The photo first appeared in The Vidette-Messenger of Valparaiso, Indiana on August 5, 1948. The children looked posed and a bit confused as their pregnant mother hides her face from the photographer.
The caption read: “A big ‘For Sale’ sign in a Chicago yard mutely tells the tragic story of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Chalifoux, who face eviction from their apartment. With no place to turn, the jobless coal truck driver and his wife decide to sell their four children. Mrs. Lucille Chalifoux turns her head from the camera above while her children stare wonderingly. On the top step are Lana, 6, and Rae, 5. Below are Milton, 4, and Sue Ellen, 2”.
Family members accused the mother of being paid to stage the photo, which may have been part of the story, but unfortunately, she was dead serious about selling her children. Within two years all of the children’s pictures, as well as the baby she was carrying at the time, were sold off to different homes.
RaeAnn Mills and her brother Milton were sold to the Zoeteman family on August 27, 1950. Their names were changed to Beverly and Kenneth, and although their birth mother’s situation was dire, their new home wasn’t much of salvation.
They were often chained up in a barn and forced to work long hours in the field. Milton remembers being called a “slave” by his new father figure, a label he accepted at the time because he didn’t understand what it meant.
Although it seems that RaeAnn and Milton were never officially adopted by their abusers, their brother David, who was in his mother’s womb at the time of the photograph, was legally adopted by Harry and Luella McDaniel, who only lived a few miles away.
David, who says his adoptive parents were strict but loving and supportive, remembers riding out on his bike to see his siblings and unchaining them before going back home.
RaeAnn left home at 17, shortly after undergoing a brutally traumatic situation. As a young teen, she was kidnapped and raped, which resulted in a pregnancy. She was sent away to a home for pregnant girls and had her baby adopted when she returned.
As Milton grew older, he reacted to the beatings, starvation, and other abuses with violent rages. A judge deemed him a menace to society, and he spent a number of years in a mental hospital after being forced to choose between that and a reformatory (a juvenile detention center).
The siblings didn’t know what happened with Lana and Sue Ellen, however, years later they were able to reconnect with them via social media. Lana had died in 1998 of cancer, but Sue Ellen Chalifoux was still alive.
Sue Ellen was raised not far from her original home, growing up in Chicago’s East Side neighborhood. Her opinion about her biological mother: “She needs to be in hell burning”.
The woman in the photograph remarried after selling/giving away her five children and had four more daughters. When her other children eventually came to see her, she’s described as completely lacking love for her estranged children, or having any regret for letting them go.
David McDaniel defended his mother’s coldness as evidence of a different, hardscrabble world. “As soon as my mom saw me, she said, ‘You look just like your father’”, McDaniel said. “She never apologized. Back then, it was survival. Who are we to judge? We’re all human beings. We all make mistakes. She could’ve been thinking about the children. Didn’t want them to die”.
Milton had a different perspective on the situation: “My birth mother, she never did love me. She didn’t apologize for selling me. She hated me so much that she didn’t care”.
(Photo credit: Library of Congress / Bettmann / Corbis).