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Three Northeast Ohio Mothers Recount the Pain of Giving Their Children Up for Adoption, and the Journey Toward Reunion Many Years Later 

For years, Beverly Haettich's husband gave her a single red rose at Christmastime. It was a nice gesture, she says, especially because Robert wasn't otherwise the flower-giving type. Then, one year, Christmas passed without a rose.She asked why, and Robert finally revealed that the rose had been meant to symbolize the missing part of their family, their daughter who had been given up for adoption decades earlier. It was a painful time, the adoption, and Haettich says that it probably would have just made her cry if she'd known the meaning behind the rose all those years.

A few months before that revelation, Haettich got a phone call at work. After a long search for a daughter born in 1966, Adoption Network Cleveland had helped guide her toward that reunion. "I was so excited I could hardly stand," she says. "I felt like I just had a baby."

This is one of Adoption Network Cleveland's hallmark missions: helping reunite birthparents with their adopted children. There's no cookie-cutter formula to it, and no two stories are exactly alike; adoption is an emotional and often very difficult experience for all involved.

For more than two decades after her first daughter was born and then given to an agency in Indiana, Haettich lived with the mindset that she simply mustn't think about it. For a while, the very thought of searching for her daughter compelled feelings of guilt. "I had been told always, 'Don't think about it. Don't do anything,'" she says.

At the hospital, in 1966, Haettich was given a Polaroid picture of her and the baby girl. She never told anyone about that photo, and she kept it hidden in a drawer for decades. Now and then, she'd take it out and quietly contemplate the path not taken.

It was Haettich's 16th birthday when that path was set — her mother broached the looming subject and asked if she was pregnant. "It was a horrible day for me," she says. "They didn't want to talk about it."

The environment in the 1960s was not great for unwed mothers, especially those living in the more cloistered Midwest. Cultural norms were unkind, treating unwed mothers like black sheep. Haettich's parents channeled that feeling in the language they used to talk about the pregnancy: "How could you do this to us?"

Before long and without any debate, Haettich was sent to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she lived for three months at the Woodhaven Home for Unwed Mothers. It was a low-slung, church-looking building that housed more than 40 unwed mothers during the time she was there. Woodhaven was so crowded that Haettich had to sleep on a roll-away bed and share a closet with another girl.

The time was spent laboring from day to day: cooking, cleaning, inventorying various items around the home. "We were kept busy," Haettich says. They didn't go to school, and what should have been her junior year passed by silently back home.

The birth of her daughter was a painful day spent in shock, signing papers and, briefly, stopping for a photo with the baby.

"[My parents] came and picked me up, and there wasn't a word spoken," Haettich says. "I think that's what was so hard about this: You just live with that eating at you the whole time. Even after my husband and I married, it was very hard for us to talk about it."

The following year, Haettich's best friend and next-door neighbor suddenly disappeared. She was pregnant, and her parents had sent her away as well. But that, of course, isn't what they told people: They told Haettich's parents they had sent their daughter to ballet camp. "I thought, well, that's strange," Haettich recalls. "We were both dancers. Why wouldn't she have mentioned this to me?"

And that same sense of confusion and guilt compounded privately as Haettich grew up. Many women in Northeast Ohio were in the same position, all carrying different versions of the same grand narrative. Many, but certainly not all, had been secreted away like Haettich; that was just what was done in those years. But Haettich didn't have that catharsis of community until she introduced herself to them.

It was her husband who encouraged her to go to meetings with Adoption Network Cleveland when the group formed in the late 1980s, and there she found a community that felt much the same way she did. She cried through those meetings for the first few years. There's a sense of community, but it's not always a pleasant feeling. It's difficult. It's a reckoning, and all along, the network was doing what it could to help reunite birthparents and children, to ease the pain of an unlived history.

When the call came for Haettich, everything changed. The woman she met was admittedly a stranger when she and Robert visited their birthdaughter at a third-party friend's house in Indiana, where she lived. The first question the grown woman asked Haettich that day was a direct and painful one: "Why did you give me away?" The only answer, dwelt on for a generation and part of a longer, more involved story: "I had no choice." They sat and talked for a while about that.

In the ensuing 20-plus years, the couple has seen their birthdaughter about once a year. They've brought the daughter they raised, too, and even her children. "We've just had some grand times there," Haettich says.

***

Adoption Network Cleveland has been at the forefront of addressing the unmet needs of adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents since its founding as a shoestring volunteer group in 1988. Executive director Betsie Norris, herself an adoptee, molded its mission as adoption grew from a "simple legal event" often kept hidden from view to a more open and widely discussed part of American life. At various times, the Network has led the vanguard in untangling an adoption "crisis," by pushing for policy changes and new laws.

In 2013, state legislators approved a law that allowed adoptees born in Ohio between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 17, 1996, to request their adoption file held by the Ohio Department of Health — if their birthparents didn't specifically block that access, which is rare, but nevertheless a policy that had been a thorn in the side of advocates pushing for all-in open access. That 32-year span covers some 400,000 people. Those born before 1964 already had access, as did those born in late 1996 and on, but for years state law blocked anyone born in the interim from accessing their birth records.

In fact, Norris' own adoptive father, Brad Norris, was a well known attorney who originally helped lobby for the 1964 law that sealed adoption records. As the years wore on, she says, he came to regret that effort and began encouraging lawmakers to change it.

When lawmakers finally did so with the 2013 bill, it signaled a tidal shift in states opening up adoption records — with that caveat that birthparents may preemptively shut it down. "For better or worse, Ohio probably set a precedent," Norris says, "in that some legislators want to take a conservative view, and they don't want to just make the records completely open without giving birthparents the chance to redact." Pennsylvania and Arkansas, for example, recently passed laws similar to Ohio's.

And so the matter of birthparents and adoptees coping with their paths — and attempting to connect loose ends in their lives — remains a situation in need of assistance. And even with therapeutic meetings and fellowship, the yearning to reunite, for many, is strong. Often enough, adoptees begin trying to pierce the void in earnest as they approach adulthood and need valuable insight into their medical history.

With the advent of online forums, those private searches found a sliver of hope in desperate pleas:

"I was adopted out of Lucas County in 1977. I was born to a high school mother in Toledo Hospital. Looking for any information that might help me find my birth family."

"Looking for my sister who was given up for adoption. My mother resided in Ohio until 1962. She had a baby girl in late June 1960; between the 21st -25th."

The 2013 bill gave a more direct path.

***

The reunion, for many, is an experiential crest. It's a moment when the past and future fold inward, bringing divergent life paths together and forging new, sometimes unexpected bonds.

Highland Heights resident Denise Barone reunited with her son decades after his birth. For her, it was the good sort of bond that emerged from that moment.

Barone recalls Adoption Network Cleveland's Linda Bellini bringing her a folder on the night of her daughter's Baccalaureate mass. She opened the folder and a profound wave of realization hit her: It was her son's name, photo and a handful of identifying information — enough for a Facebook search. Floored with emotion, she tucked the details away and went off to the mass that evening.

On Facebook, she stumbled onto a photo of her son and his family standing in front of a newly purchased home — with the address clearly visible. She sent a letter to say that she had been looking for him, offering only non-identifying information in case he hadn't wanted to pursue the thread any further. Her son found the letter addressed to a name that no one called him, a name long left behind in his personal story; he was stunned, and immediately began piecing together his own online search for who could have sent it.

Barone waited to do anything more until that fall, after she had sent her daughter off to college. She told her husband the news, and confided in a best friend, but otherwise kept the development private. Only in the fall did she really reach out with an email. (His reply went to her spam folder, and she missed it for a few days while she was traveling with a friend in Chicago. He happened to be in Chicago too, but Barone didn't realize that until she got home.) They eventually set a time to talk on the phone, and a cathartic, positive conversation ensued. "It was just amazing," she said, which led ultimately to a trip out West to actually meet him. "We talked for days and days and days."

She had begun her search many years prior through Westside Catholic Charities at a time when she could only receive non-identifying information about the adoptive family. From there, she found herself regularly thinking about her son: where he was, how he was doing, what sort of young man he was growing up to be. She says she was always scanning faces of children in crowds. By the time he would have been 14 or 15, Barone was using the nascent internet's search functions to do anything in the name of finding him.

Meeting with other women at Adoption Network Cleveland, she said, helped nudge her in a more concrete direction toward addressing the painful missing piece in her heart and toward finding resolution. "Those girls who got sent away: They're my heroes," Barone says. "I thought I had it rough; I can't even imagine what they went through."

Barone's experience in the late '70s differed somewhat from Haettich's experience a decade earlier. While Barone wasn't sent away, she did find her pregnancy stamped with a stigma, and a pervasive silent treatment among friends, family and classmates. "It never comes up," she says of that time. "No one talks about it."

"There are a lot of hurts and anguish in reliving that time in your life," Barone says. "It is really, really difficult, because it's never a happy time. No one looks back on it fondly. ... But you have to go back and revisit a lot of those hurts, and it's all through your life. I'm not sure it's over yet, but I'm better everyday. It's been a gift."

***

For Willowick resident Amy Lomis, her story plays out in a different era in the history of adoption in the U.S. By the 1990s, the perception of unwed mothers' pregnancies had thankfully tempered, and Lomis says that her family was entirely supportive of her throughout her experience at age 14. But it was still a singularly unique experience few around her completely understood.

"I always thought of it as a positive experience," she says. "And then I went to the birthmothers support group and they started saying things that I thought throughout the years but was too afraid to say anything. They were speaking a language that I didn't know. I cried the whole time."

She says that interacting with Adoption Network Cleveland was more of a "clarifying" process than a negative one.

Her daughter was born and placed for adoption in 1994. She says that her parents remembered the era of young women being sent away, like Haettich, but that counseling and communication urged them toward a more supportive parental role. "Ever since we made that decision — we're going to stay in our community and face it — it started to be a very positive thing," Lomis says. "They were very supportive of my decision. My parents said, 'This has to be your decision.'" Lomis says her experience was far different than women who were pregnant in earlier eras.

Her own adoption process began with an "open adoption," one in which the adoptive parents, the adopted child and the birthmother are all able to communicate and know one another. "We thought we could be a part of her life and add to her life, so that she would know that we didn't do this because we didn't want her, that we didn't abandon her," Lomis says. For the first year, Lomis agreed to photos and letters once a month. Later, that became an annual event for her and her daughter.

It worked well for a while, but her daughter's life was unfolding mostly out of sight. Personal obstacles in her family came up that eventually led her adoptive parents to cease communication when her daughter was 5. Sometimes, things change, and there's no real Ohio law to prevent that.

Later, her birthdaughter's parents got back in touch and reestablished the open communication with Lomis. They were fully reunited by the time her daughter turned 16; she attended her daughter's high school graduation.

The ups and downs of Lomis' experience, even with the backdrop of a supportive family, led her to seek volunteer work with Adoption Network Cleveland, where she fell into the world of birthmothers' many and varied experiences. As she says, there's a language all its own for women who've traversed that territory, language that sometimes doesn't translate well into more common societal conversations.

"There were some people who would say things like, 'How could you give up your own child?'" Lomis says. It's a stigma that persists on some level to this day, for birthmothers everywhere.

***

This weekend's Birth Mother's Day ceremony will crystallize those stories and more.

"It's such a touching thing and such a common theme that we hear from birthparents: that their parenthood isn't necessarily acknowledged," Norris tells Scene. "It's a very organic program. The birthmothers organize the program and lead the program."

The event originated in Seattle in 1990. Birthmothers there got together to host an event on the Saturday before Mother's Day, and then they workshopped that idea with groups like Adoption Network Cleveland.

For years now, their behind-the-scenes work has quietly changed the landscape of thousands of lives in Northeast Ohio and elsewhere. It's a monumental thing to hear the stories of families reunited, and to know that, often enough, others never find that sense of wholeness, of closure and progress.

In many ways, too, closure isn't as final as it sounds.

"I laid in bed for weeks," Lomis says of the time following her first pregnancy. "I was just so sad. It was really tough, but my parents gave me that time to grieve, which I think was good and healing. Again, I was 14. Looking back on it I can see these things. But at the time I didn't really know what I was going through. It was very scary at some points. For years, I struggled. I went to school, I played sports, I kinda went on with life, but there was always a piece of my heart missing."

She says that the Birth Mother's Day ceremony is so special to her because it does reflect the different role she plays, compared with Mother's Day on the following Sunday. And, she adds, there remains a sense of loss that needs tending.

Birthmothers from Northeast Ohio and beyond are welcome. The event takes place from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on Saturday, May 13, at Lakewood Women's Pavilion in Lakewood Park.

The ceremony is, of course, very emotional. "We've tried to not be overly positive or overly negative, if that makes sense," Norris says. "There's grief involved, and it's a hard thing. But you don't want to wallow in the grief and not have hope, either. The ceremony strikes a nice balance of acknowledging the grief and also acknowledging the hope and joy."

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