In 1969, Nancy Womac gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, but she didn’t get the chance to hold her newborn child because the baby was taken from her. She was forced to wait for 42 years before reuniting with her loving daughter, and those years were beyond difficult for her.
Though the wait was tough, Nancy never forgot her first child and looked forward to the reunion she never lost hope would happen. When she finally met her daughter, it was indeed a very emotional event. In a 2021 interview with BBC News, Nancy talks about reuniting with her daughter. She also reveals the truth about what led to their separation.
The Beginning of Nancy’s Story
Nancy and her sister were born in Dalton, Georgia, and were raised by her grandparents until she was 9 or 10 years old. Unfortunately, her grandfather died, and her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. The state informed her grandmother that she needed to do something with the sisters or the state would take custody of the children.
The Dalton Rescue Mission took custody of Nancy and her sister, and Nancy’s sister was eventually sent to the Bethesda Home for Girls, located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. According to Nancy, she had never even heard of the Bethesda Home for Girls until her sister went there. She just woke up one day and discovered her sister was gone. The director of the orphanage home made her believe that her sister chose to leave because she would get more spirituality at the new home.
Nancy’s Pregnancy Discovered
While at the orphanage home, Nancy fell in love with a young boy she met there. She got pregnant at the age of 16, and the director in charge of the home found out. The director made it crystal clear that Nancy would not bring shame to the shelter, and he would take care of the situation. Unsurprisingly, the teenage Nancy did not know what that meant and would never have imagined what would befall her next.
Nancy was three months pregnant when she was taken to Bethesda. She had to pack a bag overnight, and the director in charge of the shelter told her she was going to see her sister at Bethesda Home. According to Nancy, the drive to Bethesda was long and scary. “It was a long dirt road…. At the time, I thought it was the longest dirt road in the world.”
Nancy Really Wants to Keep Her Baby
One of the hardest things for Nancy was realizing that her baby would be taken from her. In her interview with BBC News, Nancy explained that she loved her baby the moment she was aware of her pregnancy. She never stopped loving her daughter. It wasn’t until halfway to Bethesda Home that the orphanage director told Nancy about what would happen to her and her baby. At that point, she felt the need to jump out of the car because she really wanted to keep her baby.
The shocking discovery left Nancy in a state of complete sadness and disarray. It felt like her whole world was about to end. She was now fully aware of the situation and had a lot running through her mind. How would she live without her child? How would she cope in such a horrible place? Her life had indeed taken a turn for the worse, and she was helpless to do anything. So she had to accept her fate.
Life at Bethesda Home for Girls
Nancy described her experience at Bethesda Home for Girls as a hellish and brutal one. The home advertised itself as a safe place where troubled children would learn discipline through God’s word. However, the reports from Nancy and other women who lived there revealed that days at the home started very early and were full of hard labor.
The girls were forced to pray, memorize bible chapters, thoroughly clean by hand, and consistently listen to the preaching of the national evangelist and founder of the home, Lester Roloff. If any of the girls refused to follow instructions or broke any of the rules, staff members were at liberty to beat the defaulters with wooden boards. Nancy narrated how a girl was dragged to the shower room and was severely beaten for refusing to adhere to the rules. After experiencing such, Nancy said, survival mode kicks in. You are forced to get used to the abuse, getting punched, kicked, slapped, and many other dehumanizing acts.
Nancy Had No Control Over Her Life
As much as Nancy thought about running away with her child, she never really got the chance because the officials at the home controlled virtually every aspect of her life, from the amount of toilet paper she could use daily to what would happen to her baby the moment the child was born. It was indeed a devastating experience for young Nancy. The home doors were always locked shut, so there was no means of contacting the outside world. All her fantasies about running away with her child never became a reality.
According to an investigation by NBC News, based on court records, Bethesda Home for Girls forcefully took the newborns of pregnant girls and gave them up for adoption to Christian families who paid a $250 gift of love to the home back in the 1970s and1980s.
The Founder of Bethesda Home for Girls
Lester Roloff was an American fundamentalist independent Baptist preacher and founder of different teen homes in the 1950s. His active ministry began with preaching to homeless men, and in 1954, he established his first mission house in Corpus Christi.
Shortly after establishing his first mission home, he added more children’s homes throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. The first Roloff home for females was established in 1968, and it was called Rebekah Home for Girls. Girls who were drug addicts, involved in sex work, got kicked out of their homes, or needed a safe haven could go to this home. Some of the primary rules in all of Roloff’s homes include no television, only one hour of radio daily for Roloff’s sermons, mandatory church attendance, no contact with the outside world, and many other extreme policies.
The Birth of Nancy’s Baby and the Discovery of the Sad Truth
Two weeks prior to when she was due to give birth to her child, the officials at the home put Nancy on a flight to East Ridge, Tennessee. They had decided that she would give birth to her baby far away from home, and this was even more heartbreaking news for Nancy. Sadly it wasn’t about to get any easier.
The doctors put Nancy to sleep at the hospital so she wouldn’t remember all that happened to her. In Nancy’s words: “I remember them putting my IV in, I remember then I was falling asleep, I’d pull it off, and they’d put it back in, and they just gave me a shot to put me out.” The baby was already gone the following day, and when the doctor came in, Nancy told him she wanted to see her little girl. The doctor was shocked because she wasn’t awake throughout the procedure, and he told her she wasn’t meant to know if she had a boy or a girl. Nancy said she would never forget those words.
Who Is Melanie Spencer?
The little girl Nancy gave birth to was named Melanie Spencer. Melanie also gave her account of the story to NBC News. A lovely couple adopted her, and they lived in South Africa. Her dad was a missionary, and her parents didn’t hide the fact that she was adopted. They explained that she came through a Christian adoption agency. They told Melanie that her biological mother wished for her to be raised in a good Christian home.
Melanie said she never really felt she belonged with her adoptive parents despite the love she received. “I think a lot of times growing up, I didn’t feel rooted or connected.” She spent most of her life in South Africa. Still, she was always curious about the identity of her biological mother. Her curiosity became stronger as she planned her first trip to America for her college education.
The First Attempt at Reuniting
When Melanie settled down in the US and gave birth to two children, she knew she needed to search for her birth mom. In such a big country as the United States, she wasn’t sure where to begin her search. Fortunately, Tennessee passed a law that opened up adoption cases like hers, but she was very nervous to begin her search. Melanie thought of her birth mother and whether she had other children. She didn’t want the reunion to disrupt her birth mother’s present family or what she had done moving forward with her life. Those thoughts caused her to abandon her search for her birth mother.
Years after giving birth to Melanie, Nancy tried to find her daughter. In her interview with NBC News, she recalled one lawyer who told her she was unfit to be a mother. She also attempted to contact Child Services, but when she shared her story, no one believed her, so she eventually stopped telling it.
Nancy’s Thoughts before Meeting Her Daughter – Life after Bethesda
Nancy was able to adjust to life outside Bethesda Home, but her daughter was in her thoughts all through the years before they eventually met. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, she should be taking her first step now, or school should have started.’ And every year on her birthday, I know it didn’t make any sense, but I always baked her a cake. ‘She would be twelve today,’ ‘She would be thirteen today,’ ‘She would be fourteen today.’ She was always there.”
While living her everyday life, it was clear that Nancy never forgot about her first child. She constantly looked forward to the day they would eventually meet. Nancy always held on to hope and believed that her daughter was alive and healthy no matter where she was at the time. Her steadfast hope was what kept her going.
Melanie Finds a DNA Match Online
Melanie had a son in 2014 and a daughter in 2018. After giving birth to her children, she started thinking about what she would tell them when they grew older and asked about their family heritage.
Melanie turned to the Ancestry genealogy website, and shockingly, her search came up with a DNA match. Though she didn’t know what to do with the information at first, she decided to go through with the entire process of finding her birth mother.
Taking the First Step to Make Contact
When the DNA match popped up, Melanie took a bold step and sent a message to a woman named Cheryl Blackwell. Remember Nancy’s sister, who was the first to be sent to Bethesda? Well, Cheryl Blackwell is that sister, and she was the one Melanie contacted.
Sadly, Melanie’s message stayed unread for an entire year because Cheryl did not pay regular visits to the website. The wait was long, and Melanie was anxious, but she hoped she would get a response. Cheryl finally saw the message and replied. Her response opened the door to what would be one of the most emotional reunions of all time.
The Texting Phase that Finally Led to the Reunion
On January 31 the following year, Nancy’s sister responded to Melanie’s message and said, “Yes, I know the story. We need to talk.” When Nancy saw the message for herself, she knew immediately that Melanie was her long-lost daughter. Melanie connected with Nancy through Facebook, and she remembers looking at Nancy’s picture and thinking, “Wow, there she is.” The door for the real reunion was finally open.
Nancy began a conversation with Melanie via text. In the text, Nancy stated how good it felt to finally find Melanie. She was aware that the whole process was scary but she had waited for 39 long years for this moment. Melanie responded that she had thought about what her mother was like for a long time and truly it was all overwhelming. Nancy told Melanie that there wasn’t a day since she lost her that she didn’t think about her child, and Nancy wanted Melanie to know she was loved very much. Finally, she told Melanie that she was ready to respond if she had any questions.
The Moment of Truth Is Finally Here!
In her interview with NBC News, Nancy said it felt like a dream come true when it was finally time to meet her daughter. She dreamt about it in the past and how it would happen, but even while it was about to happen, she still felt like she was in a dream. Nancy was very nervous and hoped Melanie would see that she was indeed loved.
August 2021 arrived, and Nancy and Melanie organized a face-to-face meeting at Nancy’s residence in Georgia. Nancy still felt like she was dreaming, and she had to tell herself this was really happening. Reality set in when Melanie drove onto the premises, and Nancy finally saw her baby girl in the flesh.
Emotions Run Wild as Mother and Daughter Finally Reunite!
Nancy will forever love spending time on her porch because that was where the two shared their first lingering loving embrace. At that moment, feelings of relief and joy replaced all the years of sadness, pain, guilt, anxiety, fear, and shame. Nancy finally found her daughter, or rather, Melanie found her.
Nancy and Melanie had been looking forward to meeting each other. After waiting for 42 years and asking themselves different questions, they finally got the chance. Melanie said she was pretty nervous while going to Nancy’s house, but when she finally saw her birth mother, she felt so much relief.
Melanie Felt Like She Was Home
When Melanie was asked how the reunion made her feel, she stated that she felt nervous at first. However, when she got out of the car, “There she was.” Nancy was looking right at her and 42 years of asking so many questions ended.
According to Melanie, it didn’t feel like they had lost any time with each other because it felt like coming back home. Melanie felt more like a stranger with her adoptive parents than with her birth mother. The reunion was a joyful experience because all Melanie’s years of searching had finally ended.
Nancy Expressed Her Joy at Being Reunited with Her Baby Girl
The reunion was a very emotional time for Nancy. She was overjoyed because Melanie was all she had thought she would be. “She’s beautiful; she’s smart, she just didn’t realize how crazy I was.” Nancy also said Melanie wanted to know about her siblings because she had always wanted brothers and sisters. Now Melanie has a house full of brothers and sisters.
Nancy was beaming with joy seeing her baby girl. For the next couple of days, Nancy ensured she spent enough time enjoying her daughter’s company. Melanie got to know her birth family better and shared pictures from her childhood days. They both created new memories for the years ahead, but for Nancy, the reunion brought some painful recollections.
Some Old Wounds Are Hard to Heal
Aside from all the smiles and memories Nancy shared reuniting with her daughter, she couldn’t bring herself to let go of all she had suffered for 42 years. Nancy told NBC News about the Bethesda support groups and how they talk about forgiveness and healing. However, it’s hard for her to let go because she still feels like she missed so much in life.
Although Melanie is in Nancy’s life now, and they can spend time together, she can’t let go of her negative emotions because she missed raising her child. The whole experience truly hurt her because she knows she can’t get those years back, and she has to work on creating new memories with her daughter.
The Inspiration Other Victims Need
Since Nancy reunited with Melanie, she shared her experiences with other women who lost their children at Bethesda. Nancy hopes that her story will become a source of inspiration and that it will encourage them to keep searching for their children.
Despite her terrible past, Nancy was always hopeful. She believes life after sharing her experience won’t be so bad now that she has her Melanie. In Nancy’s words, “Maybe after this, it won’t be so bad, they won’t take no more from me.” Nancy was starting to heal from the fear that someone might try to take one of her babies from her. This was a huge step toward her complete healing from her dark past.
The End of the Bethesda Home for Girls
In 1974, five years before Nancy delivered her baby, the homes run by the Roloff ministry in Mississippi and Texas were coming under significant scrutiny by central authorities. Despite the charges, Brother Roloff denied any wrongdoing. He said he wasn’t making a profit from selling the babies; he merely tried to place them in good Christian homes. Strange as it may seem, selling babies was not illegal in Mississippi and remained legal until 2009. Roloff also faced abuse allegations, and he fought most of his battles in Texas over his refusal to follow state licensing procedures.
During this period, he produced a documentary called “Freedom’s Last Call” to argue against the government’s right to regulate religious homes. He stated that it was an insult to God’s work and God’s people who supported the homes. Rather than submit to the state, Roloff decided to close most of his facilities in Texas. Still, Mississippi had no state regulations on religious homes, so Bethesda stayed open there. Roloff lost his life in a plane crash in 1982, but Bethesda remained operational throughout the mid-’80s. When a girl ran away from the facility, a youth court judge carried out an investigation and declared Bethesda an illegal jail. In 1986, the State took custody of the 118 girls who had lived in the home. After a year, the home closed permanently.
Other Bethesda-Inspired Homes Still Exist in Missouri
Despite the closure of the Bethesda Home for Girls in 1987, Roloff’s teachings live on and continually inspire other homes for troubled teenagers. The Edinburg Homes in Missouri, which shamefully has almost no regulations preventing the establishment of these types of places, is still operational.
So although the Bethesda Home for Girls has closed down, the homes in Missouri still exist today. These places do not face allegations of selling babies, but reports of abuse are still rampant in the Missouri homes. Unfortunately, these homes are still in operation, and they have also taken advantage of the internet to go international. They may try to change their names and act like they are not the same as the Bethesda Home, but it’s still the same people who follow Roloff’s teachings and even have his pictures hanging on their front door.
The Traumatic Experience Lingers
Over 30 years have gone by since a federal lawsuit and a state investigation revealed the abuse of hundreds of young girls who endured a hard life at Bethesda Home for Girls, forcing the facility to finally shut down. Yet the damage still lurks in the shadows. In recent interviews, more than a dozen former residents of the home opened up about their experiences for the first time.
All of them described in detail their childhood traumatic experiences from the months they spent imprisoned in Bethesda. According to reports from some of the women, their relatives sent them to the home because they felt the girls had become rebellious. Some were sent to the home because their relatives caught them smoking or drinking, and many were pregnant.
NBC News Dug Deep to Connect the Stories
After the interviews with the women who were bold enough to share their Bethesda stories, NBC News dug deeper to corroborate the stories. They were able to obtain many pages of court records from four different states, including some that had been hidden in the National Archives.
The reviewed hidden materials included pictures, paperwork, advertisements, news stories, and interviews with attorneys who handled different cases connected to Bethesda Home. Anything they could get their hands on was essential to finally reveal what happened in the past and hopefully prevent such from repeating itself today.
What Really Went on in Bethesda Home?
Former residents described Bethesda as a brutal facility. Girls received severe beatings, and staff called them names like whores, harlots, and just about any insult you can think of. Staff members also controlled the girls’ communication with the outside world, and they usually couldn’t even speak with their parents.
As if that wasn’t enough, those who were pregnant had to look forward to the terrible day when their babies would be removed and taken away. All this happened in secret, and the state governments did not attempt to inspect these homes. These were times when child care centers didn’t need to register with the state, so there was no hope of inspection or investigation.
The Role of the Law and the Press in This Case
In 1982, a federal lawsuit combined with investigations from welfare practitioners and legal agents publicized the abuse allegations in the Bethesda Home. Dan Wise was one of the attorneys appointed by the county court in 1984 to investigate the home. He testified that the things that went on in Bethesda were too horrific to mention. Furthermore, he added that it was all done in the Lord’s name and backed up with bible verses. These unbelievable occurrences all happened behind closed doors.
The Bethesda case became a call to action for conservative Christian gatherings. The inhumane treatment of young girls and the absence of state regulations for religious youth homes were discussed at a congressional hearing and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. At the time, the media ate up the news and covered the stories of the physical abuse the girls suffered. What no one paid attention to in the 1980s was the lasting effects on women who got separated from their babies as teenagers.
The Way Forward for Modern Christian Homes
Arranged adoptions still thrive in our modern society through these Christian homes. In addition, advocates and legal experts say that state policies have not done a good enough job addressing this issue. Hence, generations of children are still vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in such facilities. But although these facilities still exist, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Activists have risen over the past year to scrutinize some of these facilities.
The activists are made up of many young men and women who were bold enough to share their stories. A group of middle-aged women who identified themselves as “Bethesda survivors” started a movement to help each other find their stolen children. The Bethesda survivors use mediums like Facebook groups, DNA tests, and online forums to search far and wide for their children.
Bethesda Survivors Speak Up
Many of the Bethesda survivors are still searching for their children, but they also use every medium they can to share their stories with the world. They hope that their stories will finally put an end to the terrible industry that involves abusive teen homes and illegally selling children. Many of the women still do not know if their babies survived or died.
Survivors who spoke up about being forced to give up their children for adoption in the 1980s include Leda Rush and Joanne Springberg. Cindy Schott was another survivor of Bethesda Home, and she stated that the whole experience was devastating. Cindy was sent to the home while she was pregnant in 1979, and she still wants to find her child. Cindy explained her shock after discovering that such homes still existed in 2021. She felt she needed to join in the fight to ensure these places were closed for good.
For our next story, we are looking into the tale of Hillary Harris, whose pursuit of her biological family turned out to be closer to home than she expected.