A Safe Haven

By the 1950's, there were 34 Salvation Army Booth Homes for Unwed Mothers in operation.

The issue of teen pregnancy has long been a challenge in society, taking an emotional and physical toll on those involved. It was particularly so in the early part of the 20th century when there was a significant social stigma attached to being an unwed mother. Here’s how one newspaper reacted when The Salvation Army proposed opening a facility for unwed mothers in Richmond, VA in 1923:

“A home of this kind would be a menace to society, encouraging viciousness and immortality . . .  [serving those] who have for any reason become misfits in the social structure of life, thereby disqualifying them for entrance into other places.”

Imagine the pressure a young girl would have felt under those conditions. Today, women from across the country recall specifically how they were welcomed into those homes and were thankful to have a place to go where they could get the care they and their babies needed.

A client from Oakland, CA in the 1960s recalled recently: “Even though so many years have passed, I still remember that everyone was very kind.  I was 17 and frightened.  My parents felt strongly that adoption was best for my future and for the child’s.  The social worker at Santa Clara County recommended I be away from home and with women in my situation.  I was at the Booth Home for the last two months of my pregnancy only.  I came away feeling everyone was kind and supportive and not judging.  I also received good medical care.  I came home feeling a sense of loss, but it was comforting to know that I’d had kind, supportive people around me at the Booth Home who didn’t judge me.”

Major Dorothy Purser of the Booth Memorial Hospital in Cleveland, OH gives the infant to the new mother.

Another resident from El Paso, TX remembers: “Under the circumstances, everyone was friendly.  I never felt out of place or in the way.  There was more of an ‘at home’ atmosphere.  We had lots of classes offered to us; some on prenatal care and health care in general.  They had people there to talk to if you needed to.  I was surprised at what a good support system they had back then.  The girls were all different ages, but they managed to place us in a room with the right person.  I don’t know what would have happened to me if not for them.”

The Booth Memorial Home in El Paso, TX

Over time, societal attitudes have changed dramatically and so have needs. In the 1950s there were 34 Booth homes for unwed mothers in operation. They were typically named after Evangeline Booth, the first female General of the organization. They were run under the guidance of a Salvation Army officer and approved medical staff including obstetricians and pediatricians. The median age of a Booth Home resident was 18, with some as young as 14.

In many cases, the women ultimately gave their newborn babies up for adoption, often on the advice of their families. The adoptions themselves were handled by professional adoption agencies and/or public social welfare agencies – the Army’s role was to provide a safe, confidential place for the mothers to live during their pregnancy. In the 1970s, The Salvation Army began to close or transition all of its homes and hospitals that were solely dedicated to unwed mothers. Instead, the Army focused on addressing the broader needs of single parents through family counseling programs, day care services, transitional housing and other support.

While our services continue to evolve, we still are working to meet the needs of those who once stayed with us. Today, we run a program to reunite mothers and children by sharing available medical and other records. Here’s how our client from El Paso recalls a recent, successful reunion:

“The decision for adoption was made by my mom.  I was older and stable when I had my other children.  But if I’d have kept that child, we would have been at the mercy of food stamps and welfare. My delivery was early, so the adoption was through Social Services only.  But in only three months, my child was placed with a very good family.  Knowing this has been like a weight lifted off my shoulders.  It took me three tries to find him, but the last time I contacted [The Salvation Army], worked.  Whenever we see The Salvation Army at Christmas, we drop in our change.”

For a historic look back at The Salvation Army’s homes for pregnant women, take a look at The Salvation Army: Marching Forward at the 7:50 mark.