- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) - On an unseasonably warm day in January 2012, Shayne Madsen bought a bouquet of flowers and drove with a friend to an apartment in a northeast Denver retirement community.

They parked, and Madsen waited in the car.

Madsen, adopted as an infant in 1949, was on the verge of a breakthrough in the investigation of her own story.

She’d recently been awarded a packet of documents relating to her relinquishment, and, through social media and ancestry websites, found an address for a woman named Charlene Bates, whom Madsen believed was her biological aunt.

Madsen’s friend approached the apartment door and, sure enough, Bates, in her 80s and with declining health, appeared along with her daughter. The friend gave them the flowers and nervously explained the purpose of the surprise visit.

She told them Madsen had been adopted long ago by a Loveland couple and that she’d never been given any information about her biological family, its medical history or the circumstances surrounding her adoption. Madsen was hoping to connect with her biological mother.

Like hundreds of thousands of adoptees in the United States, Madsen, who now lives in Gunbarrel, was for decades denied access to any and all adoption records, including her own birth certificate.

But a 2009 ruling by the state Court of Appeals - one in a series of legislative changes over the past 15 years that allow open access to adoption records in Colorado - had granted Madsen her first clues.

In 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bipartisan bill that granted adoptees and the parents who relinquished them access to original birth certificates, relinquishment forms and medical records. On the legal side, adoptees’ battle in Colorado had essentially, and at long last, ended.

Now, Colorado has the broadest spectrum of adoption records available in the country, save perhaps for Oregon.

With those opened records came a long-awaited glimmer of hope that Madsen might finally locate the woman who had birthed her.

At the Bates apartment, she watched from the car as her friend walked out with Charlene’s daughter, Melanie Bates.

Madsen introduced herself and learned that Melanie knew Madsen’s mother well; she was her niece, and the extended family lived in the Denver area.

“You look like her,” she told Madsen, before offering to call her aunt.

‘SHE DID NOT WANT TO RELINQUISH ME’

Madsen’s first meeting with her mother came two weeks later at a Mexican restaurant in Northglenn. For Madsen, the resemblance was immediately striking - Laverne Lippoldt had Madsen’s nose, smile, even her haircut.

“I’d never seen anybody who looked like me, other than my son,” says Madsen, now 66.

Their initial conversation was one for which Lippoldt had methodically prepared.

“She was a geyser of information,” Madsen recalls. “She told me where my biological father lived, what his address was and that his sons lived across the street. She told me what she was like growing up, and she told me she liked wearing black pants and ballet slippers and liked to dance - just like me. It’s like she had a checklist. She wanted to get it all out on the table.”

Lippoldt also shared the painful story of their separation. She became pregnant at 16 by a boy one year older and was admitted into the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in Denver.

She was among the nearly 3 million American women, the Department of Health and Human Services reports, who gave up a child in the 30 years following the end of World War II. Most of them did so under immense institutional and societal pressure, and few received counseling regarding a mother’s inherent rights.

“She told me that she did not want to relinquish me,” Madsen says. “In fact, there was a two-week period between the time I was born and the time the documents were signed, and that was very unusual because the norm was to make the girls sign it immediately upon birth. But she told me she felt she had no choice. The system was such that this was just what was going to happen.”

The years between 1945 and 1973 are now known as the Baby Scoop Era. At its peak in 1970, experts estimate, roughly 80 percent of infants born to single mothers were relinquished.

“In most cases, adoption was presented to the mothers as the only option,” the professor Betty Reid Mandell wrote in 2007. “Little or no effort was made to help the mothers keep and raise the children.”

In medical school in the early 1960s, Lois Tochtrop - a former Colorado state senator closely involved with the recent fight for open access to adoption records - served for about six weeks on rotation in a small ward of a St. Louis hospital where mothers were “coerced,” she says, into giving up their newborns.

“They were in this room by themselves, with no flowers, no nothing like that,” Tochtrop says. “There was no joy of a woman having a family interaction. Many times, nobody ever came to visit them. And, sometimes, the mother didn’t see the baby. The only time she saw it would be when a social worker brought the baby in so the mother could say goodbye before they took it away to be adopted.

“Nobody ever talked to these girls to say, ‘You have a choice.’ It was sort of like, they were going to deliver, see the baby one time, go home and that’s pretty much the end of it.”

And that’s precisely what happened to Lippoldt. When she left Florence Crittenton, she hid what had happened from everyone but an older sister.

She led a happy life, by all accounts, from then on, with a new husband and four children in Broomfield. But for 65 years she was quietly, intermittently tortured by guilt and curiosity.

‘I STARED AT THAT NUMBER FOR OVER A YEAR’

Growing up, Madsen thrived socially and academically in Loveland with her late adoptive parents, Evelyn, a homemaker, and B.I., who worked in real estate.

She graduated from the University of Colorado and then attended law school at Washington University in St. Louis. Madsen now lives in Gunbarrel and heads the public policy and regulatory affairs arm of the national law firm Jackson Kelly.

But Lippoldt was never privy to any of that information. She didn’t know who’d adopted her child, or that the new parents had changed Madsen’s birth name from Joyce to Shayne.

“Mom was so relieved to know that Shayne turned out all right,” says Diane Lippoldt-Johnson, who is Madsen’s 62-year-old half-sister.

“She had made the best of her life, and she didn’t think about the negative, or go into what-ifs much, but it lifted a huge burden off her shoulders.”

After Madsen and her mother met for the first time over lunch, Lippoldt gave Madsen’s number to Diane but intentionally kept her other children in the dark, fearing they weren’t ready.

“I stared at that number for over a year,” Lippoldt-Johnson says.

She never had to make the call because Madsen reached out first, via Facebook. The two agreed to meet for lunch in spring 2014, and they have met a half-dozen times since. Lippoldt-Johnson calls it a “budding friendship.”

Last month, the two sat for an interview in south Denver’s Harvard Gulch Park, a lush 54 acres on which the Colorado State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children stood from 1895 to 1971. During that time, about 17,000 kids passed through, including Madsen. Many were never adopted and lived at the orphanage into their teens.

Observing the half-sisters, it’s immediately evident that, in spite of the technical family ties, they don’t know each other well. Madsen is still piecing together her biological family tree and frequently fact-checks with Lippoldt-Johnson.

Lippoldt-Johnson, meanwhile, will remark on the physical similarity between Madsen and their mother.

“You know,” she tells Madsen at one point, “you and mom really do have the same button nose.”

At Harvard Gulch, only three of the orphanage’s original structures stand. One of them is a tan-brick, one-story building now owned by Colorado State University but previously used to house some of the home’s youngest residents, quite possibly including Madsen.

Chatting in the park and peering into the CSU building, Lippoldt-Johnson’s eyes well up. She pictures the intelligent, competent, smiling mother she knew as a 16-year-old secluded from society in a home for unwed, pregnant girls.

“It breaks my heart, thinking about the woman that she was,” she says. “I knew her to always be in a good mood, always optimistic.

“But (in 1949) my mom was struggling, alone, with no family, nobody. Sixteen years old. It had to just tear her up. She had no rights, and she had no alternatives.”

‘DIRTY LITTLE SECRET’

Madsen describes meeting her biological half-sister and mother - who died in March of cancer at the age of 83 - as a personal triumph.

But it has also exposed her to the complex family politics that frequently accompany adoptees’ attempts at contact with entire units that never knew they existed.

“All the power is in the hands of the birth family, and particularly the siblings,” Madsen says. “When I first had a conversation with my biological mother, she told me in no uncertain terms that there was one person I could talk to that would be accepting and intellectually ready, and that was Diane. And she said the other two children would probably never be ready to accept it.”

The leverage rests almost entirely with the majority.

“You’re always playing in these, ‘Could I please meet you?’ kind of situations,” Madsen says.

She’d like to introduce her son, Patrick, to her biological relatives, but she knows the time isn’t yet right. When Lippoldt died earlier this year, Madsen attended the funeral, but she sat in the back and deflected glances and small talk from folks who recognized or commented on how much she looks like Lippoldt did.

Waiting on acceptance is a common hardship, says advocate Rich Uhrlaub, coordinator for Lakewood-based nonprofit Adoptees in Search.

The stigma against adoptees attempting to reconnect was enabled, he says, by a postwar society that, in spite of the momentum of the sexual revolution, roundly condemned sex out of wedlock and limited birth control.

The message to adoptees, Uhrlaub says, was as clear as it was offensive: “You are somebody’s dirty little secret.”

“This is part of why there’s so much passion and, at times, even anger,” he says. “The system has sent a message that says, one, you shouldn’t know where you came from, two, you can’t know, three, you’re disloyal to your adoptive family if you do want to know, and, four, you’re going to ruin another family’s life if you act on it.

“And it’s created a huge contradiction because on one hand, society has held up women who surrendered their babies as courageous for wanting to give them a better life. But the back end was, ‘Now you have absolutely no connection. Go on with your lives; don’t disrupt each other.’ The message to the child has been, ‘You’ll ruin her life if you try to find her.’”

Madsen was scared of that outcome for years, and she didn’t begin researching her beginnings until after both her adoptive parents had died.

“I think, perhaps, I was selling my parents short there,” she says. “Maybe they would have been a lot more understanding. But there was a lot of fear on my part.”

Last month, Uhrlaub and Adoptees in Search celebrated the latest in a string of victories dating back to a 1999 state bill that allowed retroactive access to adoption records for those cases in which the sought party is deceased, or by mutual consent of the reunited parties.

The Colorado General Assembly passed two bills this year that essentially guarantee adoptees complete access to copies of birth certificates, adoption decrees, court orders of relinquishment, and any social and medical histories on file.

Momentum is building throughout the U.S., where in the past year alone, nine states ran bills aimed at improving access to adoption records, and 14 have already opened birth certificates for adoptees.

Adoptees also enjoyed a rare cultural moment in 2013 through the Oscar-nominated film “Philomena,” the true story of the journey of an Irish woman to find the son she was forced to surrender in 1952.

“I think we’ve seen a tipping point in terms of the generation that had rooted adoption in secrecy and shame really moving out of power,” Uhrlaub says.

The enormous strides away from a culture that saw young mothers’ arms twisted during the Baby Scoop Era of the mid-20th century have brought the number of adoptions per 100 live births in the U.S. down to about two or three. That has directly coincided with a major spike in the privatization of international adoption, through which American agencies have created a multi-billion-dollar adoption industry.

Open records mark a massive win for the community of adoptees in search, but the reunions that ensue - if they ensue - are rarely unequivocally joyous.

Madsen, for example, is still waiting on calls from two siblings, and she hasn’t yet reached out to her biological father, even though he lives a short drive away. For all the years that have passed since Lippoldt sat in a hospital bed and held her daughter just once, before signing her over to strangers whose names she wouldn’t learn for 65 years, the “dirty little secret” label largely prevails.

“I said to Mom, ‘Do you want to invite Shayne to the Christmas party?’” Lippoldt-Johnson says, recalling a conversation the two had last year. “Mom had to think about that because she knew that the minute Shayne walked in, it would no longer be a Christmas party. It would be something else. She decided she wasn’t ready for that.”

But, advocates say, the heartache and confusion that so often accompany such a reconnection shouldn’t be up to state control. Open records allow adoptees like Madsen to chase their own truths, they argue, and make of them what they will.

When Madsen and her mother first met for lunch, Lippoldt shared a poignant anecdote.

“She told me that when I was 8, she was terrified that I was still at the orphanage,” Madsen says. “She told me she wanted to come back and get me. But the system is such that they would not have told her if I was dead, alive, still there or adopted. And I think she suffered greatly because of that secrecy.”

Lippoldt-Johnson chimes in.

“I know it was hard on her,” she says. “But she probably rehearsed in her dreams, ‘What would I say to her if I ever got to meet her?’ and she had that chance with Shayne. I’m really grateful for that.”

___

Information from: Daily Camera, http://www.dailycamera.com/

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