' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Jean Paton: A reformer ahead of her time

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Jean Paton: A reformer ahead of her time

Jean Paton, the pioneer of adoption reform was not an activist; that was left to adoptee Florence Fisher, as well as our own first mother Lorraine Dusky, and many others. Although Paton was convinced that adoptees needed to reunite with their birth family to become whole, she eschewed behavioral scientists, she left it to adoptee Betty Jean Lifton and others to frame adoption separation in psychological terms. Paton was a visionary who saw beyond opening records and psychological cures for primal wounds, arguing for replacing adoption with guardianship, allowing children to keep their original identities and connection to their birth families. She was brilliant and courageous but also disagreeable and argumentative; her writings were often obtuse and verbose. In his excellent, lengthy biography, Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption, historian E. Wayne Carp uses her own words--she gave him access to all her papers--to tell her story.

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 Jean Paton, however, was a shadowy older figure, someone from the past who had largely been replaced by younger more forceful leaders who spoke at conferences and appeared on television.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
E. Wayne Carp 
Paton agreed to let Carp be her biographer. He began his research before she died in 2002, and was able to interview her at length. She also had kept most of her voluminous writings and letters, and they are liberally quoted. Carp, a professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University, is well versed in adoption issues and is the author of several other books on the topic.

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.

The book was a natural outcome of the organization, Orphan Voyage, "a program of mutual aid and guidance for social orphans" that she had started a few years earlier. Chapters sprang up around the country; it is unclear how many members there were. She created the first reunion file matching first parents and adoptees, and published a newsletter, The LOG, as well as numerous articles and pamphlets. She also kept up an active correspondence with other leaders in adoption reform who had emerged.

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 at odds with the Adoptees' Liberation Movement Association (ALMA) and its founder, Florence Fisher. ALMA began in 1970, focusing on search and changing laws to unseal records. It competed with the older Orphan Voyage for members; it also created its own reunion registry. Paton thought that she, Paton, should be the leader of the adoption reform movement and Fisher a "valuable secondary figure."

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.

Other books by E. Wayne Carp: 
Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption
Adoption Politics: Bastard Nation and Ballot Measure 58; 
Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives


  1. Thanks for taking the time to write and share this story. Based upon what you've written, I believe I would have liked Jean as well.

  2. Thank you for this very interesting and useful review.

  3. Thanks for this review and summary of the Jean Paton book. It is indeed tedious at times, and way too many footnotes, but there is a lot of history and good picture of Jean as she was, imperfect but brave and principled, and also a lot of the history of adoption reform that had been lost.

    Just about everyone including me disagreed with her at one time or another, as she could be difficult and opinionated, but she was always respected. She did encourage the founding of the birthmother group that became CUB, but it was a group of us in MA under the leadership and administrative talent of Lee Campbell that got CUB going. My part of it was writing a piece called "letter to my sisters" that Jean distributed about the need for mothers to form their own group and become activists. Carp quotes from it. But it was Lee who really organized CUB. I am a writer, not an organizer.

    Jean was likeable, exasperating, and inspiring; a truly unique woman and her story deserved to be told and known.

  4. Re footnotes:
    A book that is a biography to be taken seriously needs to be heavily footnoted. Consider Robert Caro's highly regarded, and detailed, books about Lyndon Johnson. The last one has 69 pages of footnotes in double columns, not less, to save space and paper.

    Since Carp is writing about people I know, or knew, I want to know the source of his comments. I find them invaluable.

  5. Right, it is a scholarly book put out by a university press and the footnotes are needed, especially as it may be used as a textbook. I just meant too many footnotes for the casual reader, but it is not a casual easy read book.

    I would be interested in other people's take on the book, those who knew Jean and those just hearing of her now.

  6. I was only speaking of Carp's book, have not read Caro. Carp's is U. of Michigan press. I have nothing against the use of footnotes in any book published by anyone, and understand the need for careful documentation. I just mentioned it to warn those who might be put off. My often skipping footnotes is mostly sloth on my part, not a general condemnation. Carp's book is also quite expensive if one pays for it. I got a freebie. A good idea is for people to ask their libraries to order it.

  7. Maryanne--you were probably responding to my comment about Caro's book, published by Knopf, a mainstream literary division of Random House. At least one of his books about Lyndon Johnson won a National Book Award. I took down the comment because it seemed silly to go on about the footnotes, but I see you responded so I am returning more or less what I wrote.

    The thing about FTs, you don't have to look at them,or a particular one, unless you want to, so I will defend them. And no biography or history can be done without them in quantity and still be taken seriously.

    But yes, Carp's book is weighty and more of a serious tome than the casual reader might want, and your suggestion to ask libraries to order it is a good one.

  8. Rhodri KasperbauerApril 23, 2014 at 2:33 PM


    I corresponded with Jean in the 1980's. I was adopted in the UK in 1960, birth father from USA + birth mother who emigrated to Canada in 1961. Jean was of invaluable assistance in knowing of volunteers who could help in finding information in different states. She was a great person.

  9. On reading parts of the book, he obviously bought into Paton's dislike of Florence Fisher so much that the reader is left with the impression that everything Paton said about Florence is true. And it is not. He doesn't clear up misconceptions that Paton spewed about Florence. I was involved in the reform movement when Paton was around but I saw her as the old guard who was out there someplace but not really moving forward; that was left to Florence, Sorosky, Pannor and Baran, all of whom she discounted and disliked.

    I wouldn't have liked Paton myself. Too much venom directed at the person who was getting more attention for a movement that was taking place.

  10. It is never easy being a voice in the wilderness. To be that voice, you have to be strong and likely moved by deep personal experience that no other can know but yourself. As an adoptee, who spent years tracking down records intentionally hidden from me by state agencies, individual bureaucrats and social workers, and the State of Michigan that enforced out of date adoption laws, I was completely unaware of Paton, even though I was searching when she was at the end of her life. When I searched, in the 1980s, there was no organized support system, except individuals helping individuals in a random way. I was blocked at every steop, even by people I know, not to mention the Michigan adoption system--luckily I was a plucky "bastard" who didn't know when to quit. So I imagine things were even more lonely in the 1950s when she started.

    She and I share Detroit as a birthplace, which like many cities had homes for unwed mothers, including one where my mother stayed. I was actually born in Crittenton General Hospital, named after another reformer who started those homes nationally to help the unwed mothers (Florence Crittenton). Hopefully this book will give Paton more national recognition--perhaps when our country can finally acknowledge the prejudice it still harbors toward "illegitimate" children. We have a long long long way to go. Thanks, Jean.

    1. Ridky--I too was born in Detroit at Mercy Hospital, and grew up there. Now they have the Confidential Intermediary system, which is a help but the state needs to get out of the business of keeping adoptees from knowing their true identities through the filter.

  11. Lorraine, with all due respect, I disagree 100 percent with your summer, based on all available evidence how these fail and the common sense/equal treatment test.

    The Confidential Intermediary system is an insulting system that treats anyone who was born illegimately, without equal rights as children, incapable of accessing what is given to every other citizen in the United States. Jean Paton herself pilloried this new form of paternalism that still denies basic rights to adoptees. More than 25 years ago she said: “When the records were put under seal, it was an experiment in Utopia. It was a destructive error, and should be remedied by a sweeping cure, not this intermediary dabbling. I fear that this new quite colonial type of search, a state structure and bureaucracy will be formed which will be immovable. Thus, freedom to the adopted person will never come. The process of being made to consent to having a stranger approach one’s parent instead of going oneself is most demeaning. It encourages adopted people to continue to think of themselves as inferior people. That is what is wrong with it, and it is very wrong.”

    Professor Elizabeth Samuels in her many writings on adoption has categorically called intermediary systems what they truly are--insults to adoptees and failures. I hope you read some of Elizabeth Samuels articles how evidence shows these are designed to fail and fail adoptees and prop of a two-tiered system of treatment that actaully is a violation of the 14th Amendment clause of the 14th Amendment that calls for equal treatment under the law.

  12. For many the CI system will provide them with the connection; but I think you misinterpreted my statement. I am not in favor of the system, I hate when states put them in place, but they have found and united many people. And yes, they are demeaning to the adoptee.

    I hope you take the time to read Hole in My Heart to find out how I do feel about sealed records, which you apparently do not know. Or take a look at the youtube video of me testifying at a hearing. The link is to the right of this comment. With all due respect.



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