The Beginning – The Story of AFTH

ImageExecutive Director and Founder of Adoptions From The Heart, Maxine Chalker, has been affected by adoption her whole life. She was adopted at birth; her story is that of someone who has used personal experience and passion to propel widespread change.

Maxine Chalker’s adoptive parents were unable to conceive their own children, so they did what most infertile couples did in the late 50’s, they sought help from an attorney. The attorney arranged the whole adoption himself, with help of a Philadelphia hospital. The adoption process was completely done behind the scenes, which was normal. Adoptive parents and birth moms never made direct contact. They each signed papers separately and the baby was placed in the arms of an adoptive couple.

Growing up, Maxine’s adoptive parents never hid the fact that she was adopted, she was told  since the time she was two years old. She remembers telling her mom she was going to stop eating so she could get smaller and smaller and be born in her mommy’s tummy.… to a young child, the theory made perfect sense. She never followed through of course.  Her parents subsequently adopted her younger sister as well.

As a kid, she always wondered about her birthmother. She never found herself angry, but always curious. When high school graduation came about, and the time came to choose a career path, it was an easy decision. Social work was the only thing she was interested in pursuing. Maxine graduated Summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA in May of 1975; a year later in 1976 completed her Masters Degree in Social Work.

Following graduation, Maxine went on to work for Children and Youth of Delaware County where she worked on hundreds of adoption cases over the next several years. She spent a lot of time doing searches for adoptees and birth moms. Not only was searching difficult and time consuming, but it was particularly challenging when women who had placed a child were getting married and changing their names later on in life. Then there was the issue of inauthentic birth records; few identity regulations were in place for women delivering babies at the time. After spending several years doing searches for others, Maxine was prompted to search for her own birth mom.

The request was sent for her pre-adoption birth certificate from the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records. (A law passed; shortly thereafter to forbid the dissemination of such records, and remains in place today.)  When the birth certificate arrived, she noted her parents were of Greek heritage.

She refused to give up finding more information; she eventually came across court records which stated that her birth parents were not of Greek heritage but rather Albanian. On a whim, Maxine set out to visit the Albanian church of Philadelphia. After all, there weren’t many Albanian congregations in the area.  There she met with a Priest and discovered that the name of her mother on her birth certificate was that of someone who had died the year before.

Having been raised in a Jewish family, she was nervous to meet a priest but he was very kind and open and offered information about the family. Only then did he ask her the reason she was searching for the woman. “I was adopted and I believe that this is my birth family”, Maxine responded.

The Albanian priest shared that he did not believe this woman was her mother. He suggested perhaps it was the woman’s sister who gave birth. He was eager to help and without hesitation he offered to contact the sister of her alleged birth mom. When the priest reached out, the woman denied having had a child nor having knowledge of her sister being pregnant. Maxine heard this news, and refused to believe it. Then she thought, perhaps, this woman was simply reluctant to discuss something so personal with a man of priesthood.

She drafted a letter, direct and to the point. In it she wrote “either you are my Aunt or you are my Mother”. Off it went. Days later, Maxine received a phone call. “It was such a high” Maxine expresses, “I was not angry, I was thrilled”. The woman told her she was her mother. As fate would have it, Maxine and her birth mother lived in the next town from each other. They arranged a visit and chatted for hours, about everything. Eventually Maxine met her siblings, whom she remains in contact with to this day.

All of the information on her pre-adoption birth certificate had been wrong, with the exception of her date of birth. At the hospital on the night of her birth, her birth mom had given the name of her sister in place of her own. It was not uncommon for pregnant women to falsify information and place a child for adoption. Her mother was unwed, and in those days, it was socially unacceptable for a woman to have child out of wedlock. This led to a spiral of unethical adoptions, abortions, and essentially heartbreak. Eventually, Maxine’s relationship with her birth mom dwindled away, but what she took away from her experience, shaped the rest of her life as well as the adoption field.

“The Adoption Agency”, now “Adoptions From The Heart”, was founded in 1984, based on Maxine’s belief that a more “humane” approach to adoption was desperately needed. Open adoption was a relatively new concept at the time, but it provided solutions to many of the problems by those who were tangled in the web of adoption. It gave birth parents the opportunity to select and meet the couple who would adopt their child. It gave adoptive parents a sense of their child’s family history; and it gave the child a better understanding of why they were placed for adoption. Gone was the mystery, the ambiguity, and the fear of what is adoption.

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