In 1964, the Children’s Home Society of Virginia (CHS) sought to make use of the power of radio, requesting some air time from WRVA to let the public know of a problem it faced. Taking this request several steps beyond the agency’s expectations, WRVA co-producers Harry Monroe and Brick Rider crafted a comprehensive documentary designed to illuminate “the problem of the unwanted child.” As the program explained, the number of children available for adoption was greater than the number of families stepping forward to parent them. The CHS hoped to alleviate this imbalance by detailing their services, debunking misconceptions about adoption, and making the public aware of the need for adoptive parents. A transcript of “A Child Is Waiting,” the resulting documentary, is found in the Records of the Children’s Home Society of Virginia (Accession 44227).
Airing 23-27 November 1964, first individually as nine five-minute segments and then as one complete program, the documentary included interviews with CHS staff, boarding mothers (the women in whose care children were placed while awaiting placement), adoptive parents, and perhaps most poignantly, an unwed mother who had given her child up for adoption. The issue was examined from all angles in a way that CHS Executive Director Lois Benedict described in a 9 March 1966 letter as “a deeply understanding presentation…avoiding the clichés and inaccurate dramatics that are all too frequent on this subject.”
The program first gave background on the history of Children’s Home Society, then went into the perceived misinformation surrounding adoption, commenting on the length of time it typically takes to adopt, the cost, whether adoptive parents needed to be homeowners, whether they could adopt if they already had children, and whether a birth parent could take her child back after adoption. It then used interviews with representatives of each piece of the adoption puzzle to set up a plea for listeners to consider adopting a child.
Interestingly, this documentary was produced at the peak of what some have labeled the “Baby Scoop Era,” running roughly from the end of World War II to the early 1970s. This period was characterized by high rates both of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and of newborn adoption. Critics of adoption practices during this period believe that unwed mothers were as a rule pushed to relinquish their children, pressured by societal stigmatization of single parenthood and a shift in trends in the field of social work favoring stranger adoption over helping birth mothers raise their children. The subject is fraught with emotion for many women who gave up their babies during this time, with a sense of grief and loss fueling accusations of “institutionally induced guilt, psychoanalytic explanations for single motherhood, and coercive adoption practices” (http://babyscoopera.com/).
It was during this same period that “A Child Is Waiting” presented its listeners with the aforementioned “problem of the unwanted child,” stating (as CHS statistics for the time attest) that they received far more inquiries from women considering placing their children for adoption than they could receive into care. The documentary paints a picture of a more compassionate, less pressured approach to unmarried mothers, with the announcer stating that “It is a situation which demands tact and understanding, counseling without suggestion, decision without dictate,” immediately preceding a clip in which a CHS social worker states that “You can’t make any decisions for a person. This is, I think, part of my philosophy in that people are worth something as individuals and have a right to make their own choices.”
Still, the attitudes of the era are evident in comments made both in the documentary and in the CHS annual report for 1964. The segment featuring the above quotes is introduced with a grim assessment: “The story of most adoptions begins on a note of tragedy, a mistake to put it bluntly.” And Benedict writes in the annual report that “In some areas relationships that once were not remotely acceptable are now commonplace. When a baby is coming, however, the old values are reaffirmed; the prospective mother finds it unthinkable to subject her child, her parents, herself to out-of-wedlock parenthood. The panic, the tragedy, the grief have not changed.”
You can hear the echo of this line of thinking in the comments of the unmarried birth mother interviewed in the piece:
It was just natural I would hope he would get the kind of life I wanted him to have. Oh, I mean with a family, maybe brothers and sisters, the kind of attention every child has a right to with a future, and a name that he didn’t always have to explain, not that ‘other name’ he would have nothing to do with. Well, I guess most important of all though I wanted him to have a mother and a father so he wouldn’t grow up just half loved. When I did give my child up for adoption, those were the things I hoped for. Especially that he wouldn’t have to answer for my mistake.
It seems fair to say that for the most part all involved – birth parents, adoption practitioners and social workers, and adoptive parents – wanted what was right for the children. Whatever the impetus, there were more requests from birth mothers considering relinquishment than CHS was prepared to handle, and the agency sought help from the public. The documentary did its work, with Lois Benedict reporting in 1966 that the number of inquiries from prospective adoptive parents and the number of placements had increased after its airing, with inquiries coming from as far away as Michigan.
Trying to determine the best interests of a child can be incredibly complicated, a fact that was not lost on Benedict, judging by a statement she made in the first segment of “A Child Is Waiting”:
As long as things are going happily, it’s the most wonderful job in the world. But now and again, when something isn’t so fine, you realize what a tremendous responsibility you are taking and how much harm you could do to parallel how much good you can do. The only thing I know to say on whether we are playing God is ‘yes.’ We are taking a very great responsibility. We have a substantial background of experience and some academic training. We use the best judgment we have…And someone has to take care of these babies.
The Children’s Home Society of Virginia is still in operation today, 113 years after its founding. Its historical records (which do not include case files) are available for research at the Library of Virginia.
-Jessica Tyree Burgess, Senior Accessioning Archivist