‘Bad girls’: Remembering when unwed mothers were told to forget their babies

Marie Crouse, who gave up her baby for adoption when she was 15, says she’s not waiting to hear “sorry” from Ottawa, even though a Senate committee says thousands of Canadian women like her are owed an apology for the way they were treated in the postwar years for getting pregnant outside marriage.

The committee’s report, titled “The Shame is Ours” tabled July 19, 2018, gave Parliament one year to acknowledge the impact of “unethical adoption practices” inflicted on women in church-run maternity homes that received federal funding across the country. 

The committee heard emotional testimony from mothers who said they felt banished from their communities, pressured into giving up their parental rights and warned not to go looking for their babies, who would never forgive them their sins. 

The Senate called on the federal government to acknowledge and apologize to the estimated 350,000 women who were forced to give up their babies for adoption between 1945 and 1971, simply because they were not married.

School principal noticed

Crouse watched the hearings in March from her home in Wakefield, north of Woodstock, and some of what she heard sounded like her story. 

The oldest of eight children, Crouse said she had a rebellious side and was dating boys by age 14. 

Neither her father, who hauled logs, nor her homemaker mother taught her the facts of life, she said, and the public schools did not fill in the gaps. 

“The only sex education you got was in the back seat of a car or from your friends who didn’t know much more than you did,” said Crouse. 

When she was in Grade 10, the principal of Hartland High School called her into his office and told her she couldn’t attend classes anymore because her pregnancy was showing.

Crouse refused to believe she was pregnant.

Crouse was sent to the Evangeline Home for unwed mothers in Saint John to have her baby. (Submitted by Donna K. McGuire)

In December of that year, 1962, her father hired someone to drive Crouse to Saint John in the company of her mother, who dropped her off at the Evangeline Home run by the Salvation Army.

“They had to get me out of town before anybody knew that I was pregnant,” Crouse said. “That would have been their shame.”

Growing up in Coldstream, Crouse had never travelled farther than Woodstock.

According to a historical sketch from the Provincial Archives, the hospital was then working solely for unmarried mothers, principally from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, although girls were also accepted from Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland, and the western provinces, as well as Maine and Florida.   

‘We should have never gotten pregnant’

Crouse remembers living on the third floor of the Princess Street building for about three months, along with at least two dozen other girls who came and went at any given time. Crouse says they all received some religious instruction. 

And she says, one by one, they would be called into the Salvation Army captain’s office, where Crouse remembers being asked, “how we got into this and what our plans were.”

“I hate to say brainwashed,” said Crouse recalling these talks. “But it was a lot to the fact that we were bad girls. We should not have had sex without being married. We should have never gotten pregnant. 

“And we were told we should never look for these babies because these babies would never want to know us because we were bad.” 

A picture of Crouse’s baby, taken the same day in the Evangeline Home. She named the girl Michelle. (Submitted by Marie Crouse)

After giving birth to a daughter on March 3, 1963, and naming her Michelle, Crouse remained in the home for 14 days and was expected to change the baby and feed her. 

On reflection, she thinks it was a form of punishment — allowing young mothers to bond with infants before “ripping them away.”

As her final act of rebellion, and in defiance of the Evangeline Home’s rules against taking pictures, Crouse purchased a small camera in a nearby shop. She persuaded a nurse to take a picture of her, holding her daughter on her last day in Saint John.
 
She wouldn’t see Michelle again for 28 years.

Someday, I’ll find her

Crouse knew she wasn’t going to be taking the baby home with her, but she can’t remember being informed about adoption or signing a form giving up her parental rights.

Instead of obeying the instructions to “forget this ever happened,” Crouse said, she went looking for her daughter in the 1980s. 

However, New Brunswick’s sealed records policy prevented her from seeing the names of her daughter’s adoptive parents.

Crouse posed for a photo with her daughter, Carolynne, on her wedding day. (Submitted by Marie Crouse)

By then, Ron and Irma Getchell had moved to the United States and had renamed the baby, Carolynne.

Crouse turned to Parent Finders, a volunteer group that was actively working to reunite adopted children and their birth parents. In the years before Facebook, the group relied heavily on church records, obituaries and word of mouth to solve their cases. 

In the end, it was Crouse’s daughter who found her, by phoning the province’s post-adoption services department. While the province had a policy of “protecting” the identities of individuals involved in adoptions, once a child turned 19, he or she could register their consent to be found. 

That’s how Carolynne was finally put in touch with Crouse, and they met for the first time in 1991, when Carolynne was 28 years old. 

Their relationship is strong to this day, Crouse said, and Carolynne was visiting from New Hampshire just last week. 

Detective work as therapy

By 1997, Crouse had taken on the unpaid position of president of Parent Finders and today, at age 72, she sees no retirement on the horizon.

According to her records, she and her team solved more than 500 cases over the past 22 years and have another 30 pending.  

Crouse, president of Parent Finders NB, works out of her home in Wakefield to help others find their children or parents. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

On April 1, 2018, New Brunswick moved to modernize its records policy, allowing adult adoptees to access the names of their birth parents.

But Crouse is convinced her searchers will stay busy. 

“A name is sometimes just the start,” she says. 

“People marry, they change their names, they move away and sometimes they move out of the country,” said Crouse, who has tracked down individuals living as far away as Puerto Rico and Bolivia. 

She said people still need help to fill out forms and make sensitive phone calls. 

“And that’s more help than anything from the Senate,” she said. 

No apology from the Salvation Army

The Salvation Army, which ran the Evangeline Home in Saint John from 1898 to 1978, declined an interview.

An emailed statement sent from Jamie Locke, divisional secretary for public relations, said the Salvation Army did present a brief to the Senate committee based on results from an internal review it conducted in 2013, which found the organization had no legal or practical role in the adoption process itself.

“Instead the Salvation Army provided safe housing, meals and structured activities to meet the immediate needs of the women housed, followed by health care during and immediately after the birth of their child.”

It’s an answer that doesn’t satisfy Valerie Andrews, who pressed for the Senate review and was herself a 17-year-old unwed mother at the Salvation Army’s Toronto Grace Hospital, where she gave birth to a boy in 1970 and gave him up for adoption.  

In her 2017 thesis, submitted to York University, Andrews says her research suggests some 300,000 unmarried Canadian women were systematically separated from their babies at birth between 1940 and 1970.

She said many were psychologically coerced. In a maternity home, talk about keeping your baby was not looked upon well, she said.

“It was the mature, respectable, responsible girl who chose adoption,” Andrews said. “It was the ‘other kind of girl’ who wanted to keep her baby. The selfish girl, the foolish girl, the other kind of girl.”

Andrews heard from mothers who never saw their children or were never told their gender. 

The Salvation Army operated the Evangeline Home from 1898 to 1978. (Submitted by Donna K. McGuire)

“I mean, these babies were grabbed off delivery tables and whisked away, mothers seeing little mops of black hair being whisked away.” 

Some mothers in Canada’s maternity homes were told their babies had died. 

“That’s why we fought for this Senate study,” she said. “To bring out the illegal, unethical and human rights abuses that were perpetrated against unmarried mothers in the postwar period.”

The standing Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology, which conducted the review and issued the report, is now chaired by Sen. Chantal Petitclerc.

CBC News tried to speak to her about the passing of the committee’s deadline for an apology from Parliament and the fact none has been given. She declined to be interviewed.