Sunday, September 23, 2007

Making a sisterly connection

Got this news story off the PAFind list.

Siblings seem to be the focus this week in adoptionville.

Woven through this beautiful story of reunited sisters Sharon and Marybeth are so many tragedies, staring with a scared young mother trying to work out a way to keep her baby.

Second, I believe it is so wrong for adoptive parents to withhold information. In this story, Marybeth's adoptive parents had her file. Why should she have had to pay the state hundreds of dollars for her own information?

Most tragic, Sharon was eight months too late to find her mother, who spent her entire life missing and mourning her loss.

Look at this picture. This is what those who oppose equal access are fighting against:

Photo/Tom Lynn-Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I'm thrilled for these women and I wish them many years of reconnection and happiness, but....

There's always a but with me, you know that, right?

How many years could have been saved?

We have official state policies for finding our missing families, but they are full of failure and unreasonably expensive. We are forced to abide by the whims and wishes of county judges who are allowed to interpret state law as they see fit, and state personnel who throw their own personal biases into reunion.

On top of that, the system fails so many, by both human error and erring humans. I've heard so many stories of separated families who both have registered at official state run registries, only to be told that neither party registered. There are mothers who have filed notarized court papers waiving the confidentiality they were never promised, only to have their searching sons and daughters told their records are sealed to protect their mother's privacy.

And that's for those who even know how to jump through the hoops and navigate between the loops of adoption law. Without the internet and experienced searchers, adoption law is beyond baffling. For those who have neither, the chances of reunion are slim to none.

Heartfelt gratitude to Jim Stingl of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for writing this fantastic article without throwing in hysterics and hyperbole of the confidentiality mothers never asked for, and to photographer Tom Lynn for capturing in a split shutter second what words cannot describe - the look of love on a sister's face.

Making a sisterly connection

Sharon Ulicki put it best:

"To think I lost a sister and gained a sister."

Sharon's younger sister, Cynthia Rash, 50, died of a drug overdose last December in Ohio, where she was living.

And this week - a surprise, to say the least - Marybeth Neinast called Sharon to say you don't know me, but I'm pretty sure we're sisters.

On Wednesday, Marybeth traveled from Mauston to Sharon's home in Milwaukee's Washington Heights neighborhood, and the two women met and embraced for the first time.

"How cool is that? Sixty years is a long darn time," Sharon said.

"It feels comfortable," Marybeth sighed as the women swapped stories and photographs, compared notes on heart problems that run in the family and agreed they look alike right around the eyes.

This story actually starts 63 years ago when a 20-year-old woman from Neenah, Betty Schroeder, was intimate with a man she met at work.

She didn't know until after she got pregnant that he was married and had two children.

"I was illegitimate, and it was hush-hush. My birth certificate doesn't have a father's name on it," Marybeth said.

Betty came to Milwaukee and gave birth to a baby she named Jacqueline Marie.

She signed away her rights to the child on March 26, 1945, after one last talk with her parents about the possibility of keeping her and raising her.

It was an ache that would stay with Betty throughout her life, which ended in January when she died here of natural causes at age 82.

Jacqueline was placed in a boarding home and then adopted by a couple from Plymouth, Raymond and Lenora Weber. They named her Marybeth and raised her lovingly along with an older adopted son and a second son they had naturally seven years after adopting Marybeth.

The Webers told Marybeth from the start that she was adopted. What they didn't reveal - and what Marybeth just discovered in her search this summer - was that they had been given copies of all the documents from her adoption file. Except for telling her she was born Jacqueline Schroeder, they did not share the details with her. Raymond and Lenora have both passed away.

Meanwhile, Betty remained in Milwaukee, where she met and married Joseph Krohelski and had three children - Sharon, Cynthia and a son, Stephen, who lives here in Milwaukee but has not had a chance to meet his new sister yet.

Sharon, 61, said their mom told them that she had given up the baby when she was young. Sharon has one memory in particular from when she was about 6.

"My mother came home from work, and she was crying. She wanted my dad to go get a private detective and find this child," she said.

It wasn't until Sharon was about 16 that her mom told her in more detail about the baby. Then it seemed to her like a cautionary conversation about the perils of being single and sexually active.

There were times when Marybeth wondered about her birth mother and whether she had siblings linked by blood. Twice she made half-hearted efforts to find out, but this summer she got serious about it after two of her adopted cousins told her how they had found their birth families, and she formally requested her adoption records.

Sadly, she learned from a caseworker with the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services that her birth mother had died just eight months earlier.

"It broke my heart. I spent the whole day crying," Marybeth said.

A thick packet of records from the department arrived in the mail at Marybeth's home in Mauston this week. Because Betty had died and could not give the required consent, a judge reviewed and approved the request.

The best contact was Ralph Milkowski of Franklin, whom Betty had married in 1967 after divorcing Joseph. When Marybeth called him this week, his first impulse was suspicion.

"I'm thinking it's some scam," said Ralph, who joined in the reunion at Sharon's house Wednesday.

But Betty had told Ralph about the baby she gave up, and everything Marybeth said matched up with what he knew. Then he put Marybeth in touch with Sharon, which led to another stunning phone call.

"I always knew you'd call," Sharon told Marybeth on the phone.

"I was so happy," Sharon said, "but I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, if only Mom and Cindy could have been here to witness this. Why couldn't this have been a year earlier?' "

"I would have liked to have heard her laugh and look into her eyes," Marybeth said of her mother.

Not about to let the what-ifs ruin the moment, Marybeth and her husband, Dale, spent the day with Sharon and met her daughter, Adrean, and her kids, and Sharon's son, Jeff, and his adopted son. Marybeth has one grown daughter, Stephanie.

Marybeth said she plans to go one step further and contact her birth father if he's still alive. Small clues to his identity are in the records, and Ralph knows a little from what Betty told him. Marybeth will proceed with caution, though, because it's entirely possible that his family still doesn't know about her.

"He would be regarded as handsome," the adoption papers said of the father. He was athletic and had "fine teeth." He was concerned about his "misbehavior" and wanted to keep the secret from his wife.

Someone might be in for a surprise.

The Department of Health and Family Services helps facilitate 500 to 600 reunions like this one each year.

The past catches up to the present, and families make up for lost time.

7 complaints from ingrates:

Erin September 23, 2007 at 10:18 AM  

I cannot imagine witholding information from my child about who they are. How awful.

My daughter has a heritage far apart from the one that my husband and I provide and everything in our lives will honor that and encourage her to embrace that.

Shame on parents who know and don't share with their adopted children.

Anonymous,  September 23, 2007 at 1:38 PM  

Thanks for bringing this story to our attention, Theresa. Part beautiful, part infuriating. Ahh, the miracle of adoption.

Anonymous,  September 23, 2007 at 2:58 PM  

That's a great picture.

Sad that they had to wait so long. Or, not that they "had to," but that things and people prevented them from meeting each other sooner.

Gershom Kaligawa September 23, 2007 at 5:06 PM  

it is sad, lifetimes gone, by the time you can close the doors of searching for our "selves."

Anonymous,  September 24, 2007 at 9:01 AM  

It is so frustrating trying to reunite siblings.

One of the people on my list is desperately trying to find all of her siblings as the youngest out of 8 is dying of cancer. He only has weeks left to live - yet does anyone in power help - NO!

Thanks to the privacy freaks, my friend cannot find the one remaining sibling.

Through the help of some papers and others, she has managed to find 7 out of 8.

Shame the privacy freaks won't let her find the last one before the brother dies.

The privacy freaks won't even give the info she needs even tho her mother has been dead for decades!!

How stupid and heartless is that.

Anonymous,  October 13, 2007 at 10:30 PM  

Speaking as the daughter of the dead sister in the article, I can tell you that, while this is a "heartwarming" story, many key details are being skewed and/or left out of it.

I can't articulate my fury properly at this point, but suffice it to say that half the crap in this story is either missing or made up.

My grandmother--the dear ol' ma who (never) searched and searched for her baby girl--not only neglected my mother to the point of my mother's mental illness and eventual suicidal overdose, she TOLD my mother that she was unwanted and unloved by her. My mother was shipped off at one month old to live with her aunt and uncle while my grandfather (Joe) sold his house and business and worked constantly to pay for my grandmother's drinking, smoking, and gambling habits, which continued until she got lung cancer so badly that she couldn't move and eventually died.

My grandparents divorced, and my grandfather retained custody of their children. My grandmother was no mother.

Some story.

Ungrateful Little Bastard October 14, 2007 at 6:57 AM  

Tasia I'm so sorry about your mother.

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