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A birth mother’s story


Shameless: The Fight for Adoption Disclosure and the Search for my SonBy Marilyn ChurleyBetween the Lines$26.95; 256 pagesAccording to former Ontario Cabinet Minister Marilyn Churley, a million women in Canada have “lost their children to adoption.” That means that five million fathers, mothers and children are impacted by legislation related to adoption disclosure in this country.

Marilyn Churley was an unmarried teenager when she found herself pregnant and alone in 1968, essentially forced to give up her child. The social welfare system wouldn’t assist her unless she disclosed her situation to her parents back in Newfoundland and they refused to assist her. Marilyn knew her conservative father would be enraged and wounded, so she chose to go it alone.

Fast forward a couple of decades or so and Churley found herself the Registrar General of Ontario, the province in which she had given up her child. The frustration she felt when her new duties included cutting the ribbon on a new Government Services birth and death records office reminded me of the crowd gathered around after the building that contained the births and death records storage vault on Harvey Road in St. John’s burned to the ground. The tension as bystanders waited to see if the records had survived the inferno was palpable.

“Shameless” is Churley’s account of the loss and recovery of her son, and the reform of adoption disclosure legislation in Ontario and Canada. Although the rights of the birth mothers were most often cited as the reason not to release information, it is fairly clear that it was the birth mothers who suffered most. In Churley’s words, it was “a callous and indifferent society that had shunned and shamed them,” and that same society had not so much helped to protect their identities as it had made confidentiality “a condition for surrender, not a promise.”

According to Churley, it was most often middle-class male politicians of a certain age who so vociferously opposed adoption disclosure legislation, afraid perhaps that their own youthful indiscretions might come home to roost. One politician even opposed disclosure because when birthmothers were asked for the name of the birth father, “any name they gave was registered. ...There was never any check done.”

A portion of “Shameless” is devoted to Churley’s own life — her childhood in Labrador, her hippie years backpacking around Europe, the crash pads and squats she lived in and the excitement of her own awakening political awareness to issues of social and environmental concern. Slowly she gravitated back towards her somewhat conservative Christian family, and morphed into a left-leaning but respectable activist and elected politician.

The majority of this book, however, relates to adoption disclosure legislation, Churley’s numerous failed attempts to get a private member’s bill through the house, the various lobby groups that formed to assist or halt progress, and the politicians who helped or hindered the process. Today, when out-of-wedlock pregnancies are common and open adoptions the norm, it is hard to understand the fury that surrounded these issues, but the slow move towards legislative reform in general has not changed.

As an adoptive mother, I was not particularly affected by disclosure legislation because my daughter, who was seven when I got her, was aboriginal, and aboriginal status is the one thing that supposedly isn’t affected by adoption. An aboriginal child does not lose status (and therefore his or her identity) when adopted, nor can status be gained when a child is adopted by First Nations parents. Of course, I had to know enough about the law to a) request disclosure of her original birth name (it had been changed several times), b) ascertain whether she was registered with her band under her new name as required by law (she wasn’t), and c) request and record her band number. But essentially, she and I both knew that eventually she could find her birth family.

The same was not the case for the nine other adoptees in my family. Two were adopted as step-children, so presumably they could find their parents if they really wanted to, and two were open adoptions, but the other five grew up not knowing their original names, whether they had other siblings, and except for what was written on their skins, their ethnic origins. I believe they all found their mothers eventually and to the best of my knowledge, only one birth mother of the 10 refused contact.

In presenting the arguments and histories of other birth mothers and adoptees, Churley’s book is a good primer for potential mother-child reunions. We hear about a woman whose birth was the result of a sexual assault, another who was falsely promised she would be told where her child was when he turned 18, and a man who had two adopted sisters he feared losing.

Confidentiality was a central issue in many of the stories. Opponents claimed that birth mothers had commitments in writing from Ontario’s Children’s Aid that their names would never be released, but Churley claims that this was a myth. “No doubt some women were given verbal assurances ... but no such commitments were ever made in writing.” In fact, the mothers’ names were on the adoption orders up until 1969.

Churley’s final chapter looks to the future and speculates about how adoption disclosure legislation might be extended to include foreign adoptions as well as sperm, egg and embryo donors and their biological offspring. She ends with a list of resources for locating adoption information in Ontario as well as in the rest of Canada and the United States. There are five million people out there who might find this book a valuable resource, for thought if not for research.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her column returns June 9.

Marilyn Churley was an unmarried teenager when she found herself pregnant and alone in 1968, essentially forced to give up her child. The social welfare system wouldn’t assist her unless she disclosed her situation to her parents back in Newfoundland and they refused to assist her. Marilyn knew her conservative father would be enraged and wounded, so she chose to go it alone.

Fast forward a couple of decades or so and Churley found herself the Registrar General of Ontario, the province in which she had given up her child. The frustration she felt when her new duties included cutting the ribbon on a new Government Services birth and death records office reminded me of the crowd gathered around after the building that contained the births and death records storage vault on Harvey Road in St. John’s burned to the ground. The tension as bystanders waited to see if the records had survived the inferno was palpable.

“Shameless” is Churley’s account of the loss and recovery of her son, and the reform of adoption disclosure legislation in Ontario and Canada. Although the rights of the birth mothers were most often cited as the reason not to release information, it is fairly clear that it was the birth mothers who suffered most. In Churley’s words, it was “a callous and indifferent society that had shunned and shamed them,” and that same society had not so much helped to protect their identities as it had made confidentiality “a condition for surrender, not a promise.”

According to Churley, it was most often middle-class male politicians of a certain age who so vociferously opposed adoption disclosure legislation, afraid perhaps that their own youthful indiscretions might come home to roost. One politician even opposed disclosure because when birthmothers were asked for the name of the birth father, “any name they gave was registered. ...There was never any check done.”

A portion of “Shameless” is devoted to Churley’s own life — her childhood in Labrador, her hippie years backpacking around Europe, the crash pads and squats she lived in and the excitement of her own awakening political awareness to issues of social and environmental concern. Slowly she gravitated back towards her somewhat conservative Christian family, and morphed into a left-leaning but respectable activist and elected politician.

The majority of this book, however, relates to adoption disclosure legislation, Churley’s numerous failed attempts to get a private member’s bill through the house, the various lobby groups that formed to assist or halt progress, and the politicians who helped or hindered the process. Today, when out-of-wedlock pregnancies are common and open adoptions the norm, it is hard to understand the fury that surrounded these issues, but the slow move towards legislative reform in general has not changed.

As an adoptive mother, I was not particularly affected by disclosure legislation because my daughter, who was seven when I got her, was aboriginal, and aboriginal status is the one thing that supposedly isn’t affected by adoption. An aboriginal child does not lose status (and therefore his or her identity) when adopted, nor can status be gained when a child is adopted by First Nations parents. Of course, I had to know enough about the law to a) request disclosure of her original birth name (it had been changed several times), b) ascertain whether she was registered with her band under her new name as required by law (she wasn’t), and c) request and record her band number. But essentially, she and I both knew that eventually she could find her birth family.

The same was not the case for the nine other adoptees in my family. Two were adopted as step-children, so presumably they could find their parents if they really wanted to, and two were open adoptions, but the other five grew up not knowing their original names, whether they had other siblings, and except for what was written on their skins, their ethnic origins. I believe they all found their mothers eventually and to the best of my knowledge, only one birth mother of the 10 refused contact.

In presenting the arguments and histories of other birth mothers and adoptees, Churley’s book is a good primer for potential mother-child reunions. We hear about a woman whose birth was the result of a sexual assault, another who was falsely promised she would be told where her child was when he turned 18, and a man who had two adopted sisters he feared losing.

Confidentiality was a central issue in many of the stories. Opponents claimed that birth mothers had commitments in writing from Ontario’s Children’s Aid that their names would never be released, but Churley claims that this was a myth. “No doubt some women were given verbal assurances ... but no such commitments were ever made in writing.” In fact, the mothers’ names were on the adoption orders up until 1969.

Churley’s final chapter looks to the future and speculates about how adoption disclosure legislation might be extended to include foreign adoptions as well as sperm, egg and embryo donors and their biological offspring. She ends with a list of resources for locating adoption information in Ontario as well as in the rest of Canada and the United States. There are five million people out there who might find this book a valuable resource, for thought if not for research.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her column returns June 9.

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