Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By James Burns
This is my story. I have never told my story like this before, and I hope that it makes sense to you.
The one thing I know for sure is I was born on Saturday, June 26th, 1971, and then I went home to live with the people I knew as my parents. My childhood was good. We took a few vacations, moved around A LOT!, and generally showed some care for one another.
We moved a lot because Mom did not work, and Dad didn’t do much else after he was hurt in a car accident. We moved so many times that I swear I went to every middle school in the city, because the rent or other bills were never paid on time, and my parents would dodge the bill collectors.
As a result of moving so much, I became good at talking to people but didn’t develop many close friends. This is how I learned to hide and bottle up what was going on inside me; to not let others know what was really bothering me.
I generally did very well at school. Most of the time my report cards had all A’s on them. Anything less than that, and I paid the price for it, as my parents expected a lot from me, almost too much at times.
Two of my best memories in school were: 1) In 3rd Grade being selected for the Horizons Program. The Horizons Program was a program for kids who appeared to be gifted and tested at a high level. That made me so happy! 2) In 5th Grade I won our school spelling bee. I got to represent my school in the County Spelling Bee. I didn’t win, but it taught me a valuable lesson to appreciate all the blessings you are given and to do the best you can despite the circumstances/odds handed to you.
It was Middle School that truly changed my life, due to a Home Economics class. I already knew how to cook (and still love to cook to this day). The part of that class that changed me dealt with parenting.
I had an assignment where I was paired with a girl, and we had to “care for” an egg and carry it around for 24 hours a day until the assignment was over. I learned about genetics during that assignment, specifically that when both parents are of the same racial makeup, their children inherit that same racial ethnicity.
Here was my problem though — my parents were of different racial ethnicities, and I didn’t understand why I was “whiter than a ghost.” My mother was White, and my father was Black. I didn’t appear to resemble my father at all.
I was raised with two older brothers, Brian and Bill. Mom and Dad always said we were their kids. But, not one of us had a hint of Black in us whatsoever. So, I asked my teacher, “I have two brothers. Our mom is White and our dad is Black. What is the chance all three of us have no resemblance at all to one of our parents?”
She replied, “It would be a damn miracle if all of you had no trace of one parent in you!” So this made me wonder, was there some truth we didn’t know? Was there something our parents were hiding from us? I wanted to know and my inquisitive mind was as curious as could be.
I set out to ask my parents about it! I don’t remember the exact date, but it was somewhere around May of 1984. I sat my mother down and wanted to know if I could talk to her. I prefaced it by saying I wasn’t sure how to begin and I hoped to not upset her if I was wrong.
I started by saying I loved her and always will but that I wanted the honest truth and to please “DO NOT LIE TO ME.” She said, “Just ask what you want to know.”
I stated, “You always said me and my brothers were your children. But none of us share any characteristics of Dad. You are obviously White; he is obviously Black with some Cherokee Indian in him. But none of us boys have any signs of being Black or Indian. What gives??? I can see if one of us was that way; maybe even two, but not all three of us.”
Her immediate reaction was that she shed a tear. I didn’t know or realize what a can of worms I had just opened. All she could tell me was, “I’m going to have to talk to your father about this and get back to you.”
Two days later was the first time I heard the phrase “you were adopted.” She said my brothers and I were all given up as babies from the same set of birthparents. They adopted my brothers first, and then I came along.
Part of her story was that my birth father was as dumb as a box of rocks and would get lost in a circle, and my birth mother was smart but didn’t know how to care for children. She told me, “Their names are Dale and Nancy Carpenter.”
My mom explained how she worked as a maid at a local hotel in Lima where Dale and Nancy Carpenter lived, and that’s how she met them. She and Dad adopted their first two babies. Then, one day, Dale and Nancy up and vanished. The Carpenters supposedly left me strapped in a car seat with a note attached that read, “This baby is the brother to the two you already have. Please take him so DCS (child social services) doesn’t get him.”
So, she said, “I took you home too. You were so small that you fit in a shoe box. You didn’t even fit in a crib. We used to let you sleep in the top drawer of the dresser to keep you near us. And the rest is history. To us, you were ours, because they never came back for you.”
So there you have it. I was led to believe I was left out like a piece of trash, that the people responsible for my birth didn’t love me, they didn’t want me, and never even bothered to see if I was okay over the years. WOW!
But I was determined to find the truth or to see if Mom’s version of the story was accurate. Due to me raising questions, my parents must have decided to make everything legal. A few months later, on September 3rd, 1984, in Allen County, Indiana, my brothers and I were formally adopted.
We entered a courtroom before a judge, and he asked each of us individually, “Do you of your own free will consent to be adopted by these people? The very same people that have raised you from birth up until this point?”
Of course we said, “Yes, Sir.” What in hell were we supposed to say? We were only 15, 14, and 13 at the time. Then, with the sound of his gavel, I would officially forever be known as James Patrick Burns; not as James Patrick Carpenter.
A few months went by, and my curiosity kicked in. I peppered Mom with various questions. “What were my birth parents’ names again?” “How did you know them?” “What happened to them?” “Why didn’t they come back for us?”
Her answers were always the same. She never wavered. Maybe that was the way for her to hang on to what she knew to be her truth. But I wanted my truth! I wanted to know all about the journey that led me to be where I am. I wanted the answers and felt I had a right to know them!
Later, I found out all I got were lies. Mom answered my questions with, “Their names were Dale and Nancy Carpenter. I originally knew them from meeting them in Fort Wayne. When Dale needed a job, I called my dad to help him find work in Lima. They left you out like trash and did not know how to properly care for you kids. They left because welfare was about to take you kids away, and they knew we would take all of you in. Why they didn’t come back is a mystery to us also.” That was very eye opening.
Later in the fall of 1984, I made a decision that forever changed my life and haunts me to this day. I decided to find my birth family. I wanted to search for them. I wanted to know the truth behind my being born and how I came to be with my parents.
But, I also wanted to reassure my mom and dad. I told them, “I could NEVER call my birth parents ‘Mother’ and ‘Father.’” I explained my need to search but also let them know that they will always be my mother and father – no matter what!
They chastised me by saying, “You will never find them. They didn’t want you then and probably don’t want you now. Why would you even want to look for them?”
I replied, “I need to look. It’s for me. I feel I have the desire and need to know my history. But, first and most importantly, no matter what I find out, I will always love you two for the life you have given me.”
My decision to seek the truth forever changed their view and opinion of me from that point on. Unbeknownst to me though, it also changed my relationship with all of those around me.
I started my search. I was told I was born at St. Rita’s Hospital in Lima, OH on June 26th, 1971. I tried going through the records there. But they wouldn’t release anything to me. I tried the Department Of Vital Statistics; nothing there also. I even went to the library in Lima to look at old newspapers to see if my birth announcement was in it. It was a dead end.
I kept asking questions of Mom and Dad. Their resentment created a further divide that I could not comprehend until many years later. Even my siblings and other loved ones started to distance themselves from me. They had come to hate me for “opening up a can of worms that didn’t need to be opened.” They, I believe, didn’t understand my thinking. They didn’t understand the desire to know the truth – even if it was painful to know.
High school came and went. The distance between my parents and me was even further apart by now. So, I made the decision to join the military. Just prior to leaving, I remember mom telling me, “If you keep up the search, don’t bother coming back!” That began a period of over a decade that we didn’t talk to one another. It was painful because I loved my family and always wanted them around. I would never have that again; not until I had a family of my own.
I stayed in the Marines for eleven-and-a-half years. I loved it. I would have stayed in even longer, but I met a little lady that I came to love.
I loved everything about her! Even just the sight of her brought a smile to my face. I don’t think I had felt this much happiness since I was a child. This wonderful lady would later become my wife, and we are still together to this very day. We have four beautiful children together, and I try to be there for them in facets of their daily lives. As much as they let me be – lol.
I joined the Army Reserves after the Marines; but that didn’t last long. I did my three-year commitment and stopped. My wife had had enough of my military duties! I had to respect that.
Besides, by this point I had been a police officer for a couple years and those duties kept me busy. I also didn’t realize the amount of anxiety and worry that my wife and kids had each day that I left for work wondering if I was going to be coming home.
I am still involved with the police community and even rejoined the military. I do both jobs because of my love for people (no matter who they are or their particular background), for the love of my family, and for the love of my community that I was chosen to serve. Some of the skills I learned on the job have served me well during my search for my birth family.
My kids never got to know their grandparents because of the discord between us over my continued effort to search. It wasn’t until right before Mom passed in 2005 that she told me, “I know you won’t give up the search. I just don’t understand your desire to find them. They didn’t want you. I did. I raised you and didn’t want to lose you. I felt it was wrong for you to love those people despite knowing what took place.”
I tried to reassure her that I would always love her no matter what, that I appreciated their love and concern for me to give me a home, a place to live, and a chance to grow up and be someone.
Then she told me, “I know you haven’t given up and never will. I know for a fact the guy on your birth certificate is not your father. His real name is Carl Frank, and I don’t know his wife’s name, but I remember she was confined to a wheelchair.” Mom passed a few days later. Dad passed away just thirteen months after Mom.
Out of respect to them, I stopped the search for a good while.
About five to six years later, I resumed the search. My older brothers hated my decision with a passion. They felt it showed was a complete lack of respect and love for our parents. But it wasn’t about that. It was about finding the truth to my life.
I would not give up! I kept going to various places and doing various searches on the internet, even asking people over and over for information. I got nowhere. It was a dead end after dead end no matter how hard I tried. My wife was beside me through it all. She listened to my rants, my frustrations, and the resentment of me wondering, what were they hiding from me for all these years?
I tried to look at various adoption agencies in the Lima, OH area. None of them had any info on me or my brothers. The newspaper had no listings for any of our birth announcements. I even called DCS, after doing a public records request in Lima, to inquire about any case they may have had on Dale and Nancy Carpenter regarding us boys. There was nothing.
I learned the states of Ohio and Indiana were closed record states, meaning that all adoption records (with the exception of a medical necessity present) could not be opened up without the approval of the courts. I also found out that since I was adopted in Indiana, my records were sealed here too.
To find my Original Birth Certificate (OBC), I had to first go to the courts in Indiana; then Ohio, all to seek access to MY OWN RECORD. That seemed crazy to me. A basic document many take for granted and get to see; I was being told I have no right to it. I didn’t have the money to go through the courts, and hiring a private investigator didn’t work out well either.
I signed up for every adoption registry I could find, hoping one of my birth parents would see my post and let me know something.
Then a breakthrough of sorts. Around 2014, I found a web site called Adoption Network Cleveland. It was a closed site; meaning all items posted stay within that group. I was accepted into the group with open arms. Suddenly, I felt as if I had an identity. There were other adoptees just like me – searching and trying to complete their journeys! I wasn’t alone anymore.
Through this site, I learned of a process called DNA testing. Various people on the site had recommended testing through Ancestry DNA, and I did that. I got nowhere. Not much I could do with 3rd and 4th cousin matches with last names that I didn’t even recognize or know about.
In February of 2015, some lawmakers introduced a bill that later became law giving all adoptees in Ohio access to their Original Birth Certificate. I applied for mine.
My first response arrived in a form letter that stated, “We’re sorry, Mr. Burns (Carpenter). There is no record of your birth.” I was heartbroken! I was angered and pissed off! But I quickly realized and anger and hurtfulness would get me nowhere.
In May of 2015, I reapplied for my OBC and received a different response. And, for the first time, in June of 2015, I was looking at the very document I never thought I would get to see.
It was my ORIGINAL BIRTH CERTIFICATE. I saw my mother’s signature on it; I saw Dale Carpenter’s name on it; I saw that I was indeed so small that preemie clothes must not have even fit me.
I saw the address where my birth parents had lived, and I even saw that I was living child number FIVE for my birth mother. I already knew of my two older brothers; that meant there were two other siblings out there to find! My mind was running like crazy at the point.
I needed help. Some wonderful Search Angels (who wish to remain anonymous) decided to help me out. It didn’t take long; more like just a few hours before they had me on the phone to let me know they had located my birth mother. She had been deceased all along. The wonderful Search Angel lady even sent me a picture of my birth mom’s gravesite.
I soon had a copy of her obituary and the listing of the funeral home that handled her arrangements back in August of 1973. To my surprise, that funeral home was still in business. They reluctantly passed along all the info they had on her. I now knew the names of my two additional siblings.
With the help of the Search Angels, I found both of them. I talked to them both right before my birthday in 2015! That was one of the best presents I could have gotten at the time. For the first time ever, I knew all four of my siblings.
I followed up on any leads I could get on my birthfather, Dale, and hit dead end after dead end. Then around Christmas time of 2015, I had a gut feeling that Dale may be living in Indiana – not in Ohio or anywhere else. I didn’t have much to go off of but one particular “Dale” kept coming up. This person lived around the Indy area for while and then settled up in Northwest Indiana.
Unfortunately, this gentleman passed away in 2014. But I felt a connection to this guy and followed up on him. I made contact with some of his surviving relatives, and low and behold, this was the Dale Carpenter I had been looking for all along. WOW!
I decided to tell my older brothers Brian and Bill that I had found our birth parents. They resented me for even telling them. But I felt they had a right to know. Mistake sort of, on my part, for even telling them. They both said some very hurtful words to me, so much so that we don’t even speak to this day.
I talked to anyone in Dale and Nancy’s families that was willing to talk to me. We exchanged many pictures. And I will have to say, I looked a lot like Nancy. My two brothers looked like twins of Dale.
But I looked nothing like Dale. I accepted that not every child looks like both parents, and I let it go. I kept up contact with the two “new siblings” and other family members.
In April of 2017, my life was thrown for another loop, one that I had not anticipated but always kind of felt. I had an inclination that I had a different birth father than my two brothers. Now I received the proof.
The same Ancestry DNA test from 2015 had yielded a new first cousin match with a last name of Frank. That made no sense to me until I remembered what mom said to me ONE TIME before she passed on. She told me the name of my suspected birth father – Carl Frank. Now it was starting to come together. Another Search Angel assisted me. The DNA led right to a man with the name I had been given.
The Search Angel also let me know that Carl Frank had passed away in 1995 but that he had two living children– one in Arizona and another in Florida. It didn’t take long before I had their contact information.
The more I dug into this Carl Frank, the more he seemed to fit with what I knew. He definitely seemed like could be a good candidate for being my birth father. But I had no way to prove it unless I made contact with either one of the boys; who are younger than me.
The one in Florida was reluctant but did agree to do a DNA test. It was a match! On Friday, June 23rd, 2017, I had confirmation of who my birth father was and now I had TWO OTHER BROTHERS that I never knew about. This was amazing!
The DNA match was a bit overwhelming for the both of us and hard to take at times. We couldn’t change what happened so many years ago. But we could change what happens from this point forward if we chose to do so.
I reaffirmed with him and his brother in Arizona that I could never call their dad my father. He was only the man that provided the biological basis for my life.
My father is the man that raised me, he’s the man that died in my arms, he’s the man I gave the eulogy for at his funeral. And my mother is the woman who also died in my arms and I gave the eulogy for at her funeral. My younger brothers have accepted that.
Meanwhile, the family on my birth mother’s side was warming up to me. They were amazed that I had found them after so many years. They remembered us boys, and that was surprising. They wanted to know us and I wanted to know them. I passed along all info to the brothers I grew up with, and they gradually welcomed the information.
But in the process, I uncovered the truth of what really happened and how we ended up with our parents. It turns out that Dale and Nancy did live in Indiana where both Brian and Bill were born. Nancy had family still in Lima and they moved there because she had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying. She needed someone to take her kids and care for them.
Nancy’s family knew my mom’s dad. They knew that his daughter could not have children and wanted some for her own. They made contact with her, and they met in Fort Wayne. Dale needed a job and my mom’s dad arranged for one there in Lima.
Young Brian and Bill went to stay with my parents to see if that would work out. It did. Then I came along. Six months after I was born, Nancy needed money to pay for experimental treatment of her cancer in California.
My parents offered her $500 to sign custody of me over to them, and she took the money. She allegedly stated, “He’s the brother to the first two, so you might as well have him also.”
With that, I was taken to Fort Wayne to live, and my parents cut off all contact with Nancy’s family, who had no idea where Nancy’s boys had been taken to live.
To make matters worse, Nancy’s family informed me that my mom went to Nancy’s funeral. Therefore, Mom knew all along that Nancy was not alive, but she CHOSE not to tell us that fact. Despite everything, I do still love my parents. Love is complicated.
In the spring of 2017, I had a falling out with all four of my siblings on Dale and Nancy’s side, as they did not appreciate that I had found out my birth father was not the guy who THEY THOUGHT he was. They did not appreciate that I figured out the truth to MY JOURNEY.
On a positive note, my younger brothers – that share my same birth father, Carl — DO want contact with me. We talk regularly, at least once a week, and we have shared many pictures.
It is a nice feeling to finally have someone around that not only looks like me but wants me around. As a matter of fact, I wrote this essay on my younger brother’s computer while visiting him at his home down in Florida. I love my life and hope the joy from this reunion lasts forever!
All in all, I love all my siblings: Mark, Dawn, Brian, Bill, Carl, and Chris. I love my life! I thank you for taking the time to read this.
James Patrick Burns is a proud husband, father of four, and a dedicated police officer. He served in the U.S. Marines and hopes that sharing his story will help others.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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