Imagine that you have recently immigrated to a new country, and you’re heading to the hospital to have your baby—the first in your family to be born in your new home. You’ve been dreaming of this day for nine months. After you deliver, you bond with your child, but you are eventually told to return home to rest and just come back to the hospital to breastfeed while nurses and doctors care for your child. You’re tired, you may be medicated, and with little space in the hospital and other children, you need to care for at home, this request makes sense at the time. You go home, get the rest you rightfully need and were told you deserved. You tell your family members about the new baby. You prepare for their homecoming. You are excited to see the newest addition to your family as you head back to the hospital to hold, feed, and hopefully bring home your beautiful baby.

However, when you return to see your child, you’re told that in the night, your child has died. Your baby didn’t seem unwell when you left. You have lots of questions, but feel at such a loss. You’re stricken with grief. You’re panicked. You can’t see the baby you held just hours before, and you’re sent home to grieve with little to no answers about how the healthy child you had just given birth to had suddenly gotten ill and passed away.

Luckily, women in these situations weren’t silent.

The Yemenite Children Affair

Though these families had little recourse at the time, many women who gave birth to children between 1948 to 1952 in Israel passed on similar stories, which became known as the Yemenite Children Affair. At this time, babies and toddlers of immigrants (mainly Yemenite Jews) to Israel were allegedly stolen from their families and placed for adoption. The Times of Israel explains that they were taken from reputable public institutions such as hospitals and daycare centers, which is likely why so many children were taken, and it wasn’t uncovered right away—who would think people who worked for such places would steal children?

Though the number totals at around 1,000 children, it is estimated that the number of children that were taken from their families is actually higher. Some reports estimate up to nearly 5,000, and because of hidden records and lack of information in general from this time period, the number is likely never to be truly known.

The Times of Israel notes that many of the instances have been “disputed by scholars and seemingly refuted by three state commissions that examined the affair and concluded that most of the children had died.” However the case keeps  “resurfacing, not least because most of the families were not given their children’s bodies or informed of their burial places.”

Despite these reports, thanks to DNA testing, people are finding siblings, cousins, etcetera that were said to have died by hospitals and childcare employees. They are alive and well and are sharing their stories and are being reunited with family members they didn’t even know existed until recently.

How Could This Happen?

As this story continues to resurface and gain international attention, people have asked: how could this happen? Remember, many of the adoption laws that protect children and families today are more recent and in fact, laws aren’t always the same in each country.

During the late 1940s to early 1950s, many of the immigrants from Yemen affected were living in transit housing or interim camps while they waited for housing and were relying on the help from people they felt they could trust: social workers, doctors, and hospital employees. These children weren’t kidnapped from their home while their parents slept or taken in a domestic dispute like we often hear about in current kidnapping cases, but they were stolen from them from those that they had believed were on their side and would do no harm.

It Has Happened Before

However, maybe even more importantly, this incident was able to occur because sadly, stories like this are entirely uncommon, particularly following the Great Depression through the 1950s. With a high amount of poverty post war, orphanages reaching capacity, and the stigma attached in society to unwed mothers and the children they bore, children were displaced from their families around the world and were given to others whom people deemed were “more worthy” to be parents.

Tuam, Ireland

In Ireland, multiple stories have come out about the Catholic Church taking illegitimate children from their mothers and placing them with couples seeking to adopt. Though many of the women believed they were staying in these homes to give birth to their children away from the prying and judgmental eyes of their community, many did not authorize the adoption placements of their children. The children of Tuam were more often than not taken from their mothers, who came to stay during their pregnancy, many times sent there by their families, because at the time, other options were limited for unwed mothers. Like those that were a part of the Yemenite Children Affair, many of these mothers passed away before learning that their children were alive and in some cases, not living far from their biological families. Again, those who the community trusted, like priests and nuns, were the ones who took the children.

Madrid, Spain

Not unlike the Yemenite Children Affair, last summer, a similar situation was further exposed in Spain as a trial began for Dr. Eduardo Velo, an 85-year-old gynecologist who was a part of a scandal that took place from 1936-1939 when children were taken from their families and given to those that the government thought were “more deserving.” This was brought to light in 2011 when some of the children came forward noting that their parents had purchased them from a priest.

Stolen Children in the United States

Also, the United States is a country that practiced this unfair treatment of illegal and completely unethical adoptions. Though the Orphan Train Project was considered an ethical way to help find homes for the mass amount of children who were without families in America at the time (the Orphan Train Complex notes that “30,000 abandoned children were living on the streets of New York City”), it has still been determined that many of these children were taken away from families against their will or knowledge and were given to families in rural areas to help with labor. Also, coercion was often used to convince families who were undereducated and living in situations of high poverty that their children were better off elsewhere, when in fact, some struggled as they were adopted just for the sake of an extra set of hands on a farm as this was cheaper than hiring staff. In some extreme cases, those who identified themselves as child aid workers took children out of their homes or off the streets those who were separated from parents who were working or who were working themselves.

Because children were more frequently orphaned at this time due to the high death rate, parents having to leave their children to seek employment, etcetera, and because of the lack of record keeping, it’s not clear how many families chose an adoption plan for their families and how many children were taken against the wishes of their families.

The Baby Scoop Era, which is noted as taking place between 1945 and 1973, was a time in our country’s fairly recent past when unwed mothers went to maternity homes to have their babies, again due to the stigma of being an unwed mother. Similar to the situations in Ireland, these mothers went to homes for mothers who were pregnant and unwed.

Though some of these women opted to make an adoption plan as single parenthood was still not the norm or practiced often, particularly when a woman was unwed, but quite often, these young women were coerced to place their children for adoption. In some situations, couples who could not conceive would pay a high sum of money to these state run facilities for babies. There are also countless tragic stories of girls waking up, having been given a copious amount of medication in order for them to “recover” from childbirth, to be told that their children passed away, only to find out later (or perhaps never at all) that they had been placed with another family that someone else determined was more adequate to parent. Some of these mothers awoke to the news that their child had been placed with another family because it was best for the child without having the mother’s consent. Due to her situation (and because more often than not she wouldn’t have had the backing of her own family), a mother whose child had been taken didn’t have recourse and would have known that.

DNA Testing Helps Create Answers

Today, we commonly associate DNA testing and finding biological families with feel-good stories like these. But, in some cases, genetic testing turns over a leaf of history that is a bit more sinister as is the case with the Yemenite Children Affair.

With more and more people seeking to learn about their past through DNA tests that are affordable, easily accessible, and marketed well, many things have been uncovered and more recently criminals have been put on trial for crimes they thought they had gotten away with. From finding murderers and rapists from unsolved cold cases to finding family members that people weren’t aware existed, popularity of these tests have only increased as technology continues to develop in this area.

DNA tests have proven to be critical in many cases of missing children from the Yemenite Children Affair.

According to a New York Times article from February by Malin Fezehai, Ofra Mazor began looking for her sister through My Heritage, an Israel-based genetic testing company. Through this service, she was reunited with her sister who her parents had been told had died. Luckily, she sought to find out the truth.

Mazor was not the only person to do this, and though the Yemenite Children Affair was not unknown, it was brought to light even more. Because of stories like this, others have sought DNA testing to see if their siblings and family members who they had been told were dead are, in fact, still alive.

Additionally, thanks to this awareness, bills and laws have been put into effect to ensure that the government is more transparent and those who were adopted during this time have access to records.

The Impact This Has Today

According to The Times of Israel, a bill was approved in 2018 “to allow families who came to Israel from Yemen in the early days of the state to find out whether children they claim were kidnapped from them were in fact put up for adoption.” Many of the families that are a part of this controversy fear that their family members aren’t even local as it is estimated that many of these infants and toddlers weren’t always placed locally and in some cases, internationally. (Genetic testing should still help them find these individuals if they have also submitted their DNA).

Though the government is promising transparency and trying to make this right, a lot of official adoption records weren’t kept at this time, there are “missing” files, and many of the parents who were a part of these allegations have since passed away and are no longer fighting to find out what happened to their children.

Thanks to DNA testing and people sharing their stories, investigations continue as matches are made and families are reunited. However, the sad reality is that many of these parents, who tragically lost children, many of whom never fully believed they had died, have since passed away themselves without the benefit of seeing their children, who, in many cases, are alive and well.