Like most new mothers, Joanna Freitag was overwhelmed the first time she gazed upon her daughter's face 13 years ago. She recognized family traits right away and envisioned her baby's bright and happy future.
Freitag's emotions, however, were heightened by thoughts of her own birth in 1975. The Cary, N.C., mother has always known that she was adopted, and she always knew she was loved. But she knew nothing about whose genes determined her appearance and had grown sick of entering "don't know" on forms that asked about her medical history.
"That's when I got into the full-time realm of searching, not just for myself but for others," says Freitag, who was selected as one of five Spokeo Search Angels in a national contest sponsored by the people-finder platform and the Mixed Roots Foundation. The foundation serves to leverage philanthropy to provide post-adoption resources for adoptees and birth parents seeking to make connections.
Freitag says curiosity about her own birth intensified after the arrival of her second daughter in 2005. A few months later, after years of costly searching, she connected with Betty Orr of Currie, N.C. As a poor unwed mother terrified of community scorn, Orr had made the difficult decision to allow her baby to be adopted by strangers.
"I wrote her a letter and got one back a week later, full of photos of her and my grandparents," says Freitag, who was encouraged by her adoptive family and now enjoys a warm relationship with her birth mother. "That first letter broke down my birth and the entire day, minute by minute, as if she was reliving it. It never left her mind. It helps to know that."
Spokeo and Mixed Roots Foundation hope that Freitag's story will inspire more searches and reunions. Other Search Angel honorees include Connie Lynn Gray of Austin, Texas; Kari Lemons of Mountain View, Calif.; Kellie Walls Sharpe of Walland, Tenn.; and Mary Edna Wilson of Fort Worth, Texas. Recipients receive a $500 cash award to defray search-related costs and reunions, as well as a one-year premium Spokeo subscription that allows a thousand searches per month.
"Search Angels dedicate themselves to taking this on for others, and even take on the cost themselves," says Vanessa Flores, Spokeo's director of public relations. "Spokeo is proud to be involved so more people can do it themselves."
After being scammed by a private investigator during her own search, Freitag volunteered full-time for several years to help to resolve an astounding 547 cases. She currently is working on four more.
"I just finished up a reunion last weekend with a 58-year-old adoptee whose 82-year-old birth mother is in a nursing home," says Freitag, who drove the adoptee several hours for the visit. "Her mother knew her the instant she walked through the door, even though she hadn't seen her since she was an infant. They spent several hours together talking about the circumstances. It was just great."
Freitag was nominated for the Spokeo Angel Award by Roberta MacDonald of Durham, membership chairwoman of the American Adoption Congress and chair of the N.C. Coalition for Adoption Reform, on whose board Freitag also serves. They worked on a 2007 bill that sought to restore altered North Carolina birth certificates to include original information.
Freitag discovered that her birth certificate was altered two months after she was born to change the birth parent name to her adoptive parents, and birth location to their place of residence. To ensure privacy of the record, it also omits her weight, time of birth and other details that might have provided clues.
"I'm just a whited out spot in the birth index of the county that I was born in," Freitag says. "North Carolina is a closed-adoption state and people don't want you to know that. But there are a lot of people who were crossed out of birth indexes because they were adopted."
While the "original birth certificate" proposal did not pass, lawmakers did approve a confidential intermediary program that allows designated agencies within the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to serve as a go-between for the birth parent and adult adoptee. If both parties agree to share records, the agency provides them.
Freitag intends to use her Spokeo Search Angel cash award and online resources to help agency facilitators work through backlogs.
"I helped set up the one in Wake County and train the agent," she says. "A lot of people who search have been through the ringer, emotionally and financially. If I can help more people connect, I'm happy to do it."
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