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Adoption records released in missing baby case at Homer G. Phillips

Zella Jackson Price (right) and her daughter Melanie Gilmore are reunited, nearly 50 years after Price says she was told her daughter died at birth.
Wiley Price | St. Louis American

As a well-known gospel singer continues to search for answers as to how and why her daughter was taken from her at birth, a newly opened adoption record holds some clues for the ongoing investigation.  

Zella Jackson Price contends that she gave birth to a baby girl in 1965 at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in north St. Louis, where she was told the infant died. But the child, now named Melanie Gilmore, was instead placed in foster care. Almost fifty years later, Gilmore's children contacted Price through Facebook, and the two were reunited in a Youtube video that went viral.

After petitioning the state for records of adoption and birth, Price and Gilmore’s attorney, Albert Watkins,  received, and then released a 103-page file to the public on Friday. The records include Gilmore’s birth certificate, which has a signature for Price that Watkins believes was forged. The certificate lists Gilmore’s place of birth as City Hospital #1, which Price says is incorrect. Homer G. Phillips was City Hospital #2.

Court documents in the adoption file allege that Price abandoned her daughter and could not be located to consent to her placement into foster care, despite Price’s address appearing on the birth certificate.

“It was alarming and startling that the methodology that was employed was as amateur as it was,” Watkins said. “They didn’t find Zella Jackson Price because they chose not to look for Zella.”

The state, however, denied Gilmore access to specific identifying information of her biological parents, which requires the consent of both, or proof of death for both. Although Price provided consent and a copy of her late husband’s death certificate, the state officer in charge of the case said another man is named as Gilmore’s biological father, and must be located in order for the file to be released.

A paralegal holds Price and Gilmore's file at the office of Albert Watkins in Clayton.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
A paralegal holds Price and Gilmore's file at the office of Albert Watkins in Clayton.

“If the putative biological father refuses to consent to the disclosure of information, no information will be released. If the adoption agency is unable to find him, his information will not be released,” the letter read, from an officer with the St. Louis Family Court.   

Price and Young’s story has prompted hundreds of people to call the St. Louis Health Department to file requests for death certificates of newborns they lost long ago, as well as other medical records. Two staff members are committed to answering phones and filling vital records requests, said St. Louis' health commissioner and acting director Melba Moore. Another four people are assigned to assist on a part-time basis. But retrieving the records — which are often handwritten and filed in boxes — is laborious and time consuming, Moore said.

“I just want them to be patient with us so that we can go through the records,” Moore said. “I want to respect the patients, respect their loved ones, and respect the process.”

The St. Louis Health Department has set up a hotline for people to call if they would like to request their records: 314-657-1511.   

Homer G. Phillips Hospital closed in 1979, but has been renovated and reopened as a senior living facility.
Credit Onegentlemanofverona | Creative Commons
Homer G. Phillips Hospital closed in 1979, but has been renovated and reopened as a senior living facility.

Watkins’ law firm has also received these calls—many are from women who were told their children died shortly after birth at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in the 1950s and 60s, when hospitals in St. Louis were still segregated. Homer G. served thousands of African American patients each year, employing and training hundreds of black doctors and nurses.

Watkins’ staff members have assisted dozens of callers in filing vital records requests, and can locate some death certificates online if the infant died before 1965. But three mothers have come forward with stories so similar that Watkins has taken them on as clients as well. 

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