The Joy and Pain of Locating Biological Parents
Over the last 20 years I have personally witnessed some of the most emotional moments of my clients’ lives, through reconnecting adopted adults with their natural parents and vice versa. However, as I tell each and every client that comes to me with this request, it can bring them great joy but often total heartbreak – and sometimes both – so please beware and proceed cautiously.
I am about to tell you three true stories of recent cases we handled over the last couple of years. I wouldn’t be surprised if these stories bring you tears of joy and, unfortunately, the sadness they brought to us and the parties involved. The names and locations of course, for the most part, have been changed.
Case #1: Amanda and her mother, Nancy
In late 1979, Amanda was adopted at birth from a New Jersey hospital into a loving family in Connecticut, who she grew up loving deeply. Amanda knew from an early age that she was adopted, however her Connecticut parents did not know the identity of her biological parents, or the circumstances of the pregnancy or adoption. Amanda was a happy child but had always wanted to know more about her biological past. Her adoptive parents encouraged Amanda to find who her biological parents were, however they simply had no information regarding their identity.
When Amanda entered college in the early 1990s, she began her quest in earnest to locate her biological parents but hit roadblock after roadblock. Then, in 2015 at the relatively young age of 36, Amanda began experiencing some medical issues that are often genetic in nature. Thanks to recent changes in New Jersey law for adoptees, Amanda was able to petition for, and obtain, the release of her original birth certificate which provided the names and address of her biological parents. Jackpot, right? Not so fast, however, as their listed address was an apartment building that was torn down in the 1980’s; her birth certificate listed only the parents’ ages, and not full date of birth; and their last names were very common – Johnson and Smith. So, our client faced the prospect of searching for a female named “Nancy Smith”, aged between 60 and 61, who at some point in her life rented an apartment in Newark in 1979. It was a hopeless task.
Amanda approached me in 2017 and asked us to locate her mother. I warned her of the impossibility of the case, but also strongly cautioned her – as I always do – regarding the possibility of rejection. There aren’t many positive reasons why mothers gave up their newborn babies for adoption in the 1970s, and family rejection, rape and/or incest are a possibility. Hence, I always caution against going down this path unless my client is fully aware of the possibility of rejection. Just because my client has longed for her natural mother her whole life, it does not mean that feeling will be reciprocal.
We explored every lead, ran every database imaginable, interviewed people of relevance and gradually began whittling down the list of possible candidates from initially over 500 possibilities. Of course, 1979 pre-dated electronic databases; “Nancy Smith” was not married in 1979; Amanda’s birth certificate named her father to whom Nancy was not married; and “Nancy Smith” – if that was even her real name – had probably married maybe once or twice – and now almost certainly had a different name.
To cut a long story short, we ultimately took a different tack and finally located Nancy’s boyfriend – which was a remarkable feat in itself. We interviewed him at his house and despite his initial shock, he told us that he knew Nancy had a baby in 1979, but that he, the boyfriend, was not the father and they had broken up as a result of her “infidelity” when he found out Nancy was pregnant. The boyfriend did not know who adopted the baby and only remembered that Nancy had subsequently moved east, to Massachusetts. He did, however, remember that Nancy’s birthday was in December, around Christmas, as he recalled buying two presents at the same time, one for each event. He said he had also heard that Nancy had married an Asian, but didn’t know what country – he hadn’t spoken to Nancy or heard from her since they parted ways in 1979.
To investigators however, this information was critical. Now we could use our databases to locate any person with the first name “Nancy” who was exactly 60 years of age, who resided in Massachusetts and who also possibly had an Asian last name. The pool of candidates shrank and after an extensive game of elimination, we ultimately zeroed in on one woman who fit the above criteria, but who had resided in Maryland for the last 26 years. We visited her home in Maryland, only to learn from neighbors that incredibly, she had moved out just three weeks before – after 26 years of residence in Maryland. (It is hard to believe, I know). We ultimately located Nancy at her new home in Brookline, Massachusetts where we visited and, remarkably, Nancy was not surprised at who we were. “I knew you’d find me eventually and I’ve been waiting a long time”. That day, for the first time in 39 years since the day of adoption, we connected Amanda with Nancy and they spoke on our investigator’s cell phone in Nancy’s living room. Tears were shed by all, including our investigators. Nancy and Amanda met a couple of weeks later and gradually caught up with each other’s lives. It was a very joyous time for them both.
We learned that Nancy had given Amanda up for adoption because in 1979 she was a young, unmarried drug addict who had had relationships with several men, whose religious parents would not accept her if she had a child out of wedlock. Unfortunately that was not an uncommon scenario for the time. Nancy had always regretted her decision to give Amanda up for adoption and Amanda spent her whole life wondering who her real mother was.
Sadly, Amanda and Nancy do not have an ongoing relationship. Nancy had become a devotee to an extreme religion and Amanda had become an atheist, hence Nancy would not accept Amanda for who she was and what she believed in – or didn’t believe in, as the case may be. Sadly, their relationship slowly deteriorated and they no longer communicate.
This case involved some of the most remarkable yet, at times, frustrating investigative work we have ever done. However the initial joy ultimately fizzled to pain. An even sadder fact is that Nancy provided us with countless letters she had written to New Jersey authorities over the years, instructing them and giving authority to release her identity to Amanda if ever Amanda made inquiries. Incredibly, Nancy’s letters and Amanda’s requests – totaling over 20 letters between them – were never matched up and the connection was never made. If they had made contact earlier in their lives, who knows how different the outcome may have been.
Case#2: Bob and his father Francis
Bob is a terrific guy – humble, hard-working and devoted to his wife and children. His mother had to give Bob and his three brothers up for adoption when they were small, as she had psychological issues and she could not cope with raising them. Bob kept in touch with his mother, who has resided in assisted living facilities since that date, but she had very little information regarding Bob’s father, indeed, her four sons were borne of three different men. But she remembered his first name clearly, as well as some other aspects of his life.
The prior year, Bob and his brothers had petitioned the State to determine the identity of their youngest brother, who had been adopted into a family when he was two. But Bob always wanted to know who his father was and, just as importantly to Bob, Bob wanted to know if he had Italian heritage, as he hoped – not knowing where you are from can be a lonely concept.
I took on the case in a pro bono basis for many reasons, but principally because Bob was and is such a kind and genuine man.
Faced with many of the same challenges outlined above, using complex database searches and associations, we were able to whittle the list of possible candidates down to less than ten, and again, soon zeroed in on one particular individual named Francis. However, Francis had virtually no electronic footprint such as driver’s license, voter registration, properties owned, credit cards etc. In my experience, this is usually indicative that the person has either: been in jail much of his life; is mentally or physically challenged; has lived predominantly overseas and/or in the armed services; or believe it or not, of extreme wealth and/or standing (think Royal families, major celebrities etc).
In this case however, we determined that Francis had resided in assisted living facilities for at least the last 20 years. With this information, I pressed Bob as to whether he was certain he wanted to proceed, as the possibilities of his father’s condition might be difficult for him to acknowledge and deal with. Bob was certain, so we planned a strategy to make contact.
I visited the assisted living facility and spoke with the supervising nurse and owner. My concern was that I did not want to cause Francis any emotional distress, and was also anxious to ensure that this was handled with the full authority and knowledge (and in the company of) medical personnel. The supervising nurse and owner of the facility were surprised that Francis could have a son, but felt that he could handle it and believed it would be a positive in his life, if true.
The nurse and owner of the facility brought Francis to the dining room area and immediately I knew he was our man, as his appearance was identical to his son, Bob – it was actually a remarkable resemblance. We sat down and I told Francis the whole story. In about half an hour, the reality began to set in and his initial shock, surprise, trepidation and ultimately gave way to delight and happiness. He agreed to talk with Bob. They spoke for the first time in their lives – in 38 years – on my cell phone in that dining room. We all cried.
This is one of the happy stories – Bob and Francis have become good friends and Francis now spends time and special holidays with his “new” family and two grandchildren. Oh, and yes, Francis’ parents were born in Milano, Italy, and emigrated to Brooklyn in 1933. They keep in touch with me regularly and I cherish the photos they send me.
Sue and her mother, Gretchen
This is a story of utter sadness and rejection. Sue came to me many years ago and wanted to locate her biological mother. She was adopted at birth and grew up in a loving family in West Hartford, Connecticut, however she longed to know the identity of her “real” parents. Through investigation that was almost as complex as those outlined above, we ultimately located Sue’s biological mother, Gretchen, in Boca Raton and soon learned that her third husband had recently died. In the process of her marriages, her own successful career and ultimately the death of her last husband, Gretchen had become a wealthy woman. Our client, Sue was thrilled but insisted that she, Sue, be the one to make contact with Gretchen, against my wishes.
It went badly and Gretchen made it clear to Sue that she wanted nothing to do with her – in fact she was furious that she had been identified and contacted. Gretchen explained that Sue was borne of a rape while Gretchen was in college. Gretchen told Sue that she wanted to forget everything about the experience, which, through the adoption, she had managed to do. Sue was devastated and wrote to Gretchen many times, with no response. Sue sent Gretchen photographs of her children and cards at Christmas, all with no response. In what Sue deemed as the ultimate betrayal, Sue received a letter from Gretchen’s attorneys advising Sue that she was not to contact Gretchen and that if Sue persisted, Gretchen’s attorneys would proceed with legal action, including restraining orders, and would initiate civil litigation and criminal proceedings. The last time I spoke with Sue a few years ago, she was still devastated and did not think she would ever be able to get over the feeling of despair and rejection. The truth can really, really hurt.
So as you can see, this whole area really is the ultimate Pandora’s Box of emotions and I caution you strongly before proceeding. For every story of joyous reunification, there is a story of rejection and sadness. But armed with this information, if you’d like to proceed, give me a call and we can discuss the options.