The Baby Scoop Era | Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh


In our new series, What Happened ThenAYM features stories from a part of our history unknown to many. Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh spent twenty years researching and writing The Baby Scoop Era. In 2007, Karen founded the Baby Scoop Era: Research, Education, and Inquiry (BSERI) organization to support millions of women forced to surrender their babies between 1945 and 1972.

Young and in love, Karen found herself pregnant at 17 years old. The events that followed were an emotional and humiliating experience. First, she was sent to a wage house, then to a maternity home, where she was labeled an inmate. She found herself isolated from everyone she knew and expected to surrender her child. Karen was not alone. The Baby Scoop Era represents a time when millions of single unwed mothers went into maternity homes where they lived in secrecy and shame.

This is Karen’s story.

“It was a very humiliating experience. And by this time, I was so incredibly depressed. I remember crying a lot and looking out the window at a church, wishing I was free instead of a prisoner of this place. So I called my mother, and I said I was feeling very suicidal. I said, ‘You have to get me out of here. I’m leaving; I’m walking out the door. And I don’t care where I go, but I’m not staying here anymore.’ ”

– Karen Wilson Buterbaugh


To understand what had happened to her, Karen found materials explaining her situation then. One such resource stated, “It is essential that the parent most involved, psychologically, in the daughter’s pregnancy also be dealt with in a manner identical with the one suggested in dealing with the girl. Time is of the essence; the maturation of the fetus proceeds at an inexorable pace. An ambivalent mother, interfering with her daughter’s ability to arrive at the decision to surrender her child, must be dealt with as though she (the girl’s mother) were a child herself.” (Marcel Heiman, M.D. in “Out-Of-Wedlock Pregnancy In Adolescence,” Casework Papers 1960)

“Our days were spent talking about pregnancy. Not knowing what was going on in our bodies, we didn’t have any schooling about it. Nobody gave us classes, which was intentional; they did not want us to bond with the baby…the child was always called ‘The Baby’ because they saw us bonding with them as a negative. We would get in the way of us surrendering our babies.”

– Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh

The Myth

The adoptions were shrouded in secrecy. Mothers were seen as misguided women who discarded their babies. Institutions perpetuated this myth, further compounding the young women’s pain.

“The emotional support or counseling was that you’ve made this mistake and need to correct it. The correction is that you must surrender your baby because you are not equipped, old enough, or experienced enough to raise the baby. So the child has to go to a married couple. That was the only counseling we received. It was a daily mantra of you have sinned.” 

– Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh

Young women believed it was their fault, and the only reparation was to surrender their baby so that child may live “a good life.” For the confused mothers – cut off from everything familiar, including their families – the only people they had were each other. Sadly, they were told to forget the mothers they met.

To hear more from Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh and her experiences during the Baby Scoop Era, download and listen to the episode.


Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh is Executive Director of the Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative, Executive Director of Origins International, co-founder of Mothers for Open Records Everywhere (MORE) and founding member of Mothers Exploited By Adoption (MEBA). Karen’s personal story appears in Ann Fessler’s book, “The Girls Who Went Away, the Hidden History of Girls Who Surrendered Babies for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade”

She is co-author of Adoption Healing: A Path to Recovery for Mothers who Lost Children to Adoption, author of “Setting the Record Straight,” Moxie, “Not By Choice,” Eclectica, co-author of “In the Best Interests Of Whom?” (Associated Content) and author of “Adoption Induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Mothers of the Baby Scoop Era” (Associated Content). Karen’s newest book is The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption, Forced Surrender.

Connect with Karen | Twitter

Buy her book here: The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption and Forced Surrender


Baby Scoop Era

From approximately 1940 to 1970, it is estimated up to 4 million mothers in the United States surrendered infants to adoption. Most of these women relinquished their babies under societal pressure while being told to forget what happened to them.    This shameful period in our history was shrouded in secrecy. With the overturn of […]

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