I was adopted at birth in 1976 in the traditional, “closed” way, whereby my birth parents and adoptive parents never met or even learned one another’s names. An attorney picked me up from the hospital when I was 3 days old and drove me to my adoptive parents’ house, less than a mile away.
Eighteen years later, on my birthday, I drove to the Vital Records office and attempted to put my name in the Florida Adoption Reunion Registry. I had heard about its existence for years, and indeed it did, but the nice lady behind the counter still looked at me quizzically. She took down my name and address, but I never heard anything. I doubt I was actually added to any registry. There was little else that I could do and I resigned myself to the idea that I might never meet my birth family.
Then came the Internet came. 1996, 1997, 1998 … It was the age of AOL and thousands of adoptees and birth parents were coming to the realization that we might be able to circumvent the legal system and find one another. Random people everywhere started building their own reunion registries. Most were just a single page with a list of names, birthdays and birth towns. Anyone could add their own.
I spent countless hours adding my name to the various registries and poring over the pages, looking for my birthday. Reunion stories and pictures of birth parents with their kids started to pop up all over the place. It was amazing. Live chat rooms began to open and people began organizing themselves by states. Suddenly I could be in a virtual room with up to 20 other people from Florida, all whom were either adopted or were the biological parent of an adopted child.
“Girl born in Bradenton, Florida on April 19, 1976.” It was practically my username. Everyone entered a chat room with their birth date and city. Someone would ask, “My son was born in Bradenton in 1977, do you think you’d know him?” “Maybe?!” I’d reply. “I went to middle school with a guy named John who was adopted. His adoption was done through the Catholic Society, was yours?” “No. Ask your friends if you can. He had a rather large birthmark over his right eye.” “I’ll look through my yearbook and check the others in town and get back to you.” I had dozens and dozens of conversations like this.
It wasn’t long before a new term entered the scene, “Search Angels” as they called themselves, were people, usually birth mothers, willing to go the extra mile to help an adoptee or a birth parent find their family. Search Angels were particularly helpful for those who no longer lived in the state they gave birth or were adopted in. They were willing to do most anything — look through newspaper archives, public records or even interview locals, if asked. And while Search Angels were volunteers who did not accept any money, a new breed of private investigators arose who did.
Up to this point, most adoptees and birth parents had heard the horror stories of private investigator scams. Even in cases where the investigator was a licensed professional, the price could be exorbitant and many hours on the job might still not yield results. Nonetheless, one thing led to another and I ended up wiring money to a private investigator that I met in an AOL chat room in 2001.
A lady, I guess it was actually a lady, sent me an instant message saying that she thought she could locate my birth parents for me. She stated upfront that she was a private investigator, but that she only charged a fee if she located my birth parents. She had a flat rate, around $500.
I told her to go for it. Two days later, she sent me a message that she had located both of my birth parents. She instructed me on how to wire money to her and she promised to call within the hour with their names. I wired her the money. I didn’t tell anyone. I assumed she wouldn’t call and I rationalized the expense as one giant lottery ticket. You never know.
After work that evening I joined my friends on a Circle Line Cruise that travels around the island of Manhattan. It was basically a booze cruise. A really, really loud booze cruise. My phone rang, it was a Florida number. I ran downstairs to the bathroom to find a quiet place to answer but I lost reception. It look 11 calls for me to get the full names of my birth parents. Later, the private investigator gave me all of the marriage and divorce information, license plate numbers, addresses for the past 18 years and their current phone numbers.
I always intended to use a 3rd-party to contact my birth parents but impulse control has never been my strong suite. I called my birth mom straight away with the recommended line: “Sorry, to bother you but does the date 4/17/1976 have any meaning to you?” (This way, she would have an easy out if she didn’t want contact.) Her response: “Of course it does, what took you so long?!”
She didn’t know anything about the state registry option and she had been told at my birth (as a lot of mothers were back then) that I would have access to my records at age 18. We talked and it was obvious to me that we were related. Just to confirm, I asked her for the one key piece of information that I didn’t give the private investigator – the name of the attorney who handled the adoption. My birth mother recalled it straight away.
So, how the heck did the private investigator find my birth parents? I have no idea. I took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. It’s dodgy I know, but I think it’s more dodgy that I don’t have access to my original birth records. As long as adoptees are denied access to their birth documents, there will always be underground communities of searchers and supporters.
The Donaldson Adoption Institute and researchers from Montclair State University have acknowledge the important role that adoption search and reunion professionals play and they are looking to create best practices in this growing field, so if you’re an adoption search and reunion professional please participate (learn more here).