There is likely no one in the Greater Philadelphia area who is responsible for finding more loving families for orphaned children, including many who had been considered unadoptable, than Shirley Milner Sagin, 97, who died of Alzheimer's disease June 12 at the Joseph Scott Health Center of Rydal Park in Jenkintown.
Sagin, a revered social worker and adoption specialist who served as the “stork” for hundreds of families throughout the Delaware Valley, raised her own family for two decades in Springfield Township and lived with her husband, Jerome, for 10 years in Wyncote, and then for many years at the Hill House in Chestnut Hill. After that, they lived at the Wesley Enhanced Living at Stapeley facility in Germantown.
Through a long tenure at Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) of Greater Philadelphia, where she was the director of adoption services for more than two decades, Sagin helped place babies with loving families throughout the region. When Jewish babies available for adoption became scarce, she worked to help other agencies find homes for hard-to-place children.
In the early 1970s, she was a leader in the Delaware Valley Adoption Council where she helped found and became president of the Delaware Valley Adoption Resource Exchange (DVARE), which worked with children for whom individual agencies had been unable to find permanent homes. Hundreds of these children were successfully placed with families, thanks to Sagin's efforts.
“What Shirley did was most unusual in the social work field at that time,” said Gloria Hochman, a widely published author, magazine writer and co-worker of Sagin's for 12 years.
“For example, she once got a call from Jefferson Hospital about a professional couple who had a child named Alison with Down syndrome and did not want her to be institutionalized but also did not want to raise her. It was not common for agencies to try to find homes for children with Down syndrome at that time, but Shirley worked tirelessly until she did find a lesbian couple for Alison.
“Only one of the women was allowed to adopt, but the two women both raised her, and Alison had a good life,” Hochman continued. “In fact, she came back to Philly for the center's 15th anniversary. Alison was then 18, and she told everyone there how grateful she was to Shirley and the center for finding such loving parents for her. There was not a dry eye in the room.”
During that same evening, the keynote speaker noted, “Shirley is a woman who represents unconditional caring and optimism about the possibilities for all children.”
At the end of the Vietnam War, when about 2,500 orphans were airlifted to the United States under a program authorized by then-President Gerald Ford, Sagin worked to find homes throughout the Delaware Valley for many of the children from Saigon’s An Lac Orphanage.
“My mother also went to Romania, where the legacy of the brutal dictator (Nicolae) Ceausescu left a lot of babies abandoned in orphanages,” said Dr. Todd Sagin, who is both a doctor and a lawyer. “She worked to get children from these Romanian orphanages out and also some from Colombia, South America, and got them placed with families in the Delaware Valley.”
“Mom was a real role model,” Todd Sagin said. “She never pushed us to go into medicine, but she did make us all want to go into helping professions.” (A second son, Mark, is also a physician, and a third son, Steven, is a school teacher in Arizona.)
Shirley Milner grew up in South Philadelphia and attended South Philadelphia High School, where she was an editor of the school newspaper. She earned a degree in sociology from Penn State University and a master's degree in social work in 1949 from Bryn Mawr College.
In 1950, Shirley married Jerome Sagin, a pharmacist's son from West Philadelphia whom she had met on a blind date. Jerome, a biochemist and virologist and World War II veteran, was part of a team that developed vaccines for polio and diphtheria. (Jerome Sagin died in 2010.)
In addition to her work on adoptions, Shirley was an assistant librarian at Springfield Township High School. She also worked on Fair Housing campaigns against redlining, with the League of Women Voters, and was an anti-Vietnam War activist.
“Both of our parents were very engaged culturally,” Todd Sagin said. “They did play reading and were involved with book clubs and going to orchestra and opera concerts. They had a wide range of interests.
“But Mom did not like being in the limelight. She did not want us to do anything special after her death, so we will not have a memorial service open to the public. We will just have an informal family Zoom meeting. I have been contacted by so many children she had placed in loving homes, telling me how wonderful she was, so I'm glad you are doing this obituary in the Local.”
Donations in Shirley Sagin's name may be made to the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, 345 Montgomery Ave., Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004.
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com.