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“Adopted” on the Black Market: the Cole Babies

The Miami Herald has done yet another strong piece on the fate of the Cole babies. See:

The Cole babies: Years later, they search for identity: Illegally adopted at birth in Miami, a group of men and women set out to find their true identities. Instead, they found each other.

Those termed “Cole Babies” were children born in Miami between 1927 and 1963 whose black market “adoption” placements were handled by Katherine M. Cole, Ruby Sutera, or Ephrain Suarez, (The Suarez Clinic.)

This latest article features the plight of a number of the Cole “adoptees”, such as Cyn Bird, a late discovery adoptee (or LDA) , who learned at age 46 that she was not merely “adopted”, but “adopted” illegally through the Cole operation.

In what authorities call one of the most haunting, widespread cases of illegal adoptions in Florida history, Cole reportedly placed more than 1,000 babies, most without legal documentation, out of her two-story Southwest Eighth Street clinic from the 1930s to the 1960s. She died in 1981, leaving no records and without ever admitting the full scale of the shadowy operation that created three generations of Cole babies struggling to piece together their identities. For most, the discovery was triggered by a revelation and a birth certificate on which Cole listed the adoptive parents as the birth parents.

“She absolutely played God,” said Josette Marquess, a retired Florida adoption official who shepherded dozens of Cole babies through mostly fruitless state searches for family. “We have no official record of their adoptions — like they never happened — which makes it nearly impossible to help these folks find their birth parents.”

The discovery of this vintage Miami mystery has come in waves: In the 1950s, as part of a federal investigation into black-market baby adoptions. In the early 1990s, as some Cole babies reached adulthood and began asking the questions.

Now, a third Internet-fueled push is unfolding.

Precisely that lack of information is binding together  a new community.

Along the way, the Cole babies found each other.

Through websites, Facebook pages, registries, forums and e-mail exchanges, they built a special community bound by the unknowns and the peculiar deeds of “Granny Doc” Cole.

The article also focuses upon the quest for health information and the needs of the aging population of the Cole babies, as well as the realities of waking up one day to realize everything one thought they knew about their family medical history was a lie hidden by the legal fiction of the “adoption” and the family silence.

Lightner found out he was adopted as he was researching what he believed to be his mother’s family history. His aunt told him the truth.

“It was like listening to a record player that skips, over and over,” said Lightner, a husband and father. “She told me that my mother was older and they paid $200 for me. I should have gotten a few hints when I was growing up, but I didn’t feel like I was adopted.”

And then the realization began to sink in. He called his doctor.

“Everything we thought we knew about my health history, we don’t anymore.”

As I’ve pointed out several times before though, (see here and here as but two examples) family medical histories are ultimately interpersonal matters related to consent and genuine medical privacy not directly tied to record access restoration work (as the state cannot grant one access to their mother and father’s medical history, only members of one’s family or the parents themselves can chose whether to divulge that information or not.)

The article goes on to explain how searches by the Cole babies just as with many other adopted people follow patterns as the adoptees themselves have children, age, those that adopted them begin to die and they find out about their adoptive status, often through papers left behind, and begin to reach other important milestones in their lives.

Cole left behind a world of questions, unearthed a dozen years after her death when a Cole baby named Carole Landis Baker became the first adoptee to publicly search for her birth mother. The story of her quest, published in The Miami Herald on June 6, 1993, under the headline Dark Secrets, ended with more questions than answers.

Baker never found her birth mother, but dozens of other Cole babies came forward and at least three found birth parents.

Some Cole babies held a reunion in Coral Gables in January 1994 to celebrate the kinship that had formed as they searched for their roots.

Like the first waves, the Cole babies now coming forward live all over the United States — some in Florida, some learning as 40-somethings that they had been adopted, often as their adoptive parents were dead or dying.

Those that bought the children themselves were sometimes in their own form of hiding, keeping the secrets and trying to ensure unpleasant questions were avoided.

Adoptive parents still alive have been reluctant to reveal details. In Bird’s case, her mother denied she was adopted for years before her confession. She told Bird she had lived in fear for years that someone would knock on the door and take away her baby girl.

Lightner remembers being sent to a British boarding school not long after he asked why he didn’t have red hair like his father.

As time went by and the Cole story came to light it is possible, if not altogether likely that some “adopters”/baby buyers simply destroyed any remaining paperwork and decided never to tell the “adoptee” in question rather than confront the truth, as after all, the “adopters”understand the implications of how this information would reflect on them as well.

Now decades later the black market saga of the Cole babies holds vital lessons for today’s “adopters” and would-be-adopters all too willing to participate in baby buying schemes.

Many of these lifetimes worth of lies are starting to show cracks, and no matter how much one tries to bury the truth, there are often relatives or others still willing to let the “adoptee” know what really happened.

Today we read about the Cole babies, but ten or twenty years from now, we’ll be reading similar kinds of things about children “adopted” out of Guatemala.

For three decades, East Coast couples ventured to what was then the western edge of Miami, middle-class whites who, for the most part, could not conceive but had cash and were willing to pay $25 to $2,500 or more for a baby.

The birth mothers were mostly from South Florida, unwed, broke and looking for a way to discreetly start over. Their expenses were paid and secrets held by the adoptive parents.

The popular doctor brought the parties together, with no red tape, no records, no court hearings, no questions. And no answers for the adoptees who would later search for clues.

Cole housed pregnant women and girls in apartments and houses clustered around the clinic at 4725 SW Eighth St.

Cole, who began practicing in 1927, was arrested five times between 1943 and 1967 — once for manslaughter, twice for attempted abortion, once for unlawful possession of barbiturates and once for failure to file a birth certificate. She was cleared of all charges but one, attempted abortion, and served less than a year in jail.

But to so many local families of the time, the accusations seemed not to matter. Cole had legitimately delivered generations of babies for a half-century.

Search and reunion are of course again, in the interpersonal realm and separate from the civil rights effort to ensure the states restore access of original birth certificates to (legally obtained) adoptees. Black Market babies are more often than not simply not in the state’s files at all.

But Florida, like many states has set up an official to offer help with that most interpersonal of tasks.

When a Cole case crosses their desk it’s easy to recognize the hallmarks immediately.

The Cole babies’ stories may start in Miami but most wind up in Tallahassee with Marquess, the recently retired director of the Florida Adoption Reunion Agency.

For two decades, Marquess had been the state’s only adult adoption services official, keeper of a collection of 3×5 index cards listing birth and adoptive parents in Florida adoptions from 1944 to 1980. Few Cole babies were in the files.

“Over the years, I would get all these calls from Cole babies. Their information wasn’t here as it was supposed to be so I would have them send me a copy of the birth certificate,” she said.

She would know immediately if they were Cole babies: “In 98 percent of the cases, she handwrote out the birth certificates in bright red ink.”

Then she had to break the disappointing news: “It was hard to hear their voices, and you know in reality you probably wouldn’t be able to help,” she said. “They deserve closure.”

But for many Cole babies, the yearning to know more has been left unfulfilled.

This article is merely the latest the paper’s ongoing efforts at providing coverage on the Cole babies, here are a few older articles you can search for, for example:

  • “Searching for Birth Parents” March 19, 1993
  • “Dark Secrets” June 6, 1993
  • “Old Memories New Clues Search by ‘Cole Baby’ Starts to Yield Results” June 27, 1993
  • “‘Cole Babies’ Search For Past” July 6, 1993
  • “Adoptees Search for Clues to Pasts Erased by Doctor” August 9, 1993
  • “Hugs, Kisses End 48-year Separation” September 12, 1993
  • “Tears Underline Words at Broward Reunion Mother Meets Only Child After 55 Years” October 24, 1993
  • “For Cole Babies, A Secret Told is not a Mystery Resolved” December 26, 1993

Unlike local media in some cities with major black market merchants, the Miami Herald has done a remarkable job of bringing new details to light and bringing the hidden history forward, and supporting the efforts of the “adoptees” to reconnect and make their realities known.

But Katherine Cole’s business was hardly the exception.

Katherine Cole was simply the Miami broker who fit into a broader pattern of some of the other more notable black market baby farmers and brokers here in North America such as Lenora Fielding, Thomas Hicks, Bessie Bernard, Jerome Niles, Georgia Tann, Ruby Hightower, Gertrude Pitkanen, Mary Townsend Glassen, Lila Gladys and William Young, etc.

This page for example, Black Market Adoption, has done a nice round up of some very basic articles as but one possible starting point.

You can read more about the Cole babies on various online registries set up to try to help facilitate reunions, or on facebook pages.

But agian, as no records were kept most of these “adoptees” and their original families simply hit brick walls when attempting to reconnect.

That’s the very nature of the Black Market.

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