‘Father Baker’ adoptee locates family, advocates for new law
Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Part one was published in Saturday’s OBSERVER.
Kristin Marsh Shepard was adopted as an infant and spent almost 20 years searching for her biological parents. She recently located both with the help of post-adoption search and support groups, Ancestry.com and a “Search Angel” who helped her navigate the genealogy information associated with her family tree.
“I decided to mail letters with pictures of myself and my son to both of my parents — well, the person I thought was my father, who was really my uncle,” Shepard explained. “In about a week I received an email from Judy, sent through my sister Katie’s email. Judy said that she had three daughters: Rebekah, Katie, and me, and that she had thought about me and prayed for me all these years. She said she was unable to type but would like to talk to me on the phone. Katie added a note that they had been looking for me and she was happy I found them, and that she was looking forward to talking to me also. Less than two months after that first phone call, we visited them in person and even stayed in one of the B&B suites in their house.”
Shepard’s uncle (whom she mistook for her father), communicated the error, and put her in contact with his brother. “Fortunately, there were no hard feelings over this,” said Shepard. She learned that her father dated Judy in high school and knew that she had given up a child for adoption, but did not know that he was the father, she explained.
“The news that he had another child out there was a shock to him,” Shepard explained. “I did meet my father and two of three siblings on his side. My father is a very nice, family-oriented, reserved guy and I’m glad to know him.”
Shepard was surprised to discover many connections to Fredonia as she learned about her biological family. Her maternal grandfather (Judy’s father), Robert Taylor, was born in 1916 in Jamestown and lived off-and-on in Fredonia until the family moved to Napoli in 1923. The family settled in Great Valley in 1928 where Robert’s parents, Shirley and Minnie Taylor, bought the Great Valley Hotel and turned it into the Evergreen Tea Room.
“One rather poignant connection between (my maternal grandmother) Charlotte Folts and me is that she was also raised by people other than her biological parents,” Shepard explained. “Her mother, Velma, died of pneumonia within weeks of Charlotte’s birth. Her father left her in the care of Velma’s parents. When they were too old to care for Charlotte, her aunts and uncles took turns providing a home for her.”
Shepard learned that Charlotte graduated in June of 1943 from what was then Fredonia State Teacher’s College. Shortly after graduation, she married Robert Taylor, and they moved to South Dakota where he trained to be a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force. After his service, they returned to the area and lived in Great Valley, eventually taking over the Evergreen Tea Room, which they operated until the mid 1990s. They raised three children there, the youngest of whom is Shepard’s mother, Judy. In 2006, Judy and her husband Jeff Zariczny bought the house and have operated the Evergreen Tea Room and Guest House ever since. The couple have two children together, Shepard’s half sisters, Katie and Rebekah.
Shepard’s grandmother, Charlotte, unfortunately became ill with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which Shepard’s birth mother, Judy, now has. Unbeknownst to Shepard, Judy and Shepard’s two half sisters had started searching for her, wanting to warn her about her health history. “My sisters knew they had a sister out there somewhere for years because they had found paperwork Judy had stashed away,” Shepard explained. “On my 40th birthday, they took Judy for a walk and confronted her about me, as she had kept it secret all those years. … Jeff knew about me all these years and was very warm and welcoming when I found Judy.”
She was surprised to discover yet another Fredonia connection, this time on her father’s side. His other daughter was a student at SUNY Fredonia at the same time Shepard was a student there. Although the two did not know each other then, they have since met, much to their mutual delight. “My sister on that side is awesome — a super busy mom, but it has been great to get to know her, too,” said Shepard.
For Shepard, discovering her birth family has been a life-changing journey that, while challenging, has been an incredible gift — a window into a heritage she didn’t know she had. “People who aren’t adopted may take for granted the way your sense of self is supported when you connect physical and character traits to others in your family,” she explained. “In a general way, I look very much like my adopted family, but I can’t look at any of them and see myself. Where do my green eyes come from? My shyness? It was always a big blank.”
This became even more obvious to Shepard after her sisters were born, as her parents went on to have two biological children after adopting her. “As far as character traits go, no one in my adopted family loves to read the way I do or to write,” she said. “One might attribute a love for reading to being raised in a literacy-rich environment, but I learned that Judy also loved to read, and even took a creative writing class. … We are all products of heredity and environment, and unless we find our original families, adoptees have no idea where our traits come from.”
Advocating for change
Shepard believes that all adult adoptees should have the right to access essential information about their birth — their original birth certificate — which could have reunited her with her parents nearly 30 years ago. She explained that the original intent behind sealing birth certificates was to protect adoptees and adoptive parents from “the stigma of illegitimacy — you can just hide all of that and act like the child was born to the married couple,” she explained. She and many others feel this archaic attitude and the eighty-year-old law it upholds are unacceptable and unfair to the millions of adults just like her who had no control over the circumstances of their birth or adoption.
“Chautauqua County’s representative in the state assembly, Andy Goodell, spoke at length against the passage of the bill and was one of the two who voted against it,” Shepard pointed out. “As I watched the live hearing, I felt pretty sad to see the representative of my former home talk about this issue in a way that frames adult adoptees as forever children and our access to essential information about our birth as a kind of threat to others.”
Shepard’s comment points to an interesting divide: Is protecting parents’ privacy more important than a person’s basic civil right to access their birth documents? Does a “closed adoption” really guarantee confidentiality?
According to some, no. Joyce Bahr, president of the Unsealed Initiative, an advocacy group for legislation to unseal birth certificates, gave up her child for adoption when she was a teenager. While confidentiality is often promised, she said her social worker informed her there wasn’t a 100% guarantee that her child would never find her. Some argue that with today’s genealogy research programs and at-home DNA testing kits, it’s practically inevitable.
“My experience points to the folly of the argument that closed records protect the privacy of the original parents: my father’s cousin knew about me before my father did, and his brother was contacted before him as well,” Shepard pointed out. “…Leaving adoptees to search via DNA does not respect privacy.”
Shepard said other opponents to the change in legislation fear that if adoptees can access their actual birth records at adulthood, fewer women will give up babies for adoption and possibly choose abortion instead. “Research has suggested that this narrative is false; most women who choose not to surrender to adoption raise their children instead,” said Shepard. “The decision to carry a pregnancy to term and the decision to parent a child are different things — not a simple either/or.”
While Shepard hopes Gov. Cuomo will soon sign the bill into law, she feels that the hard work and time invested in her search were worth the effort. “Because I live in North Carolina, I don’t get to spend much time with them, but since we connected, we have visited them on our trips to New York,” she said. She talks with her sisters — both busy, working moms — when she can, and also talks to Judy on the phone regularly.
While Shepard’s search for her biological parents was not easy for her adoptive parents at first, Shepard said they understood how important it was for her to learn where she came from and were supportive of her search. They and their other daughters met Judy and Jeff last year, an experience that Shepard believes was healing for all.
“The best way I can describe it is that learning about where I came from changed me from feeling like a black and white outline to a page that was colored in,” Shepard told the OBSERVER. “I feel like a real person now. I have roots.”