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May 1, 2015 11:06 AM

18 women suspect that babies they were told died are alive

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) Eighteen black women who were told decades ago that their babies had died soon after birth at a St. Louis hospital are now wondering if the children could have been taken from them still very much alive.

A video that went viral in March showed Melanie Gilmore learning that her children had located her birth mother, Zella Jackson Price of suburban St. Louis. DNA confirmed with near 100-percent certainty that the two are mother and daughter.

Price was 26 in 1965 when she gave birth at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, only to be told hours later that her daughter had died. No one is sure who was responsible, but Gilmore ended up in foster care. She was told by her foster parents that her birth mother gave her up.

With Gilmore's 50th birthday approaching, her children decided to track down her birth mother, leading them to the now 76-year-old Price. Gilmore, who is deaf and lives in Eugene, Oregon, learned in March through lip reading and sign language that her mother had been found. They reunited in April.

"She looked like me," Price said, a gospel singer who has five other children.

"She was so excited and full of joy. It was just beautiful. I'll never forget that," she said of the reunion.

The video of the reunion drew widespread attention and Price's attorney, Albert Watkins, started getting calls from other women wondering if their babies, whom they were told and believed died, had instead been taken from them.

Their stories, he said, are strikingly similar: Most of the births were in the mid-1950s to mid-1960s at Homer G. Phillips. All of the mothers were black and poor, mostly ages 15 to 20. In each case, a nurse not a doctor told the mother that her child had died, a breach of normal protocol. No death certificates were issued, and none of the mothers were allowed to see their deceased babies.

"These are moms," attorney Albert Watkins said. "They are mothers at the end of their lives seeking answers to a life-long hole in their heart."

Watkins said city officials are investigating, but that no one can locate birth records from the hospital that closed in 1979. Messages seeking comment from officials at the St. Louis Health Department were not returned.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital opened in 1937 as a blacks-only hospital at a time when St. Louis was segregated. Even after desegregation in the mid-1950s, the hospital served predominantly African-American patients.

Watkins has no idea who, or how many, people may have been responsible if babies were being taken, though he believes they were put up for adoption.

Price said she's saddened by the lost years that she could have spent with Gilmore.

"For me not to be able to love on this child like I did with the others, I'm going through a lot of emotions," said Price. "But I'm so blessed to know that she is alive."


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