Recently, I read two reunion stories that once again confirm the absurdity of adoption laws that attempt to deny adopted adults the truth about their own lives. One is the five-year quest of 47-year-old Terri Vanech, a Connecticut resident who just this month reconnected with her first mother. The other is the story of Astrid Dabbeni, an adoptee in her early forties who found her first mother in Colombia last year after being featured in a local newspaper article there. Vanech and Dabbeni share some similarities: both have loving and supportive adoptive families, and both longed to know more about their beginnings and personal histories.
Some of Vanech's motivation to search is explained in an article she wrote last year, urging New York legislators to approve an adoptee rights bill.
"Imagine if you didn't have a medical history to share with your physicians," she said. "Or your children's physicians.
Imagine having to play detective -- and maybe even pay someone -- just to learn your ethnicity.
Imagine if in middle age your home state still treated you like a child and made decisions on your behalf about personal information that everyone else has a right to.
Imagine how your relationships and interactions would unravel, if in your heart you always felt the sting of rejection -- despite having loving, supportive adoptive parents and hearing many stories about 'privacy' and 'best for you.'
Imagine, too, if you were one of the thousands of birth parents who wonder every day about the children they had to let go of."
Vanech persevered in her journey to find her first mother, in spite of some formidable odds and New York State's sealed record system. Gradually, with the help of search angels, she assembled some clues. Her mother was 18 when Vanech was born, and she had lived at St. Faith's Home for Unwed Mothers in Tarrytown, New York before the birth in Yonkers. Her mother was Episcopalian, and she had had her baby daughter baptized at Christ Church, located next to St. Faith's. Through the baptismal certificate, Vanech learned her original name.
More detective work was required before Vanech was able to locate her first mother, still living in New York after all these years. Vanech became discouraged and at some points, felt her mission was hopeless. As she recently wrote to search angel Priscilla Sharp, "Thanks for making sure I didn't give up, because I was surely going to -- more than once."
When Vanech found her original mother, she proceeded slowly. She and her first mother initially spoke by telephone. Last week, they met in person. We who had followed Vanech's journey on-line shared in her apprehension as she prepared for her luncheon, and in her elation as she later sent out a picture of her and her first mother arm in arm, both looking beautiful, and both sharing the same smile.
What a happy ending, and how prophetic Vanech's prediction about the "birth parent privacy" issue turned out to be! As she had earlier written, "I'm not at all sure anyone actually asked (my first mother) for her thoughts on the privacy thing." As we know now, mothers who relinquished babies in the past seldom had any choice in the matter, and few were able to move on as if the birth had never happened.
The happiness and closure Vanech and her first mother experienced might have come earlier, had Vanech not been a victim of the sealed birth record system now in place in New York and the majority of American states.
As Vanech wrote the day following her first meeting: "Still pinching myself. Woke up swearing it must all be a dream, but no, I got to meet (my first mother), hug her, see here, talk with her. And then I spoke to one of my brothers for the first time, was showered by an incredible amount of love here on fb, was honored to be friended by two "new" cousins and have my neighbor lie in wait for me with tears in her eyes and a box of chocolates. Apologies in advance to everyone I come in contact with today. My head is in the clouds and my heart is overflowing. The brain cells are not working!"
Now you might be thinking at this point, "Not all stories turn out this way." And of course, they don't. My first mother was not comfortable sharing the circumstances of my birth with anyone, not even her other children. But I have spoken to her, and I do know the truth. I don't have to wonder whether my agency's information is accurate, or suffer the indignity of trying to contact her through a state-appointed intermediary I do not know. As the saying goes, "The truth will set you free," and in my case, it did.
The thought that an agency's information might be inaccurate is not far-fetched. Consider the case of Astrid Dabbeni, whose parents adopted her and her sister from Colombia through an established and reputable agency. Yet when she met her first mother in Colombia, Astrid learned that her mother had never even approved of or consented to the adoption.
Fearing for her safety and that of Astrid and another daughter, Maria, her mother along with the girls had fled a troubled marriage. She struggled to support herself and her young family, experienced homelessness, and at one point left her daughters in the care of her landlady as she pursued a better-paying job in another city. She sent money for her children's care to the landlady regularly, only to find upon her return that the landlady, her possessions, and the girls had disappeared.
Fearful that the police might force her to return to her husband, the mother, Carmenza Castro, didn't report their disappearance, but she did spend every last peso she had to hire a private investigator. Unfortunately, his search yielded no results. Castro eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized for a year.
It is not clear how the girls came to be delivered into the adoption system, but adoption corruption in Colombia was widespread at the time, and according to Laura Briggs, author of Somebody's Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, the victims of fraud were usually impoverished and socially isolated young mothers unfamiliar with the court system. As Astrid came to learn, birth certificates and other relevant documents were often falsified and rarely reliable. When Americans Chris and Norm Reynolds adopted the girls, their birth certificates indicated they were three and four years old. Actually, they were four and six and a half at the time.
Astrid had just a few adoption documents when she began her search, but she did have the 1974 passport photo of her and her sister Maria, and she had a document that indicated she had been born in the city of Bucaramanga. Those bits of information would later become key, especially when Astrid learned that adoption records were kept in the system for just 30 years -- and the records of her and her sister's adoption went back 36 years.
Not sure where to turn next, she decided to place a classified ad in a Bucaramanga newspaper and asked a receptionist in the editorial office if she could squeeze the passport photo into the ad. The receptionist returned to her desk with an editor, who became intrigued by Astrid's story and asked if he could write and run a feature article. The morning the feature appeared, a friend of her first mother saw the story and called Castro. That phone call led to the reunion between Astrid and her 64-year-old first mother.
Can we even imagine what this meeting meant for Carmenza Castro, whose children had disappeared over 30 years ago without a trace? When Astrid embraced her, she sobbed. Astrid, of course, was extremely lucky to find her. Sealed records and in some cases forged records frustrate the pursuit of truth for so many adopted people. Now the family has closure, and Astrid is improving her Spanish so that she can talk with her first mother regularly. Astrid's adoptive mother Chris says "Carmenza raised two wonderful little girls, ... and now we have a bigger family."
How many more stories like Terri's and Astrid's will it take before legislators come to recognize that people affected by adoption have the right to seek their own truth and reconciliation? Sometimes reconciliation comes: sometimes, it does not. But it is unconscionable that most states in America, through antiquated sealed record laws, continue to block the path to truth, peace and understanding for so many people affected by the very imperfect institution of adoption.
Amanda Woolston in her blog post "Do We Really Know What Adoptees Are Thinking" puts it this way: "Not every connection is perfect and I never expected my connection with my original family to be perfect -- just real. I never would have had a chance to know how positive a connection I could have with my original family if I didn't seek it out."
Woolston, like many adopted people, was prompted to search following the birth of her son. "I looked at my sweet little boy and I could not imagine never knowing anything about him or not seeing him again. Yet my mother had lived almost 25 years without knowing with who or where her child was. I accepted that my original mother might not want to know me. But I believed that she deserved the chance to make that choice herself."
It frankly amazes me that adoption attorneys and special interest groups continue to lobby against adoptee rights bills, and that so little progress has been made nationwide, when the evidence in support of adult adoptee access to their original birth certificates is so strong. As Terri Vanech so eloquently stated last year, "The great state of New York says I'm not allowed to know. It is protecting me. And (my first mother). From what?!"
You might also like:
A plea to NY's lawmakers: Support the adoptee rights bill
Adoptee searches for her long-lost birth mother in Colombia: Family Matters
Adult Adoptees Sharing: Sealed Records are Misguided and Unfair
What drives the myth of confidentiality in adoption?