Decades after an abusive Christian boarding home closed, women are searching for the children they were forced to give up for adoption.

By Tyler Kingkade | Nov. 11, 2021

DALTON, Ga. — On a humid evening in August, Nancy Davis Womac paced anxiously on her front deck. Her hands trembled as she stared at a text message from her firstborn daughter, Melanie Spencer, saying that she was minutes away.

The two had never met.

Forty-three years ago, Womac was pregnant and living in an orphanage when she was sent to the Bethesda Home for Girls on the outskirts of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was run by Baptist preachers who forced girls to memorize Bible chapters and scrub carpets by hand. Staff members beat the girls with wooden boards if they broke a rule

Image: Nancy Womac

Nancy Davis Womac waits for her daughter to arrive on Aug. 3. (Brock Stoneham / NBC News)

Nancy Davis Womac waits for her daughter to arrive on Aug. 3. (Brock Stoneham / NBC News)

Womac said the home’s owners controlled every aspect of her life — from how much toilet paper she was allowed to use to what would happen to her baby once the child was born. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bethesda forced pregnant girls to give up their newborns for adoption to Christian families who paid a $250 “love gift” to the home, according to an NBC News investigation based on court records and interviews. A former judicial officer recently called the facility a “baby selling factory.”

Womac, 16 at the time, fantasized about running away and raising her baby on her own. But the home’s doors were always locked, and she didn’t have a chance.

“I cried every day,” she recalled. “But I would cry while we would pray, and that way they thought that, ‘She's really getting in touch with God because she's praying.’ But it wasn't that.”

She gave birth in June 1979. She was never allowed to hold her baby. 

Womac believed there was little she could do to find her child, but as the years passed, she still hoped. And now, she was about to meet her daughter for the first time, after a remarkable journey that began in 2018 with a DNA test. 

“There's not a day goes by that I have not thought of you,” Womac texted Spencer when they finally connected last year. “There's so much I want to tell you.”

A lingering trauma

More than three decades have passed since a federal lawsuit and a state investigation exposed the abuse hundreds of girls endured at the Bethesda Home for Girls, forcing the home to close.

Yet, the shadow of Bethesda lingers. 

In recent interviews, more than a dozen former residents — most of whom are speaking about their experiences publicly for the first time — described their ongoing trauma from the months they spent locked up in Bethesda as children. The women said their relatives sent them to the home because they were rebellious, or were caught drinking or smoking. Many of them were pregnant. 

To corroborate their stories, NBC News obtained hundreds of pages of court records from four states, including some that had long been tucked away in the National Archives; reviewed archival materials including photos, paperwork, news stories and advertisements; and interviewed attorneys who handled cases related to Bethesda.

Dozens of girls lived, ate and worshipped in the single-story main building.

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

The girls spent much of their time praying and listening to tapes of Lester Roloff, a radio preacher.

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

At night, they slept in packed bunk beds, six to eight per room.

“This whole thing haunts me continuously,” said Leda Rush, who arrived at Bethesda in 1981. “To this day, I have nightmares constantly.”

Courtesy of Leda Rush

Courtesy of Leda Rush

Dozens of girls lived, ate and worshipped in the single-story main building.

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

The girls spent much of their time praying and listening to tapes of Lester Roloff, a radio preacher.

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell

At night, they slept in packed bunk beds, six to eight per room.

“This whole thing haunts me continuously,” said Leda Rush, who arrived at Bethesda in 1981. “To this day, I have nightmares constantly.”

Courtesy of Leda Rush

Courtesy of Leda Rush

The former Bethesda residents described a brutal facility, where girls were beaten and called “whores” and “harlots.” Staff members censored the girls’ communication with outsiders, including their parents, former residents said. And for those who were pregnant, another trauma awaited: the removal of their babies. 

It all went on in secret. There was no oversight from the state government, which at the time didn’t require child care centers to register with the state, let alone be inspected.

Then, in 1982, the allegations of abuse exploded into public view, in a federal lawsuit followed by investigations by welfare agents and judicial officers. 

“The testimony of the things that occurred in the home was horrific,” said Dan Wise, an attorney who was appointed by the county court in 1984 to investigate Bethesda. “And it was, of course, all done in the name of the Lord with Bible-backed verses. It was an unbelievable situation behind closed doors.”

Image: An abandoned Bethesda in 2009.

An abandoned Bethesda building in 2009. (Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell)

An abandoned Bethesda in 2009. (Courtesy of Cheryl Davis Blackwell)

The case became a call-to-arms in conservative Christian circles. The televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. held a rally to defend the home. But after state courts ruled that Bethesda operated as an illegal detention center, and took custody of the girls placed there, the facility closed in 1987. The girls’ treatment and the lack of state regulations for religious youth homes was discussed during a congressional hearing and on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

The official response and the media coverage at the time focused on the physical abuse the girls endured. What went largely overlooked in the 1980s, but has had the longest-lasting and most serious impact for many of the women, was the separation of babies from teenage mothers. Bethesda was responsible for at least 100 adoptions, according to Wise.

A collage of newspaper headlines reading "Bethesda woes make 'Oprah'" and "Ex-residents of girls home tell of paddlings, hunger."

Media coverage of Bethesda in the 1980s focused on the physical abuse the girls endured.

Media coverage of Bethesda in the 1980s focused on the physical abuse the girls endured.

Bethesda is long closed, yet Christian youth facilities continue to operate across the country, many of them based on similarly severe doctrines, often with little or no government oversight. Despite calls for action in the 1986 congressional hearing, there are still no federal rules governing these programs. While arranged adoptions through these Christian homes are much less common today, a patchwork of state policies has left generations of children vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse at these facilities, advocates and legal experts say. 

Now, a wave of activism over the past year has brought new scrutiny to the facilities, propelled by dozens of young men and women who stepped forward to share their stories. And the movement has invigorated a group of women who call themselves Bethesda survivors.

They’re helping one another find their lost children, through Facebook groups, online forums and DNA tests — though most are still searching. They also want to tell the world what happened to them decades ago — with no one held accountable — hoping that their story will help illuminate the consequences of an unregulated industry and finally spur lasting change.

“Most of us don’t know if our babies lived or died,” said Cindy Schott, who was sent to Bethesda while pregnant in 1979. “I want to find my child — but we also have to shut these places down. I am shocked that in 2021 these homes still exist.”

Image: collage of photos from Bethesda, a brochure for the home, and a book called "Lester Roloff: Living by Faith."

Bethesda was part of a network of Christian homes started by the preacher Lester Roloff.

Bethesda was part of a network of Christian homes started by the preacher Lester Roloff.

A ‘gray market’ for babies

The seeds of Bethesda were planted in Texas by the fundamentalist Baptist radio preacher Lester Roloff.

Roloff, a slim balding man who spoke with a folksy inflection, opened a series of reformatories in the 1960s for adults who misused drugs and alcohol, and teens whose parents considered them disobedient. A licensed pilot, he flew around the country with quartets of girls from the homes to sing and raise money in churches for Roloff Ministries. Archival video shows how he’d bark Bible verse numbers, and the girls would — in unison — recite the verse in its entirety, showing proof of their conversion. 

In 1972, Bobby Ray Wills and his wife, Betty, were working at Rebekah Home for Girls, a program Roloff ran in Corpus Christi, Texas, to take in girls and young women from “jail houses, broken homes, hippie hives, and dope dives,” as Roloff put it. Roloff asked the Willses to move to Mississippi to open a similar facility. They obliged, according to court testimony.

The Willses did not respond to emails, letters, Facebook messages or voicemails left on phone numbers listed in public records. Roloff Homes Ministries, which operates two faith-based drug and alcohol addiction centers for adults, did not respond to requests for comment. 

Image: Betty and Bobby Ray Wills in 1985.

Betty and Bobby Ray Wills in 1985. (Courtesy of Nicol Prophet Gaddis)

Betty and Bobby Ray Wills in 1985. (Courtesy of Nicol Prophet Gaddis)

The Willses, who required girls to call them “mama” and “papa,” set up Bethesda in a single-story concrete building at the end of a narrow dirt road in the woods near Hattiesburg. They copied the floor plan of Rebekah, with a large chapel in the front and bedrooms with bunk beds in the back. They hung a picture of Roloff in the foyer, illuminated by a floodlight. 

Bobby Ray Wills sent brochures about Bethesda to hundreds of churches, pledging to transform wayward teenagers into respectable, godly young ladies. Pastors from California to Massachusetts responded by referring girls to the home. Soon, the facility was filled with up to 120 girls at a time, sleeping six or eight to a bedroom. Sometimes, girls had to sleep on the floor. 

Bethesda became known for taking unwed pregnant teenagers and promising to help place the baby for adoption with a Christian family that met the Willses’ approval. The adoptions were typically handled privately and quietly — a “gray market” for babies, as one newspaper article framed Roloff’s practices at the time. The adoptions continued unimpeded for a decade.

In 1975, as Roloff faced mounting scrutiny over the treatment of children in his Texas homes, a reporter from The Corpus Christi Caller followed him around the South. They stopped at Bethesda, where girls in uniforms of red skirts and white blouses talked about how much they adored the famed radio preacher. 

“He’s just like a daddy to me, but I’ve never met him,” one girl said. Another cried, saying she was sad that she had to leave the home later that week, though the reporter noticed wires taped to the windows to prevent the girls from escaping. 

Bethesda, Roloff told the reporter, was his “sweetest home.”

Image: Womac was sent to Bethesda after she became pregnant at 16.

Womac was sent to Bethesda after she became pregnant at 16.

Womac was sent to Bethesda after she became pregnant at 16.

‘I wanted this baby’

Womac arrived at Bethesda in late 1978. 

She had been raised by her grandparents, after her parents were unable to care for her and her siblings. But after Womac’s grandfather died and her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, Womac was sent to an orphanage in Dalton, Georgia, when she was 10. She met her first boyfriend there, and at 16, she discovered she was pregnant. 

The orphanage’s director feared the program would lose funding if people heard about the pregnancy, Womac said, so he sent her to Bethesda. (The orphanage has since closed; its former director didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Initially, Womac was excited, because the move meant a chance to reunite with her younger sister, Cheryl Davis Blackwell, who had been sent to Bethesda a year earlier after the orphanage caught her smoking a cigarette. But then the orphanage’s director told Womac halfway through the car ride to Mississippi that her baby would be taken from her, she said. She panicked, and started trying to open the locked car door. 

“I didn't care if he was doing 100,” she said. “I was going to jump out because I wanted this baby.”

Womac found Bethesda an isolating, dismal place. She wasn't allowed to speak with the other girls, including her sister, a rule the home imposed as a form of discipline. They were cut off from the outside world, with no ability to call friends or extended family. Their days were spent praying, cleaning, attending choir practice and listening to audio tapes of Roloff’s sermons. Womac once witnessed a girl refuse to get up at 5:30 a.m. to pray; staff members took the child to the shower room and “beat the holy daylights out of her,” she said.

Image: Lester Roloff speaks to a crowd in the Suburban Heights Baptist Church in Fairfield, Iowa, in 1981.

Lester Roloff speaks to a crowd in the Suburban Heights Baptist Church in Fairfield, Iowa, in 1981. (AP file)

Lester Roloff speaks to a crowd in the Suburban Heights Baptist Church in Fairfield, Iowa, in 1981. (AP file)

"Once you're there, survival mode kicks in," she said. "You think just day by day, ‘What can I do to keep from getting slapped or hit or punched or hurt?’ You pretty much just try to keep to yourself, keep your mouth shut."

When Womac did speak up, she tried to convince the staff to let her keep her baby. The home's employees replied that she had “no right” to the child, she said; the baby would go to “people that deserve a family, and you don’t.”

Blackwell said her own excitement to see her sister at Bethesda quickly turned to devastation, “knowing the abuse that laid ahead for her.” When Blackwell had kitchen duty, she said, she tried to sneak scraps of toast for Womac because she did not get any extra food despite being pregnant. Womac hid in a closet to eat it. 

A few weeks before Womac went into labor, Bethesda flew her to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to live with a host family, who took her to the hospital for the birth. She was given sedatives and remembers very little of the delivery. 

When she woke up the next day, the nurses refused to let her see her child, or even tell her if she had a boy or girl. After one of them finally let it slip that she’d had a girl, Womac asked a doctor if she could see her daughter. But the doctor became furious, Womac said, and demanded to know which nurse revealed the baby’s sex, so he could fire the nurse. The response gutted her.

“I'll remember that until I die,” she said.

Womac left the hospital without any records to show she’d ever had a baby. 

Womac’s aunt took her and her sister in, freeing them from Bethesda. Womac had a difficult time adjusting. When she went to her first party with alcohol, she felt paranoid that someone would catch her being “sinful” and send her back to Bethesda.

Image: Womac, left, with Blackwell on Womac's wedding day in 1980.

Womac, left, with Blackwell on Womac's wedding day in 1980.

Womac, left, with Blackwell on Womac's wedding day in 1980.

She got married within a year, and had five other children. But she never stopped thinking about her first daughter, imagining her first day of school and other milestones. She baked a cake on her daughter’s birthday each year, and tried, as best she could, to avoid talking about it.

“You don't get past it,” she said, “because I missed out on her first step, her losing her first tooth, her calling me mom.”

A $250 deal in a parking lot

Under Mississippi law at the time, a birth mother — even as a minor — had the right to decide whether to place her child for adoption. To do so, she would need to sign a consent agreement. Once signed, depending on the state where the birth took place, the mother would have only a very short window to challenge the adoption in court. Womac did not recall signing anything, but others at Bethesda did. 

Donna, who is being identified only by her first name because she hasn’t told close family members what happened to her, said she remembers that after she gave birth in 1980, while she still had a fever in the hospital, some men in suits asked her to sign papers. 

Leda Rush said when she gave birth in 1983, she was asked to sign paperwork after her delivery, but she was too drugged to read it. 

Joanne Springberg said when she was at Bethesda in 1983, employees told her she’d never see family again if she didn’t sign over her baby.

“I feel like my baby was stolen,” Springberg said. “They took that family away from me. I might’ve gotten married to the guy who is the father. How could they steal your child? And they did it in the name of God, so then you grow up not believing in the name of God.”

Six girls’ journeys to and from Bethesda, 1976-1984

Pregnant girls were sent to Bethesda from across the country and then traveled elsewhere to give birth.

See their paths in the map below.

Travel to Bethesda Travel to birth location Hattiesburg, M.S.

Trisha Hass, who was sent to Bethesda in 1983, said she once accompanied Betty Wills and a pregnant girl on what she thought was a grocery store trip after lunch. Less than 10 minutes into the ride, however, the girl began going into labor in the back of a van, Hass said. 

They stopped in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, and after the baby was born, Wills wrapped the child in a blanket and went to a pay phone, Hass said. About 40 minutes later, at dusk, a car pulled up next to them. A man stepped out and handed over $250 in cash, which Hass said she was required to count, and Wills gave him the child. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared to make sure I counted correctly,” Hass said. “I sat in the front passenger seat, kept my head down, and didn't ask questions.”  

The next day, the girl was gone from Bethesda, Hass said, “and no one said anything about why she was no longer there.”

Mississippi enacted a ban on child selling in 2009. Attempts to create a federal ban on the sale of children — most recently a 2019 proposal by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican from Mississippi — have failed to pass Congress.

Some girls left with a different perspective on their experience at Bethesda. Delores Dodson was 15 and pregnant when her father sent her to Bethesda in 1975 — and she said she knew all along that her baby would be placed for adoption. It was not a choice she resented. 

“Here I am, a very young lady, I was pregnant — I couldn’t obviously afford to care for myself and care for my child,” Dodson said. “It was the best option in their thinking, and once I got to the home, they made it very comfortable for us girls.”

Dodson, now a missionary in Tanzania, acknowledged that the girls’ lives at Bethesda were tightly controlled and their mail was monitored, but said she did not experience abuse or corporal punishment. She said she was surprised and saddened to hear that other women did. 

“They were very strict,” she said of Bethesda’s staff members, “but those were rules I was accustomed to because my dad was a pastor.”

A hidden note

In January 1982, Morris Dees, a lawyer known for taking on white supremacists as a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, received a call from a police officer. The officer was upset because Bethesda refused to let his pregnant daughter, Candy, leave. Dees agreed to help. He flew from Montgomery, Alabama, to Hattiesburg. A local police detective drove him to Bethesda and they banged on the door, which was chained shut. 

“When it opened, I saw about 25 to 30 girls standing around in religious clothes, quoting the Bible,” Dees said. He called out for Candy, and “she ran straight to us, anxious as hell to get out,” Dees said. Flying back to Montgomery, she told Dees everything about life inside Bethesda.

Dees quickly began putting together a federal class-action lawsuit against Bethesda and some ministers who supported it, accusing them of discriminating against pregnant girls, violating the girls’ reproductive privacy and holding them as indentured servants. The suit alleged that Bethesda censored the girls’ communication, beat them and had a system to sell their babies. 

Until this point, Bethesda had faced little controversy. Instead, the Willses were praised by local newspapers for creating a “haven” where miracles took place. The girls’ previous complaints had been minimized in the press, which described them as “unhappy under the strict rules.” Roloff had featured Bethesda in a promotional video as evidence of the positive influence of his homes. 

When the lawsuit was filed, Bobby Ray Wills called it a “pack of lies.” 

“It was very careless and unwise to attack us,” Wills told an Alabama newspaper in February 1982. “They’re really going to be sorry.”

A cavalry quickly assembled to help Bethesda. The local prosecutor and sheriff insisted there was no abuse at the home. Members of the Conservative Caucus, which at the time was an influential political group in Washington, circulated memos warning that if the lawsuit succeeded, “the implications would be devastating for similar ministries.” Falwell, the Baptist minister and prominent conservative activist, headlined a rally in Hattiesburg to support Bethesda. He and others argued that the home was no different than a church, and that they were being persecuted for their beliefs. 

The Christian Law Association, a nonprofit law firm from Ohio, represented Bethesda, incensed that a minister on Bethesda’s board of directors had been served a copy of the lawsuit during a worship service. The firm tried unsuccessfully to get the case dismissed. 

Before the case could move forward, though, Dees needed more corroboration.

Image: Morris Dees, shown in 1973, challenged Bethesda in court. (Gary Settle/The New York Times/Redux)

Morris Dees, shown in 1973, challenged Bethesda in court. (Gary Settle/The New York Times/Redux)

Morris Dees, shown in 1973, challenged Bethesda in court. (Gary Settle/The New York Times/Redux)

Dees received court approval to take depositions from girls living in the home, but the real challenge was in convincing the girls that they were safe to speak. The home had a rule against saying anything negative about the facility, and the first depositions took place on Feb. 26, 1982, at a local office with Wills in the room. The girls kept telling the lawyers they were treated fine. But Dees said that their body language, and that they kept an eye on Wills, made it clear the girls “were scared to death.” 

So after four depositions, Dees said he turned to Bethesda’s team and made a proposal: “Well heck, how about letting us just talk to the next girl with none of y’all in the room? We won’t take a deposition, but it looks like we may have made a bad mistake in filing this lawsuit.” 

Bethesda’s lawyers agreed, Dees said, and left his team alone with the next teenager, identified in court documents as Tonya B. With tears running down her cheeks, Tonya handed Dees a note she had hidden in her bra.

“I really wish we could talk to you but at this moment it seems impossible,” her note stated, according to court records. The note, signed by several other girls, offered to provide testimony and evidence, but said they’d need protection because “there is no telling what will happen to us.” 

It was the break Dees needed. He made copies of the note and filed it as evidence in court that same day. Tonya and the other girls who signed the note were allowed to return home to their parents.

Throughout the spring of 1982, the girls testified in court hearings about the abuse they said they’d experienced at Bethesda and the effect it had on them. Dozens reported that they stopped menstruating for months, court records state, which a doctor later compared in court filings to conditions observed among women in concentration camps.

Bethesda responded in court that its employees used corporal punishment sparingly, as a last resort. They never pressured anyone to give up their baby; they merely counseled them on the girl’s best option, the home’s lawyers argued. And they said many girls in Bethesda stopped menstruating because they were getting clean after being on drugs. 

Bobby Ray Wills became indignant when asked in court, on March 9, 1982, if he sold newborns: “That statement is un-Christian,” he said. “I don’t make money off babies.”

While adoptive parents were always asked if they or their church would give money to the Bethesda, Wills said, those were voluntary donations.

“I’d give my life for these girls,” Betty Wills testified. She added that she hated spanking the girls, but it was all that prevented them from returning to “sex, drugs and running with truckers.”

“Mr. Dees, I love you and I wish you were saved,” she said in court, according to newspaper accounts.

‘Judge, get me out of here’

While the lawsuit dragged on, parents kept sending girls to Bethesda. Then, in early 1984, a girl identified in court records as M.I. ran away from the home, told county officials she’d been mistreated and refused to go back. 

To figure out what to do, the county’s youth court appointed Wise to handle the case as a special referee, essentially a temporary judge.

Wise, whose Southern accent becomes more animated when he recalls Bethesda, visited the home in March 1984 with a sheriff’s deputy. More than 100 girls were living there, many wearing red and white dresses. 

Bobby Ray Wills asked the girls to “witness” to him, Wise said, “and they just started randomly popping up in the audience, and they all have a little spiel, like, ‘I was a drug addict and a girl in sin, and Roloff's ministries brought me to Jesus and saved my life.’”

Then, Wise said, one girl in the back jumped up and said, "Judge, get me out of here — they're beating us!" Wills “looked like he was about to have a heart attack,” Wise said.

Wise brought in social workers and police officers who took over the home for a few days and interviewed the girls. Many described being strip-searched, placed on a limited diet of only juice or half-portions of food, and beaten when they complained. 

While Mississippi didn’t have any regulations at the time governing how child care centers could treat children, Wise ruled that because Bethesda held girls under lock and key without a judicial hearing, it was an illegal detention center. The court placed an injunction on Bethesda in September 1986, blocking the home from using corporal punishment, requiring the Willses to open up to fire marshal inspections and stop censoring girls’ communication with parents.

Bethesda claimed that it had permission from girls’ parents for everything it did, but its appeals were shot down. State authorities became concerned that Wills had moved children across state lines for performances and births. In September 1986, he was found in contempt of court for refusing to provide the names of all of the girls held in Bethesda, and the state took custody of the children.

“What do you do with 117 girls from all over America who are getting the s--- beat out of them by some wackadoodle?” Wise said. “I had to decide whether to give them back to parents, who were either crazy enough to go along with this, or were tricked by these guys.” (The state ultimately called their parents to come take them home.)

Soon after, Dees’ case reached a conclusion when a federal judge signed off on a settlement that reinforced many of the temporary rules local judges had recently imposed.

In 1987, the Willses packed up Bethesda and left for Missouri, where Christian youth facilities faced no government oversight. They opened a new boarding school, but complaints against their program followed, and in 2004 they shuttered their Missouri operation as well. They said this choice was unrelated to the pushback.

A mission to fight for change

In 2017, Cindy Schott was in a grocery store parking lot in Virginia Beach when she had an urge to look up Bethesda. She had started therapy and the home was on her mind. She found a survivor group on Facebook, “Bethesda Lost Loves,” and she began to scroll through. Then she vomited. She tried to pull herself together and continued with an errand to her bank. 

“When I got up to the counter, I opened my mouth and no sound would come out,” she said. 

Schott, 55, spent the next six hours sitting in her car outside the grocery store, going through the group, reading other women’s stories and sharing some of her own. 

When she was sent to Bethesda in 1980, she said, she didn’t know she was pregnant. She said she delivered her baby in the bathroom. The newborn began to cry, she said, and was swiftly taken away from her by an employee. She said she was never told what happened to the child. 

“You lived in a world where there was no safe place, no one was going to rescue you and no one was going to believe you,” she said. “Even now when I try to talk about it, my guts start shaking, my legs start shaking and I feel sick.”

Inside Bethesda, according to former residents, the girls were not supposed to tell one another their last names, let alone their phone numbers. Some found ways to sneak out phone numbers when they left, by rolling up scraps of paper inside of ballpoint pens, or hiding information in Bibles. But many didn’t reconnect until decades later, when they found one another online through a Yahoo group and later on Facebook. 

Before Blackwell found the Yahoo group in 2008, “I just had all this stuff in my head that was so awful I’d think it can’t really be true,” she said. “Then I’d get in the group, all the girls have the same stories and you know it is real. It was a lot of healing for me.”

Blackwell invited Womac to join a decade ago, but her older sister wasn’t ready. 

Many women also left notes over the past 20 years on adoption websites and forums that mentioned Bethesda, hoping adoptees who knew that their mothers came from Bethesda might find them. Schott said three people have contacted her, wondering if they might be her lost child. Each time, she took a consumer DNA test, but she hasn’t had a match yet.

Some have turned their anger into activism after learning that homes that emulate Roloff’s doctrines and operate with similar rules, including censoring children’s communication with the outside world, continue to thrive around the country, decades after Roloff’s 1982 death in a plane crash. A handful of recent survivors of some of these programs have told reporters that they, too, were forced to give up babies they wanted to keep, though this is a much less widespread practice today. 

Many of these programs now claim to be Christian boarding schools, a classification that means that in half of the country, they are not required to even tell their state education agency that they exist.

Mississippi enacted a law in 1990 requiring homes like Bethesda to submit to state oversight, including inspections. 

But in Missouri, where the Willses relocated, the state still had no way to inspect or shut down a religious boarding school. With no regulation, these programs flourished, until dozens of former residents and their parents began speaking out last year alleging abuse at youth facilities and condemning the lack of oversight. Some of these facilities remain open.

The state Legislature responded by holding hearings, and among those who testified were women from Bethesda, including Emily Adams, who was placed at Bethesda in 1983 and now lives in Missouri.

“I’m on a mission,” Adams said. “These homes need to be stopped. They destroyed enough of us. There are probably thousands of people like me, and it traces back to Roloff and what he started.”

Missouri’s governor signed a law in July enabling the state to close abusive religious homes. But in 16 other states, education and child welfare agencies exempt boarding schools from licensing requirements if they are religious, privately owned or privately funded. 

And as long as these facilities do not take government dollars, there is no federal oversight either.

‘I have wondered about you for a long time’

In the 1970s, Carol Spencer and her husband began looking into adoption. A couple they met at church suggested they apply through Roloff’s organization. They did, and in 1979 they received a call about a soon-to-be-born child they could adopt. All they had to do was pay for the mother’s hospital bills, she said.

“We were just happy to have a little girl to take care of and to love,” Carol Spencer said. 

The Spencers arrived at the hospital in East Ridge, Tennessee, not long after Womac gave birth. In the nursery, they could immediately tell which baby was theirs; she was the one without a name. 

Carol Spencer carried her out of the hospital at four days old, a “joyful occasion” as she recalled it. They named her Melanie.

Melanie Spencer's parents didn't keep her adoption a secret.

Melanie Spencer's parents didn't keep her adoption a secret.

Growing up in Indonesia and South Africa, where her parents worked as missionaries, Melanie Spencer always knew she had been adopted. Her parents told her they thought her biological mother's name was Nancy, but since the adoption was closed, very little information was available. 

Spencer moved back to the U.S. for college and worked in the fashion industry, before getting a master’s degree and going into counseling. She had two children and began to think more about her lineage. She decided to submit a DNA sample to Ancestry, a genealogy website that enables people to find lost relatives, in May 2018, and, unexpectedly, hit a match — a person described as a possible first cousin or aunt. 

“I wasn't looking for that at all. I was just looking for something cool to tell my kids about where they were from,” Spencer said. “And so when I saw my aunt Cheryl's name come up as a relative, I looked at it and I was like, ‘Whoa, what do I do with this?’”

The aunt was Cheryl Blackwell, and Spencer decided to message her and tell her what little she knew: She was born in June 1979 at a hospital in East Ridge, Tennessee, and believed her mother’s name was Nancy. 

Image: Melanie Spencer in 2021

Spencer was surprised to discover a relative through Ancestry. (Brock Stoneham / NBC News)

Spencer was surprised to discover a relative through Ancestry. (Brock Stoneham / NBC News)

But Blackwell didn’t see Spencer’s message until she checked Ancestry over a year later, in December 2019, as she sat with relatives after a family dinner. 

“I about lost my breath,” Blackwell recalled. 

She handed the phone to Womac, who began to cry. They knew: This was her. 

Spencer began connecting to the family through Facebook. She spent hours looking at everyone’s photos. And she started messaging with Womac.

Hello Melanie
How are u? It is so good to finally find you
I'm doing ok. All of this is so surreal
How are you?
I'm great, I know this is scary. I have waited 39 years for this.
I have wondered about you for a long time. It is a little overwhelming
It is for me too, but I never gave up
I thought about you often
There is not a day that goes by that I have not thought of you, I want u to know you are loved so much
I'm here anytime you want to talk.

Over FaceTime during the pandemic, they shared details of their lives, marriages and children. They decided to wait to meet in person until vaccinations were available. 

Carol Spencer had always encouraged her daughter to find her family and was glad they were in touch. But she said she only learned recently that Womac hadn’t wanted to give up her baby. 

“We just thought it was because she was 16 and out of an orphanage and had no place to go,” Carol Spencer said. “Her choice was taken from her, and I’m sorry for that.”

Coming home

Spencer felt anxious on Aug. 3 as she pulled into Womac’s driveway for the first time. While her boyfriend stayed in the car with her two young children, Spencer got out and walked up to the deck with her arms outstretched. 

“Hi,” she said warmly. 

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Womac replied.

They held each other as one of Womac’s sons, Daniel, let out a hearty, “Hey, sis!” and waited for his turn at a hug. As soon as they let go, Womac, overcome with emotion, reached for the deck railing to maintain her balance.

Womac and Spencer met in 2021. (Brock Stoneham / NBC News)

Womac and Spencer met in 2021. (Brock Stoneham / NBC News)

Walking into the house to get away from the Georgia humidity, Spencer was struck by Womac’s impressive collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia. Spencer’s children, ages 7 and 3, rushed to open several presents Womac had wrapped for them. 

They later sat by Womac’s backyard pool and looked at photo albums Spencer brought with her. Womac was eager to learn more about Spencer’s life as a child in distant countries. But when Spencer flipped a page to reveal a picture of her as a baby, still in the hospital, Womac began to cry. 

Womac told Spencer she’d spent decades wondering about what happened to her. Spencer, too, had grown up with questions: “Why didn't my mom want me? Did she love me? Or didn't she care?” 

Now, sitting with Womac, those questions were answered.

The next several days were a whirlwind of introducing Spencer to the family, taking photographs, going out to dinner and cooking meals at home. Spencer learned that she and Womac share a love for German chocolate cake. With Daniel, she talked about going to comic book conventions. Within a couple days, they were running around town together, picking up pizza and handing off iPads to keep the children entertained. 

“They have made it feel like I was a missing piece that is now here,” Spencer said. “It feels like coming home.”

Blackwell later posted photos of the reunion in the private Bethesda Lost Loves Facebook group, which has over 120 members. She included a message from Womac to the other women: Do not give up on your search.

Graphics design and development:

JoElla Carman and Jiachuan Wu

Motion graphics art direction and design:

Ben Plimpton and Heather Seidel

Photo editor:

Matthew Nighswander and Chelsea Stahl

Art director:

Chelsea Stahl