Abandoned as newborn, Erie man traces his parents
By VALERIE MYERS Erie Times-News via AP
ERIE — Richard Caufman was abandoned days after birth.
He was found in the snow on a North East farm on Feb. 8, 1953. A farmer getting his car out of the weather and into his garage that evening heard a faint cry and saw a baby on the ground nearby.
Sixty-seven years later, Caufman knows who his birth parents were and where he was born.
How he came to be face down in the snow miles away on a North East Township farm is still a mystery.
Tracing family: DNA and black market
Caufman, who lives near Corry, tracked his family through DNA testings with help from a Corry Area Historical Society volunteer.
“I got a list of roughly 700 relatives in my first AncestryDNA response, from maybe a first cousin all the way down to very distant relatives. For someone who knew no family but my adopted family, that was a revelation,” Caufman said.
‘The perfect crime’
An Erie Daily Times reporter called child abandonment the perfect crime. “… in every case, clues have been meager or totally absent. Even the most efficient and best-trained detectives are helpless when it comes to tracing the origin of a pastel baby blanket.”
— Erie Daily Times, Feb. 9, 1953, of four babies abandoned in Erie County in six years, at the Lawrence Hotel, in a farm field near the New York State line, at Hamot Hospital and at Cecil Baker’s farm
An exhaustive two-year search of online family trees led Caufman to an uncle, Russell Plumley, 97, of St. Catharines, Ontario. Plumley agreed to take a DNA test. Results received in December confirmed the relationship.
Plumley told Caufman that his sister had a baby in early February 1953 in a hospital in Dunville, Ontario. The baby was given up for adoption, he said.
What happened after that is unknown.
“There really are only a couple probable scenarios,” Caufman said. “If my father, who publicly said that he didn’t want children, took me from the hospital and gave me to someone, I’m not sure there’d be a record. If he gave me to a lawyer arranging adoptions, there probably isn’t a record.”
The first scenario might be more likely. Someone arranging a private adoption wouldn’t be likely to pay the cost and then abandon the baby days later and miles away, or 85 miles southwest and across Lake Erie.
Caufman’s father might have sold the baby. According to Caufman’s research and research by Corry historian Alisa Puckly, babies at the time were sold on the black market for as much as $10,000. And there were plenty of Canadian babies available for adoption or sale.
Hundreds of thousands of unmarried pregnant women between 1945 and the 1970s were pressured into Canadian government-supported maternity homes where their babies were put up for adoption. An estimated 350,000 babies were given up by their mothers because of strong-arm tactics detailed in a 2018 Canadian Senate report, “The Shame is Ours: Forced Adoptions of the Babies of Unmarried Mothers in Post-war Canada.”
Caufman wasn’t among them; his parents were married by the time he was born. But he believes that he was sold through the black market that profited from so many available babies.
A year before Caufman was abandoned, another baby had been found abandoned in an Erie County field somewhere near the New York state line, according to an Erie Daily Times report.
“Two babies abandoned near the Pennsylvania-New York line? It makes me think they were black market drops that went bad,” Caufman said.
Puckly agrees. She helps people navigate DNA results to search for their birth families, specializing in adoptions from Veil Maternity Hospitals, including one once located in Corry. She charges nothing for her work.
“It consumes your life, and you spend a lot of hours doing it, but you get invested in it,” Puckly said. “I got invested for Rick and in helping him find something he didn’t have.”
Puckly uncovered news stories about the illegal baby sales.
“I called Rick and said, ‘I think you were black market,'” Puckly said.
Parents by birth and by inclination
Caufman’s birth mother was Joan Plumley Staff. She was a church-league basketball star as a young woman and was a homemaker after marriage.
Caufman’s father was Leonard Staff. Once a rodeo rider, he was “a dreamer and schemer, to put it kindly,” Caufman said. According to accounts, Staff got along better with the horses that he trained than people.
As a husband, Staff was at least domineering and maybe abusive, family members told Caufman.
“My mother was athletic and personable and well liked, and people kept asking why she stayed with her husband. She never gave a clear answer, they said, and there was the suspicion, at least, of abuse. She would go to family members’ homes and cry.”
Caufman was adopted from Erie’s St. Joseph’s Home for Children by Harbor Creek High School industrial arts teacher Lynn Caufman and his wife, Shirley. More than one baby was available for adoption that winter.
“My father said that, ‘Once I walked into that room and made eye contact with you, there wasn’t any other baby in that room,'” Caufman said.
The Caufmans adopted the infant and four years later gave birth to a son, Andrew.
Richard Caufman grew up knowing that he was adopted. He was in high school when his parents told him that he had been abandoned.
At about the same time, he lettered in track at Harbor Creek and represented the school in District Band.
“I know now that athletics followed my birth mother’s skills,” he said. “And it turns out my grandmother was Cambridge-educated in music and that her brother played with the Royal Philharmonic in London.”
There are similarities, too, between his birth and adoptive families.
Both his biological and adoptive mothers were predominately English. Both fathers were predominately German.
Caufman’s biological uncle co-piloted military transport planes during World War II. His adoptive father wanted to be a pilot but failed an eye exam and served as a maintenance mechanic during the war.
“There are so many parallels between the two families,” Caufman said.
Caufman’s adoptive parents are deceased. His biological father died in 1996, his birth mother in 2013. After Joan Staff’s death, her brother began searching for his nephew, but in Canada.
Abandoned in the snow: The news stories
Cecil Baker was putting his car in his garage on South Gulf Road in North East Township when he heard a cry that he thought had been made by a goose.
Then a slight movement in the snow caught his eye. A baby dressed only in a diaper and shirt and wrapped in a yellow blanket was face down on the ground near the garage, according to the Feb. 9, 1953, Erie Daily Times.
Baker’s wife and adult daughter cared for the infant until a local physician arrived. According to Dr. Gordon Massey, the baby was about three days old and had been delivered in a hospital or by a physician.
“The infant’s umbilical cord had been cut, knotted in a professional manner and was treated with a surgical dressing,” according to the newspaper report.
The baby was taken to Hamot Hospital for further examination and care and the next day was front-page news.
The lead story and photograph focused on how and where the infant was found.
A second story, topped by a photograph of the newborn, told of the family that found and briefly cared for him.
A third reminded readers of other babies abandoned in Erie County in recent years.
An original copy of the newspaper was among papers recently donated to the Corry Area Historical Society.
Puckly gave it to Caufman.
“It wasn’t accessioned in and didn’t have anything to do with us,” Puckly said. “It belonged with Rick.”
Caufman continues to search family connections, now mostly for others. He’s found 29 cousins who were adopted and a dozen more whose parents or grandparents were adopted.
“My goal is to keep going and help them find their biological families, and find answers,” he said.