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date: 13 December 2019

Paton, Jean

(28 Dec. 1908–27 Mar. 2002)
  • E. Wayne Carp

Paton, Jean M. (28 Dec. 1908–27 Mar. 2002), founder of the adoption reform movement, was born Ruth Edwina Emerson in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of her unwed mother Emma Cutting and James Kittson, the alleged bastard son of the railroad industrialist, James Jerome Hill. Baby Ruth was adopted on 10 May 1909, by Harry and Millie Dean, who renamed the baby Madeline Viola Dean. Two years later, upon the death of Harry Dean, Madeline was placed in a foster home for seven months and then adopted again by Thomas Woodburn Paton, an Ypsilanti, Michigan doctor and Mary M. Paton, née Picket, who renamed her Jean Madeline Paton. Paton discovered her adoption from a taunt by a neighborhood playmate, and her mother forthrightly confirmed her adoption. Nevertheless, the incident set off lifelong feelings of rejection, disorientation, and abandonment. Although a prodigy at Ypsilanti High School—she graduated in 1924 at the age of sixteen—Paton’s feelings of emotional confusion intensified as she entered adolescence and young adulthood, manifesting themselves in behavioral problems in school and at home. She attended several colleges, finally graduating in 1932 from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor’s degree cum laude.

Unable to find employment in the midst of the Great Depression, Paton returned to the University of Wisconsin, studied economics with an emphasis on statistics, and in 1933 earned a master’s degree. Paton went to Washington, DC, where she worked in 1935 for the US Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and from 1936 to 1938 for the US National Labor Relations Board’s Research Division. Although gainfully employed, Paton became increasingly unhappy with her life, preoccupied with her career and her identity. In 1939, after intensive therapy, Paton was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, graduating in 1945 with a master’s in social work. For the next eight years, Paton worked as a social worker. She focused on the identity needs of children in boarding care and the relinquishment of infants from single mothers. The former reinforced her belief that she had a special connection with orphans; the latter made her miserable and filled her with guilt. Profoundly dissatisfied with professional social work’s treatment of adopted people, Paton left the social work profession in 1953.

That same year Paton inherited forty thousand dollars from her deceased second adoptive mother’s estate and assumed the role of ombudsman for adult adoptees by creating the Life History Study Center in Philadelphia and, in 1962, Orphan Voyage, the first self- help institutions for adopted people. In possession of her original birth certificate from the Detroit Probate Court, Paton in 1955 hired a detective and reunited with her first mother, Emma, age sixty-nine, in Richmond, Michigan. The next year, Paton relocated the Life History Study Center to the western United States, living in, respectively: Ojai, California (1956); Acton, California (1958); and Hillsboro, New Mexico (1961); until finally, in 1968, settling in Cedaredge, Colorado.

Paton’s pioneering idea, animating both organizations, was to focus on adult adoptees, conceptualizing them as a “special culture” or minority group, with unique social and psychological problems. Paton asserted that adopted children became adults who needed to reconnect with their natal families to regain their psychological health. Paton’s foundational tenets and institutional expression challenged American society’s focus on adopted children rather than adult adoptees as well as social work policies that stigmatized adopted persons and unwed mothers, denied the existence of birth families, and inflicted psychological damage on adult adoptees by advocating adoption records remain closed.

Paton promoted these goals with the self-publication of two path-breaking books, The Adopted Break Silence (1954) and Orphan Voyage (1968), which presented for the first time adult adoptees speaking in their own voices, accompanied by the extensive analysis of the nature of adult adoptees and their search for birth parents. Paton also created a voluntary mutual consent adoption registry, which she called the Reunion File, the purpose of which was to reunite the adult adoptee with his or her family of origin, as well as a newsletter, The LOG of Orphan Voyage, which informed subscribers of the latest news in the world of the adopted. The newsletter also included details about Paton’s personal life: the numerous moves across the country, her thirty-eight-year relationship with her life companion, June Schwantes, and her many artistic works and poetry.

Paton’s solutions to the problems of adopted persons and birth mothers were unique. They were filtered through her deep belief in Christianity; the ideas of American psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner; and the writings of Simone Weil, a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist. Her creation of the Life History Study Center and Orphan Voyage was the means to reform American adoption without resorting to legislation. Instead, Paton envisioned facilitating reunions between adult adoptees with natal family members based on the Christian beliefs of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this way, Paton sought to heal the psychological damage done by the stigma of illegitimacy, sealed adoption records, and the separation of natal parents from their children.

From the 1950s to the early 1970s, when thousands of adult adoptees and birth mothers had nowhere else to turn, Paton personally counseled them by mail, phone, newsletter, and in person on the best way to begin to search for their birth families and the children they had relinquished. Although her ideas and publications were rejected by mainstream magazines, New York publishers, and professional social work organizations, such as the Child Welfare League of America, Paton’s communications network among adopted persons laid the foundation for the burst of adoption reform that emerged with the establishing of the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association by Florence Fisher in 1971 and the influential publications of UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Sorosky and social workers Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor, who made adoptee identity conflicts central to the adoption reform movement.

A difficult and often dogmatic woman, Paton regularly disagreed with these new leaders of the adoption reform movement. Upset at the increasing factional fighting among adoption reformers and the proliferating number of adoption search groups, Paton became keenly interested in building permanent institutions for aiding birth mothers and adult adoptees. In pursuit of this agenda, she encouraged the founders of Concerned United Birthparents, the first national organization for birth mothers, in 1976, and was instrumental in founding the American Adoption Congress, the first national organization for adult adoptees, in 1979. By 1981, she was known as the mother of the adoption reform movement. During the 1980s and 1990s, Paton’s life continued much in the same path. She continued to fight on a multitude of fronts for the rights of adult adoptees and birth mothers and championed providing adopted adults with unconditional access to their adoption records. She died in Harrison, Arkansas, and was interred at Maplewood Cemetery.

Jean Paton dared to break the silence about how it feels to be adopted and denied one’s heritage. She created the first adoptee support networks and was the first person to suggest that birth mothers have their own group. She devoted her life to improving the lives of adopted persons, eschewing personal fame, money, or ego gratification. She brought wisdom and a profound spiritual view to adoption that many others missed. Paton’s ideas, publications, and the institutions for adult adoptees and birth mothers she helped create profoundly shaped the modern adoption reform movement.


A collection of Jean Paton’s voluminous correspondence, personal papers, and manuscripts of her writings is held at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, Social Welfare Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The best source of biographical information on Paton is E. Wayne Carp’s Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption (2014). The history of American adoption can be profitably pursued in several works, including E. Wayne Carp, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption (1998); Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (2008); Barbara Melosh, Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption (2006). For international adoption, see Robert L. Ballard, et al., eds., The Intercountry Adoption Debate: Dialogues Across Disciplines (2015). An obituary can be found in “Memorial Notice,” The Triad Tribune of Canada 2 (summer 2002): 2.