In recent years, an increasing number of people who were adopted have thought about trying to find their birth parents, and vice versa. This month, I will tell the story of a local adopted woman. Next month, I will report on the what is the law here in New Mexico concerning the rights of birth parents and of adopted persons to keep their identities confidential, and to find out each other's identities.
When Stephanie was about 35, two things happened that caused her to want to find out more about her birth parents: She had a health problem that is the kind that runs in families, so she wanted to find out as much as she could about her birth parents' health history and that of their families, her genetic relatives. Also, Stephanie had a bachelor's degree from NMSU in nursing and had worked as an RN for a number of years. She wanted to go back to school to become a physician's assistant, and hoped to find some financial assistance. Her adoptive parents had told her she is a full-blooded Navajo Indian. Stephanie thought there might be education financial assistance available to her if she could become a registered member of the Navajo tribe. Stephanie hoped she could obtain records from Colorado, where she was adopted at birth, proving her ancestry.
Stephanie and her adopted family lived in Southwestern New Mexico for most of her childhood. Her adopted parents (I will stop saying "adopted parents") had three children by birth, and decided to expand the family. After Stephanie, they adopted a Laguna Indian child, an African-American child, and a child who is half African-American and half white. Stephanie says it was obvious who was adopted, just by looking at each other. Her parents were completely open about where everyone in the family came from and gave them what information they had, which was not much. Stephanie, like all of her siblings, was raised in the Anglo culture. She says she never experienced any hatefulness or discrimination in our area.
Now, she set out on a journey to find out about her origins. She contacted Colorado's adoption office. It took some time and effort on Stephanie's part. Then, a social worker found the file from her adoption and did two things. First, the social worker sent portions of the file to the Navajo Nation. Based on verification of the identities of her parents, Stephanie was enrolled as a member of the tribe. This gave her certain rights and benefits—unfortunately, not including any scholarships.
Second, the social worker sent Stephanie an eight-page letter, telling her all about her birth parents and their families, except not their names nor their identities. Stephanie was comfortable not knowing exactly who her birth parents are.
The social worker's letter gave health histories that helped Stephanie know what kinds of health problems she should be alert for. Stephanie also learned that her birth mother, who was 22 at that time, had no prior children, was interested in sports, and wanted to pursue a career in health care. This was fascinating to Stephanie, because no one else in her adopted family was active in sports (Stephanie is a terrific volleyball player and runs in long-distance races) and she is the only one who has gone into health care. She is convinced she inherited these tendencies from her birth mother.
Both of her birth parents lived on the Navajo Reservation, but her father was in the Navy, and at the time Stephanie was going to be born, he would be gone for six years. Her birth mother had lost her own mother as a child, and did not want her own daughter to grow up with only one parent around.
When Stephanie's birth parents gave her up for adoption, they apparently were promised their identities would remain a secret. Unlike some adopted persons, Stephanie does not have a burning desire to find and meet her birth parents. She says, though, that other members of her family have different attitudes about this subject. Her parents were comfortable with any of their adopted children seeking out their birth parents. One of Stephanie's brothers—ironically one who was a birth child of her parents—was the most curious about the families of his adopted siblings. One of Stephanie's adopted siblings went looking for, and found, her birth parents, and has a good relationship with them. Another sister was accidentally found by some of her birth family. She was at church one day and there was a group visiting from a church in Hobbs. Some of the Hobbs visitors thought they recognized Stephanie's sister, and by talking with her parents, realized she is a cousin. They are very happy to know each other.
Stephanie is one of the happiest and friendliest people I know. When she laughs, which is often, she makes her friends feel good. She gets along with everyone, and leads a very busy life. When my wife and I met her years ago, we guessed she had a South Pacific ancestry, based on her appearance—an olive-complected beauty with long black hair. After knowing her about a year, we asked Stephanie, and she told us she is Navajo.
When I interviewed her for this column, Stephanie
told me if she was born today the law would not allow her to be adopted
by non-Navajo parents. The adoption laws are much different now in
many ways. Next month's The People's Law column will discuss what New
Mexico's adoption laws say about keeping the identities of birth parents
and adopted children a secret and what they can do to try to identify
each other. (This and next month's columns are updates on topics originally
published in Desert
Exposure in 2000.)