Thursday, May 31, 2012

Crittenton today: Serving marginalized teens

Florence Crittenton moms and babies today
Last month fellow blogger Lorraine wrote about the responses of the Crittenton Foundation, Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army to Dan Rather Report: Adopted or Abducted. The program was critical of the role these agencies played in the Baby Scoop Era (1945 to 1973) in seducing young mothers to relinquish their infants for adoption. In their responses, only the Crittenton Foundation acknowledged the pain caused by the past practices of its affiliated agencies. Crittenton, it should be noted, operated about one-third of the approximately 200 confidential maternity homes which existed during that sad period.

In putting together the post, Lorraine noticed that the Crittenton Foundation was located in Portland, Oregon where I live. Curious about what Crittenton is doing now, I contacted the President Jeannette Pai-Espinsosa and we met for lunch last week.

It turns out that Jeannette and I both worked for state government during Gov. Barbara Roberts' administration (1991-1995). In an interesting coincidence, Gov. Roberts, had been a teen mother herself, and was thus committed to helping pregnant teens. She knew the need. The Salem, Oregon High School for teen parents is named after her.

Today there are still 27 Crittenton agencies around the country. Some of them, like the San Francisco agency I visited briefly when I was pregnant, are no longer residential. Though all operate as separate entities under a Crittenton umbrella, their mission is the same: “to support the empowerment, self-sufficiency, and the end of cycles of destructive behaviors and relationships for girls, young women and their families who live at the margin of the American dream.” Many still are residential homes for young women;  others are not, but provide in-home care, education and parenting classes to pregnant teens and teen mothers. The focus is on teens in foster care, as they have few resources, are poorly informed about their rights, and are often subject to pressures from child welfare agencies to relinquish their babies. Additionally, Crittenton agencies serve girls who have been sexually abused or trafficked for sex, who are addicted to drugs, and others who simply need help.

The Foundation operates a search service to help former residents and adult adoptees whose mothers were confined at Crittenton homes to connect. At its website, you can see the names of the people who have registered, and the information they provided, state by state. Former Crittenton residents also operate a reunion registry, Florence Crittenton Home Reunion Registry.

When I became pregnant in 1966, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. I was from a prominent family in town, and it was unquestionable that I had to go somewhere else. I decided upon San Francisco, where I had been as a tourist and knew was a hip place, but also where I knew no one. I didn't know anything about how adoption worked, but I had heard of Crittenton. I knew it was associated with young women "in trouble" and that pregnant girls stayed there before surrendering their babies. In fact, a woman in my dorm who had confided in me that she had given up a child for adoption had stayed at the Crittenton home in Seattle. Assuming that "Crittenton" was the gateway for all things single pregnant women needed, I headed to the Florence Crittenton home. It was a two-story building which could have been mistaken for an ordinary office building, I saw two young women coming out the front door in long coats, walking in tandem, heads held high, hands folded in front of them. Ironically, they reminded me of the nuns I used to see when I was a girl in Chicago.
Charles Crittenton

I entered the building into a small reception area. In front of me was a locked door. To my left was a counter opening into an office. A candy bowl filled with rings--they appeared to be made of copper wire--sat on the counter, clearly there for residents to wear on their outings, giving them that all important indicator of marriage. I explained my "situation" to a pleasant middle-aged who came to the counter. She called someone on the phone and pushed a button to open the door. I went through a short hallway into a large, comfortable living room, where I was met by a woman in her 30’s who told me that Crittenton was not an adoption agency, that San Francisco was swamped with single pregnant women wanting to place their babies for adoption, and that I should go to a county adoption agency, preferably in the suburbs. Eventually, however, I gave up my daughter through the San Francisco County agency.

Years later I learned that contrary to what I knew in 1966--that Crittenton groomed mothers to give up their babies--Crittenton had not always been about separating mothers and babies. Charles Crittenton, who made a fortune in the wholesale drug business, founded Crittenton Homes as refuges for “lost and fallen women,” opening the first home in New York City in 1883. The San Francisco Home was opened a few years later as the Florence Crittenton Home Association for Erring Women. [Emphasis ours.] Within a few years, he teamed up with a physician, Kate Waller Barrett, and opened more homes, all “engaged in the work of reclaiming unfortunate women.” At its height, there were 76 homes in five countries. Among other services, the homes provided maternity services for poor single pregnant women, giving them a safe place to nurture their babies, often for several years, and training them to provide for their children in the future. Until the 1940's, Crittenton homes required mothers keep their babies at least for six months. Then they reversed their position, adopting the views of social "reformers" that adoption was the answer to white unwed pregnancy. 

The demand for Crittenton's services declined in the late sixties as mores relaxed, and women began keeping their babies. Roe v. Wade sealed the fate of confidential maternity homes. In 1955, 90,000 infants were placed for adoption, 50 years later the number was closer to 15,000.

Kate Waller Barrett
Besides assisting the Crittenton agencies, the foundation lobbies Congress for funds to sustain “practices to that will break cycles of destructive behavior and attack root causes like poverty, racism, and sexism.” I asked Jeannette if legislators ever told her that these girls should just give their babies up for adoption rather than receive public resources. “Yes,” she answered, “I hear that all the time.”

Maternity homes continue to exist, now called “Birthmother Housing,” operated by adoption agencies and free for those who give up their babies. No longer hidden in spartan inner-city buildings, mothers-to-be may enjoy spa-like facilities. Edna Gladney, a Texas agency advertises a free dorm “in a park-like setting with a beautiful swimming pool, a cozy fireplace in the living room, beautiful and charming bedrooms, a fitness center, [and] exciting activities such as shopping trips, eating out, sports events, movies, museums trips and other special events going on in the Fort Worth/Dallas area.” A far cry from the SF Flo Crit which offered only secrecy--and use of a copper wire ring.

We would love to hear from first mothers who stayed at Crittenton homes, or otherwise had contact with Crittenton during their pregnancy. What was your experience like?
From FMF:
Deconstructing the Responses to Adoption or Abducted

For more information:
The National Crittenton Foundation
Florence Crittenton Homes Reunion Registry
Gladney Center

Wake Up Little Susie by historian Rickie Solinger is an excellent and illuminating look at the times and the influences on young women to surrender their babies. Highly recommended.


  1. I was not pregnant when I was in Paterdale (a Crittenton home in Phoenix, AZ), but I remember it well. I was a young girl, age 12. The pregnant girls were so sad and the nuns and staff there were so very unkind.

    I stayed there for over 3 weeks as a child waiting to be returned to home or placed in foster care. I will never forget the girls... the young mothers.

  2. "... that San Francisco was swamped with single pregnant women wanting to place their babies for adoption"

    I wonder if WANTING is really the operative word here. Should be more like, had no other choice. Also, how telling that there were so many of these facilities in the country with so many unmarried pregnant women and yet society was still pretending that sex was only for marriage.

  3. @Robin - Thank you for taking the time to question the use of the word "wanting" in reference to losing a child to adoption. I suspect it's very rare for any woman to "want" adoption for her child. I personally don't know a single one.

  4. Gail, Robin,

    You're right. I doubt that all these young women "wanted" to place their babies. I think "wanted" was the word the social worker used. I suspect many of these young women were like me, resigned to their fate. The SWs assumed that adoption was their choice and didn't bother to explore other options with them.

  5. After reading this post I can't help but wonder to this day why we just resigned ourselves to the fate that we couldn't raise our own child. I am sure that many went down fighting but as much as I knew I didn't want to sign, I did.
    And as Jane said they just assumed that is what we wanted and didn't really bother to tell us there may have been another way.

  6. Me too, Janet... I didn't "want" to sign, but I did...

    She had a heart condition, and I had no medical insurance and no place to go... unfortunately, they did NOT tell us "other" options! Just sign...

  7. I resided at a Crittenton House in Brighton, MA in 1960. Much as I didn't want to, I surrendered my daughter for adoption, as it seemed the best thing I could do for HER. I always felt that the staff at Crittenton were so supportive as to make that time almost bearable. At no time was I pressured to give up my baby. I was offered counseling every step of the way. They even secured free legal assistance for me that convinced the birthfather to share my expenses.

    I have recently published a novel based on my experience in which Crittenton House comes off as a mainly supportive environment. Check out it out at Amazon:: Intermission: A First Mother's Story.

    Recently, while doing research for this book, I visited the same Crittenton in Brighton to refresh my memory. I was so pleased to see that now their main purpose is to assist young women who want to keep their babies.

  8. I also "resided" in Brighton one summer, and contrary to the posts' I've read about, the staff was wonderful and supportive.Almost all the posts I've seen, say the birth moms wanted to keep their babies.That's not what I saw. Most, nearly all,thought adoption was the right choice for them.I clearly remember one woman that had given birth and was back at the home, arguing with her parents, because they wanted her to keep the baby, but she was adamant about giving him up.Another womens' boyfriend came home from the service on leave, and wanted to take her out and get married, and she said no.There were a few that would have liked to parent, but didn't have the support they needed.
    Sue b.


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