Dr. Richard Tannehill and A. Hays “Sonny” Town Jr. were driving home from a retreat at Manresa in the late 1980s, when Town told his friend about an idea he had to start a licensed, nonprofit private adoption agency in Baton Rouge.
“I saw a need,” Town said. “There were so many young women with unexpected pregnancies who didn’t know what to do. I wanted a way to provide options and help them along the way.”
In his medical practice, Tannehill, an obstetrician and gynecologist, customarily did not charge a mother for a delivery if she chose to put her baby up for adoption. “I was always interested in adoption and had done adoptions, but I did not have the backup that you really need,” he said. “I didn’t have social workers and all to screen the parents, to do the work that you need to do for adoptions.”
In May 1988, Town and his wife, Gay, founded St. Elizabeth Foundation, which on April 27 will celebrate 25 years of adoptions at its 22nd annual gala, “25 Years of Silver Linings.” At the event, Tannehill will receive the foundation’s prestigious Pam Kinamore Award for his years of service to the foundation.
“He has done so much for St. Elizabeth. He was there from the very first day,” Hays Town said. “He delivered the babies without charge. He counseled the birth parents and the girls.”
The award is named for Pam Kinamore, who with her husband, Byron, were among St. Elizabeth’s first adoptive parents. She was murdered in 2002. DNA evidence is alleged to link her murder to Baton Rouge serial killer Derrick Todd Lee.
Tannehill recalls the beginnings of St. Elizabeth. “It started out on a shoestring,” he said. “If it had not been for Sonny lending and giving money and soliciting from his friends and other philanthropic people for support, it would never have gotten off the ground.”
Once St. Elizabeth started getting birth mothers and adoptive parents, the facility became relatively self-sufficient with adoption fees as well as donations.
“The adoptive parents pay for the expenses,” Tannehill said. “By law we cannot pay the birth mothers to reimburse them with money for doing an adoption, but we can put them up in an apartment and furnish them with medical care and support.”
Over the years, the foundation has worked with Woman’s Hospital, Earl K. Long and smaller hospitals in surrounding communities as well as with local physicians to take care of mothers during their pregnancies.
“The fees for adoptive parents are on a sliding scale so that not only those who are very wealthy or very able to adopt are the ones who adopt,” Tannehill said. “We are able to adopt a lot of babies or a significant number whose parents really have no (financial) means to adopt, but they make exceptionally good adoptive parents.”
Tannehill is thankful for one decision he and Town made early in the process. After visiting the Edna Gladney Home, a well-established adoption agency now called the Edna Gladney Center for Adoptions in Fort Worth, Town decided not to build a facility to house birth mothers but to provide services through established facilities in the community.
“In this day and time, birth mothers are not interested in being housed with a group of birth mothers, and due to the goodness of some apartment owners in Baton Rouge, they let us use some apartments to keep the mothers in until they have their babies,” Tannehill said.
Lillie Petit Gallagher, St. Elizabeth’s first executive director, said that at St. Elizabeth, staff members interview birth mothers, assess their needs and provide needs.
“It can be a full complement or just medical needs or just housing needs,” she said. “Some have no needs but just want help to find a family to make a good placement.”
After years of working with birth mothers and adoptive families, she said she believes it is important to affirm adoption as an option.
“I wish society would support adoption as a parenting plan,” she said. “We say a birth mother is a good mother. Adoption is good for the child.”
Gallagher retired in 2003 but came back as volunteer director for one year in 2009. She is still a member of the board of St. Elizabeth and said she is “very much an advocate for affirming adoption for young birth couples who are not yet ready to parent.”
Through the foundation, she worked with many birth mothers after they had given up their children for adoption.
“If a young woman is at the crossroads, we can help identify her needs,” Gallagher said.
In the past, St. Elizabeth has helped mothers take aptitude assessments to assist them in finding potential career strengths.
“We get very involved,”said Gallagher, who has seen birth mothers complete their education and go on to become successful citizens and parents. “We have empowered them.”
Tannehill, who retired from the practice of medicine 15 years ago, knows how difficult it can be for a birth mother to give away a baby.
“I tell them they are doing the best for the baby,” he said. “They can have a good home and deserving parents. I always like to tell adoptive children that they are so lucky because their parents had a choice.”
In recent years, St. Elizabeth has expanded its mission to include adoption awareness, education, professional development and has joined with the Louisiana Family Forum to initiate a program to place older children out of the state’s foster care system in stable adoptive families.
In the 25 years since its founding, St. Elizabeth has placed almost 500 babies.
“It makes you feel good,” Town said. “Everybody wins. The baby wins, the adoptive parents win, and the birth mother wins.”