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Jean Paton on the ACLU


The ACLU has long opposed New Jersey adoption reformers’ efforts to unseal adoption records.  As early as 1972, Jean Paton expressed shock at the ACLU’s conservative position in a letter to an official of the organization. Here is part of Jean’s letter:

“Some time ago I contacted persons in the ACLU about the violation of the rights of adopted people, who must rely upon the whimsy of a judge of they are ever to learn the real facts about themselves before adoption. I was greatly shocked  to learn from the response of ACLU that they did see the issue. I wondered if they might be too involved in racial problems, admittedly acute, or whether there was a certain brand of liberalism involved in the record sealing that the ACLU did not wish to confront. I still do not know what the reason was, or is.”

Four years later, Jean identified the reason: the ACLU stressed “the natural mother’s right to privacy.” She declared that it was “difficult for me to understand how anyone can support that point of view. The rights of privacy are supposed to keep the government off of people’s backs, not separate the generations.”


Jean Paton at the “Red Tape Ceremony,” 1989

This is a photo of Jean Paton being presented by Don Humphrey and Joe Soll with a sealed “birth certificate” at the “Red Tape Ceremony” that took place at the 1989 AAC conference in New York.  From left to right: Don Humphrey, the AAC’s legal adviser at the time; Nancy Horgan; Joe Soll, founder of AdoptionCrossroads; the ACC’s president Kate Burke, and, of course, Jean Paton.  I am greatly indebted to Joe Soll, who identified the conference location, date, and all the folks in this photo.

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One Person Can Make a Difference

This is a photo of Jean Paton’s cramped work space in Harrison, Arkansas, where she and her trusty typewriter communicated around the world with the adoption triad.

Jean Paton’s Vacation, Dec. 1, 1960

In these early days, Paton rarely took any time off, even though her friends urged her to take a vacation.  But at age 51, on Dec 1, 1960, “a beautiful day” in the desert with warmth that made Paton, the Easterner, think of spring and its promise, she decided to take the advice and refrain from “writing a sober and complicated release on Petulant Plato or Freud Fulfilled.”  Instead, after mailing this little note, she was going to:

“plant succulents, burn brush, prune junipers, rake away weeds, plan a studio-garage, tramp the acreage of Golden Hills [near Acton, California], and in general express the thankfulness we feel at least at this moment, but nonetheless a thankfulness that recurs and feels extremely secure.”

Jean Paton and the ACC Conference Registration Incident (1991)

This is a photo of Jean Paton busily signing copies of her book Orphan Voyage at an American Adoption Congress (AAC) national meeting probably in the early 1990s.  Although Paton had the original idea for a national organization for adoption reform, which eventually turned into the American Adoption Congress, her subsequent relations with the organization were tumultuous.  Paton’s relationship with the AAC hit a low point in the early 1990s over the question of registering for the 1991 national conference in Garden Grove, California..  When Jean requested a table in the bookroom/exhibit area, the ACC Conference Registrar told her that requests for table reservations had to be accompanied by a paid conference registration.  The request angered Paton because 1) she had no plans to register and 2) she thought it an injustice to demand a paid registration from “the mother of the movement,” who had impoverished herself for the cause.  She threatened to carry her books on her back and if people asked why, she would reply that the AAC denied her a table.  The upshot: The AAC maintained its position; Paton attended without registering.

Jean Paton’s Christmas Letter for Single Mothers, Dec. 24, 1959

Jean Paton fired off what she called her “annual Christmas letter,” which was published by the Los Angeles Times on December 24, 1959, under the heading, “Remembered.”  It began,

“In remembrance of today’s forgotten women, the one who has given her child to adoption, never to hear of him again.

To such mothers, to those who grieve, may I send assurance that not everyone had forgotten them, especially not their children, many of whom when grown, think of them with growing wisdom and in the spirit of forgiveness.

Those of us, who are less than perfect can never understand the reason for this lifelong punishment for what is, often enough, scarcely a sin, certainly not the mortal one.”

Jean Paton, Gardener

Jean Paton delighted in growing vegetables and flowers, which she took up in earnest for the first time in Ojai, California in the late-1950s.  Jean spent hours in her garden, cultivating sweet peas, Swiss chard, beets, lettuce, and broccoli, as well carnations and roses.  Such activities would remain a life-long pursuit.  This photo is unidentified but it is probably taken in the backyard of Jean’s home in Harrison, Arkansas, during the summer.  It looks as if Jean is inspecting the tomato patch.

Jean Paton at an American Adoption Congress Protest

In this photo, Jean Paton is in the background at this 1989 protest by the American Adoption Congress (AAC), an organization she helped found in 1979.  The ACC declared the first week in August of 1989 as “National Open Records Week,” which would be celebrated by a march on Washington, D.C. beginning at the Statue of Liberty in New York City during that last week of July and ending in the nation’s capital during the first week of August.  The woman with the sign “Birthmothers Care Forever” is Marilyn Burson, a birth mother (deceased). The woman with the sign “Adoptee Rights Are Human Rights” is Molly Johnson, adopted adult and executor of the Jean Paton Papers.  The woman with the sign “Cut the Tape Break the Seal” is Judy Taylor, birth mother.  The woman behind her, with the partial sign saying “Free,” might be Joyce Barr, an adoptee from NYC.  The woman holding the “American Adoption Congress” sign is Sharon Bell. And the woman holding the sign “Equal Rights for Triad Members” is Nancy Horgan.  I am indebted to both Molly Johnson and Joe Soll for identifying the protest and the participants.

Jean Pation’s New Adoptive Home

Jean thrived in her second adoptive home, which was located in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a small city of 15,000 people, thirty miles west of Detroit.  The Patons were prosperous and much better off than her first adoptive family, the Deans.  They lived in a large, imposing, three-story house, located on 122 Normal Street and had just purchased a new EMF automobile for Dr. Paton, a general practitioner, to conduct his house calls over the muddy and rutted roads in and out of Ypsilanti.

For those of you who are serious history nuts, car buffs, or just plain curious: the letters “EMF” stand for the initials of the last names of Barney Everitt, Bill Metzger, and Walter Flanders, who founded the E-M-F-Company in 1908.  Within three years the company was “the largest employer in Detroit and was producing more cars than any other company in the United States other than Ford.”  The primary reason that the name of the car is unknown today is because the Studebaker Brothers purchased the entire company in 1910.

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Jean Paton and her second adoptive family

This is a photo of Jean Paton, age 2½ or 3, with her second adoptive father, Dr. Thomas Paton and her seven-year-old foster sister, Virginia.  Jean was adopted twice.  The first time, she was adopted on May 10, 1909, by Harry and Millie Dean, a lower-middle class couple who also lived in Detroit.  The Deans renamed the baby Madeline Viola Dean.  Baby Madeline lived with the Deans for only two years.  At age 44, Harry Dean, a house painter, contracted cancer of the liver and died on May 6, 1911.  (I have not been able to locate any photos of the Deans).  The last six months that Madeline lived under the Deans’ roof were filled with illness and the smell of death.  Some seventy years later, Paton believed that her first adoptive father’s death had left her with “an undying and fierce hatred of the spectacle of human suffering.”  Impoverished by her husband’s death, Millie Dean was unable to support Madeline.  She returned the child to the Children’s Home Society of Michigan, which again placed Madeline in a foster home.  Madeline stayed in that foster home for 7½ months.  Then on December 11, 1911, Dr. Thomas and Mary M. Paton of Ypsilanti, Michigan,  adopted Madeline and renamed her Jean Madeline Paton.