On Nov. 24, 1958, teenager Barbara Johnson held the daughter she had just given birth to at a doctor's office in Williston, looked into her blue eyes and said, "Some day, you will come find me. I know you will — you've got to."These kinds of illegal schemes can flourish -- then and now -- because of closed records, shame and secrecy in adoption.
Today, 70-year-old Barbara Johnson Weeks Rainey is living in Alabama and still waiting to find the daughter she gave life to and then gave up to what she thought was a legitimate adoption agency in Gainesville.
What she says she later discovered was that "Col." Robert Ryan, the man running Gainesville's Southern Rescue Workers' maternity home — the unlicensed facility where Barbara lived during her pregnancy — was actually selling the babies born of the mothers living there.
In an era when the societal stigma against giving birth to a child outside of wedlock was strong, unmarried pregnant girls were sent away to homes like the Southern Rescue Workers facility so their reputations — and their families' — would not be ruined. Friends and relatives often were told the girls had gone to live with a sick aunt or grandmother.
And Robert Ryan (the honorific title of colonel was bestowed by Southern Rescue Workers) learned he could take advantage of the situation by exploiting the girls and extorting the potential adoptive parents.
Ryan was arrested in 1962 after being on the run for almost two years. He was charged with "receipt of compensation for child placement services" after an investigation by the Florida Legislature, the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, the Gainesville Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The law enforcement agencies alleged he was selling the babies for between $1,500 and $5,000 each and extorting money from couples desperate for a child, but he was never tried on four counts of selling babies.
But what happened to Ryan afterward — and how a man with a criminal record ended up running a maternity home to begin with — has been lost to time, with Gainesville historians, retired doctors and longtime residents struggling to recall the home, let alone the fate of a man many of the girls grew to fear and dislike.
The black-market baby legacy he created continues to this day, as children and birth mothers struggle to search for one another. But their searches are difficult, if not impossible, because Ryan and his successor destroyed most of their files.
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