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Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption

E. Wayne Carp

Publication Year: 2014

Adoption activist Jean Paton (1908–2002) fought tirelessly to reform American adoption, dedicating her life to overcoming American society’s prejudices against adult adoptees and women who give birth out of wedlock. From the 1950s until the time of her death, Paton wrote widely and passionately about the adoption experience, corresponded with policymakers as well as individual adoptees, promoted the psychological well-being of adoptees, and facilitated reunions between adoptees and their birth parents. She also led the struggle to re-open adoption records, creating a national movement that continues to this day. While “open adoption” is often now the rule for adoptions within the United States, for those in earlier eras, adopted in secrecy, the records remain sealed; many adoptees live (and die) without vital information that should be a birthright, and birth parents suffer a similar deprivation. At this writing, only seven of fifty states have open records. (Kansas and Alaska have never closed theirs.) E. Wayne Carp’s masterful biography of Jean Paton brings this neglected civil-rights pioneer and her accomplishments into the light. Paton’s ceaseless activity created the preconditions for the explosive emergence of the adoption reform movement in the 1970s. She founded the Life History Study Center and Orphan Voyage and was also instrumental in forming two of the movement’s most vital organizations, Concerned United Birthparents and the American Adoption Congress. Her unflagging efforts over five decades helped reverse social workers’ harmful policy and practice concerning adoption and sealed adoption records and change lawmakers’ enactment of laws prejudicial to adult adoptees and birth mothers, struggles that continue to this day. Read more about Jean Paton at http://jeanpaton.com/

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-xviii

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pp. 1-7

On March 27, 2002, Jean Paton, age ninety-three, died suddenly of a heart ailment at the North Regional Medical Center in Harrison, Arkansas. A Canadian obituary described Paton’s signal contribution: “‘In the beginning was the Word,’ and the first ‘word’ of adoption reform was spoken by adoptee and...

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1. The Search for Identity

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pp. 8-17

Of all of Jean’s Paton’s childhood memories, the happiest were of riding in the car with her handsome Scottish-born father, Thomas Woodburn Paton, a prominent Ypsilanti, Michigan, general practitioner, when he called on his patients. She looked forward to these rides with her father and treasured their...

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2. The Birth of a Reformer

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pp. 18-34

The overt rejection of professional social work would take another ten years. In 1945, Paton finally earned her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work and qualified as a psychiatric social worker.1 Two years later, she was employed at the New Hampshire Children’s Aid Society.2 During...

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3. The Life History Study Center

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pp. 35-55

On August 24, 1953, Jean Paton placed a four-by- six- inch brass signplate on her front door, ordered business cards, and sent out publicity material announcing the start of the Life History Study Center, which she stored on the third floor of her home.1 Over the years, Paton gave several reasons why she chose this...

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4. On the Road

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pp. 56-74

As early as January 1954, even before she began writing The Adopted Break Silence, Paton was “planning an additional field trip into the middle west.”1 At the beginning of December 1954 Paton sent out the formal notice, announcing that she was undertaking a second adoption study, “To Be Chosen: The Family...

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5. Religion and Reunion

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pp. 75-86

The years 1957–1960 were the most intellectually fertile ones of Jean Paton’s life as her intensive reading melded with her experience as an adopted person, social worker, and Christian. Paton produced a new adoption reform program, which she named “Reunion,” and new concepts crucial to her understanding of adoption...

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6. Illegitimacy, Traumatic Neurosis, and the Problem of Affliction

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pp. 87-113

During these years of intellectual ferment—the late 1950s—the concept of illegitimacy and the issue of single motherhood became an increasingly important thread, weaving in and out of Jean Paton’s research, advocacy, poetry, and search for her birth father and his family. By 1961, failing to see any concrete...

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7. Orphan Voyage

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pp. 114-127

Orphan Voyage, “a program of mutual aid and guidance for social orphans,”1 grew out of several profound insights that Jean Paton received while attending two presentations she heard in April 1962 while attending the Los Angles meeting of the Child Welfare League of America. The first presentation, by...

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8. Orphan Voyage Moves South

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pp. 128-151

Paton’s decision to move from California to the Middle West had its roots in her efforts to give some organizational shape to Orphan Voyage’s rudimentary structure. She declared that more was needed than simply corresponding “with people in distress.”1 Orphan Voyage had to offer something more tangible. That...

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9. The New Adoption Reform Movement

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pp. 152-177

By an odd twist of fate, the two great pioneers of American adoption reform, Jean Paton and Florence Fisher, a forty-three- year- old adult adoptee and homemaker, were linked to a weeklong World Conference on Adoption and Foster Placement held in Milan, Italy, in September 1971.1 Paton first heard of Fisher...

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10. Organizing the Movement

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pp. 178-197

Although the East Coast news media, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, generally ignored the adoption reform movement, the hometown paper of Arthur Sorosky, Annette Baran, and Reuben Pannor, the Los Angeles Times, frequently ran feature articles and TV movie reviews on the subject...

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11. Sealed Adoption Records

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pp. 198-211

Jean Paton’s participation in what was billed as “The Great Debate” by the Toronto television station that produced it came about after a visit in August 1976 with Joan Vanstone, a Vancouver activist and founder of Canada’s adoption search group, Parent Finders. Unable to attend, Vanstone suggested Paton as...

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12. Ombudsman

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pp. 212-227

As early as 1954, Paton assumed a new role, one which she performed for another forty-eight years: that of unelected, self-appointed ombudsman, acting as an intermediary, watchdog, investigator, spokesperson, and defender of the adoption community. No issue was too small (the use of the word “adopt”...

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13. The American Adoption Congress

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pp. 228-258

As early as July 1968, Jean Paton began thinking about forming a national organization of adopted people. She had been led in that direction by a question from one of her correspondents, who asked, “When will we be able to have a national convention of adoptees? I am sure that day will come.” In response, Paton...

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14. Straight Ahead

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pp. 259-277

During the 1980s, Jean Paton devoted an enormous amount of time to the American Adoption Congress—leading it, criticizing its activities, and attending its annual conferences. But Paton never confined herself to a single issue or organization, and this period of her life was no different, as she also carried on...

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15. The Great American Tragedy

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pp. 278-304

During her last decade, Jean Paton’s life continued very much in the same path as always. She read widely in subjects connected with adoption reform and fought hard for the cause she had dedicated her life to for the past forty years. She made new intellectual discoveries, altered her reform focus while continuing...

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pp. 305-312

Paton died in 2002 at age ninety-three. Death came unexpectedly, surprising her friends. In relatively good health, she had begun to slow down and take it easy. But in January 1998, Paton experienced what she described as a slight stroke and was rushed to the hospital in her “nightgown and morning wrap,” where...


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pp. 313-390


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pp. 391-403

E-ISBN-13: 9780472029907
E-ISBN-10: 0472029908
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472119103

Page Count: 448
Publication Year: 2014