By Rachel M. Anderson, Freelance Writer
(Minneapolis) - Growing up, Katie DeCosse, 52, of Minneapolis had every opportunity to succeed in life. She grew up in a comfortable home, attended private schools, graduated from college and among her favorite memories are the annual vacations to see family in Bozeman, Mont. Both of her parents are extremely bright and creative people which lent itself to a very interesting childhood. But something was always missing from her life.
"My parents told me I had been adopted when I was very young and I always wondered if my birth mother looked like me, why she gave me up, if I had any siblings and a myriad of other things," says DeCosse. "I thought of trying to find my birth mother several times over the years, but never took action."
Turns out Jackie Maher, 73, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., had thought about trying to find her daughter several times over the years as well. "But I couldn't bring myself to do it," she says. "I was afraid my appearance in her life after so many years would be disruptive."
Not to mention, Katie's very existence was a deep, dark secret. None of the five children Maher had raised in Robbinsdale and Crystal knew about their older half sister. "I didn't know how to break the news to them after all those years," says Maher.
But shortly after turning 71, Maher decided it was time to finally reveal her secret. "I had reached a point in my life where all the loose ends began clamoring for attention." Maher finally shared the adoption story with her family in March 2007. Shortly thereafter, the search began.
The Decision to Give Up Her Baby
Maher says she gave Katie up for adoption for one reason and one reason only. "The decision was in the best interest of my child at the time," she says. "There's no way I could have given Katie the life she deserved in the 1950s. I didn't have much money, marriage was not an option and there was nothing worse than coming home pregnant. I didn't want to put that shame on Katie or the rest of my family," says Maher.
Once she made her decision, Maher, who was 20 at the time, and her boyfriend, went to the church to ask for help. The pastor sent them to Catholic Charities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Maher was placed in a work home and eventually sent to the Catholic Infant Home in St. Paul where she lived until ready to give birth.
"After I had the baby, I didn't even get to hold her. They took her to the nursery immediately," remembers Maher. The only time she ever held the child she had named Melinda Louise was on the cab ride back to what she refers to as "the home." The next morning she returned to her apartment, leaving the baby behind.
"I saw her only one more time after that. On May 12, 1957, the day I signed the adoption papers." A few days later, Melinda Louise became Katie DeCosse of Minneapolis.
DeCosse grew up in Orono, the middle of three children who had all been adopted by Cyrille (Cy) and Barbara DeCosse. She attended Catholic grade school, high school and college, then after school worked as a veterinary technician for nearly 25 years.
Meantime, her birth mother, the former Jackie Josephes, met and married veterinarian Bill Maher and over the next several decades raised five children. She thought about the daughter she had given up several times over the years, but didn't actually start searching for her until the Spring of 2007.
"At first, it was slow going," remembers Maher, whose first step was to contact the adoption agency that had placed her child. Because hers was a closed adoption, she was not entitled to the adoptive family's name. "I was told the only way they'd be able to provide that was if my daughter had come to them looking for me, and she had not."
Note: Katie had made an initial inquiry in 1979 but since no affidavit was on file Jackie was unable to get information.
Adoption Law in Minnesota
In the 1950s, Minnesota law assumed both birth mothers and adoptive parents wanted anonymity, unless an affidavit was attached to the birth certificate stating that contact was allowed. "No one had ever mentioned that option to me. It's a step I'm sure I would have taken if I had known about it," says Maher.
Unwilling to give up, Maher decided to conduct a search on her own. She got the help she needed from a woman who had herself been adopted, Gretchen Traylor at the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform, a group lobbying to bring Minnesota's adoption laws up to date; and a fellow birth mother named Marj.
"I met Marj when Gretchen and I went to a Concerned United Birth Parents (CUB) meeting and with the information I was able to provide, which included my maiden name, the date of my daughter's birth, the hospital she was born in and the adoption agency, she found Katie within two weeks," says Maher, who just two months after revealing her daughter's existence to her family made several phone calls. "I've found her," she said over and over again, and a new chapter in everyone's lives began.
A New Beginning
After learning the identity of her daughter, Maher decided the best, and most fair way to initiate contact, would be to write Katie a letter. It was dated May 12, 2007, exactly 50 years to the day after she had signed the adoption papers. The letter began:
I am sure this letter is coming as a surprise to you. I recently initiated a private search to locate a daughter I surrendered for adoption in 1957. The search culminated in finding you...
Wow! And I thought it was all downhill now that my 50th birthday celebration is officially over... I have never seriously considered searching for you but have always been open to the prospect of a meeting should you initiate it. To what degree, I can't say at this time...
Just 13 days after that first e-mail exchange, Jackie and Katie met face-to-face for the first time. They've spent the past two years becoming the best of friends.
At the urging of their friends and family, Jackie and Katie, who bear a strong resemblance, have the same laugh and both love to write, recently published a book titled Fifty Years in 13 Days: A Mother/Daughter Reunion (Wow! Publishing Group Inc., $12.95). The text includes the e-mails they exchanged during those 13 days before they met face-to-face, as well as insight into what it was like to reconnect after so long.
"I would like to see our book reach others who are at the same crossroads at which I found myself before I started my search. If only one connection comes about because of our story it will have been a worthy endeavor," says Maher.
"We hope that sharing our story will encourage other birth parents and adoptees who have been thinking about attempting a reunion to go for it," says DeCosse.
Fifty Years in 13 Days: A Mother/Daughter Reunion retails for $12.95 and is available for purchase on the publisher's Web site: www.wowpublishinggroup.com. It also be available at the Once Upon a Crime book store at 604 W. 26th Street in Minneapolis. Call 612-870-3785 to check on availability.
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According to the U.S Census Bureau, in 2000 2.5 percent of Americans under the age of 18 or 1,586,004 individuals were adoptees. In Minnesota alone, there were 31,378 resident adoptees, a figure accounting for 2.6 percent of the state's total population.
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Adoption Law in Minnesota
On August 1, 1977, 20 years after Maher gave her daughter up for adoption, Minnesota law changed to require that all birth mothers sign an affidavit of disclosure or non disclosure. The law grants adoptees born after that date access to birth information, unless a birth parent has filed an affidavit stating that the information may not be disclosed.
Currently, those adopted before Aug 1, 1977, do not have access to their birth records without the consent of the birth parent. If passed, Senate File 137, which is sponsored by Sen. Ann H. Rest, DFL-New Hope and supported by the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform, will allow all adult adoptees born in Minnesota the ability to obtain a photocopy of their original birth certificates when they turn 19, unless a birth parent previously signed an affidavit of non-disclosure.
Sen. Rest's legislation also calls for the Department of Health, with the help of adoption agencies and adoption advocates, to provide information and education materials to adopted persons and birth parents about the changes. Birth parents will then have an opportunity to sign an affidavit stating that the information may not be disclosed.
A second proposal, Senate File 164, requires a birth parent to sign an affidavit of non-disclosure when contacted by an agency if the birth parent does not want their name disclosed to an adult adoptee initiating the search. If the adoptee is searching for medical records, however, the birth parent will be asked to update the records for them, but can remain anonymous.
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Marj has been helping adoptees and birth mothers reconnect since the 1980s and offers the following advice to those who want to reunite with a long-lost child or parent:
1. Gather as much information as you possibly can about the person you are searching for.
Adoptees: ask your adoptive parents what hospital you were born in, your birth date, your birth mother's hometown, her family name if they have it, etc.
Birth mothers: gather all the information you can find about your child. Start with the hospital name and birth date. If it was a closed adoption, go back to the adoption agency and ask for non identifying information about the adoptive family. Keep in mind, however, that most agencies will charge a fee for the information.
When requesting information, start with the state where the adoption was finalized and not in the state where the adoptee was born, if different.
2. Take advantage of the resources available at http://www.ancestry.com. For a nominal monthly membership fee, the site offers access to U.S. Census data, birth, marriage and death records, military and immigration records. The site also features informational articles and a message board.
3. Register in state and national reunion registries, also known as mutual consent registries, which are maintained by government and private individuals.
4. Join an adoption support group or mailing list so you can keep up to date on the latest laws and regulations related to searches.
Marj says in many cases, these steps are all it takes to find the information needed for a reunion; and when the time comes to reconnect, Maher suggests the person initiating contact send a letter instead of showing up in person or picking up the phone. "There's a lot less emotional risk for both sides when you do it that way," she says.
"It is very rewarding to connect people who have been lost to each other," adds Marj. "Even if it doesn't lead to a long term relationship, the truth sets you free. You never have to walk down the street again and wonder if the person you just passed is your child or mother."
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