November is National Adoption Awareness Month, so I’m bringing you a different perspective from the adoption community. On prior episodes you’ve heard adoptees talk about the amazing work that they’re search angels have done with them. Today I’m introducing you to one of those search Angels. You’ve already heard about her work in my interview with Stephanie (in episode 29) where she lauded the work of her amazing spouse AND Search Angel, Diana. Diana has always been into family history and exploring genealogy, so when Stephanie’s search for her birth relatives began Diana was all in. Diana shares the processes she goes through to assist adoptees in their searches, some lessons she’s learned over years of searching, and why her volunteer work to help others is meaningful to her.
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There’s a transformation that happens with people and my experience with adoptees is people start out saying, I just want to know a name and I like to say for every answer you get, you end up with five more questions because then it’s not just a name. Then you want to know what they look like. Then you want to know something about them. Then you know, then you want to know, did they wonder about me?
Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?
This is Who Am I Really, a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I’m Damon Davis and it’s November, which is National Adoption Awareness month. So on today’s show, I’m bringing you another different perspective from across the adoption community. Here on Who Am I Really, I focus on people’s adoption journeys and their attempts at reunification with their biological family members. On prior episodes, you’ve heard adoptees talk about the amazing work that their search angels have done with them. Today, I’m introducing you to one of those search angels. You’ve already heard about her work. in my interview with Stephanie in episode 29 where she talked about her amazing spouse and search angel Diana.
Diana is now a California search angel. This became one of those things that you know I felt so strongly about as did she, that she got involved in the search angel community.
She found a calling and you were her first client.
Well, that’s kind of the way it is.
Diana says she’s always been into family history and exploring genealogy, so when Stephanie’s search for her birth relatives began, she was all in. Diana shares the processes she goes through to assist adoptees in their searches, some lessons she learned over the years of searching and why her volunteer work to help others is meaningful to her. Here’s the story of Diana’s work as a search angel. I started by asking Diana what her own connection to adoption had been. She says in her younger days, she didn’t really think about adoption even though there were one or two adoptees around her that she was aware of. Everything changed when she met Stephanie. Diana was very close to her own mother, but when she witnessed Stephanie’s interaction with her mother, they had one of the oddest interactions she had ever seen between mother and daughter.
There was just something about it, the body language, the way her mother spoke to her. I remember when her mother left the room, I asked her, I said, Stephanie, what’s your relationship with your mother like? And she looked at me and she goes, I hope you won’t think that I’m strange when I say this, but I find my relationship with my mother to be very unnatural.
Hmm. So you picked up on it though right away?
Yeah. There was something very odd. There was some huge disconnect to me that was so obvious between her and her mother. And then she went on to say, I’ve always had this feeling that I was adopted.
When they confirmed Stephanie was adopted, Diana started doing research on the subject of adoption. It was eye opening for Diana who didn’t have a personal experience with adoption before.
There’s a transformation that happens with people. And my experience with adoptees is people start out saying, I just want to know a name. And I like to say for every answer you get, you end up with five more questions because then it’s not just a name. Then you want to know what they look like. Then you want to know something about them, then you know, then you want to know, did they wonder about me? So when we confirmed that Stephanie was adopted, we had all these questions and we weren’t even, you know, you don’t even know what to ask.
Yeah, that’s right. Like you said, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Right. And, you know, um, I started doing research on adoption, you know, and I was amazed at all of the things out there on the internet about adoption, the politics involved in it, the, um, the attacks on adoptees who search, you know, they, they talk about an adoption tree at the birth, parents, the adoptive parents and the adoptee. Well, I think families get affected by everything. So I think there’s an expansion of that because even though I’m not adopted, uh, I have no idea what it feels like to be adopted. I know what it’s like to live with somebody and to watch their transformation of finding peace.
And you assisted with that peace. I heard when Stephanie told her story, I was amazed at how she continued to go back to you with your excellent sleuthing and dedication to helping her find answers, you know, more answers to every question, uh, that she had. I was just astonished. And how fortunate to have that there right in your house. You know, so many people I hear stories of, you know, engaging with search angels online and from a distance and I get the impression that the, the relationship can be, it gets very personal because you’re talking about a person’s past in a very intimate way and details that they didn’t know before. Um, but she has that interaction right there in her home with you. Right. That must’ve been really fascinating. Diana said she’s done genealogy for years. She loved hearing the family stories of immigration. And her own roots back to the birth of this nation. Stephanie had never been into genealogy, but Diana pounced on ancestry.com when it launched. Diana talks about her own work on genealogy first from the perspective of Stephanie’s case.
But when we found out Stephanie was adopted and I thought, okay, so we have to figure out where your mother is. And then I wanted to understand, you know, my first inclination is, well, surely she would want to know that you’re okay. I’ve never had kids, but I was thinking, surely this woman would want to know that you were okay. And I went out on the internet and I started doing research and I found, again, lots of politics. You know, the difference between the terminology, birth mother and first mother, um, things that I just had never considered.
What other kinds of things arose for you that you were just like, Whoa, I had no idea that was a thing.
Oh gosh, I learned so much. You know, my, my nice little compartment of somebody who had a kid and couldn’t care for it and somebody couldn’t have one and could like blew up.
I mean I had no idea. And then I would find sites where, um, and I’m gonna use the term birth mothers in our discussion only for descriptive of the difference between, and I will also use the term adoptive. Not everybody was given the choice, which was kind of shocking to me. And I read blogs and stories about women who said they were drugged and they don’t even aren’t sure what day they gave birth. And I found articles in old newspapers about sealed records. And uh, there was one from, I think California records weren’t sealed until some prominent family who had adopted, um, was going to be extorted for money, pay us or we’re going to tell your child they’re not really yours, you know? Um, and then I thought, well, I guess there’s a wide variety of opinions, like with most things in life
Mhmm and scenarios for conception, adoption plans and actual adoptions.
And the secrets, the secrets that are associated with it. Because for me, when I, when it all boils down, that’s for me, I can’t speak for others. There’s nothing wrong with adoption. There’s something wrong with the secrets associated with it. How do you mean? Well, they’re like legal lies there. You know, I remember when we got Stephanie’s original birth certificate, we put it next to her amend one. And she looked at me and said, the funniest thing, but it’s so true. She said, look, I’m a car. I got retitled! She says, if you think about what happens when you retitle a car, she goes, that’s exactly what this looks like. And I looked at her and I said, how can this be legal? This is like some bizarre form of identity theft.
Yeah. There’s a lot of adoptees out there that feel very strongly that their identity has been stolen by virtue of their transplantation into another family, away from their culture and so many other factors. And uh, you know, and in many ways that is true. Um, there are many of the adoptees that are thankful for the life that they have. The, the spectrum of, um, those who are, you know, disgruntled and frustrated by, you know, having been detached from the original culture and, and potential life. And then those who are, you know, just thankful to have to be alive and to have had the opportunities that they’ve had. There’s a wide array of people in between, um, who, and they, and I think people oscillate between different pieces of that spectrum as well. Diana and Stephanie believe that people on all sides of adoption need to embrace elements of the adoption that are sometimes held in opposition to one another. The ands.
And I always found it sad that her mother could never grasp the and. Um, Stephanie was adopted and she should still get to know the truth.
You know, Stephanie was adopted and she could still be curious about who, who the woman was that gave birth to her.
Diana works with adoptees on their searches. And it sounds to me like the learning process is bi-directional. Adoptees learn from Diana’s experiences in search and Diana learns from each person she engages on their case.
The other thing I learned and, and I tried to tell this to people that I work with on their searches. Uh, their adoption to me wasn’t about them, their search is. But their adoption, if you really boil it down to it had nothing to do with that child. Adoptees talk about being rejected and I’m like, you didn’t even have a personality. They didn’t know they were trying to take care of something in their lives.
Your adoption was the outcome of something else. And I’ve had adoptees say to me, wow, I never thought about it that way because to them it is so personal. It is a form of rejection. Now when you choose to search, search is totally about you.
Yeah, that’s right. What other advice do you give adoptees when they’re beginning with you?
You know, I try to get people to be honest with themselves. How are you going to, you know, how do you see this ending and how are you going to feel if it doesn’t end the way you want it to?
Let’s talk a little bit about your work as a search angel. What kinds of things do you do? How does your process start when you find a client and how do you sort of engage with them? What’s the process like?
Well, a lot of it, um, starts based on how they ask the question.
And what does that mean?
Well, I get some emails where I’m thinking the wording of this really kind of makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Um, now I’ll tell you in the beginning I was so fascinated with the idea that I could go out and research records and find stuff and give people an answer. I didn’t really think through that they might need help knowing what to do with that information, how to do something with it. And I share a lot of Stephanie’s story with other people.
What did that change for you when you discovered like, it’s not just about me being an investigator and handing over a file of answers, but I’m actually needing to help people cope with the answers I’m providing. What did that do?
Well, Stephanie was the one who pointed it out to me and she goes, you know, you’re really good at this record thing, but you gotta remember there’s people at all different levels emotionally at the end of that. And I think that really hit home with me when I helped somebody on a search. Um, and she says, well, I’m not going to try to contact her because if she rejects me again, I might kill myself.
Oh, and what did you say? How did you help her?
That was pretty early on in my days of doing searches for people and I was kind of like, I didn’t know what to say. And I had a discussion with Stephanie and that’s when we had the whole talk about trying to feel people out more, find out what they’re trying to get out of this.
It sounds like you started off early, fairly naive about that piece of the process about helping someone synthesize the answers. You’ve given them into something actionable. Have you changed your, for lack of better words, vetting process and have you actually ever turned someone away and say, I don’t think that I can help you right now.
I have told people I couldn’t help them because at the end of the day we all have to do what we can live with after having done it. And um, I have received a few requests that because of how they were written made me very uncomfortable. It is not part of my methodology to go out and research the person who is searching. I take people at face value if they’re following the process of getting on ID and things like that, you know, I believe their heart’s in the right place and maybe I can help them. I got a request one day. There was something about how it was written that just seemed off to me. I decided to research. So a social worker said she was trying to help the birth mother understand why she lost her daughter and I thought, you’re a social worker. You have access to stuff that the rest of us don’t. Why would you take to the internet to do something like that? That just seemed odd to me, so I actually researched the name of the birth mother and found out it was a bad story. There’s something wrong when a social worker takes to the internet to do something like this and my concern is that there is some person calling themselves the search angel out there who thinks it’s cooler to make sure they get the information than to understand the ramifications behind it. Now it puts me in an odd spot because who am I to judge?
But like you said, you have to be in a position at the end of the process to live with whatever the outcome was and the research that you’ve done. Yeah, I, I hear you and I can certainly understand why there would be times when you might turn down a chance to help somebody. Diana shared why search angel work is so appealing to her. She found kindred spirits with other search angels and she was welcomed into the community. But she acknowledges that there are some barriers that prevent adoptees from getting the information that they should be entitled to.
And when I was working on Stephanie’s information, like somebody sent me a picture of Stephanie’s uncle from classmates.com and yearbook and I thought, Oh my God, this person did some research and look at what they found. And I thought that was so cool.
I found myself amongst people who were first mothers, birth mothers, adoptees, even adoptive parents who were search angels. And I liked how they thought. I liked their philosophy. And I kinda got invited into what we call the secret underground of sisterhood. And there’s a few guys in there too that people do searches for people for free. And I thought how cool is that? Now I’d come across the whole, there’s lots of controversy about paid searches. You know, my personal feelings about that is everybody has a right to make a living. What I think is wrong about the paid searching part is if you have to pay somebody to go figure out your original record cause the government sealed it from you. I think that’s wrong. Yeah. If you have a name because you have your original birth certificate and you want to pay somebody to go find a person. That’s a whole different ballgame.
The, it sounded like there was a policy piece in there too about government not necessarily being open in all places for people to obtain all of their information. Is that, did I hear that correctly too?
Oh yeah. I mean every uh, birth certificates are issued are our state legislative, just like driver’s license are just, I mean it’s an identity. It’s a piece of your identity.
So each state gets to decide how they’re going to deal with that. I watched a hearing on YouTube, I believe it was in Washington state where a birth mother and adoptive mother had known each other since the child was 12 and they still couldn’t get the original birth certificate. And I was kind of, yeah, these two women are testifying and say, we all know who each other are, but the government continues to seal the record.
Yeah. It’s an unnecessary rigidity for the rules. That doesn’t make any sense. One of the, again, I interviewed a guest last night and the gentleman was saying, you know, he was like in his twenties he’s mid twenties and he’s begun his search and he’s, you know, petitioning the courts to try to get access to some of his documents. But the court required him to have consent from his adoptive parents to do the search. And he’s like, are you kidding me? I’m damn near 30 like why should I have to, you know, I’m an adult, I’ve been able to, you know, vote and drink and all kinds of things that are expected to be responsibilities of an adult since 18 and 21. I’m 27 and you’re telling me you have to go get my parents to sign this document to get these records. That’s crazy. So yeah, there are some unnecessarily rigid policies out there. What other kinds of things have you found to be policy inhibitors to helping your search? Where are places where policy needs to be changed that, that you just find consistently is a, is a challenge for you in your job?
Um, well I mean the original birth certificate, I mean that really is, you know, with, with websites, the older people are, the more, uh, data is available, you know. Um, I, I knew, I met some search angels that used to go sit in the basements of records departments to figure stuff out, you know, before the internet. And um, tools like ancestry.com, aggregators of data. And, um, I was fascinated by their dedication and how cool that is. And I like history anyway. So the idea of sitting in some records department, you know, I would think would be fun, but it’s much easier to do it online, of course. Um, I mean, to me this is an equality issue and not everybody is treated the same depending on what state they were born in. You know, some States are sealed, some aren’t. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to anybody from bastard nation. So bastard nation is the oldest civil rights organization for adoptees for open records. And there are no apologies, no excuses and no reason. You know, adoptees go down this path of, well I need to know for medical information or I just want to know who I look like or, and they’re like forced to come up with excuses as to why. They just want to know who they were.
And bastard nation doesn’t believe in any of that. It’s a government document that you should be entitled to. It’s your documentation.
Tell me what kinds of things, what are some of the most common questions adoptees ask you as a search angel and tell me what a search angel sort of is and is not.
I’ll start with your second question first.
A search angel is someone who volunteers their time and resources to help somebody find an answer for free. I’ve never charged anybody money, never will. Um, we fund access to databases that I use. I also belong to a group of searching angels where we offer as many people, as many resources as possible. And that information only goes to people who have for years been committed to doing this for free. So that’s what a search angel is.
So the second piece then is what kinds of questions do adoptees most commonly ask you?
They always start out with what do you think is available? Is there something available that I don’t know how to go find? So even in States where there are sealed birth certificates, there’s what’s called non identifying information, we refer to it as non ID. Before adoptions took place, the birth parents provided information about themselves and they were told that this information could be given to the child and it’s, it’s good information. It’s like their ages where they were born, information about their families, you know, back then medical, um, they may have said diabetes or something like that. And it talks about if the adoptee had any siblings, if the birth parents had any siblings and the circumstances of adoption. So I always say, you know, lots of great clues, just no names, which is why it’s called non identifying information.
But usually what we do is using online records. We can figure out, narrow down perspective birth parents and then you have to research them. I have spreadsheets. Oh God, the number of searches I worked on where I had these huge spreadsheets cause you know all we’ll figure out is that the mother’s last name was let’s say Anderson and she was born in let’s say California. Well you know there’s 700 and something people with that name born in a different, you know, a certain time frame.
So you got to keep track of all the information as you accumulate it so you can go through the process of elimination.
Yes those were techniques I had to teach myself over time cause otherwise I was always trying to find the last email and what it said. And before you know it, you can’t find something. So spreadsheets of my searching.
What’s some of the good advice that other search angels have given you that you’ve really relied on, have come to adopt as part of your own process?
What’s on the records doesn’t necessarily always tell the story.
You can find records that appear to tell a story, but it doesn’t mean it’s always true and an example is, let’s say I based on ancestry.com I was able to figure out who somebody’s original record was. And let’s say that based on that it looks like the parents were married. The only way that you’re ever going to be sure the father is the father who’s listed on that birth certificate is to do a DNA test.
Yeah. The story they tell in front of somebody might not be the story of how something actually transpired.
Right. And we even have some of that in part of Stephanie’s story that I am not, I don’t, she didn’t share with you. She has yet another half sister. I did some research and I found a marriage record for her father and a woman. And then I found where they had a child just a few months after they got married. So you would think that that means they had to get married. She was pregnant, but I couldn’t find that child. And I actually at that time, reached out to one of my sister search angels and said, can you help me figure this out? And they said, well, that’s because that child was adopted and here’s who they became.
Wow. That’s fascinating. What’s in the record doesn’t tell the story.
Diana says the internet today has removed a lot of the grunt work that searchers used to have to do in pre-internet days. She’s met search angels who used to be in basement records rooms, sifting through information, an activity that actually appeals to her. How many reunions do you think you’ve assisted?
Oh gosh. I’ve been doing, this is my 14th year.
And it’s gotta be, I know it’s hundreds and hundreds. I, and I can’t tell ya, you know I’m in the thousands but most days it feels that way. I had slowed down this last year as I worked on this DNA search cause it takes a lot of work. Before I started this DNA search, I could do a dozen searches a week.
And I’m not the only one. There is a hardcore group of search angels out there that I would be happy to turn you on to.
Who have been doing this longer than I have and they do it every day. So yeah, I mean every day I work on a search or multiple searches.
That’s incredible. Are there a couple of misconceptions about search angels out there or can you tell me what a search angel is not?
A search angel isn’t someone who wants to make the phone call for you. A search angel is somebody who will help you find your best way to make the call yourself. A search angel doesn’t co-opt your search other than, you know, they spend hours and hours doing stuff for free.
New Speaker (27:30):
That’s a big deal.
I’ve never, I mean, yeah, it really is. I feel like I have an obligation and a responsibility to give an adoptee or a birth parent who is searching, cause I do both, as much information as I possibly can that will help them make the right decisions for themselves. And I tell them having the information is one thing. Knowing when and what to do with it is something different. And you know, I tell them everybody has to do what they can live with after having done it. You know, most people, they’re terrified of rejection. So what I have it like a methodology that I go through. If a person doesn’t have their non ID, I help them understand how to go get it. And then I tell them, you know, it takes a while to get this. While you’re waiting for it, you should read the book, “The Girls Who Went Away”, by Ann Fessler.
What’s the premise of it?
Um, it is about the baby scoop era and what women’s experiences were and cause even though the search is about the adoptee, their chances of having a better outcome increase if they can extend the emotion of loss, their mother or father may have felt.
So you encourage people to read it for purposes of helping them to sort of get outside themselves and empathize.
Yes. You know, you can’t be surprised how your mother, you know, you have no control over how your mother’s going to act. You only have control over how you’re going to react to it.
Yeah, that’s right.
Um, the book just kind of opens people’s minds because people really do walk around believing, Oh, this woman, you know, just dumped me and never thought about me again. And what I’ve learned through searches is that’s usually not the case.
Sharing more about the process that search angels follow, Diana talks about another group, G’s, that allows your search to be distributed appropriately to the angels that are versed in the adoption environment in each state.
Um, I participate in some groups that are searching angels. G’s is one of them. It’s a very large adoption registry. And what Gary has done is he sets up distribution lists of search angels who specialize by state. So if somebody, let’s say in California, um, submits their search to him, an email goes out to everybody in the group who’s a search angel who specializes in California.
I asked Diana about some of the cases she’s investigated that stood out in her mind and what lessons she has learned along the way. She tells the story of learning not to pass judgment on what seems to be the facts, helping people find forgiveness and uncover lies and shares some advice on how you can engage with a search angel.
Like early on there was a woman I worked with who her non ID was just horrible. You know, when I first thought, I thought, why would you want to look for this person? She was a prostitute, she was a drug addict, she was this, she was that. And I was just like, you know, and I thought, okay, you’re not supposed to judge because none of this may be true. And I never had considered that until after I read Ann Fessler’s book. So that woman, I did find her mother and she was one of four daughters, all who had been placed for adoption and she sent me pictures of their reunion. It was amazing.
Really? That’s amazing.
Oh yeah. I love the pictures. It was just very sweet. And what they learned from the woman who gave birth to them was, no, her life was not pristine. But there are some really interesting family dynamics in her home that led her down a path to what her life ended up being.
You know, if you are molested by your stepfather and thrown out of the house when you were 15, back then, there weren’t a lot of choices for young women.
Yeah. That’s a tough trajectory to recover from.
So to me this is about, you know, some people do this and they, they find forgiveness, whether it’s for how they ever thought of the women who gave birth to them, or the women who did give birth, who always wondered and the lies. And I’m going to give you a quick example of a search that always amazes me. A woman reached out to me, had attended her 30th high school reunion, ran into her high school boyfriend. He said, I was always sad our baby boy had died and she said I was always sad our baby girl had died. And it was not until that point that they realized something was wrong. And she said, is it possible the baby didn’t die? And that’s exactly what it was. So they were in high school, she got pregnant, he wanted to marry her. Her parents said no, they were too young. They took her to an adoption agency and started the paperwork and then the families conspired to tell their children that the baby had died.
And he was alive and well and posting on Facebook, “why do I look so Jewish?”
And you helped him, the baby, find his parents?
It was the mother who was looking.
Cause she, she thought something’s wrong here. Why did he think we had a son? And I always was told we had a daughter.
Man, everybody’s got a story to tell. It’s really unreal.
I’m not surprised by anything. Sometimes they get a little shocked and then I think, well no, like I can see how this would have happened. You totally can’t know what you don’t know.
And like you said, the more answers you get, the more questions you have.
Is there anything else that you would like people to know just before I let you go? Like what, what’s one thing that you just wish everybody knew about the search angel community?
There are people who are willing to help you for free. Be kind to those people and don’t go out and find five search angels to work on one thing without telling them all. The duplication of efforts is something where we’re always having an issue with. People who have been doing this for a long time, uh, do it with an open heart and open mind. Um, and they want the people searching to feel the same way. You can’t be surprised at what you find, you know, don’t shoot the messenger. If we give you food for thought, you know, just some things you might want to think about. Take it to heart, don’t rush into it. There are really good communities of search angels out there who have dedicated a good portion of their lives to helping total strangers find their answers because they know it’s important.
You guys do some amazing work. It warms my heart to think that you are taking your own personal time, resources and effort to help others whom you don’t know because they are in search of answers so desperately. And I’ll be honest with you as an adoptee, I had only thought about this from the adoptee perspective and it didn’t even occur to me that um, that birth mothers and other family members might be looking to the search angel community to assist as well. So thank you so much. I appreciate your time. Diana, this has been incredible. I’ve long wanted to speak with a search angel because I didn’t know enough about what it is that you do and how you go about doing it and to hear Stephanie speaks so highly of your work, but then to hear her say you’ve been doing it for years and you retired to do it. I just, I was really glad to get the opportunity to chat with you. This is really been fascinating.
Oh, thank you very much, Damon.
Hey, it’s me. I heard so many guests on Who Am I Really talk about their experiences with their search angels, but I didn’t truly know what a search angel does. Speaking to Diana was enlightening for understanding the work of the search angel community. She left us with some advice. If you’re interested in starting a search, go into it with an open mind. Be kind to your search angel because you’re on the same team. Take their advice to heart as you consider what’s right for your search and don’t forget to use only one search angel at a time to help them avoid duplicating one another’s efforts. On behalf of the adoptees and birth parents that have engaged search angel volunteers to get answers about their lives, I want to say thank you to your entire community. We know you are working hard every day to find answers that are important to all of us.
I’m Damon Davis and I hope you’ll find something in Diana’s work as a search angel that inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn who am I really? If you would like to share your story of locating and connecting to your biological family visit, whoamIreallypodcast.com/share. You can also find the show at facebook.com/waireally, or follow me on Twitter at waireally, and please, if you liked the show, take a moment to rate Who Am I Really on Apple podcasts, Google play or wherever you get your podcasts. Those ratings can help others find the podcast too.