Adoptee reunions can be iffy
Monday, February 12, 2007
JEREMY GRAYNews staff writer
Robbie Lewis sat in her car outside an Athens apartment, debating whether to knock on the door of the woman who gave birth to her.
After about an hour, Lewis decided instead to mail Sharon Dee Myers a handwritten note with her childhood pictures. It was the first time Lewis, a registered dietitian who lives in Chelsea, had ever contacted the woman who had given her up for adoption 23 years earlier.
"Thank you for being selfless," Lewis wrote. "Thank you for being kind-hearted. Thank you for giving me a wonderful life."
Lewis had located her birth mother using a state law passed in 2000, which allowed adoptees older than 19 to obtain their original birth certificates from the state's Center for Health Statistics. Before that, adoptees were provided revised birth certificates naming their adoptive parents instead of their biological parents.
According to Dorothy Harshbarger, the State Registrar for Vital Records, 3,885 people have used the law since its inception.
Twelve days after Lewis mailed her letter, the two met at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, ending a search Lewis had started four years earlier. Six years later, they still see each other several times a year.
Some adoption experts say the reunion could have had a much less happy ending.
Soon after the law's passage, the state was flooded with requests from people who had been waiting years for the information.
Joellen Vansword, adult adoptee specialist with the state Department of Human Resources' Office of Adoption, has helped more than 700 people search for their birth parents since 2001 and will act as intermediary when she can locate a parent who agrees to have contact with the adoptee.
Vansword estimated she has been able to locate a birth parent in 60 percent of her cases. About 15 percent of the birth parents she has located objected to having contact with the adoptee, she said.
Myers, one of 12 children, was an unmarried 15-year-old in 1977 when she decided she could not give her baby the life she wanted her to have.
The year following the adoption was a blur for Myers, and 10 years passed before she began to cope with having let her daughter go and knowing nothing of where she was or how she was doing.
In such cases, it's not unusual for the birth mother to not want contact with the child she put up for adoption, according to Suzanne Peden, a licensed social worker and director of A Angel Adoptions in Helena.
Lewis said she considered that possibility as she sat in her parked car in October 2000.
"You can ruin someone's life. .. They may not want you in their life," Lewis said.
Under the 2000 law, birth parents may file a form providing updated medical information to the adoptee and saying whether they wish to be contacted. The form is filed with the adoptee's original birth certificate and released if a request is made for birth records.
Peden said she recommends having a third party establish contact on behalf of the adoptee. "It's important to have an intermediary," she said.
After many years, the mother may have married and kept the adoption a secret from those in her family. The unexpected return of a child placed for adoption years earlier could upset that life and lead to an unwelcome response for the adoptee.
"Don't just spring a phone call on them," Peden said. "They need to be prepared for the upheaval."
When Vansword started her job in 2001, the state had a backlog of adult adoptees wishing to locate their birth mothers.
The numbers have decreased in recent years. In 2000, 1,032 sought the records, compared with 336 in 2006 and 354 in 2005, Harshbarger said.
Vansword requires that the adoptee interview with her so she can determine what the person hopes to achieve with the reunion.
She said she will not aid in reunions for those who clearly harbor animosity toward their biological families or appear to want the reunions for "immature reasons."
Vansword acted as an intermediary when she and Nathan Langford tracked down the woman who gave birth to him in Birmingham 45 years ago.
Langford, who was raised the child of a minister in Union Springs, was attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 2005 when he heard a woman tell of how being found by the son she gave up for adoption years earlier had helped her recovery.
Langford, who lives in Graceville, Fla., said he needed to meet his biological mother "just to make sure she's OK."
Langford's birth mother ignored Vansword's first attempts to contact her, but eventually agreed to correspond with him by mail. The letters led to phone calls, and soon Langford met his birth mother and a half sister in Sandestin.
"It was nerve-wracking. I was there alone, and she was anxious, and there were a lot of questions," he recalled.
The searches also can have repercussions for the adoptive family. Langford said he would not have been willing to make the search while his adoptive parents were alive out of fear of hurting them.
Lewis' father and her brother, who also is adopted but has never searched for his birth mother, supported Lewis in her search and have met Myers themselves.
Lewis' adoptive mother died last March never knowing her daughter had found her birth mother.
Lewis has not located the man Myers says is her biological father. Myers said he was convicted of murder shortly after Lewis was born and was later released from prison.
Lewis said she would like to know how he is doing but isn't sure she would contact him.
"If he's been able to get on his feet after being in prison and get his life together, I don't know that I want to risk messing that up," Lewis said.
Okay here is my issue with this Vansword woman. Who are you to decide which issues are immature? She sounds like a self righteous witch. I just love it that adoption agencies think that they know better than those actually involved in adoption. It grates on my last nerve.