the adoption detectives
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The Adoption Detectives
February, 2010, Page 122
Photos by Brian Goddard
From left: Sisters Kristen Hamilton and Judy Andrews work with their mother, Ava Friddle, through their private investigation firm, Research Etc.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the Valley is a mother-daughter trio that has used its sleuthing skills to reunite hundreds of adoptees with their birth families.
“How did you find me? Did you call my neighbors? My church? What do you want from me?”
These were the hysterical replies of a birthmother first contacted by adoption detective Ava Friddle in 2001. And no matter how much Ava, in her sweet Southern drawl, tried to explain that she was a licensed private investigator working on behalf of the birthson, who merely wanted his family medical history because his wife was pregnant with their first child, the woman was convinced she was being blackmailed.
End of conversation.
Later that evening, the birthmother’s husband called back: “You don’t want to mess with me, girl! I’m a minister, but I can be tough. If I find out you’ve spread this around town, you are going to be in plenty of trouble.”
This time Ava succeeded in getting across the true purpose of her call. The husband understood, but the birthmother couldn’t be convinced. She had become pregnant while in high school in 1967, in a small town in Alabama, and it was such a source of shame for her, such a fearfully kept secret, that she couldn’t comprehend it as being anything other than catastrophic – even 30 years later.
“When you first contact a birthmother, in their minds they go right back to the last time they saw the baby,” says Kristen Hamilton, Ava Friddle’s daughter, also a licensed private investigator. “The feelings come flooding back, and fully mature women will sound like terrified teenagers. That was when time stopped for them. When we make first contact, it’s like the clock starts again.”
Ava, Kristen and Judy Andrews, also Ava’s daughter, collectively form the Scottsdale-based private investigation firm Research Etc., which has been performing adoption searches and corporate investigations since 1995. They work out of a home office decorated with numerous “thank you” notes and pictures from clients. One former client, named with her permission, is Lisa Joyner, co-host of the new ABC reality TV show Find My Family, which deals with adoption reunions, as well as other types of reunions. The home office arrangement serves them well when investigations sometimes stretch late into the night, although they are careful never to receive new clients there for security reasons. Many of their most intriguing adoption searches are chronicled in their book, Back to the Beginning: Remarkable True Stories of Adoption Searches & Reunions (Research Etc., 2008).
In the case mentioned above, the birthson, JD (not his real name), had his Non-Identifying Information (NIDI) that is often available through the courts or adoption agencies. Unfortunately, NIDI, which is supposed to give adoptees some background on their birth family without revealing identities, can be notoriously unreliable.
Until the adoption process became more open in the 1980s (more on why later), birth families often concealed their unflattering stories of unwanted pregnancy through distortions. Agencies also muddied the picture through carelessness, or in seeking to make the child more “appealing” for adoption, by suppressing details considered undesirable, such as their true racial and socio-economic backgrounds.
Laura (left) reunites with her birthparents, Smoky and Mary Jane, in 1994. The women of Research Etc. say this case was the catalyst for their business.
In JD’s case, all people and place names related to his birth family had been literally cut out from the NIDI documents with a straight-edge blade. The only detail left behind about his birthmother was her home state: Alabama. This called for some intensive forensics on the part of the Research Etc. women, who soon found some important clues had been left behind in the documents: The tops and bottoms of letters that rose above or dipped below the standard typewritten line had been left on the page.
Small letters that rose above the line had to be one of the following: b, d, f, h, k, l or t. Similarly, small letters that ran below the line could only be g, j, p, q or y. Judging by the space on the page, they knew the mother’s first name had eight letters and her last name had six letters; her hometown had 10 letters and her home county had 12 letters.
With that meager amount of information they pulled out a map of Alabama and started playing trial and error. Eventually they zeroed in on a county and a town that fit the criteria, and the town had only one high school. Kristen called the school, pretending to be organizing a class reunion, and a polite Southern gentleman read off the entire senior class of 1967. Twenty-five names into the list, Kristen knew she had a match (but she listened to the remaining 30 names to keep up appearances). The team corroborated the name with other sources, and bingo – they’d found their birthmother.
However, it was the birth grandmother who eventually interceded on behalf of the reunion. Other than the birthmother, Marjorie (not her real name), the grandmother was the only other living soul who knew of the adoption, and now she wanted contact with her birth grandson. She encouraged Marjorie to make contact.
After initially rejecting all contact, Marjorie now worried that she might have alienated her birthson. This is why making first contact through an intermediary is advantageous. In those early conversations, people often speak out of panic and confusion. They feel as if they’re hearing from a ghost. Such outbursts can be devastating to the adoptees, who are extremely vulnerable themselves. According to the women of Research Etc., intermediaries such as themselves can help smooth out the rough spots before child and birthparent actually speak.
Plus, Marjorie still had her issues. She had teenage daughters at home, to whom she had long preached abstinence until marriage, and she didn’t want JD to call her there. So she first reached out by calling the Research Etc. office. Even that morning, she had her reservations:
“Is he mad at me? Does he want to get back at me for what I’ve done?” she asked them.
The fear of lingering resentment or need for retribution is common among birthmothers, Judy says. “But the biological kids almost never feel like that,” she adds. As in JD’s case, many adoptees are taken into loving homes where they are truly wanted, so they have no reason to be bitter. Often they are not really searching for a parent – they already have parents. Rather, they are seeking to fill a gap in their personal history. Even in cases when the adoptive family does not provide a happy home, the adoptee is just as likely to be seeking the comfort of a surrogate parent rather than settling a score.
In the end, birthmother and son did speak by phone.
“We cleared a room so they could have their privacy,” Kristen recalls. “We could hear JD talking in a composed tone but not the words. All of a sudden we heard him really loudly say: ‘You’re going to have to lighten up, woman!’ We all cracked up. We’d been wanting to tell her the same thing for days.”
JD met Marjorie in person two months later. Before this, she told her daughters about him. Rather than being scandalized by the news, they were thrilled to learn they had a big brother, which they’d always wanted. Eventually, JD traveled to Alabama and met his birth grandmother as well.
Shown here in 1972, siblings (from left) Kelly, Susan and Jim were abandoned as children but kept in touch.
A Family Affair
In a business charged with such high-stakes emotional drama, a sense of humor is a major asset. It also helps to know what you’re doing, not just intellectually but on an instinctual level – to have a feel not only for the investigative side of the project but for the fragile human psyches that are the subjects of the investigation. Watching Ava, Judy and Kristen in action, one easily gets the sense that this work is more like a calling to them.
Research Etc. is a family affair in every sense of the word. Ava, Judy and Kristen founded the agency in 1995 when Kristen became pregnant with her first child. They opened the business so she could stay close to her baby while still working.
Kristen, 45, the taller of the two sisters with straight hair, is the spokesperson of the team with a paralegal background, a free-flowing verbosity and a flair for improvisation. She’s the one who will assume a goofy accent on the phone to get someone to talk if necessary. Judy, 59, is curly-haired with a quiet demeanor. But behind the scenes, she’s a relentless researcher who knows her way around legal documents, which can confuse a search as much as they can clarify it. Ava, who remains active at 77 and is quick to extend Southern hospitality, is a rambling storyteller with a gift for the intuitive masterstroke that connects the dots. She can walk into the office while Kristen and Judy are desperately mulling over a seemingly dead-end case, toss out an idea and, suddenly, the case breaks wide open.
These abilities, “along with being just plain nosy,” as they write in their book, make them great at what they do. In fact, they were finding and connecting people long before they ever went into business. When Ava’s father died in 1990, an uncle gave her a photo of her father holding the hand of an obviously pregnant young woman, who, it was equally plain to see, was not Ava’s mother.
This sent Ava searching for the sister she never knew she had. She noticed a sawmill in the photo where Ava’s father had worked one summer as a young man in Arkansas. She called a cousin who had lived in that sawmill town at the time, and that cousin eventually put Ava in touch with people who knew her sister.
It turned out that Lola, the sister, had lived in northern California’s Bay Area at the same time as Ava and her family. They might have passed each other on the street and never known it. Amazingly, the entire search and first contact occurred within a single afternoon. Ava and Lola remain in contact to this day.
“I really believe there is an invisible bond between blood relatives,” Ava says. “You see it when someone starts looking for their birthmother at the same time that that mother starts looking for the relinquished child. Or when it happens right around the time someone is dying, or has just died. It’s like there’s a connection people can feel even if they don’t know what it is.”
Through Research Etc., Susan (left), Jim and Kelly recently discovered they have four siblings.
Breaking the Silence
The perception of adoption reunions has changed dramatically. Traditionally, they were strongly discouraged. It was considered taboo for birthmothers to seek any sort of contact with their children after relinquishing them to adoption. They were told it would cause a disruption in the child’s new life.
In addition, the need or desire to know on their part was discredited as a form of meddling. No allowance was made for any kind of emotional bond that may have developed between birth mother and child, as if the relinquishment erased the nine months of pregnancy and the birth mother should expect to feel nothing.
“We were told we would forget all about it,” says Eileen McQuade, president of the American Adoption Congress, a network of organizations committed to adoption reform, who relinquished a child to adoption in 1966. “But the truth was we grieved forever. A lot of lying went on.”
On the other side of the transaction, adoptive parents were indoctrinated into denial as well. A 1969 public affairs pamphlet from the federal government titled You and Your Adopted Child states:
“Instances of extreme curiosity and concern almost never happen…. However, should a youngster ever raise the question, it is important, of course, to make it very clear that a search is unrealistic and can lead to unhappiness and disillusionment.”
It was in this environment of secrecy and separation that so-called “black hole” adoptions were the norm – so named because relinquishment of the child occurred under the cover of an information blackout between the parties involved. The barrier was meant primarily to protect the adoptive family from being contacted by the birthmother.
Today, attitudes toward adoption reunions have shifted considerably – so much so that most states have an institutionalized process for facilitating reunions. In Arizona, this is known as the Confidential Intermediary Program (CIP). Operating through the Arizona Supreme Court, the CIP enables birth relatives to make contact when both parties involved are of legal age and wish to do so. According to Phoenix-based adoption attorney Rita Meiser, who is an adoptive mother herself, the change in how we relate to adoption reunions is “a small piece of a larger cultural shift. The ’60s changed the culture of adoption.”
Meiser says that when women’s liberation and the legalization of abortion came along, women suddenly had choices not previously available to them. The sexual revolution lifted the long-standing stigma against women who became pregnant out of wedlock, and women gained greater economic opportunity as well, making supporting a child as a single parent easier than in the past.
By the 1980s, getting pregnant outside of marriage wasn’t the social or financial disaster it once had been. Since the birthmother was no longer considered an object of shame, contact between her and the adoptive family stopped being viewed as destructive, and the entire process has come to be seen in a more humane light.
“We’ve learned that the more openness the better,” McQuade says. “It should always be about the children. Telling them it’s a dark secret brings up every dark scenario they can think of. Even if the truth is less than stellar, it’s yours and you have a right to know it.”
The ladies of Research Etc. can attest to how not knowing tends to spark outrageous scenarios in the minds of adoptees. “Everyone’s birthmother is either a rape victim, a prostitute or a movie-star,” Kristen says. “One guy thought he was Elvis’ twin, the last surviving witness of Roswell, and that his family did business with Hitler…. People like this we refer to the FBI.”
When Todd Denen reconnected with his birthmother, Cheryl Lewallen, they learned they had been working five minutes apart from each other.
To Search or Not to Search
The truth is usually not quite so dramatic. For the most part, women who relinquished children to adoption were simply young girls in trouble – pregnant, unmarried and lacking the emotional and financial means to raise the child themselves. The drama generally comes not from discovering shocking information, but from the flood of emotion that can be released in the process of reconnecting with a child or birthparent.
“Some people are afraid to search,” Ava says. “They don’t know if it will turn out to be good, but some people’s family don’t turn out good. It’s the not knowing that can drive you crazy.”
Kristen agrees: “They see a kid in the mall, they wonder, ‘Is that mine?’ They hear about someone getting killed in Iraq who is the same age. ‘Is he mine?’” The vast majority of clients who pursue adoption searches are glad they did, Kristen says. “You can hear it in their voices, no matter how scared they were before, they become different people – lighter, more liberated.”
Most of the adoptees Research Etc. encounters go to families that truly want them. One unfortunate exception was a little girl, Trinity (not her real name), whose story is recounted in Back to the Beginning. Trinity was adopted by parents who were seeking a family fortune promised for having the most kids. Like something out of a dark fairy tale, they had adopted her for the money. She grew up in an environment of great wealth but also of profound emotional poverty, raised entirely by nannies.
Eventually Trinity married and had a daughter of her own. Only then did she look for her birthmother. Research Etc. tracked down the birthmother, Loretta (not her real name), in Winter Haven, Florida. But when Kristen called her, Loretta denied everything. “Don’t ever call me again,” she said, slamming down the phone. CIP rules allowed for Kristen to try one more time. If Loretta didn’t come around, they would have to wait a full year before contacting her again.
“But did you tell her how much I need her?” Trinity implored.
Kristen wanted desperately to make it work for Trinity. But she knew she needed to give Loretta some breathing room. After two weeks, she called back. This time Loretta was ready. She poured out to Kristen how she had been panicked on the phone the first time, and ever since then she had been frantically trying to remember the name of their agency but had been unable to. And yes, of course, she wanted contact with Trinity.
Trinity described their first meeting: “It was like opening a book of secrets and not wanting to stop reading until the end.”
Trinity learned that when she was born, her mother was 23, divorced and already had a little boy, and that she had to go on welfare. With her ninth-grade education, she couldn’t support them both. She’d never told anyone about her pregnancy.
Eventually, Trinity flew out to Florida and they met in person. They became friends and ended up sharing the kinds of intimacy and conflict that mothers and daughters experience.
“I believe in my heart that my mother needed me as much as I needed her,” Trinity says.
Triumph out of Tragedy
Occasionally, the searches uncover truly tragic stories. But even then, there’s an empowerment that comes from knowing the truth. Lorraine (not her real name), 42, already knew her birthmother was dead. She simply wanted to know her real name, place of burial and the circumstances surrounding her death. In this case, the adoption agency records had been unusually frank: The birthmother had been a drug addict and a prostitute in Nevada who’d frozen to death in Wyoming. But how did it happen and where was she buried?
Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ava remembered n
ewspaper stories about prostitutes working between San Francisco, Reno, Nevada, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Pouring over maps, Ava picked a Wyoming town that proved to be precisely where the birthmother had last worked. A helpful librarian in that town provided important clues, digging through old newspapers to find an account of her death. They also checked coroner’s and police records. It became clear that the woman was on her way to provide her services to the men working at a sheep camp outside of town. The town’s “Madam” had paid for the burial, and Lorraine at least now knew where her birthmother had been buried.
Of the more than 500 cases Research Etc. has conducted, most have come to happier conclusions. For example, when Todd Denen was ready to search for his birthmother, Cheryl Lewallen, she was still very much alive. In fact, they worked about five minutes from each other. Also, according to Lewallen, they began thinking about connecting with each other at the same time – in November 1998.
“God told me to pray your son will find you,” she says. Three months later, when Kristen called her, she felt that God had answered her prayers.
More than 10 years after the fact, Todd is not as certain of the timing, but what both do agree on is that the reunion has been for the best. They bonded easily and talk often. Although Denen’s adoptive mother drowned when he was 4, he says he wasn’t looking for a mother figure, only a clear record of his medical history. But two months later, when Kristen called him that they’d found his birthmother, he suddenly felt nervous.
“It was too quick,” Denen says, “I wasn’t ready for all the emotions. But everything just clicked. It’s been a happy reunion. Things worked out better than I could have imagined. I wish other people could have the same experience.”
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