DES MOINES, Iowa — Giving a newborn child up for adoption can be the most difficult decision a mother or family can make. However, the secrecy that surrounded some adoptions decades ago created a generation of children with no idea who their birth parents were.
This period of time, which lasted from about 1943 to 1970, is known as the “Baby Scoop Era.” Author and filmmaker Ann Fessler has spent decades researching the lives shattered by adoption practices of the past.
“They would tell a women her baby died because then she would be able to forget about it and let it go,” Fessler recounted. “They sensed the birth mother was going to have a lot of trouble, so if they say the baby didn’t live, they wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.”
That scenario unfolded for Tom Taylor and his fiancé Barb in 1969.
They decided to give their baby up for adoption weeks before her birth because they worried how people would react to their pregnancy.
“It was a terrible situation…it was our fear that our secret would be found out,” Taylor said.
The separation from their child became a situation that weighed on Taylor’s mind for more than 50 years.
“Barb begged to hold her and they wouldn’t let her…the report said she was out of control and she was, because she wanted to hold that baby,” Taylor said about his fiancé. “They told her, ‘I’m sorry Mrs. Taylor – your baby has passed away.'”
However, the baby lived. Recently, Taylor finally reunited with her for the first time since her birth.
“I cried and cried and cried,” Taylor said about the reunion. “To have that physical person in front of me was amazing. I saw my wife in her.”
Fessler chronicled more than a hundred stories similar to the Taylors in her book, “The Girls Who Went Away.” An estimated 1.5 million women surrendered their babies within the Baby Scoop Era; Fessler said many of those women did not discuss it until they interviewed with her.
“The women themselves had been told to never tell this horrible secret about their lives,” Fessler said. “At the time, it was considered so shameful. They were stuck in the shame of that time and how they were treated.”
The list of women forced to keep this secret includes Jane Metcalf, who talked with WHO 13 in 2019 about her life story.
Metcalf became pregnant in 1970. She recounted that her family told outsiders she had been sent to live with family when trying to keep her pregnancy under wraps. Instead, she was sent to a home for unwed mothers.
“The housemother took me to the hospital, got me signed in, and you were on your own,” Metcalf said. “It was a tiny beige hospital room with pictures of Jesus on the walls. No tv, no nothing…just a nurse coming in to see how much you were dilated. It was horrifying.”
Metcalf said she made the decision to give her son up for adoption herself, but the birth experience floods her mind with unshakable memories of loss and separation.
“They put a mask over my head and got me into the delivery room,” Metcalf said. “I remember the doors pushing open…I woke up and I was in my room and that was it.”
“I knew it was a healthy boy, but I never saw him,” Metcalf recalled. “I knew what decision I had made, so there was a certain amount of numbness because there was nothing I could do.”
The Baby Scoop Era also affected the babies themselves as they grew into adulthood.
That includes Deann Cook, who was told her birth certificate itself was a lie.
“None of the names are accurate and that’s not what happened on July 29th 1969,” Cook Said. “My parents didn’t know me.”
The names listed on her birth certificate were of her adoptive parents. Cook eventually found her birth mother after searching for her.
“We had a really full relationship and our family was one big family,” Cook said.
The secret is emotional for many mothers to discuss, as Fessler discovered during her research.
“I don’t think I made it through any interview without tears running down my face, and they certainly didn’t,” Fessler said. “Their pain was so palpable, just horrible sadness and trauma.”
“They had been carrying this shame and secrecy and felt they were living a lie,” Fessler continued. “It turns out those lies are coming out now because people are meeting and comparing notes.”
Fessler used her notes to produce the film ‘A Girl Like Her,” which recounts many of the stories of the Baby Scoop Era. She herself is an adoptee, and she hopes her research can help families understand the pressure young women experienced when surrendering their newborn children.
“Many of them were begging not to give up this child, but they were on this conveyor belt and they could not go backwards,” Fessler said. “If they were in high school or college, they were kicked out because they were pregnant and could not return. If they were a teacher or nurse, they could not continue in their job.”
“They were looking at a future that was bleak, which is how the agencies and churches and everybody was able to convince them,” Fessler continued. “They told them, ‘You don’t want a life like that for your child.’”