APEX - On May 6, 1958, a young Buncombe County woman, maybe afraid and probably alone, gave birth to a baby girl she called Pamela. Unable or unprepared to care for a child, the woman signed some papers, handed the baby over to an adoption agency and resumed her life.
If that woman is still alive, somewhere, sometime -- it may be weeks, it could be years -- her phone is going to ring. And Martha Mills, the daughter she may have thought she never would see again, will be on the line.
Mills believes this because she has an angel on the case: Joanna Freitag, one of dozens of "search angels" in North Carolina. Their mission is to help adult adoptees track down their birth families.
It is a tedious, all-hours enterprise made more difficult by a state law under which all adoptees' original birth certificates are forever sealed.
The work requires the tenacity of a yellow jacket, the sleuthing skills of an FBI agent, the manners of a debutante and the compassion of a psychologist. Not to mention that while commercial businesses charge up to $3,000 for birth-family searches, search angels do it for nothing more than the satisfaction of helping adoptees answer the universal human query of where they came from.
Freitag, who lives in Apex, has conducted nearly 40 searches over the past couple of years, and in the process, she says, "I have found peace."
Her first search was her own.
Growing up in Cary, Freitag knew from a young age that she had been adopted. Her adoptive parents gave her everything but what they didn't have -- an explanation for her hazel eyes, her dimpled cheeks and her ability, at age 4, to listen to a song on the radio and pick out the tune on a piano.
It's the kind of information most people learn in bits and snippets throughout their lives, in conversations held or overheard, in stories told over holiday dinners. Especially in the South, nearly any trait -- a narrow waist, a head for numbers, a taste for pickled eggs -- can be attributed to genetic predisposition. Adoptees are constantly reminded of the mystery of their origins.
"When I was in the fourth or fifth grade in school," says Sara Smith, now 27 and one of Freitag's successful searches, "we had to do a family tree. And it just stuck with me, the fact that I didn't know all these people."
Adoptees adjust to this enigma in different ways, Freitag says. Some have no desire to learn about their birth families. Others have a powerful need, and may feel free to ask questions of their adoptive families, some of whom share what information they have or even try to get more from the agency that handled the adoption.
But other families, Freitag says, are hurt by the adoptee's desire to know more about the mother and father who gave them up. These adoptees sometimes feel guilty about wanting to find their birth parents.
"Just because an adoptee goes searching doesn't mean they're going searching for a new set of parents," Freitag says. "To search means that we are trying to unlock our history, our very beginning."
By the time they ask for her help, Freitag says, most adoptees are usually in their late 20s to their 40s and feel an urgency to search triggered by one of three milestones. They have had a child of their own, they have begun to experience medical problems, or one or both adoptive parents have passed away.
"For me, it was getting pregnant with my second child," Freitag says. She remembers taking her older daughter, Jordan, now 12, to the doctor for one thing or another and each time, being asked to fill out a medical history.
"They give you this thing and it's seven pages you have to leave blank, because you don't know," she says.
Hints to her birth
Freitag started her own search where many adoptees do, on the Internet. She found several Web sites on which adoptees and birth families searching for one another list their names and relevant information.
But Freitag got nowhere. She hired a search firm for $500. Again, nothing.
Finally, like the little bird in the children's story that pops out of his egg and goes looking for his mother, Freitag began to realize she could do this herself.
She went to the Children's Home Society in Greensboro, the largest adoption agency in North Carolina and the one that handled her adoption. She asked about herself.
The agency could only give her what is called in the world of adoptions her "non-identifying information," which varies from case to case. It cannot include names of birth parents or other relatives, or the city or even county where the child was born.
The amount and specificity of non-identifying information that adoptees can extract also varies from one agency to another and from one caseworker to the next.
But adoptees say the biggest factor in how much of their history they are able to learn is knowing how to ask the right questions. Caseworkers can't volunteer anything.
It took Freitag several return trips to the Children's Home Society.
"I grew on them like mold," she says. "I wouldn't give up."
Finally, Freitag got a page-and-a-half description from her caseworker that reads like the introduction of a character in a novel.
"Joanna was born February 3, 1975, at 6:10 p.m. in North Carolina. It had been a full-term pregnancy and it was a normal delivery. ... She was described as an alert, responsive, pretty baby with blue eyes, dark hair, nice skin.
"The birth mother was 22 years of age. She had completed high school and had been a good student. She did clerical work. The birth mother's father had an eighth-grade education and owned and operated a farm. The birth mother's mother was a high school graduate and a homemaker ..."
It said that one of Freitag's great-grandfathers had died of hardening of the arteries at age 87. It said her birth mother was 5-foot-3 with brown hair, blue eyes and a round face, and was a Baptist.
And it said Freitag's maternal grandmother could play piano by ear.
The search intensifies
Freitag was elated. She read through the description, she says, zeroing in on the information about her mother and her mother's family and thought, "I can find her with this."
Freitag attended Athens Drive High School in Raleigh and graduated in 2000 from Meredith College with a degree in human resources management. In 2005, when she stepped up her search for her birth mother, she had just given birth to daughter Hailey and had been laid off from a job in human resources.
Her husband, Eric, a manager with FedEx Ground, knew how important it was to her to know her roots and encouraged her to dive in while she had the time.
"It seemed like it was now or never," she says.
Her search seemed to take forever, Freitag says, and was marked by false starts that wasted time. Her non-identifying information from the adoption agency, for example, had the wrong age for Freitag's maternal grandmother at the time of Freitag's birth.
But the work appealed to Freitag's analytic mind, and the more she worked, the better she got. When she stalled on her own case, she began to research other people's, with greater success. People began to come to her for help, often through her Web site, www.familytreefinders.org. She found the birth parents of several other adoptees before she found her own.
She learned how to decode a statewide online database that lists all births back to 1968 and omits names but includes counties. She subscribed to a handful of genealogical Web services that sell access to their databases. She learned where to find records of births, deaths, marriages and divorces in county courthouses across the state, and how to get copies of those public records to check details that could indicate a match.
She has driven from one end of the state to the other, and has made friends with the clerks of court in several counties. She also loves libraries, which house old high school yearbooks and other troves.
A major key to finding a birth parent is figuring out what county an adoptee was born in. Many adoptees don't realize, Freitag says, that their birth certificates have been falsified by the state for the purpose of obscuring information about the birth parents. Original birth certificates with the correct county of birth are in a vault in Raleigh, and adoptees can never have access to them, even in the case of a medical emergency.
Once an adoption is complete, the original entry of a child's birth in the records of the county where he or she was born is marked through or whited out.
"It's like they never existed," Freitag says.
In late January, on the first day the legislature was back in session, Freitag and other members of a group called the North Carolina Coalition for Adoption Reform went door to door asking each lawmaker to consider a bill that will be introduced again this year giving adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
The coalition distributed DVD copies of a documentary on the effects of a similar change made in New Hampshire law in 2004.
With the correct county of birth, a diligent adoptee -- or search angel -- can almost always figure out the name of at least one birth parent eventually.
"It's a process of elimination," Freitag says. "A big, long process of elimination."
It took Freitag two years just to find the name of her own birth mother.
Once she had the correct ages and occupations of her maternal grandparents and a few other details, she could go hunting for her mother's birth certificate, even before she knew her mother's name. She picked through databases looking for a girl born in 1952 or '53 to a homemaker mother and farmer father. Every time she located one, she wrote the county asking for a copy of the birth certificate, then studied it for other details, such as two older daughters already born.
All her life, Freitag had been told she was born in Alamance County; that's what her birth certificate says. But as soon as she could drive, she took trips to the beaches near Wilmington, because that's where she felt most at ease.
As she began to narrow her search, Freitag says she became increasingly convinced that her birth mother was somewhere in the same area.
"Every time I drove to Wilmington to do research, I would hit Brunswick County, where it really starts to look like the coast, and I would think, 'I know you're here somewhere, and I will find you. Every road out here leads to you.'"
In February 2006, Freitag hit the jackpot. She found the birth certificate of her birth mother, verified the name with the adoption agency and, in short order, found out where the woman lived, not far from Wilmington. She did a drive-by. She was chased by dogs while nosing around the graves of great-grandparents in the family cemetery.
A surprise letter
Freitag first contacted her birth mother with a certified letter, something the woman would have to sign for. In the letter, Freitag said who she was and told her mother how to contact her if she was interested.
"I was on pins and needles," Freitag says.
She didn't hear anything right away, and wondered if the woman had decided not to contact her, or if she had refused to accept the letter. As it turned out, the woman doesn't have a phone, so she wrote back.
"Your letter was a total surprise," began the note, written in black ink on yellow legal paper. "But I think you should hear my pain."
The woman went on to fill out the sketchy narrative provided by the adoption agency in acute detail: the minute her water broke, what time she called in sick to her boss.
Her parents never knew she was pregnant, she told Freitag. They were old-fashioned and would have been hurt. She was making $2.91 an hour before taxes, and couldn't support a child on that.
She only gained 11 pounds during the pregnancy, easily obscured by winter clothes. When delivery time drew near, she told her family she was going to rent a place in Wilmington and try to make it on her own. She drove herself to the hospital to have the baby. When she went into labor and the nurse asked whom she should call, she said, "I broke down crying and told her there was nobody to call."
Two or three days after the birth, she left the hospital, went back to her job and soon, back to her parents' house for good. She never lived away from home again, never married, never had another child, never told anyone about the one she gave away.
She had only one question for Freitag, and she asked it again and again. Did her adoptive family treat her well?
Almost a year has passed, and the letters still fly between them. Freitag has given her a scrapbook full of photographs, which her mother keeps on the bed beside her, she says, where she can see it when she wakes up.
Freitag visits about once a month, to the same house where her birth mother grew up, where she lived when she was carrying her only child, and where she now lives alone since her own parents passed away.
The first time Freitag went, she asked about the upright piano against a wall in the living room. That belonged to your grandmother, she was told.
Freitag's hands danced across the keyboard. It was the first time it had been played in years.
Staff writer Martha Quillin can be reached at 829-8989 or