This past Wednesday, I blogged about finally caving and testing my autosomal DNA to learn about my ethnic origins and see if I get connected to any genetic cousins (I was adopted at birth). I also explained why locating my biological parents hasn’t and isn’t a big deal for me.
I am still waiting for AncestryDNA to process my DNA sample, however I have already had a significant breakthrough in this quest. I have a strong candidate for my birth mom. Thanks to a suggestion from my friend Angie Bush, a genetic genealogist.
After reading my blog post on Wednesday, Angie sent a message asking if I knew about Search Angels — a generic term for volunteers who help adoptees identify and find their birth families, often able to identify birth parent surnames within just an hour or two. She steered me towards Search Squad, a closed Facebook group where people seeking biological family members (adoptees and others with unknown parentage) can get help from these volunteer Search Angels. This group runs a sister Facebook group specifically for California and Ohio adoptions, which is where I posted my query. These particular Facebook groups do not allow just anyone to join; a group administrator will contact you with some questions prior to admitting you as a member. This is to help cut back on looky-loos.
I posted a query at 8:13pm on Wednesday, March 25th, with what info I knew about my birth and adoption: my legal birth name, birth date, birth county, mom’s maiden name (my real mom, not bio mom), that it was a public adoption at birth, and ages of bio mom and dad (from my adoption letter). By 8:25pm, a California specialist volunteer had claimed my case. This volunteer then messaged me on Facebook to let me know that she would have her volunteer team start on the search in the morning, and should have information about my birth parents the next day.
By 9:37am the next morning, my Search Angel had my original birth info!
These Facebook groups are not the only place one can find Search Angels. Several websites provide listings of Search Angel volunteers, usually by state. Search Angels do not charge for their services; some only for copies of actual records that they might retrieve on your behalf for a repository. They pay for various database subscriptions — genealogy, public records, yearbook sites, etc. — out of their own pockets, and do not pass those costs on to the people they help. Search Angels are located all across the U.S., some even in other countries.
My Birth Names
As I mentioned above, by 9:37am the morning after I posted my query, a team of Search Angels had found my original birth information. My California specialist messaged me asking if I was ready to meet myself!
I was named Kerry M. at birth, on my sealed birth records, as evidenced by the California Birth Index, 1905-1995. My Search Angel tells me that because my biological parents were not married, but because my birth mom chose to identify my birth father, I am listed twice, once under each bio parents’ surname: as Kerry M. Rought, and as Kerry M. Deleon. Since my adoption letter states that my bio dad is of Spanish and French descent, we assumed Deleon was his surname. Rought also jived with the German and Duch ethnicity the letter attributed to my bio mom.
It is important that I clarify that none of these volunteers have access to the original unsealed birth certificates or adoption records. Being a public adoptee from California, my original birth certificate and original adoption records (which would clearly identify both birth parents by name) is sealed. It is illegal for these volunteers to access these records. It is illegal for me to access them, unless a superior court judge rules to release these records to me due to a compelling reason. I am only allowed to request birth records with non-identifying information, to protect the identity of my birth parents.
So how then did the Search Angels identify my original birth information and the surnames of my bio parents?
By starting with the California Birth Index (for births prior to 1995). Anyone can access this index, even within California, since it is public record.
I should define some terms here. This terminology is the jargon used among the Search Angels/adoptees circles. I would need to defer to Judy Russell for confirmation or clarification of the legal terminology.
- Unredacted Birth Certificate: Original birth certificate, sealed and replaced with an amended birth certificate. Includes names of both birth parents (if a birth father was named), and name given at birth of the adoptee.
- Amended Birth Certificate: Legal birth certificate, which replaces the unredacted one. Reflects the legal name if an adoptee undergoes a legal name change (upon adoption). Lists the legal (adoptive) parents.
- Amended Birth Index: Birth index that includes listings from amended birth certificates. I am told this is the public records version accessible within California.
- Unamended Birth Index: Birth index that includes listings from unredacted birth certificates. I am told this is no longer available for access or sale within California.*
My Search Angel team — based outside of California — did a search on the amended California Birth Index for my legal or amended birth certificate entry (I can’t access my amended post-adoption entry on the Ancestry version). This entry provides my birth certificate ID#. My Search Angel team tells me that California does not issue a new ID# when the unredacted certificate is sealed and replaced with the amended certificate — both versions of the birth certificate use the same ID#. This team has access to the unamended birth index and simply looked for the same ID#, gender, birth date, and birth county to locate the index entry for my unredacted birth certificate, which provides my original birth name(s) and birth mom’s maiden name.
Once I understood that process, I immediately hopped on my Ancestry subscription and searched for myself using my birth name(s). Bingo! I instantly pulled up both entries (see screenshots above) — under my bio mom’s surname and again under my bio dad’s surname. Note that Ancestry’s version of the California Birth Index does NOT include birth certificate ID#s. There is simply no way I would have ever known these records were mine. Los Angeles County is a big place…there were probably many female babies born that same date. That birth certificate ID# was the key.
I love this sort of detective work!
Birth Mom Candidate
After sharing my birth name and the surnames of my biological parents, my lead Search Angel asked I wanted help researching likely candidates. I thanked her, but declined, explaining that I am a librarian and genealogist who will enjoy the search process. We did both agree that my best bet was to work on the bio mom, since Rought is a less common surname than Deleon…at least in Southern California.
This particular Facebook group of volunteers posts the findings on one’s original query, to let other Search Angels know that the case has been closed. Within minutes of my Search Angel doing that (literally, 4 minutes later!), I had other volunteers immediately start tracking down birth mom possibilities based on maiden name, the age stated in my adoption letter, and residency in Los Angles County. While I planned to do all of this myself after getting home from work, who am I to reject immediate research assistance from others?
Throughout the entire day, this group of volunteers kept sharing more leads, identifying two sisters as the most likely candidates, and agreeing upon the oldest sister as the top Birth Mom Candidate. They tracked down a Facebook profile for her, as well as for her two children.
And throughout this flurry of discoveries, I was supposed to be able to concentrate on my job???!
That evening, I started constructing a family tree for Birth Mom Candidate, based on records I found in Ancestry and Been Verified, as well as information I could glean off of publicly viewable information from Facebook.
I also sent a private message to her Facebook profile (paying the $1.00 to make it show up in her inbox, since we are not Facebook Friends). The message introduced myself, and explained why I was contacting her. I asked if she could please confirm if my hunch was correct, to please excuse the intrusion, and that I would welcome a friendship (if our relationship was correct) or would respect her wish to not establish a friendship.
That was Thursday night. Here it is Sunday afternoon, and no word yet. If she is like my own (real) Mom, Birth Mom Candidate doesn’t check her Facebook messages. Based on her Facebook Profile, I’d say Birth Mom Candidate doesn’t even use her Facebook Profile much. I do have some phone numbers from Been Verified, but I’d rather establish contact digitally than by cold calling.
And my parents’ reactions to all of this? They’ve been very excited following every bit of progress. A lot of text messages have been flying between the three of us this past week.
My head has been in a whirlwind since Thursday morning. As a work colleague told me on Friday, it figures that someone who has had no interest in learning about her birth parents would get so much information so fast… had this been something that bothered me most of my life, we would have turned up with zilch.
What I need to do now:
- Try to wait patiently for Bio Mom Candidate to check her Facebook messages and reply to me — even if to confirm her identity, but to say she does not want to have any type of relationship. I can deal with that.
- File for my non-identifying birth records with California and/or Los Angeles County.
- Wait for AncestryDNA to process my autosomal results, and see if any matches pop up with the surnames of Rought or Deleon, or the collateral surnames I have already associated with this Bio Mom Candidate.
What I will not do is try to make contact with Bio Mom Candidate’s children — even though I can see that they are on Facebook quite often. As much as I would like to reach out to them, in the event their mother hasn’t told them about me (or even worse, the Search Angeles and I identified the wrong candidate), it is not my right to break this news to them and possibly disrupt their lives. If we have identified the right candidate, it is her right to decide if and when she will tell her other children.
*Note: I have asked my legislative analyst husband to do some research on this whole California birth index access issue, and the legislative history behind it. Is it illegal for California residents and institutions to actually own or possess the old unredacted version of the index? Or is it simply no longer available for sale from the state of California (only the amended version)? Were California repositories and residents required to return the original unredacted index? Or are they still able to include it for public access in their government documents collection if purchased prior the state making it unavailable for sale?