Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

Growing in the Dark: Adoption Secrecy and its Consequences

Janine M. Baer


Growing out of a Master's thesis, this book is thoroughly researched and meticulously documented. Baer, who is herself adopted and reunited with her family, quotes Adam Pertmen of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute for the title of her book:

Beautiful things don't grow in the dark, they grow in the light, so we should all be very grateful that adoption is finally emerging from the shadows.

The first chapter provides an overview of the book, and shows that those adopted have been searching for their families much, much longer than current adoption stories would have us believe. Baer's work is centred in California, the state in which she lives. She documents searches in the 1920s and the sympathetic portrayal by the Child Welfare League of these searches. She documents the lack of birth certificates at the time due to shoddy social work practice which prevented individuals from ever travelling abroad as one example of the difficulties those adopted faced.

Throughout the book, Baer examines official records, newspaper accounts and literature from social workers of the period, to find that in California, social workers and their organizations had never argued for closed adoption records between 1925 and 1945. The only confidentiality mentioned was confidentiality for adoptive families, to prevent them from being contacted by the original families of the children they raised. Social workers also wanted to be able to ensure their clients (mostly middle class, white prospective adoptive parents) that they were getting white children who were not feeble-minded, to use the terminology of the time.

Because of the shame of unmarried motherhood, adoption practice seemed to choose between hiding babies or hiding records. That is, until every child was recorded on a birth certificate, it was easy to transfer children with no one the wiser. Bills to seal records then appeared from the 1930s to the 1990s in the US. Newspaper articles of the time make clear that legislators enacted these laws in some cases to prevent 'unscrupulous persons' from obtaining 'access to the adoption records' and blackmailing 'the adopted parents by threatening to tell the child it was adopted.' (p. 19) Thus, sealing adoption records was a way to ensure adoptive parents could lie to the children they raise with impunity.

Baer also documents how sealed adoption records allowed 'baby farmers' like Gerogia Tann in Tennessee, Gertrude Pitkanen in Montana and William and Lila Young in Nova Scotia to operate with impunity. In some cases, more babies died in their hands than were adopted. Baby selling and baby stealing operate more easily under closed adoption records: how can one track what happened 20 or more years later without any records? Indeed, Georgia Tann could possibly have been one of the people to support closing records in California. If someone of her ilk thought closed records are a good thing, one has to ask why. She certainly made money from her baby farming operations. How can the current push for 'Safe Havens' not lead to the same thing that these operations did: babies taken from mothers and 'given' to a safe haven to allow adoption without strings and without possibility of reunion, and large 'legal' and agency fees to those making arrangements?

The book concludes with research and historical information on the drive for opening records and clear support for doing so. Extensive notes and bibliographic information make it an excellent resource for those arguing for open records. Certainly the closing of records in California was not a unique situation and this book describes the pattern for the way it happened throughout North America.

Clearly, closed adoption records and the secrecy they generate do not benefit those adopted or the mothers, fathers, and family members who have lost them. Those who benefit are the baby brokers and agencies, and they benefit financially. This should tell us something about the inherent immorality of this practice and those who support it.

Reviewer: Sandra Falconer Pace

(2004) Xlibris Corporaton
ISBN: 1-4134-4498-9
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