Lost And Found

Net reunites families separated at birth

In 1955, Betty Coxs newborn baby died. In 2000, the Internet helped bring her child back from the grave.

Its an eerie but ultimately joyous turn of events that wouldnt have been possible before the Net made the world a smaller place, where good luck and a Good Samaritan intersected to profoundly change the lives of two families.

Vicky Brower always knew she was adopted. It was impossible to miss — both her parents were "little people," historically called midgets. She was acquired for $250 when she was three hours old in a "gray market" adoption in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 24, 1955.

Thats all she knew and that was enough, until 1993 when Brower began searching for her birth family. She tracked down a thick adoption file that supplied her with the maiden name of her birth mother and an unusual amount of information on her mothers family in Des Moines. But the trail went cold, and six more years passed.

In July 2000, Brower, now a mother of three, discovered the plethora of online search registries designed to help birth relatives find each other on the Internet. She registered with as many sites as she could find, leaving behind messages with all the information she had about her unusual arrival into the world.

Soon after, she got a call from an angel named Anne.

Anne Young, who doesnt have wings and is very much flesh and blood, lives in Des Moines. In her spare time — and free of charge — she helps searchers who are looking for birth relatives in her state. Vicky Brower became her new project. Through an exhaustive search of local records, Young found the obituary of Browers uncle — and a mention of his sister Betty Pottorff in Bethany, Mo. Betty Cox, Pottorffs maiden name, had finally been found.

"It was a big surprise," says Pottorff of the first phone call from Young.

Pottorff was told in 1955 her daughter had died at birth. But the extensive information Brower and Young had amassed — including unique identifying data about Pottorffs own family in the adoption record and the name of the midwife — convinced her otherwise.

Pottorff was 33 when her daughter was born and then evidently stolen and sold by the midwife and doctor. "I guess they wanted the money," she says.

There is no doubt in Youngs mind that the two women are mother and daughter: "Put them side by side and they look identical."

The revelation was nothing short of mind-blowing for Brower, who found she had four half-siblings in Missouri. She has since reunited with her birth clan and moved her own family to Hatfield, Mo., to be nearer to them.

Clues to the Past

While the circumstances of Browers and Pottorffs reunion are unusual, its just one of the hundreds that occur each year as a result of successful Internet searches. Birth family searchers were early adopters of Net technology and embraced the medium quickly, starting in the mid-1990s with the arrival of registries such as BirthQuest.org and The-Seeker.com.

Before the Web, searching for a lost birth relative was an arduous process that often necessitated hiring private detectives or spending hours dealing with state and local and agencies. Adoptee birth records are sealed in 45 states, which makes finding birth names and detailed medical information difficult.

Online birth registries shortcut all that, and lucky searchers have been known to find long-lost relatives in less than an hour.

Linda Hammer, founder of The Seeker, is a former private investigator who launched her site as a general place for finding lost buddies and old flames. "When I started The Seeker, adoptees were not my main focus — they came out of the woodwork," Hammer says. Now, its one of the main cyberspace destinations for birth children and birth parents in search of one another. More than 70,000 individuals are registered on the free service, which gets 1.5 million hits per month. Hammer keeps the doors open by selling banner ads.

The online registries are open databases that allow participants to input key birth data, such as date, place, eye color and as much identifying information as the searcher wishes to leave. That becomes a dog tag of sorts for all postings and correspondence and is often included in e-mail signatures.

David Diener, founder and director of BirthQuest.org, set up his site in 1996 after spending years fruitlessly looking for his own birth parents through traditional methods. "I never found any simple and direct method for posting information," says Diener, who still hasnt found his birth family.

People often dont search for birth relations because theyre scared or they dont want to hurt their adoptive parents, or because its too much trouble, Diener says. The Net allows people to search anonymously.

BirthQuest caught on quickly and now lists more than 26,000 registrations. It also works. To date, there have been 429 reunions as a result of the site.

Another reunion site, Adoption.org, operates a busy registry with 65,000 postings; it has facilitated 115 reunions so far. Search site operators agree that the ease of the process makes possible many more reunions than would have occurred in pre-Internet days.

Consider the experience of Ronnie McEntee of Memphis, Tenn., who had given her son up for adoption in 1970 and was at a public library surfing the Net in July 1999. She found a site for people seeking their birth parents. "I put in my sons information, and one name came up," she says. Her son wasnt looking actively, either. He had put a few postings up, but he had looked no further. The two reunited and quickly became family.

Net searches clearly work better when both sides of a birth relation are looking for one another and regularly monitor registry postings. For more difficult searches, angels like Young often chip in to help.

Jan Uible of Golf Manor, Ohio, searched for and found her birth son, whom she gave up for adoption in 1969. But she spent more than $5,000 on private detectives and soured on people who she feels take economic advantage of searchers in an emotionally fragile state. Unfortunately, the reunion with her son did not go smoothly. His adoptive family situation had been unhappy, and he remains resentful of his birth mother.

"I started being an angel to keep myself from jumping out a window," Uible says. "If there had been an instant bond [with my son] I wouldnt be doing what I do today. Everyone I look for I find — I dont give up, and Im never charging a penny for this."

Some people arent so enthused about the Internet birth registries or the search angels who help people find one another. Anthony Vilardi, who operates the granddaddy of adoption databases — the International Soundex Reunion Registry — keeps his information offline and does all searches in-house. He provides only a free registration form on the Web.

Vilardis primary concern is security, but he also warns that adoption searches can open windows to fraud and deception, or even just plain mistakes. "There have been a lot of near misses. How do you determine a relationship with just a place and a date of birth?" Vilardi says.

For others, though, the promise of connecting with family members outweighs the risks. Search experts say newfound relatives rarely demand DNA testing of each other to deliver absolute certainty.

Sabra Cossentive, an adoption consultant with Adoption.org, says, "People are just more trusting than you would think."