SEARCH HISTORY: A Memoir of Loss, Obsession, and Meeting My Mom at 44
Growing up, describing the time before they brought me home, Mom had said things like, “A couple took care of you for us.” I imagined myself in a wooden cradle somewhere, with a satin-ribboned sign at the foot that read: “Going to Darrell & Virginia Skaggs.”
I knew I’d been six months old when I came home, but the six months before I got to Mom and Dad had never interested me much. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realized those first six months were an important time. Reading Joyce’s recollection of meeting with the social worker, I had a creaky awakening to something that’d always been right before my eyes: I’d spent six months in foster care. I had foster parents who had witnessed my first smile, my first rollover, my first tooth. I checked our computer — by the time Henry was six months old, I’d taken over one-thousand pictures of him. This is the digital age of photo bursts, but still. I wondered: Who was the couple who took care of me? Where did they live, and what did their house look like? Did they have kids of their own? Would all of this information be in my adoption file?
At the bottom of the letter accompanying my original birth certificate, it read: “If you have additional questions, please call our office at…”
I did have more questions.
My adoption file.
The state had been the keeper of not only my original birth certificate, but somewhere there was a file that held information about my past I’d never been allowed to see. But now the powers that be had decided I could see it after all. But how?
I called the number. The woman who answered the phone introduced herself as Tami.
“Hi, Tami. My name is Denise Massar, and I recently received my original birth certificate through your office. I know who my birth mom is and all that, but I was wondering…what do I have to do to get a copy of my sealed adoption file? And, I, um…I spent some time in foster care — do you think those records would be in my file?”
I remember Tami as having a buttery, southern drawl, but I may just be remembering it that way because she was so dang kind to me.
“Sure,” she said. “You’ll need to contact DSHS. We only handle birth certificates. DSHS keeps data cards on adoptees and may have info about your time in foster care.”
Wondering if I was part of a greater tribe of curious grown adoptees, I asked, “Have you been getting a lot of requests for birth certificates and adoption records since the law changed?”
“Oh yeah,” she answered with you-better-believe-it enthusiasm. “Since July of 2014, we’ve had four thousand seven hundred and fifty requests. It’s important to people — the health history especially. I adopted my son from foster care when he was two, and he ended up getting brain cancer. Having his health records would’ve really helped me out, but I couldn’t get ‘em.”
I marveled at how the shared experience of adoption brought people together. I’d admitted to being a foster kid, and Tami had shared her son’s brain cancer (he pulled through) within our first sixty seconds of conversation.
“I know the law changed, but I don’t really know how. How does it work now?” I asked.
“Basically the law says an adoptee has a right to their records, but the state gives birth parents a chance to say what the child can or can’t have from their records,” Tami said. “Birth parents can fill out a contact preference form where they pick from four choices:
Yes, the adoptee can contact me. Give the adoptee everything.
The adoptee may contact me, but only through a confidential intermediary.
The adoptee may not contact me at all, but you may give them their birth certificate.
The adoptee may not contact me, and do not give the adoptee their birth certificate.
But all adoptees, no matter what selection their birth parent makes, will be sent their medical history.”
I was riveted.
“How do the biological parents even know to fill out the form — know there’s a form to be filled out?” I asked.
“The state announced the law change in a variety of ways,” she said. “Press releases went out, TV news picked it up, all the major newspapers.”
“Wow. How many birth parents have filled out the form so far?” I asked. “And what did most of them want? I’m sorry — am I asking too much? I’m just so curious.”
“Oh no, honey, it’s fine. Give me a minute, I got all that right here,” she said, making scrolling noises. “Okay, here it is: three hundred twelve Contact Preference Forms have been sent in by birth parents. Of those, one hundred eighteen said, yes, please let the adoptee contact me, give ’em everything. Eleven said the adoptee could contact them only through a confidential intermediary. Two said the adoptee couldn’t contact them, but we could give ’em their birth certificate. One hundred eighty-one said they didn’t want to be contacted at all, and we couldn’t give the adoptee their birth certificate.”
I felt for the adoptees who’d made the call I’d made a few weeks before, only to be told their biological parents filled out a form stating they didn’t want to be contacted and had blocked them from seeing their birth certificate. Where I’d held my original birth certificate in trembling hands and felt a loop in my fabric satisfyingly close, they’d felt rejected, cut off at the knees. It didn’t seem fair that a biological parent, after relinquishing all rights to a child, could somehow reach through the decades and wag their finger — uh-uh-uh — and prevent them from seeing their original birth certificate. And yet. When those birth moms placed their babies for adoption they were promised there was no way their child could ever find them. I could see both sides.
Out of the tens of thousands of closed adoptions completed in Washington, only three hundred twelve of those birth parents had completed a contact preference form. Many had likely moved out of state and had no idea the law had changed. Others, like Joyce, were okay with being contacted and saw no reason to fill out the form. If no contact preference form was submitted, the state gave adoptees full access to their files. Same if the biological parent(s) had died — all records were given to the adoptee.
“Oregon’s been open for quite a while,” Tami said. “And adoptees get their whole file, everything. They don’t allow birth parents to say no. But what we have is good; it’s a step in the right direction.”
“Do you happen to know the name of the law or the bill that made all of this possible in Washington?” I said.
“Yep, Senate House Bill 1525 — it was written two women, state Rep. Tina Orwall and Senator Ann Rivers. Tina was adopted, and Ann is a birth mom.” Tami replied.
I called DSHS. A woman named Debbie answered the phone. She, also, couldn’t have been nicer. (These women were in the right role as the frontline for nervous adoptees taking the first stab at sleuthing their past.) She said they most likely did have my records — they had adoption records dating back to 1907 — but she couldn’t promise anything. She said I needed to fill out an archive request form and that she’d send it to me to make it easy.
“Once you fill that out, then I can go try to find your file,” she said.
“Are the files on site, like…where you are?” I asked, envisioning the state offices that sat on the Capitol building campus.
We’d gone there as kids to watch the fireworks over Capitol Lake. On warm nights, we pulled worms from the soggy lawn, spotting them with Dad’s heavy Maglite we weren’t normally allowed to touch, was serious gear, and smelled like the bench seat of his state-issued Crown Vic. Had my file been there in those cement buildings I’d been running around all my life?
“Yeah, they’re here. In a warehouse,” she answered. “Wait — when was your adoption?”
“Oh, that’s old,” she said. “I’ll have to find your data card in the card catalog first, then I should be able to find your file. We started digitizing in ‘83.”
“Do you happen to know anything about why it might’ve taken six months for me to be placed?” My brother was adopted in ’66 and went home at two weeks, but for some reason, I wasn’t adopted until I was six months old,” I said. “I’ve been told that back then, if the biological father was unknown (or unnamed, Joyce refused to name Paul on my birth certificate), the state ran ads in local papers saying, ‘A baby was born on blah, blah, blah — any men out there want to claim it?’ and after those ads ran, then the baby could be placed for adoption. Is that true? Have you heard of anything like that?”
“Yeah, that’s called a ‘Seeking John Doe;’ that could be the reason, but your file might tell you more. I have a meeting now, but unless it goes long, I should have time to head over to the warehouse and find your records this afternoon.”
We hung up, and I excitedly opened the archive request form Debbie had already emailed:
1) Requestor’s Name (LAST, FIRST, MIDDLE)
I was stumped.
My married name, Denise Massar, would be of no help. My maiden name, Denise Skaggs might be the right answer, but I wasn’t yet Denise Skaggs when my adoption file first began with Joyce’s relinquishment in the hospital, so that didn’t seem right. Joyce told me she’d been allowed to name me in the hospital and that she’d named me Christine Anne after her mom and sister. But Christine Anne hadn’t made it onto my birth certificate. There were a couple of early Polaroids in my baby book with the name Lynn scrawled across the back, so Lynn was my name when I was in foster care. But what last name should I use? On my original birth certificate, my name read: NOT NAMED Heth.
I sent Debbie an email: “What name should I use?”
She responded immediately: “Baby Heth.”
After the initial stumper, the form was simpler than those I’ve filled out so my kids could jump around in a warehouse full of trampolines. I sent it back to Debbie.
I imagined her sitting in a meeting somewhere while some man blathered on. I wanted him to shut up so she could get to the card catalog.
A word about birth certificates:
If you’re not adopted, you have one. If you’re adopted, you have two. (Two exist though the original may not be available to you.) Your original birth certificate lists your biological mother’s (and maybe father’s) name, age, and address at the time of your birth, and the state in which she was born. But, as part of the adoption process, a second birth certificate is issued in which all sections concerning parentage are completed with the adoptive parents’ information. A birth certificate seems like it should be an absolute document, a one-off. But it’s not. Adoptees second birth certificates are completely legal, state-issued forgeries.
Birth certificates are the ultimate form of legal identification, and the need for the second birth certificate is obvious; you can’t parent without one. Mom plucked my birth certificate from the tin box in their bedroom closet regularly as a requirement for official childhood activities: registering for school; applying for a social security number; opening a bank account; and completing college applications. As an adult, I called on Mom for a copy of my birth certificate to get my first passport (and again to get a replacement for that passport I quickly lost) and finally when Pete and I applied for our marriage license.
My birth certificate reads:
CHILD NAME: DENISE MARIE SKAGGS
DATE OF BIRTH: July 11, 1972
HOUR: 8:47 p.m.
MOTHER — MAIDEN NAME: Virginia L. Brown
AGE (AT TIME OF THIS BIRTH): 32
MOTHER — STATE OF BIRTH: California
FATHER — NAME: Darrell O. Skaggs
AGE (AT TIME OF THIS BIRTH): 32
FATHER — STATE OF BIRTH: Washington
Even when I was very young, I knew that the “facts” listed on my birth certificate weren’t the original facts of my life. It looked so official, my, CERTIFICATE OF LIVE BIRTH from the STATE OF WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL HEALTH SERVICES BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS, but I knew it was a bunch of bunk. How could Mom and Dad’s names be on my birth certificate?
When I opened the letter containing my original birth certificate, the only facts that remained the same between my two birth certificates were the date and time of my birth. The name of the doctor who delivered me was the same, but there was a subtle difference: he’d signed my original birth certificate because he was there to do so. On the reproduction of my birth certificate, the doctor’s name was typed into the spot where his signature should’ve been.
We were at the hospital to name Henry so his name is identical on both of his birth certificates, but in our tin box, we have his two birth certificates: the original with D’s information, and the second that arrived months after he’d been home, naming us as his parents. I like having both of them there. One is original, but they are both real. She gave birth to him, and we are his parents.
As an adoptee, and someone for whom stories are important, I’m grateful I was able to see my original birth certificate. It’s an odd sensation to grow up knowing the mother listed on your birth certificate is not the woman who gave birth to you. It’s a birth certificate, right? Your mom is your mom in every sense of the word, with the exception of having given birth to you, yet her name is given on your certificate of birth, to the exclusion of the woman who did. The truth about who gave birth to you is hidden from you — it’s more hidden from you more than it is from state workers in a cement building downtown. It’s an odd feeling. It feels like that information should be yours.
My adoption file arrived one month later. The envelope was more slender than I’d imagined — I thought they might even send me a box. The kids were watching Minecraft videos on YouTube. I told them I was going upstairs to poop, to buy myself more time. I sat down on our bedroom floor and started reading:
FACE SHEET FOR CHILD IN FOSTER CARE
Child’s Name: Lynn Heth
I’d seen Joyce’s religion listed as Protestant on other documents. It struck me as funny that the religion of my birth mom was transferred to me, as if through umbilical cord. Pete and I are pretty much on the same page with religion, but every once in a while his Catholic upbringing peeks out from behind the curtain. Later that evening, I showed him where I was listed as a two-day-old Protestant.
“Isn’t that funny?” I said, my voice fizzy with amusement. “ — that they would assign Protestant as my religion, just because it was Joyce’s?”
“Not really. I think it’s pretty normal, that babies take their mom’s religion,” he said.
“But, she’d given me up already. Religion is cultural, not biological,” I elaborated, waiting for his agreement to my point.
He made a little “hmnp” noise and shrugged his shoulders, which is what he does when he doesn’t agree with me but isn’t interested enough in the topic to debate it.
The face sheet also gave the names of my foster parents: Calvin and Cherlee. (I’m not totally positive on Cherlee; my case worker wrote with a cursive that looked more like an EKG waves than handwriting, which was maddening.) Calvin and Cherlee had two kids of their own, Calvin Jr. and Odes. Their names were so…hillbilly. They’d taken me in and cared for me at a time when no one else would, and their names (read: their social class) embarrassed me.
CHILD IN FOSTER CARE — PERIODIC ASSESSMENT
7–16–72 Placed in Calvin (redacted last name) foster home
7–26 thru 7–29 Placed in hospital for diarrhea. Now fine.
8–2–72 Placed in (redacted last name) home. Calvin home is on vacation
8–4–72 Placed in (redacted last name) home. (Redacted last name) had to leave on family emergency.
8–7–72 Placed back in care of Calvin family, vacation over
Not only had I been a foster child, but I’d been in three different homes and had a stay in the hospital before I was one month old. I picture Bob and me when we were little, standing on the uneven, rocky shore of the Cowlitz River — he’s teaching me how to skip rocks, and I am mesmerized by how they barely skim the surface.
DESCRIPTION OF CHILD’S ADJUSTMENT IN FOSTER HOME:
“Lynn has done very well in the home. She is an alert, happy baby. Eats and sleeps well — very responsive. Laughs out loud — very loveable. According to foster mother, Lynn also has a ‘red head temper.’”
This makes me smile.
CHILD’S MEDICAL REPORT
(Completed when I was six months old, this is the first document in which Mom and Dad appear; their signatures are at the bottom.)
Biological Family History: Normal health in Mother’s Family/Normal health in Father’s family
Pregnancy: No prenatal, full term
Apgar: One minute: 9, Five minutes: 9
There was a detail on my medical report I didn’t comprehend the significance of until my second read-through, over a year after receiving my adoption file. My medical report was the first physical evidence Mom and Dad received of my existence. They would’ve been thrilled to learn the weight, length, and overall robust health of their new daughter they had yet to meet. On the report, my name is given as Lynn. Debbie’s middle name was Lynn. It must have taken Mom’s breath away to see that the daughter she was adopting shared the name of her daughter who had died. I scrutinized Mom’s signature for signs of shakiness. She did not falter.
As I read, names and dates of coincidence magnified themselves and danced on the page:
On July 13th, 1972, I am two days old. A TEMPORARY ORDER AUTHORIZING REMOVAL FROM HOSPITAL is filed, and I’m discharged from the hospital into the custody of the Department of Social Health Services as a ward of the state. Sixty miles away in a lighthouse, my dad turns thirty-three. I see him cock his head to the side and crack a self-deprecating joke before he blows out the candles on Mom’s homemade chocolate cake. Dad, Mom, and Bob sit around the yellow Formica table that would eventually land in the rec room of our house on 88th Avenue.
On August 3rd, 1972, I am three weeks old. Joyce and her father appear in court to sign a REPORT OF GUARDIAN AD LITEM. Because Joyce was not yet eighteen, her father, Robert, acts as her guardian and legally places me for adoption. On the same day, sixty miles away, Bob (Robert) turns six. I see his innocent, smiling face, a brightly-colored cone atop his head. Another homemade cake. Six flickering candles reflecting in the pupils of his cornflower eyes.
I am coming, I whisper to them.
There were statements sprinkled throughout my file that to read and understand as pertaining to me was surreal:
“Said child has no parent willing or capable of providing proper parental control and is in danger of growing up to lead an idle, dissolute, and/or immoral life.”
It’d only been since my talk with Debbie at DSHS a few weeks before that I’d even thought of myself as having been a foster kid. But I had been up for grabs in the system and several stars had to align to deliver me to my family — my family by chance, though I couldn’t imagine having any other. This dizzying consideration of chance wasn’t one I attributed only to adoption. After Jack was born, Pete and I were strolling him around the neighborhood. I was drunk with new-mom love. I grabbed Pete’s arm as we walked:
“Do you think about how amazing it is that we have him? This exact little person? I mean, if we would’ve had sex one minute later, or if you would’ve come three seconds earlier, this would be a totally different person. But that one sperm out of hundreds of millions made its way to my egg and made Jack.”
“Yep,” Pete calmly answered.
I stopped him and turned him to me.
“But do you get it?” I asked, my eyes brimming with tears of wonder and gratitude.
ADOPTION PROGRAM CHANGE OF STATUS REPORT
(The final report stating I’d been placed in a home for adoption.)
Mrs. Tack’s signature was at the bottom of the report, and though there was no official place for her to add a comment, to the left of her signature she’d written: Lovely placement —
I was overwhelmed by the history and intimacy contained in her words. Mrs. Tack knew our whole story. She knew my parents’ and Bob’s heartache and what my placement would mean in regards to healing them. She knew Mom was an exceptionally loving mother, nurturing and generous. It was a lovely placement.