Marilyn Churley relives son’s adoption in tell-all book
Former NDP pol helped create laws so it’s easier to reunite post adoption
By Kris Scheuer
(Originally published April 28/07 for Town Crier.)
In her first interview about her upcoming book, Marilyn Churley speaks about her personal journey of being a teen mother and re-uniting with the son she gave up for adoption in 1968.
The as-yet untitled book, which is scheduled to be released sometime this year by McClelland & Stewart, is a story about the former Toronto-Danforth MPP’s personal journey to find her son and about her political journey to make it easier for birth mothers and their adopted children to reconnect.
To understand Churley’s story, you have to journey back nearly 40 years. Churley, who was raised in Happy Valley, Labrador was attending university in Ottawa when she became pregnant at age 18.“When I gave birth, at the time single motherhood wasn’t accepted by society,” she recalled during a sit-down interview in her home. “Abortion and birth control (the pill) were illegal for a single woman … so millions of children in North America were given up for adoption.”
Churley gave birth to her son Billy in a Barrie hospital on Jan. 30, 1968, with no friends or family by her side.
“They left me alone in a room staring at a clock on a wall for 24 hours,” she says. “I was alone and scared and not getting emotional support. The attitude was ‘You deserve this pain’.”
In fact, the 19-year-old Churley had to beg the attending nurses to even let her see her baby before they whisked him away.
|This memory still brings tears to her eyes.
“After I gave birth they were going to take him away and I jumped up off the delivery table and said, ‘I want to see my baby and I am not leaving here until I do’,” she said. “They held him close to my face and they let me touch him — but not hold him.
“In retrospect, they had no legal right to do that, as I had not signed over my legal rights to him at that point.”
Fast forward to 1990–95, when Churley is an MPP in Queen’s Park, fighting for changes to adoption legislation that would make it easier for mothers and children to reconnect. An adoption lobby group was asking Queen’s Park to make it easier to obtain information that would help adoptive children and birth mothers find each other.
“My first experience with adoption disclosure reform was when the NDP was in power (in the 1990s),” she says today.
Sault Ste. Marie MPP Tony Martin had proposed a private member’s bill while a backbencher in Bob Rae’s NDP government. That bill did not get far.
Churley served as Ontario’s registrar general during the Rae government’s term, a position that put her “in charge of every birth certificate in this province,” but her search for her son didn’t begin until after the NDP had lost the 1995 provincial election.
“I would never abuse my power (to locate my son),” she says.
Churley was re-elected that year, but her government was no longer in power. In 1996, she introduced her own private member’s bill on adoption disclosure reform.
“We held demonstrations at Queen’s Park with birth mothers holding empty baby carriages,” she says.
There was fierce opposition to adoption disclosure reform from some MPPs as well as the public. Some men feared that grown children, who they were not aware of, would suddenly show up on their doorsteps.
Churley’s private member’s bill didn’t pass, but she was a strong supporter of Liberal MPP Sandra Pupatello’s Adoption Information Disclosure Act, which passed in 2005 and contained similar provisions to many of her proposed bills.
The new bill now in place made several changes to existing legislation. Once an adoptive child turns 18, he or she can apply for their original birth certificate, and so can the birth mother. A contact veto was put in place that indicates both parties have to agree to contact. If they don’t, then it becomes illegal to contact each other without the other’s consent. However, the bill allowed information to be disclosed that would help each party locate the other.
“The bill is about the right to information, not the right to contact,” says Churley.
She kept the secret of her pregnancy and Billy’s birth from her parents until she found him in 1997. She then tracked down his father, and they have all met.
She is quick to point out that she knows she will never get back the 28 years of Billy’s life she has missed and she is not trying to replace his adoptive family.
Nonetheless, she says there was a hole in her heart until she found him. Every Jan. 30 after his birth she would light a candle to mark his birthday, so it was quite a treat to light and blow out the candle together on his 29th birthday.
In 1974, Churley gave birth to a daughter, Astra, who now has a 13-year-old son, James.
Billy was married a little over a year ago. His natural father came from B.C. to attend the wedding. Churley, Astra and Billy’s adoptive parents were all there.
Churley says the experience of finding her son, “has changed my life completely.”
“It’s lifted a burden. I didn’t know if he was dead or alive, so I thought about him all the time. Now he has become a normal part of my life.”
She says she decided to write the book last January after she lost in a bid to win a federal seat in Beaches-East York.
“There is a bit of an attitude that it (teen and unwed pregnancies) only happened to poor, bad girls and sluts,” she said, adding that while no one ever referred to her in that way she has seen the attitude expressed.
Churley is running for the NDP in Beaches-East York again, whenever the next federal election is called. She is aware the release of a book on such a personal topic could provide fodder for her opponents.
“It’s possible that my political opponents will use it against me,” she said. “But I think it will backfire.”