'Butterbox babies' maternity home survivors still search for birth families

Seven decades later, adoptees still seek answers to their past

CBC News, By Katy Parsons, Dec 03, 2016

Ideal Maternity Home

Photo of babies and staff from an official brochure of the Ideal Maternity Home. (Bette Cahill)

Every morning when Riva Barnett opens her bedroom closet she looks down at a small, wooden butter box that serves as a stark reminder of what could have been her fate.

Had she not been adopted, she believes she would have been buried in a box just like it.

"It's a reminder of where I could have ended up, how I did end up, and it makes me very grateful," she said.

William and Lila Young
William and Lila Young's maternity home thrived during the Second World War. (Bette Cahill)

The half-metre pine grocery crates served as unmarked wooden coffins for infants who died at the Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, N.S., and were buried on the property and at a cemetery in nearby Fox Point.

It was a dark chapter in Nova Scotia's history. For the survivors of the home who are still alive today, it's a chapter that still has a strong presence in their lives.

For some, it's been 75 years or more since they left the home - and they're still looking for answers to their past and searching for their birth parents, with sometimes painful results.

Home's shameful history

The Ideal Maternity Home operated from the late 1920s until 1947. The home, run by William and Lila Young, promised discreet birthing and adoption for children of unwed mothers.

Bette Cahill, author of Butterbox Babies, said people paid up to $10,000 (usually disguised as a donation) to adopt children from the home - but the selling of babies wasn't the worst of what took place.

Ideal Maternity Home Nova Scotia - Butterbox Babies

The Ideal Maternity Home burnt down. All that remains is the foundation where it once stood. (Bette Cahill)

People wanted healthy, white babies, Cahill said. Those considered "unmarketable" the Youngs let starve by feeding them only molasses and water. Many died that way and were buried in butter boxes.

A 'ghoulish' quest

Barnett, 71, sought out a butter box at antique shops when she came to Nova Scotia for a survivors' reunion in 1997.

"I was on a quest to find the butter box," she said. "It might sound somewhat ghoulish, but it was important to me."

Barnett was born in 1945 and adopted the same year by a family from New Jersey.


Riva Barnett (right) at the Ideal Maternity Home survivors' reunion in Nova Scotia. (Bette Cahill)

She said her adoptive mother chose her because she was "the most pathetic looking" baby at the home. Before the adoption was finalized, they paid a visit to a local pediatrician.

"He told her to get me out of there as soon as possible," Barnett said.

Still searching, 75 years later

Joan Lazell, 75, was born at the Ideal Maternity Home in 1941.

Her older brother - who also was adopted from the maternity home - years later convinced her to look for her birth parents.

So many people have been struggling for years and years trying to locate biological parents and of course they're elderly now, if they're even alive at all. - Bette Cahill, author of Butterbox Babies

She eventually found her mother, who is from Truro, thanks to an organization called Survivors of the Ideal Maternity Home, which does research and helps adoptees try to identify their birth parents.

"She did not want me to know her name or where she lived, but she consented to accepting correspondence from me," Lazell said.

In her first letter, she told her mother she loved her. But correspondence between the two was short-lived.

Ideal Maternity Home - Butterbox Babies

The Youngs heavily advertised their maternity home to prospective parents in New York and New Jersey. (Bette Cahill)

"She kind of freaked out and didn't want to do it anyRead More ..so I lost contact," she said. "It was hurtful, but it wasn't devastating."

When her mother died, Lazell was notified of the obituary. That's how she learned her identity, as well as that of her sister and first cousin.

She is still searching for her father and has no idea who he is, except that he may have been the son of a farmer in Truro.

75 hand-typed letters help find birth mother

Barnett has run the Survivors of the Ideal Maternity Home website since its founder died, and keeps it updated for those still looking for members of their birth family.

She said Nova Scotia's closed adoption records have been a hurdle for many who want to find out their past.

She found her birth mother's name in adoption records her parents kept. But she didn't start searching for her until about 20 years later.

Riva Barrett

Riva Barnett was adopted from the Ideal Maternity Home in 1945. Now she helps survivors find their birth families. (Bette Cahill)

She was a teacher at the time and every day after school she would, little by little, go through a Nova Scotia phone book. She would find addresses for people who shared the same name as her birth mother and type out letters in hopes that one would find itself in the right hands.

She used stationary that belonged to her husband, a lawyer, thinking that if her letters looked more official she'd be more likely to get a response.

After about 75 letters, she received one in return that led her to her mother.

Piecing together the birth puzzle

"She wasn't excited to hear from me at all," Barnett said. "She did not want me to contact any of her relatives and I agreed with that."

She did learn the name of her birth father, who was 97 years old and living in Truro.

He denied paternity, but she eventually connected with a half-brother, his children and two first cousins on her father's side. After her mother passed away, two first cousins reached out to her.

"It's difficult for someone who's not an adoptee to understand the hole. There's just a part of you who's missing," she said.

"I wanted to find out where I fit, and it was just a matter of piecing together all of the parts of the puzzle."

Next year will mark 70 years since the Ideal Maternity Home closed.

Canadian Press - New Brunswick woman ruled responsible in burning of baby's body

New Brunswick woman ruled responsible in burning of baby's body

ST. STEPHEN, N.B. - A New Brunswick judge says a woman who burned and dismembered her newborn son is criminally responsible for her actions.

Becky Sue Morrow earlier pleaded guilty to offering an indignity to a dead body and disposing of a newborn with the intent of concealing a delivery.

Judge David Walker ruled Friday that the 27-year-old woman may have been suffering from a mental disorder when she delivered the baby but that that was not the case when the baby's body was burned and its remains hidden.

It is not known if the baby was alive at the time of birth.

At a hearing last month, the court heard contrasting reports from the two psychiatrists. One said Ms. Morrow was in a "disassociated" mental state when the crime occurred. The other said she clearly planned her actions and understood the consequences.


Psychiatric disorder may have led boy to fatally shoot father

Rick James Lohstroh, a doctor at UTMB, was fatally shot this summer, apparently by his 10-year-old son.

ABC13 Eyewitness News, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.
Dec. 29, 2004

The 10-year-old Katy boy accused of murdering his father this summer is now the face of an unofficial psychiatric disorder that may have lead to his father's death.

Some psychiatrists call it Parental Alienation Syndrome and they say that's why the son killed Doctor Rick Lohstroh last summer. The syndrome is basically caused by a bitter parent who poisons a child against the other parent, usually in cases of divorce.

The Story of the Killing of Innocent Canadian Children

Butterbox Survivors:
Life After the Ideal Maternity Home

ButterBox babies Book

Since the 1992 publication of Butterbox Babies, the Ideal Maternity Home in Chester, Nova Scotia, has become synonymous with illegal adoptions and suspicious baby deaths. Much attention has been given to the neglect of infants at the Home, the exorbitant fees paid by adoptive parents, and the secretive nature of the transactions.

But what became of the children who were adopted? What effect did their shaky beginnings have on their later lives? Were they loved and cherished, or mistreated and ignored? Did they feel like "family"? Did they always wonder who they were? In this comprehensive book, author and Survivor Robert Hartlen has compiled the personal stories of thirty six of the adult adoptees who survived the Ideal Maternity Home.

Teen depression on the increase in U.K.- teen suicide statistics

Teen depression on the increase

More and More teens are becoming depressed. The numbers of young people suffering from depression in the last 10 years has risen worryingly, an expert says.

BBC, UK, August 3, 2004

Government statistics suggest one in eight adolescents now has depression.

Unless doctors recognise the problem, Read More ..uld slip through the net, says Professor Tim Kendall of the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health.

Guidelines on treating childhood depression will be published next year. Professor Kendall says a lot Read More ..eds to be done to treat the illness.

Mothers Who Kill Their Own Children


Affair led to mother murdering her own kids

Days after buying another woman Valentine's Day flowers, a Sydney father came home to find a trail of blood leading him to the bodies of his two young children lying next to their mother, a court has been told.

Australian Associated Press
Aug 24 2009

The woman had given the couple's three-year-old daughter and four-year-old son rat poison and an unidentified pink liquid before smothering them and killing them, court papers said.

She then tried to take her own life, the NSW Supreme Court was told.

Doctors agree the mother, from Canley Heights in Sydney's west, was suffering from "major depression" when she poisoned her children on February 19 last year.

She has pleaded not guilty to the two murders by reason of mental illness.

As her judge-alone trial began, the mother's lawyer told Justice Clifton Hoeben his client didn't think life was worth living after learning about her husband's affair.