The Salvation Army says it is conducting an internal review into its historic maternity homes, just as a retired Calgary judge — who was once a high-ranking child welfare worker in the city — has come forward and corroborated some of the claims mothers have recently made about coercive adoption practices directed at unmarried mothers decades ago.
‘These people thought they were doing good – they thought these girls were sluts. They thought they were rescuing these children from a life of poverty,” said Herbert Allard, a former social worker, who said he was prompted to speak out upon reading the National Post’s story on forced adoptions over the weekend.
“At the time, I was divorced from the reality … It upset me in a way, but it’s just what went on.”
His account appears to confirm the coercion was systematic: He said the Salvation Army accepted teen mothers into their maternity homes on the condition they would surrender their baby, city social workers purposefully withheld information about revoking the adoption or the option of temporary wardship, and that unmarried mothers were punished in a Salvation Army hospital for getting pregnant out of wedlock.
“[Salvation Army] homes were operational during a time when there was a tremendous social stigma attached to being an unwed mother,” the church said in a statement responding to Mr. Allard’s account.
“The Salvation Army is currently conducting an internal review of the operation of these centres 40 to 50 years ago, including the treatment of our clients.”
‘They thought they were rescuing these children from a life of poverty’
The Alberta Ministry of Human Services, which includes Calgary and Area Child and Family Services, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Mr. Allard’s public airing of what he called a “cultural conspiracy” comes ahead of an expected series of class-action lawsuits against provinces from Quebec westward, accusing the governments of kidnapping, fraud and coercion, according to Tony Merchant, the prominent lawyer heading the pending actions.
It also comes on the heels of a woman’s call for a public inquiry into adoption practices in Prince Edward Island, similar to an Australian probe that last month recommended the Australian government apologize to the “many parents whose children were forcibly removed” from their care.
The United Church said last week the matter here in Canada “will warrant a great deal of attention,” and spokesperson Bruce Gregersen promised the church was committed to working with mothers to uncover what happened in its maternity homes.
He has since spoken with Valerie Andrews, the executive director of Origins Canada supporting people separated by adoption, and said a researcher has been assigned to comb through the archives for documents such as board minutes and correspondence.
“Our role in this, among many things, is to help the story to be told,” Mr. Gregersen said Monday.
Mr. Allard was a social worker and assistant director of Calgary’s children’s aid during the late-1940s and 1950s, and said every surrender document signed by an unmarried mother would have crossed his desk. He also dealt closely with one of the city’s two female social workers who worked with pregnant unmarried mothers, and who often visited them in church-run maternity homes and at the Salvation Army’s Grace Hospital.
Beyond the claims already put forward by mothers now fighting for a federal inquiry into Canada’s historic adoption practices, Mr. Allard said the director of Calgary’s children’s aid had full discretion in deciding whether or not to honour a woman’s desire to revoke her surrender if she changed her mind within the cooling-off period.
“Mothers were sometimes successful, particularly if the baby wasn’t attractive — if the father was Ukrainian, for example,” said Mr. Allard, 85, adding that an English, white girl was considered a “premium” child.
“The more adoptable the child was, the less likely it was she would get it back.”
Mr. Allard said surrender documents were sometimes sanitized so a child would appear more attractive to prospective parents on paper. If the document said a mother had a criminal background and said nothing about the father, a children’s aid social worker might lie and say the father was medical student — “that was the classic example,” he said.
‘The more adoptable the child was, the less likely it was she would get it back.’
He also said women often signed surrender documents while they were still recovering from labour.
“What really bothered me was that some of these women were still in post-delivery trauma,” Mr. Allard said. “[The surrenders] were done right away, sometimes because the mother just wanted to leave and get out of there.”
Mr. Allard said the social worker he dealt most closely with never told women of their right to revoke the adoption or to request a temporary wardship so they could find work and a place to live. In fact, he said she told the women their decision was permanent.
“She had great sympathy for the girls, but she was also part of the culture where unwed women did not keep their child,” he said. “She really struggled with the pain of this.”
He said the social worker sometimes came to his office crying because of the way the Salvation Army officers treated unmarried women in their Grace Hospital, where single women were segregated from married women, he said. In contrast to the accounts of women who said they were denied the chance to hold their baby, Mr. Allard said he knew of women who were forced to nurse their child, even after agreeing to an adoption.
“The idea was that if you made it easy for women to hatch and give the baby away, then that would be a bad idea,” Mr. Allard said. “The bonding would remind them of what a terrible thing they’d done … It was also a form of punishment, because it broke the woman’s heart when they gave them up.”
A social worker’s decision to conceal information about a woman’s options appears to have been more widespread than isolated.
Lori Chambers, who pored over thousands of archived children’s aid cases for her book, Misconceptions, about unmarried mothers in Ontario from 1921-1969, said social workers would not have wanted to encourage unmarried women to keep their baby.
In a 1970 letter to what was then called the Ontario Department of Social and Family Services, an adoption coordinator named Victoria Leach said many of the young girls she visited in a Presbyterian-run maternity home were ill-informed about adoption appeals and short-term wardships.
“I had things said to me yesterday like … ‘My social worker never mentioned that to me,” Ms. Leach wrote.
She suggested the department publish a brochure, “not unlike our ‘Adoption Procedure in Ontario’ booklet, which … would outline in detail some of the avenues open to them.” At the bottom of the typed letter, though, there is a handwritten note to the attention of the director, Betty C. Graham, that said, “If the branch prepared it, I’m sure there would be undue criticism of the contents.”
Karen Lynn, who was 19 when she was sent to Armagh in 1963, said no one ever asked her if she wanted to keep her unborn child.
“Nobody who was unwed kept their baby,” said Ms. Lynn, who said she was known only as Karen No. 1 at Armagh, as part of the matron’s bid to protect her family’s reputation. “I’ve only met a handful of women who said [adoption] was their free choice. Everyone else understands we had no choice.”
Mr. Allard, who was in 1999 celebrated by the University of Calgary as a community leader and awarded an honorary degree after 37 years of judicial service, was active in the United Church and in the 1960s helped close the church’s homes for “fallen women.” He said women there were sometimes punished by being placed alone in a “thinking room” with nothing but the Bible.
“I don’t think it could have gone a different way, simply because of the culture at the time,” said Mr. Allard, who has since been outspoken about the need for open adoptions so children can trace their roots. “There were caring people out there, but the times inhibited them.”
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