Doug Robinson: Reuniting families — One Utahn is helping adopted children, biological parents find each other

Published: Saturday, March 8 2014 8:45 p.m. MST

Carolyn Woodward is the adoption specialist for the Utah Department of Health. Photograph taken in her office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Carolyn Woodward’s tiny government office doesn’t look like much, and neither does the larger room that adjoins it, filled as it is with rows of cabinets, but these rooms hold the dreams and secrets of thousands of people.

Located in the state office of Vital Records and Statistics, this is home to microfilm records for every adoption completed in Utah going back decades; it is information that, for those searching for family, is priceless. It is the source of tears and frustration and joy and sometimes miracles, as biological parents and children are reunited, or not. What they wouldn’t do to get into those files….

But there is the rub of Woodward’s job: Unless all parties of an adoption sign the registry at her office — the child who was adopted and the biological parents who put him or her up for adoption — Woodward can’t release information to any of them. And yet the answers to all their questions — where is the child or parent? What is he or she doing? How can I contact him or her for the first time? — lie tantalizingly close inside those files.

Woodward, who adopted two children herself, says, “It took me three years to complete one of my adoptions, so I understand how they feel.”

But the law is the law, and she could fill a book — or a reality TV series — with stories of joy and sorrow. She has seen more tears and more drama than a daytime soap and a reality show combined.

For years a woman came to Woodward’s office annually on the birthday of the daughter she had given up for adoption decades ago, and each time she left heartbroken. The daughter had not signed the registry; she was not looking for her biological mother.

“Did she register?” the mother would ask each time. Woodward would shake her head, and together they would cry and hold hands. “Isn’t there some way I can tell my daughter I want to be found?” she would ask, but the file can’t be opened for any reason until the other party signs the registry. This routine was replayed year after year.

On her last visit to the office, Woodward again went through the motions of checking the woman's file even though Woodward knew nothing had changed, but for some reason this time she checked that day’s mail. To her amazement, one of the letters was from the woman’s daughter. She returned to the woman and took her hand.

“Isn’t there anything I can do?” the woman pleaded.

“What would you think if I told you I have a match?” Woodward replied.

The woman finally got her wish and met her daughter.

The reunions are sweet. An elderly woman showed up at the office who had given birth to two sons out of wedlock — the first she had placed for adoption and the second she raised. At the age of 58, the brother tracked down his long-lost older brother and they met for the first time. Now he wanted the older brother to meet their mother for the first time since birth. The older brother drove to Salt Lake City to sign the registry, and the next day the younger brother brought their mother to sign the registry. Normally it takes weeks to confirm a match, but Woodward wanted to end the suspense. She disappeared into the back room to check records and returned with tears in her eyes.

“It’s a match,” she said. Later that day, the woman met her son for the first time, at the age of 88.

According to Woodward, adopted children are usually in their 30s when they decide they want to find their biological parents, and then they are always reluctant to do so for fear of hurting the feelings of their adoptive parents.

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