This column continues a story I began last week about how Ilene Steinhauer discovered she was a "Butterbox baby," one of the infants involved in an unscrupulous baby-selling scheme that operated out of Canada for almost 25 years. I explained that Ilene's mission has become to find other such babies. She plans to attend a memorial service this Labor Day for infants who died from neglect or were killed intentionally.

A 26-year-old woman in Nova Scotia gives birth to a child out of wedlock.

A childless New Jersey couple desperately searches for a baby to adopt.

These people never meet. But their lives become forever linked through a tiny baby girl.

Ilene Seifer Steinhauer is the Canadian infant a shamed mother put up for adoption. She also is the American daughter of the late Bernard and Tessie Seifer of Newark, N.J.

Maybe a New Jersey newspaper ad led the Seifers to The Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, Nova Scotia, to claim Ilene 52 years ago.

Or perhaps they learned of the home by word of mouth, since many childless New Jersey and New York couples wound up at Ideal.

Ilene will never know. The Seifers told her she was their child - born while they were on vacation in Canada.

She also was told she would have to be naturalized because she was born on foreign soil. She had no way know of knowing a child born of American parents is American no matter where the birth takes place.

She first heard the word "adoption" when she was 7. "A little girl in school taunted me, `Ha-ha, you're adopted.'"

Ilene went home and asked what that meant. Her mother angrily called the other child's mom, insisting the little girl be told to never say that again.

"But she never said I wasn't adopted," Ilene recalls.

Several years later a cousin told Ilene she'd overheard "a child in the family was adopted." The cousin added: "It wasn't me."

"My mother told people I looked just like my father. But I knew it wasn't true," Ilene says. "And sometimes I felt like I didn't fit."

At 17, "I insisted on being naturalized." She later came across the papers her father took from her after the ceremony and saw two birth certificates inside.

One said she was the Seifers' child. The other said a child named Mary Eileen was the daughter of Myrtle Foote.

"That's when I knew I was adopted."

Ilene never confronted her parents. "At an unconscious level, their secrecy made me unable to express anything about it to others. I thought it was a shameful thing."

For years she hid what she knew. Oh, she sometimes thought about tracing her roots. But she didn't think it was possible to do it in another country.

Ilene married and bore two sons. Her marriage crumbled in the late 1980s. Divorce followed. She went through a sometimes lonely, often difficult period trying to get her life back on track.

At one point, she hired a private detective to look into her past. He failed to turn up anything.

Sometimes she dreamed someone would knock on the door and say: "Your mother's searching for you."

She fantasized about having her birth mother "step forward and hug me. It was like a little girl waiting for the prince to come."

When her adoptive mother died in 1988, Ilene connected with an organization that helps adoptees find birth parents. Nothing came of it.

She says she "couldn't ask my father," who died in 1994. "He'd hidden it all my life."

After remarrying in her mid-40s, Ilene's desire to find her natural family resurfaced when she saw a television show about a family reunited after years of separation.

She wrote to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to get copies of the papers she had briefly seen at 17 - papers that somehow had been lost.

"It was scary - like opening Pandora's box." When the packet arrived, the birth certificate with Myrtle Foote's name was inside.

She and her husband Steve found several listings for Footes in the Halifax telephone directory. She picked one out and dialed.

Pandora's box flew open.

The woman she reached turned out to be "my cousin Janice. She told me I was a `Butterbox Baby' survivor."

Ilene had no idea what that meant until Janice mailed her a copy of Canadian journalist Bette Cahill's book, "Butterbox Babies."

"Finding out that was where I came from was devastating," Ilene recalls. "You never think that you were in a place where you could have been killed. I was so shocked that I'd read some and cry, read some more and go to bed and cry more."

She read how she and other newborns were kept in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions and how those considered imperfect were sentenced to death by starvation and buried in mass graves or set adrift in the sea in butter crates.

She wanted to understand; she needed "closure."

"Janice told my mother that I was in touch with her. I wrote to my mother saying I was in good health, happily married and wanted her to meet me, her two grandsons and three great-grandchildren.

"She wrote back saying the past was better left in the past and the family who had adopted me was my true family. She said I should not get in touch with her again."

Ilene and Steve - who is my cousin - went to Halifax to meet her newly found relatives two years ago. Ilene also learned more about the appalling Ideal baby trafficking scheme.

At 50, Ilene found her roots but has faced repeated rejection by a mother who still refuses to meet her.

She knows the Foote family emigrated to Halifax when the cod fishing went bad on Red Island, a fishing village of 22 houses in Newfoundland.

Her birth mother was a housekeeper whose employer put up the $500 required for Ideal Maternity Home to take her child - Mary Eileen Foote.

"My mother had to return the money to him out of her pay," Ilene says.

Myrtle Foote's sister accompanied her when she took her daughter to the home in June 1945. She told Ilene that Myrtle was "crying on the way, sobbing after leaving her."

Relatives say Myrtle was so ashamed she never mentioned her Mary Eileen again. She married but had no other children.

Steve called Ilene's birth mother and asked for the name of his wife's father. She gave a name but no trace of him has been found.

Of her birth mother, Ilene says, "I'd just like to see her once."

She still yearns for a connection with both.

An Internet site listing survivors of the "Butterbox Baby" scandal says Ilene Steinhauer is "still searching for her birth father."

Still, "I've gained more than I ever expected," Ilene says. "I have people who are blood-related. Finally, I fit."


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