- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

Laura Lee Ketcham held in her hand the key to her past: the phone number of a woman named Joan Ervin Putnam, who had given her life so long ago.

After just eight months of searching and a lifetime of wondering, Ms. Ketcham had been contacted by someone from an adoption search group who gave her the phone number. She sat with it for 48 hours,

preparing herself and considering the reaction she would receive when she dialed. She had waited years 30 years of dreaming, longing and grief for this moment.

"You know that you're going to be delivering one of the greatest shocks of a lifetime, and you have no way of imagining how they're going to react," says Ms. Ketcham, now 34 and a D.C. resident.

Many adoptees seem willing to take a chance on that reaction. Among the nation's 5 million to 6 million adoptees of all ages, thousands search for and find their birth parents every year, says Julie Jarrell Bailey, communication chairwoman of the adoption reform group American Adoption Congress.

Most search despite prevailing laws that prevent adoptees from obtaining their original birth certificates or other adoption documents. Some adoption specialists say these laws, which are enforced in all but a handful of states, protect the anonymity of birth parents and the sanctity of adoptive families. Others believe such laws simply deny adults the legal and ethical right to learn the circumstances of their birth.

A 1997 survey by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute revealed that 58 percent of Americans know someone who has been adopted, have adopted a child or have relinquished a child for adoption. Adults who embark on a search may do so for different reasons but with the same goal in mind: answers.

"It's self-discovery part of human growth and development," says Ms. Bailey, who is a reunited birth mother and the adoptive mother of three. "People want to know about themselves. For most people it's worth it, because even if the relationship doesn't work out, you walk away with knowledge."

Ms. Ketcham had known since her early teens that she someday would want to learn her origins, have that knowledge. Her quest was not about seeking one set of parents to replace another; she says her adoptive family life was wonderful.

Ms. Ketcham's father, Ralph Ketcham, a professor of American history, and her mother, Julia Ketcham, an English instructor, cherished Ms. Ketcham and her brother Ben, also adopted. The family lived a middle-class life in Syracuse, N.Y., rich in academics and opportunity. The senior Ketchams always had been open with their children about the adoptions and gladly answered their infrequent questions.

Then, years later, a chance meeting with a reunited adoptee at a dinner party kick-started Ms. Ketcham's desire to begin a search for her biological roots. She called the Texas agency that had facilitated her adoption back in 1967. It was shut down; the records all transferred to the Texas Department of Health.

Ms. Ketcham persisted, requesting the nonidentifying information that is the agency's summary of the circumstances of a child's birth.

"They never give you names," she says. "And in Texas, they don't summarize it for you, they send the entire file. In my case it was 80 pages, with all the names crossed out in black ink."

Somewhere in those 80 pages, however, someone accidentally had left in a first name, a last name. Joan. Ervin. She wasn't a Texan, but a northern neighbor a Canadian.

"I remember some nights looking at the moon and thinking my birth mother is somewhere on Earth looking at the same moon, but it seems unlikely I'll ever find her," says Ms. Ketcham, a marketing manager for the British Council USA, a worldwide organization that promotes British education and the contemporary arts in the United States. "The search was kind of up and down with lots of dead ends."

Until the day the woman from a Canadian search group, Parentfinders, called to tell Ms. Ketcham that members of the group thought they had found her birth mother.

"I was completely and utterly shocked," Ms. Ketcham says. "There is a whole issue of whether you write a letter or call her. But I wanted to own that moment. I wanted to get the reaction live. I wrote out everything on a piece of paper, including my name. It was by far the scariest thing I've ever done. I kept dialing the number but not the last digit."

Finally, she let it ring. An answering machine picked up. The recording was a woman's voice and sounded strangely familiar. Ms. Ketcham called back an hour later. The woman answered and Ms. Ketcham began her rehearsed spiel.

"There's a whole technique to it: 'My name is so and so, I'm doing some family research and I'm looking for someone' I named her maiden name. She said yes. 'I'm not sure who this is,' she said."

After asking the questions, says Ms. Ketcham, it was time to utter the words she had dreamed:

"This is your daughter."

"Well, I've certainly been wondering," her mother said.

The stigma of adoption

Many birth mothers probably have been wondering for years ever since they gave up their children, says Naomi Cahn, a family law professor with a specialty in adoption at George Washington University.

"There has been a culture of secrecy around adoption," Ms. Cahn says. "It used to be that birth mothers were sometimes blindfolded in the delivery room so they wouldn't see their children. I've read stories where women asked if they could hold their babies and were told no. If you gave up your child in that culture it could be quite a shock and a thrill to have this child, now an adult, contacting you."

But the laws on the books today in every state except Kansas, Alaska, Alabama and Oregon make that initial contact difficult anyway. In most places, a child is issued a new birth certificate upon adoption. The original certificate, which contains the name of the biological mother and often of the biological father, is sealed and cannot be released except upon court order. The adoption records may be sealed, as well.

"When the records began to be closed during the early part of the 20th century, the purpose was to protect the adoptees from the stigma of being illegitimate," Ms. Cahn says. "It also was sometimes justified as protecting the unmarried mother herself."

Linda Clausen is used to words such as "stigma" in discussions of adoption. She hears plenty about what feels good and bad, right and wrong, for each member of the adoption "triad" the adoptee, birth parents and adoptive parents during the monthly meetings of the nonprofit organization D.C. Metro's Concerned United Birthparents (CUB).

Ms. Clausen, a D.C. resident, a social worker and reunited birth mother, has run the CUB group for years, she says, lending support and leading discussion for adults touched by adoption.

The meetings attract 15 to 17 people each month, and every meeting is different.

"There could be one or two new people that's both adoptees and birth parents coming in specifically because they want to think about searching. Others have been reunited and are having problems; some have been reunited and they're having no problems but want to learn more."

Adoptees begin searches for a variety of reasons, she says. A big motivator is an impending marriage or birth. Frequently, though, people fail to act on their impulse to search out of loyalty to their adoptive family.

"They love their adoptive parents and think they are going to upset them by doing this," Ms. Clausen says.

Mark Gardner, an adoptee in his mid-30s and a Northern Virginia social worker, has attended several support-group meetings. He says he is in the "presearching" stage.

"I'm kind of trying to figure out if I want to search in some ways and how," Mr. Gardner says. "I'm preparing myself psychologically for that process."

As far as pursuing a reunion, he says, "I've had thoughts in both directions. I think I could go through life without knowing, but I think at this point I'm interested to find out. I think I'm strong enough to start exploring these feelings."

An underlying fear is rejection.

"I've been rejected once already I was given away," Mr. Gardner says. "You know it's not always a choice, but from the adoptee's point of view you can look at it as a rejection or an abandonment. Or, you could look at it from a positive aspect: I have had parents who could take care of me and provide for me. Much of what I am can be attributed to my [adoptive] parents."

Lyn Morin knows all about rejection.

Mrs. Morin, 30, a stay-at-home mother who lives with her baby daughter and husband, Andrew, in Fairfax, found her birth mother in 1991 after an exhaustive search. She learned that her birth mother had married her birth father and that the couple are the parents of four boys Mrs. Morin's brothers.

"I was really excited," Mrs. Morin says. "It was kind of relief, like I'd reached my goal. But that was just the beginning let alone the end."

The first several telephone contacts seemed promising, but the bittersweet reunion shortly turned sour. She says that over the years, her birth mother has told her: "I'm never going to tell anyone else about you, so don't call, don't write and don't contact anyone else. You have a family go live your life."

To this day, her birth mother adamantly denies her only daughter's existence, Mrs. Morin says.

"But I need to do what's best for me, and that means reaching out especially after September 11," she says. "It took me a long time getting over the anger and hurt but to be honest, it is part of who I am. Knowing the truth is better than having that abnormal fantasy."

Different kind of endings

It is not uncommon for a search to yield a harsh reality.

Adoptees who find their birth parents might find someone they don't like, cautions Ms. Clausen of CUB.

"Or, you might find there was abuse or neglect or rape," she says.

Some adoptees find parents who just don't want to be found.

"There are many reasons for that," Ms. Clausen says. "They haven't told their children, husbands or even parents. Some birth mothers are afraid to face the fact that they gave you up and did not want to."

Certainly any number of legitimate reasons motivate birthparents and adoptees to wish to maintain their privacy, says Thomas Atwood, vice president for public policy and research at the National Council for Adoption (NCFA). The NCFA supports state mutual-consent registries as the best solution to access to sealed records.

"When both agree, birth parents and adult adopted persons should have the right to waive their privacy voluntarily," he says. "But unilaterally forcing open a birth parent's or adopted person's confidential records without his or her knowledge and consent is a violation of personal privacy and can impose unwanted contacts."

But members of the nonprofit, all-volunteer adoptee-rights group Bastard Nation believe adoptees like anyone are entitled to know their heritage whether the intention is information or reunification.

"We simply want the right to access our own state-held birth records in the same manner as all other adult citizens," says group member, Cynthia Bertrand Holub. Ms. Holub, an adoptee who lives in Philadelphia, searched for 10 years before contacting her birth mother.

"Privacy and secrecy are not the same thing," she says. "Birth parents do not have any special 'right' to anonymity. While some adoption practitioners may have promised eternal anonymity to birth parents, they far overstepped their bounds in doing so. There was never any such promise in writing."

Actually, birth parents who don't wish to forge a relationship with their relinquished children can make themselves unavailable, Ms. Cahn says. Change phone numbers. Fail to answer e-mails.

"And if necessary, they can go to court as well with either civil or criminal suits to prevent further contact." she says. "You would hope in the few cases of unwanted contact, each party would respect the others' privacy."

In the world of adoption searches, it seems that every bad ending is balanced by a good ending sometimes one that seems happy enough to conclude a fairytale.

That is Laura Lee Ketcham's story.

Though separated by nationality, Ms. Ketcham and her birth mother, Joan Ervin Putnam, maintain close contact and visit frequently. Ms. Ketcham is developing relationships with her three siblings in Canada. Her birth father, a West Coast physician, has welcomed his daughter with equal warmth.

Ms. Ketcham's adoptive parents have supported the reunions. In fact, the Ketchams on several occasions have met and even vacationed with Ms. Putnam and her husband, Wayne.

Ms. Putnam, 60, a Registered Nurse supervisor, says she feels a "complete lifelong commitment" to her newfound daughter.

"She's in my life for the rest of my life," she says from her home in Halifax. "She's my child."

"It gave me such a sense of wholeness and completion to meet my long-lost mother," Ms. Ketcham says. "Certainly my biggest fear was that she wouldn't be interested. But I've never met an adoptee who regretted searching, even if the parent was dead or if it wasn't a great situation. At least they got some truth and have more answers."

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