggedly on me whenever she saw me,” once interrupting her work scrubbing floors to tell her she looked “disgusting” and to go find a “looser garment.”
Andrews relinquished her son for adoption, but she when she accessed her file years later, a social worker had noted that she wanted to take her baby home. She did not have the support of her parents, which was presented as the only way she could keep her baby. No one told her about social assistance. Her painful experience did, however, inspire her in 2009 to become the executive director of Origins Canada, the Canadian branch of an organization that supports and advocates for people separated by adoption.
Many mothers say homes for unwed mothers treated them with the same stigmatization they were supposed to shield them from and that there was a punitive atmosphere of shame. Women who wanted to keep their babies were told they were being selfish. Photo: Humewood House
According to Andrews, the majority of the 60 to 80 maternity homes that operated over the years in Canada were affiliated with the Catholic Church and the Salvation Army; a small number had ties to the Anglican and United churches and other denominations. Once, mothers faced less pressure to give up their babies because motherhood was seen as redemptive, said Andrews, who is researching this history for her M.A. at York University. But particularly after World War II, the government was encouraging women to give up their wartime jobs and return to the home. There was a great societal emphasis on motherhood. That included was pressure for married women who didn’t have children to have them, and for unmarried mothers to keep their pregnancy and child a secret, so that they would again be considered marriageable. Andrews argues that the government created a social experiment, “systemic, institutional policies and practices creating an adoption mandate and subsequent mass surrender,” that punished unwed mothers and rewarded married ones with babies available for adoption. Her research indicates that at least 350,000 women were subjected to these policies and pressures from 1942 to 1972.
Annette Stokes was 16 years old when she became pregnant in 1964. Her family sent her to Toronto’s Humewood House. The home was established in 1912 by a committee of St. Thomas’ Church, Huron Street in Toronto, which became the Humewood House Association. “The whole environment in those days was such that you were to be not seen…I felt like a criminal actually… something subhuman,” Stokes said.
Not knowing of any alternative, she signed an adoption consent form, but once she had given birth, she was so insistent that she wanted to see her daughter that hospital staff reluctantly allowed her, on the third day, to hold Joyce, as she had named her.
Stokes managed to find out which foster home her daughter was in and secretly visited her regularly. She thinks her mother found her photos and alerted Children’s Aid Society (CAS) staff, who arranged a quick adoption.
Stokes had contested her consent, but her plea was dismissed by a judge who deemed that her job did not provide sufficient income. He did not inform her of any social assistance available. Stokes feels the experience tainted her life; she never had another child. She and her daughter have since found each other, but she says efforts to reconnect are a difficult road.
Origins Canada has met with officials from the Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches. Andrews says she wants the churches to support Origins’ call for a parliamentary or a senate committee to investigate these issues. Origins is also asking the churches to make a joint statement in favour of open records across Canada. “Six provinces still have closed records where…an adoptee cannot even get their own birth certificate,” Andrews said.
So far, she says she is very encouraged by the churches’ “participation, by their active listening, by their compassionate responses to the mothers.”
The Salvation Army has met with Origins and is discussing the issue with other churches involved, spokesman Lt. Colonel Neil Watt told the Journal.
Michael Thompson, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, said he is glad that this issue is “coming to light because it gives us an opportunity to respond to those emotional and spiritual needs that come out of a sense of abandonment on the part of many children and traumatic loss on part of many mothers and fathers as well.”
Origins Canada can be contacted at [email protected] or by phone at 416-400-5730.
Editor’s note: Additional information has been added to the web version of this article.