Sixteen-year-old Alexander Dorf stood at the top of the stairs in his Tenafly, N.J., home two years ago, grinning broadly at his mother, Jami. He had just gotten a message on his Facebook wall that he’d been waiting for all his life.
From a Florida woman named Terri Barber, it read: “Hi, I was just wondering if your parents’ names are Jamie & Jeff?” Alexander recognized the name; he had searched the Internet for it himself with no luck. It belonged to the woman who had given birth to him.
Ms. Dorf and her husband, who had adopted Alexander as an infant, were not surprised. Ms. Barber had reached out to them, too, a few beats after the e-mail to Alexander. “I sent Alex a message because I found him first, but I only asked him if you and Jeff were his parents,” Ms. Barber wrote. “I said nothing else. ... Please let me know if it’s O.K. if we speak.... Please don’t be upset.”
The Internet is changing nearly every chapter of adoption. It can now start with postings by couples looking for birth mothers who want to place children, and end years later with birth mothers looking to reunite with children they’ve placed. A process that once relied on gatekeepers and official procedures can now be largely circumvented with a computer, Wi-Fi and some luck.
“It used to be a slow process,” says Anya Luchow, a psychologist who facilitates an adoption support group in Bergen County, N.J., that includes the Dorfs. “And when the children were minors, it was one that their adoptive parents could control.”
Now, says Leanne Jaffe, a Manhattan therapist (herself an adoptee) who specializes in adoption issues: “Kids, at the most vulnerable time for developing identity, are plugged in online. Either they are savvy enough to find their birth parents, or they spend time in places like Facebook, where their birth parents can find them.”
There are stories of children as young as 13 approached by birth parents online, and of children being contacted before they had been told they were adopted. Among the most cautionary of tales is that of Aimee L. Sword, who was convicted of having sex with her biological son, who was 14 at the time, and whom she found on Facebook when yearly updates from his adoptive family stopped coming. “It’s uncharted territory,” Dr. Luchow says. What are the new rules? They are being made up as the participants — adoptees and their parents — go along.
When Linda Wachtel and her husband, Zev, adopted their daughter, Jessi, 19 years ago, things were different. Open adoption was still rare. Birth mothers were kept at arm’s length.
They did have Jessi’s birth mother’s first name, Sharyn, but were not certain of her last; she knew them as Linda and Steve (Zev, they thought, was too easy to find). For awhile they used an 800 number to communicate, set up, per the norm at the time, so that their whereabouts remained secret. A few years in, they disconnected that line.
The Wachtels assumed Jessi would eventually want to meet her birth mother but thought they would be in charge of the timing.
To that end, the Wachtels were open with their daughter, who has two brothers who are not adopted, and who was always curious about her genetic roots. As the Internet became a part of life, both Ms. Wachtel and Jessi herself would do Google searches for Sharyn periodically, but come up empty. “Mostly I wanted to know what she looked like,” Jessi says.
One day, two years ago, Ms. Wachtel happened upon her son’s Facebook page, left open on a computer screen in their home. On a whim, she typed “Sharyn” and “Padula,” which was one possible last name. Up popped a photo that “was eerily familiar,” Ms. Wachtel says. “It was like looking at my daughter.”
Creating a new e-mail account — lindasteve92 — Ms. Wachtel e-mailed. “Hi Sharyn,” Ms. Wachtel recalls writing, “I’m Jessi’s mother. I know it must be fairly shocking to get this.”
Ms. Padula answered within minutes. The two women talked electronically for much of the day. Then Ms. Wachtel left to pick up her younger son from school and in those 20 minutes Jessi came home. Sitting at the family computer she noticed lindasteve92 on the screen, and by the time Ms. Wachtel got home, Jessi was in a conversation with Ms. Padula that had moved from e-mail through instant messaging, to the telephone, to video chat.
Ms. Padula had been looking for Jessi all along. She had been 24 and the mother of three when she became pregnant in 1992, and she was fighting with her then-boyfriend, now husband, who did not want another child. She regretted the adoption immediately, she says, and called the agency the next day. She called the Wachtels’ 800 number periodically, too, until it was disconnected.
Knowing that the family lived in New Jersey, that they had named the baby Jessica, and that the adoptive father, whose name she thought was Steve, was an anesthesiologist, she started by calling doctors with that first name in that state. Years later she moved on to contacting every New Jersey Jessie, Jessy, Jessica and Jessyca on Facebook and MySpace, but apparently never tried Jessi. If she had, it might have been the teen who found a thunderbolt in her mailbox.
John, a professional guitarist in San Francisco, sat and stared at the MySpace page often over several weeks last year, trying to decide what to do. The young man’s face staring back from the screen looked just like him. There were photos of him with a guitar, which tickled John, who had just learned he was the young man’s biological father. There was also one of those surveys that kids forward around asking something like “50 Things About Mike,” and included were the facts that he was adopted, born in Palm Springs, and of Irish ancestry.
All John, who asked that his last name not be used, knew when he began his search was the date the boy was born, and the names of the birth mother, the hospital and the adoption agency. Rummaging around online, he came upon one of the many Web sites that seek to connect searching parties, and after filling out a rudimentary form, he heard back via e-mail from gsadoptionregistry.com.
The note contained contact information and a warning. “They told me, ‘This is a young guy, I suggest that you be very respectful of his adoptive parents because you don’t know how they are going to handle it,’ ” he recalls of the Web site, which will not conduct searches by or for adoptees younger than 18.
Mike was 21 by then, not a minor, but still, he had parents, and the question was whether to reach out to him directly or to go through his family.
Many friends advised him to approach the young man directly, assuming that the adoptive parents would be hostile. “But I decided to go through the parents first,” John says, “knowing that he is an adult and if I got an answer I didn’t like, I could always go back and go around them.” He sent a handwritten letter to the parents. Three days later the father called, and then, within minutes, the son was on the phone. The two have met in person several times, but, fittingly, their relationship is mostly online. They are Facebook friends. This, it seems, is the next unexpected role for Facebook. Jessi is “friends” with Ms. Padula, as well as her biological father, three biological brothers and one sister, her maternal biological grandmother and aunt. The screen provides connection, but also distance, a way to tiptoe through what can be the awkward in-between territory of reconnection.
Alexander Dorf’s adoption had been, at first, a relatively open one, and after that first “ask your mother” Facebook contact, Ms. Dorf brought out a safe-deposit box full of old correspondence with Ms. Barber, and went through it all with the teen. She showed him photos of his birth mother and of Alexander’s biological father, James. She told him that communication with the couple had ended after about four years, when Ms. Barber offered a second child to the Dorfs but changed her mind.
After taking all this in, Alexander went back to the computer and began an instant message.
“Hi,” he typed.
“Hi. How are you?” she answered.
“I don’t know what to say,” he replied. “I never blamed you or my father. I know you gave me up because you loved me. My mom always told me that you loved me. I read all the letters and saw all the pics you sent and I want you to know I am happy.”
She wrote back: “It was the best thing for you. I know you had a great life. Better than we could have given you. Your brother and sister are always asking if we can find you.”
That Ms. Dorf did not control the timing of this conversation is the reality. “If you think that what was private 17 years ago is still private and that your child needs you to find a birth parent, you are fooling yourself,” she says.
That reality is how Ms. Barber justifies reaching out to Alexander in the first place, even though he was just 16. “Jami had told me from the beginning that she would tell him the true story,” she says. “I didn’t feel unfair contacting him because I knew he knew.”
Ms. Dorf has since searched for, and found, the birth mothers of her two younger sons. Better to make the first move.
Like John and Mike, most communication between the Dorf boys and their birth families now takes place virtually. Alexander has become close with his oldest biological brother, and the two play video games together from several states apart, through Wii.
Alexander graduated from high school on Thursday. Ms. Barber wanted to go, but couldn’t take the time off. But she was there in spirit, she says. And there were photos of the ceremony on Facebook.
Credit: New York Times