24 Apr 2019

Baby farming scandal: The Motherhood of Man

From Nights, 7:09 pm on 24 April 2019

Back in 1953, New Zealand was rocked by an enormous scandal when a group called the Motherhood of Man Movement were caught running a baby farming scheme. 

The movement was originally set up to help unwed mothers, but it turned out its chair and treasurer had been forcing the women in their care to give up their babies to rich donors and they were pocketing the cash.

The scandal led directly to the foundation of New Zealand's modern adoption laws. 

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Photo: 123RF

Ione Cussens is the curator of Papakura Museum, who has written an academic paper on the scandal.

Motherhood of Man was established in 1942 by a woman called May Harvey, she says.

“All of a sudden with the start of WW2 we have all these men leaving. That leaves all these women behind with their children. Especially situations where people have just gotten married or weren’t even married yet but were having you know, a bit of sex on the side, and all of a sudden we’ve got all these women with children. 

“The men were away so we have all these women trying to look after everybody in the families without help from the fathers, so it’s a bit of a tricky situation but there’s a lot of people in the same situation.”

It wasn’t actually that there were more single mothers, it was just more visible because it was wartime.

Women at the time didn’t get a Domestic Purposes Benefit, and the benefits which did exist were mostly for women who were widowed, not for women who had a baby out of wedlock.

There were church organisations who helped women out, but Cussens says many were horrible – some women had nuns take their babies away and others had to scrub floors while heavily pregnant.

“It was meant to publicly shame you."

The Motherhood of Man Movement took a radically different approach, Cussens says.

May Harvey established a day nursery for women who were single and needed childcare during the day

“This was completely unheard of.”

“They make a huge point to say that they’re interdenominational… which is completely different to everything else because all of the other mother-baby homes are run by religious organisations, which is usually where the money comes from. It’s also a way to force your beliefs onto people by  ‘helping them’."

Motherhood of Man helped women keep their babies if they wanted to but also helped them to adopt the baby out if they chose to.

“Instead of having hostel situations where all of the mothers were together, they tried to find families that would take in the pregnant mother just to kind of show her the ropes in return for food, she’s help out with the kids and do a bit of cleaning.

“It was a really good opportunity for them to see what motherhood looked like, especially if they were younger and had glorified ideas of what having a baby would be like.”

This came with its own struggles, though. It was hard to regulate, Cussens says, because the women were already on the social fringes and may not have spoken out about mistreatment.

The Motherhood of Man Movement coincided with the rising popularity of stranger adoption. As the war ended, childless couples were looking for babies.

Some of the more moralistic homes saw this as a solution to a problem, Cussens says.

Then came Mr and Mrs Bouviard who had been in the organisation since the early days.

“We start seeing a few things happen that set up a few red flags. We see adoptive parents who have more money getting babies quicker and being put at the top of the list, we see the opposite, so parents unable to put big donations into the organisation, having to wait a really long time.”

When the Movement's finances were no longer adding up, it was in dire straits, Cussens says.

“What happened was Mrs Bouviard was funnelling money from adoptions into her own bank account and writing blank cheques from the organisation to her as petty cash, but they ended up being exorbitant amounts of money.

“She was essentially baby farming, forcing women to give up their babies otherwise they have to pay the fees for confinement which was one of the things that Motherhood of Man was there for, was to help them free of charge if they could to have their baby and get through this initial situation.

"There was one woman whose baby died in childbirth and Mrs Bouviard tried to get her to pay for the fees for burying her baby and for her confinement.”

The other members of the organisation suddenly found all of these things out and were horrified, she says.

Soon after, the Bouviards were arrested.

“[But] because the women they’re dealing with so often are in a very tense social situation… it’s hard to get witnesses.”

The couple ended up getting left off.

These events were a catalyst for the 1945 Adoption Bill – which had been kicking around for a while – getting passed into law.

“The Adoption Act come in in 1955 and basically said you can’t charge people for adopting babies and also set up a lot of other regulations around it. Like up until then, any Māori adoption was done through the Māori Land Court, which is a little bit strange.

“It’s tricky because in bringing Māori and Pākehā and everyone else under the same adoption act and under the same regulations it also made it really hard for Māori families to do whāngai (fostering by relatives) and things like that.

“It was really geared towards a Pākehā way of seeing adoption and seeing families.”