The Lifelong Detective

In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Portrait of an Adoption is running a special series called 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, waiting adoptive parents, and foster parents-turned-adoptive parents.  Painful and beautiful, these stories will bring you a deeper understanding of what adoption looks like, allowing you to appreciate the many brushstrokes that comprise a family portrait.

The Lifelong Detective: Still Searching for My Birth family

By Marian Rogers

I always knew I was adopted, at least as far back as I can remember.  My adoptive mother had told me I came from The Cradle and we often drove by it since it was near where I lived.  I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

My adoptive parents died when I was young, my father when I was eight and my mother when I was sixteen– both of cancer.  So much loss, so much grief in my childhood.

I was then raised by my mother’s sister who had always lived with us.  I remember my mother telling me that our family doctor had called her and told her that there was a little girl available for adoption and that they had to adopt her because she looked so much like her.  Our family doctor, Dr. Sauer, also worked with The Cradle.

My adoptive mother always told me and my cousins that I was French and Irish, but years later, The Cradle told me that I was German and English, according to their records.  I am so intensely interested in finding out who I am that I have had a DNA test done, and it shows I am predominantly German, English and Irish.  I am awaiting results from an autosomal DNA to narrow it down more precisely.

In 1978, I decided to start searching for my birthparents and I met with the Cradle to learn more information about my birth family.  I was told my maternal grandfather had died of cancer in 1940 and was a machinist.  My maternal grandmother was a practical nurse.  In 1984 I was diagnosed with cancer, which as far as I know was related to radiation to shrink my tonsils during the polio epidemic when I was young.

When I petitioned the courts to get my medical records for our daughters’ sakes, the Judge told me that as long as we had my husband’s side of the family’s medical history, then that should be good enough for our daughters.  I found out afterward that the judge also had an adopted daughter, so he was either ignorant, or trying to protect his rights with his daughter.

I was born at St. Vincent’s Orphanage on January 26, 1942 and then transferred to The Cradle for adoption.  St. Vincent’s often told women to use aliases so they couldn’t be traced.  Apparently, my birth  mother took that advice very much to heart.  This was in the era when adoptions were closed and there was a terrible stigma attached to being a birthmother.

According to The Cradle, my birthmother used four different last names, two different first names, two different first names for my father, and a different last name for her mother than any of the last names she had used.

The law recently changed in Illinois and I was able to order my Original Birth Certificate.  The names on it were the same ones I had known since 1978, when I got a copy of my adoption decree and had also been told previously what their names were by an anonymous person who had access to the original records.

Those names were Lillian Margaret Smith, supposedly born in Des Moines, IA about 1916 and Charles Robert Johnson, supposedly born in Chicago about 1914/1915.  He was about 5’7”, 145 lbs., with dark hair and blue eyes.  I was told my father had entered the Army in June 1941 and was based as an Engineer at Camp Forrest, TN.

However, having obtained a copy of the book for that summer at Camp Forrest, I could find no record of a Charles Johnson.  I was told that my father had finished high school, but the only Charles R. Johnson that we have been able to find a record of so far that joined the Army in June 1941 did not finish high school.

His occupation did fit what I had been told though – that he had been a cab driver and messenger.  However, his background was Swedish and it showed he was from Rockford, Winnebago Co.  I was told my father had no siblings.

I was told my mother did clerical work, domestic work and worked for department stores.  She was about 5 ‘ tall, 106 lbs., with black hair and blue eyes.  I have brown hair and hazel eyes.  I was also told that when she found out she was pregnant, she lived with a friend of hers on the South Side of Chicago at 1350 E. 73rd St.

In the 1940’s there were three families living at the address she gave on the birth certificate: Lawrence Peterson, Harold Hutchens, and Robert Pickham.  Lawrence Peterson had a wife named Elizabeth and a daughter named Dorothy, who was about thirty in 1942.  Is it possible this is the family my mother stayed with, since the daughter was close in age, and named me after the mother?

I was also told my mother had two brothers who died young from the flu and a sister who died at fourteen of TB.   I have hired well-known investigators using the names I know, and they have come up empty.

I am really at a loss.  All this work, all this searching, and still no answers.

My last hope seems to be through the Family Finder DNA test in which I can narrow down my heritage and hopefully, match someone else’s family up to the 3rd generation.

I have three beautiful daughters and don’t ask for much in this world, but I just want to know who I am –  what nationality, something about my birth family, and feel I belong somewhere and have a family of my own, not just the one with my husband.

I feel like half a person and don’t know who I am.  I just want those answers – like so many people have.  Why do the courts feel adoptees are non-people and have no rights to know who they are?

Obviously, from my experience, having the Original Birth Certificate means nothing when it could be aliases on the form, and all the other information could be wrong, too.  At my age, almost 70, the odds of my birth parents still being alive are extremely slim since they would be in their mid-90’s if they are still alive.

I feel I must have brothers or sisters out there somewhere and just want to know them and something of who I am.  IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?  WHO AM I REALLY AND WHAT IS MY BACKGROUND?

By Marian D Rogers, aka Elizabeth Ann Johnson



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  • Reading your post, I just want to reach out and "fix it" all for you: find your birth family and take you back to those teen years and have both your adoptive parents be alive and there for you. You have had so much loss of family, and my heart goes out to you.

    I really, really hope this post brings some answers and some closure for you - a heartfelt Best of Luck and big hugs.

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    This story particularly struck a chord with me, as my son will likely never know who his birth parents are. I know he will struggle with many of the same identity issues. Thank you so much for sharing your powerful story.

  • This account points up the tragedy of the falsification of records regarding the births of one segment of our U.S. citizenship. When even their "authentic" records of birth have been falsified, how is that justified? Where do adoptees go to claim their civil rights when even their very identities were fictionalized at birth?

    The fact that a "Christian" institution like St. Vincent's Orphanage would falsify records is bad enough. But how could your mother legally surrender you for adoption under an assumed name and have it be LEGAL? I can see why she might want to assume a fake identity while staying in a maternity home. But why would an agency accept - and replicate - false identification of a mother who was going to sign a legal document? How could such document be valid? And the court? Was it legal for the court to accept documents that had been fictionalized, thereby approving of adoptions of babies whose mothers who didn't even exist?

    If I were you, I'd take a good, long look at "Dorothy" as a strong possibility. Don't be misled by ages and dates of your alleged mother and father. Like other info, it may have been falsified as well.

  • "Painful and beautiful, these stories will bring you a deeper understanding of what adoption looks like, allowing you to appreciate the many brushstrokes that comprise a family portrait."

    Adoptees are NOT blank slates upon which to paint new identities onto.

  • Thank you for your excellent narrative, Marian. Your story resonates on many levels. I am Cradle adoptee (1950) with a similar birthmother name (Marie Johnson). I have searched over 20 years using professional searchers. My results are similar to yours: the pieces of the puzzle simply do not fit. I, too, recently turned to DNA testing for answers and have gotten some satisfaction there with a strong matches on my autosomal DNA with several members of the same family. Our most recent common ancestor may be only three to four generations back, but without accurate birthnames to work with, I have no way to definitively make the connection.

    @merrin donahue
    I also worry that my daughter will continue have identity issues going forward because of the void in my background...closure may be difficult to achieve even for later generations, and that is just not right.

    @the adoption digger
    clearly the system of agency and courts was corrupt and our documents are technically invalid. i wonder what recourse we have...a spot on 60 Minutes?

    In a few weeks I will receive my unamended Illinois birth certificate, perhaps with a new address, perhaps with a middle name or initial. I will again use these new alleged facts to whittle down the huge number of Johnson and Kings, but after hearing your story, which so very much echoes mine, I am reluctantly coming to conclude these names are without a doubt, aliases.

    One truly must be a lifelong master detective to try to determine which part of our Cradle birth narratives are accurate.

  • In reply to anotherjohnsongal:

    Thank you so much. It is interesting we were adopted from the same place with mothers of the same last name. Have you done the Family Tree autosomal DNA? Maybe we're related?

  • Marian, my heart broke several times while reading your story. I truly hope that you will be able to receive some form of closure, not just for yourself...but also for your daughters. My younger sister was diagnosed as a teen (many years ago) with a very rare genetic disease that causes blindness. My father's father was orphaned at the age of three and adopted by relatives so distant that all they had in common with him was a rare last name - they didn't even know the birthparents names (the birth cert literally reads Father Hohn and Mother Hohn. Baby Carl Hohn).

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    Thank you, everyone, for your comments wonderful! I am Marian's eldest ... and she is a REMARKABLE woman! She is my hero and my rock. Every dead end adds to her heartache and I often question how selfish and heartless people could have been back then, without considering the future consequences? I know she knows how much love she has given us and how truly loved and adored she is by the three of us. As a daughter, there is nothing worse than seeing a mother's pain. But she also has incredible strength and I couldn't be prouder of her and admire her more.

  • I will keep hoping for you, Marian, that one day you receive the answers you so deserve. Thank you for sharing your story with my readers. I know they are touched by your words. Carrie

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    When my mother gave my brother up in 1965, they changed her name at the hospital. It was kind of a bastardization of the father's last name and a bastardization of her first name. I wonder if that fraudulent information is on his birth certificate and if my brother will ever be able to find us using that information?

    I think it's unbearably unfair to adoptees not to have their OWN information. Medical is just the tip of the iceberg in my mind. Which is why, when my husband and I adopted our daughter three and a half years ago, I was adamant that she have access to as much information as possible and my husband and I have worked really hard to keep her adoption as open as possible. It's been easier than I could ever have hoped, but even if it wasn't, we would still try our hardest. It's only fair to her.

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