When my surrendered daughter Rebecca and I connected in 1997, I began learning about the quest to open records and open adoptions. I was excited to hear others say what I had thought but never spoke--that being adopted was not the same as being raised in one's biological family and that mothers continued to have pain long after they lost their children. Over the next several years, I met or heard speak many of the proponents of what I considered to be the new thinking about adoption. Jean Paton, however, was a shadowy older figure, someone from the past who had largely been replaced by younger more forceful leaders who spoke at conferences and appeared on television. In Prof. Carp's book I discovered a woman whose views--which went back to the 1950's--were in tune with my own views developed half a century later.
|E. Wayne Carp|
Jaen Paton was born in 1908 to a single mother and placed in an orphanage. She was adopted twice--after a first adoption failed she was re-adopted at three by a physician and his wife in Michigan. A brilliant student, she floundered at college, switching schools and changing her course of studies. She eventually landed in social work, but not until she was in her forties and able to live off a sizable inheritance did she find her true calling--pressing for changes in adoption. By 1953, she was collecting stories of adoptees, turning them into a ground-breaking book, The Adopted Break Silence.
Before Paton, books about adopted babies, especially around the theme of the "chosen" baby, were available, but only a few books by adult adoptees. Realizing that if she simply wrote an autobiography, the unadopted would view her beliefs as a product solely of her own personality development, Carp writes, and they would have no broader application. That was unacceptable. So instead, Carp writes, she focused on the "undesirable aspects in adoption policy--the growth of secrecy in adoption records, the failure to recognize the existence of adult adoptees, and the erasure of the birth parents from the memory of the adoptive family." Paton had unquestionably hit on the very themes that we in adoption reform are still dealing with today.
Paton began her search for her first mother about the same time she began writing. She found her in 1955, when Paton was 47, and her mother was 69. They developed a warm relationship in spite of living in separate states. Paton was never able to find her first father, James Kittson, However she did begin using the pseudonym Ruth Kittson in 1969, combining his last name with the first name her natural mother had given her. In fact, she self-published a book, Orphan Voyage, under the name Ruth Hill Kittson, though the author's note weirdly says that it is the pen name of Jean M. Paton, a clear example of her own identity dichotomy.
In the mid-Seventies, Paton encouraged first mothers Mary Anne Cohen and Lee Campbell to form an organization, which they called Concerned United Birthparents, with the stated purpose to be primarily a mutual-support organization, while also lobbying for laws and policies conducive to the needs of birth parents, and promoting open adoptions. However, Carp adds this: "Significantly, although birth mothers longed to know how their children were doing, searching for them was not mentioned in the bylaws."
A few years later, Paton worked with other reformers to create a national organization, the American Adoption Congress, to bring together those committed to search and reunion. Paton was soon at odds with AAC, believing that it was dominated by those in the social sciences and professional searchers, people who were making money from search and reunion, and in the case of social scientists, the very people Paton considered responsible for the problems in adoption.
|Florence Fisher and her first father|
Paton was also disagreed with the leading "helping professionals," Annette Baran, a social worker, Arthur Sorosky, a child psychiatrist, and Reuben Pannor, director of social work and research at Vista Del Mar Child-Care Services, who had formed the Adoption Research Project in Los Angeles. As Carp writes: "They became the most prominent intellectuals in the movement and provided it with a social scientists perspective. ...They medicalized the sealed records issue. They made adoptee identity conflicts central to the adoption reform movement by using the discourse of social scientists to demonstrate the therapeutic value of adoptee searches and reunions."
|Betty Jean Lifton|
Baran, Sorosky, and Pannor advocated the use of adoption agencies to assist with searches and act as "'an intermediary between adoptee, birth parent and adoptive parents." Carp quotes directly from Paton's letters: "I really do not want any of the professionals, 'social workers in particular,' to hold my hand. I want them to unseal records and stay out of my business.'" Lifton and others however, defended Sorosky and his colleagues, and found their work valuable in moving the discussion forward and bringing the kind of media attention to adoption issues that Paton had been unable to.
Paton's views evolved over her 93 years. In her later years years, Carp notes that she became stridently anti-adoption, recognizing "the crucial importance of kinship and the preservation of the nuclear family." In a letter she wrote that "'the entire program of changing the sealed records' through the law would not alter the damage already done to children separated from their parents. Stopping all adoptions had the added benefit ... of taking 'most of the search money and the therapy money out of this picture.'" Then in a gratuitous slam, she added: '"these people who had been supporting themselves in this way will have to go to work.'"
In place of adoption, Paton advocated guardianship for needy children which would maintain the connection between natural parents and their children. Later she went "beyond guardianship as she put forward a series of proposals that would prevent the removal of children from their birth parents and, if the children were relinquished, make the eventual reunion easier. She publicly advocated that children must keep their original names if they had to be transferred to new homes; they must maintain an active connection to their original families; and babies must be kept with their mothers after birth and nursed (if possible)."
Carp ends the book summarizing Mary Anne Cohen's tribute to Paton from the CUB Communicator after her death in 2002:
"'We owe a huge debt to the courage and foresight of this lone adoptee who dared to 'break the silence' about how it feels to be adopted and denied one's heritage.' Paton was the first to create a support network, the first to suggest that birth mothers have their own group, the first to claim 'bastard as a term of pride.' ...Jean fought the good fight with compassion, grace, intellect, and soul.'"Carp's biography provides the historical perspective necessary to those of us who work for reforming adoption. Although it is extremely detailed and at times tedious, it's well worth reading. Although Paton was clearly a difficult woman, I think I would have liked her. She was a lone voice at times, a Cassandra able to predict the future but cursed with the inability to convince others, an outlier in the movement she started--I can relate to that.
Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption
To order, click on the link above of the book jacket. Thank you for ordering through First Mother Forum.Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption
Other books by E. Wayne Carp:
Other books by E. Wayne Carp:
Adoption Politics: Bastard Nation and Ballot Measure 58;
Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives