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.
A man in his 30s signed the registry at Woodward’s office. Later, she called him to say she had a match. He put her off a few days trying to come to grips with this sudden development. He had been born out of wedlock to a 15-year-old girl. The girl was now a grown woman and she also had signed the registry. They had a tearful reunion in Woodward’s office, but the story didn’t end there.
“Your father is waiting for you outside the door,” the biological mother said.
A few minutes later, the mother took her newly found son to the waiting room and introduced him to his biological father. She explained that after giving birth at 15, she didn’t marry the father of her child. She finished school, married someone else and divorced. Through the Internet, she found her high school boyfriend (the father of her child) — he had also married and divorced — and they began seeing each other. Three decades after their teen romance, they married and then signed the registry hoping to find the son they had placed for adoption. There was more. They took him home to meet the children they had had in the interim.
“We all bawled,” says Woodward. “It was quite a surprise. I had not known they had found each other again and married.”
Woodward has been doing this for 13 years. She has a special compassion for those who are trying to find parents or children. She went through the process herself to help her adopted children find their biological parents. “I love my job,” she says. “I can have a terrible time at home and come here and feel good. Even those who get upset and yell, I calm them down and help them.”
The stories don’t always have a happy ending. Some people don’t sign the registry simply because they don’t want to be found. Notwithstanding, people circumvent the system by hiring a private detective — an expensive proposition — to track down parents or children who have not signed the registry. In one case, a woman in her 30s showed up at Woodward’s office who had been adopted and wanted to find her biological mother. The woman explained that because her birth mother hadn’t signed the registry, she had paid $10,000 to a private detective to find her. He located the mother and provided an address to his client. She showed up at the door of her mother’s house, only to have the mother reject her. She had raised other children, but had kept her out-of-wedlock birth a secret. Her family eventually convinced the mother to sign the registry anyway, and it was a match, but she was angry.
“Her family forced her,” says Woodward. “She felt we wrecked her life. She said she never would have gotten on the registry. She never wanted to be reminded of it (the birth). She never wanted to be found. There are lots of reasons people don’t want to be found. If they want to be found, they’ll sign the registry. It was not good that this woman found her mother.”
The woman who hired the detective continues to visit Woodward, who frequently finds herself playing the role of unofficial counselor. They cry together. The woman has no one else to talk to. She told Woodward, “All I wanted was to tell her (biological mother) that my adoptive mother died when I was young and my father never married again, so I grew up without a mother. So I wanted to meet my mother and she did not want to meet me.”
The other lesson of the story: Paying a private detective thousands of dollars to circumvent the registry does not pay no matter how you cut it. It costs $25 to sign the registry, and there is no risk of rejection if all parties do so.
“Sometimes they go do their own thing, but I’m the only one who has the records,” says Woodward. “If someone says they found their mother or son, they should register so they can find out if they’re really a match. I had a boy and a mother come here who were positive they were a match. I found out they weren’t. There are always people trying to get money on the Internet; at least come here and try it.”
Decades ago, parents went to great lengths to hide the scandal of out-of-wedlock pregnancy of their daughter. The girls were sent away, and sometimes the parents even doctored the birth certificate so the child could never find his or her biological parents.
“The mother’s mother would put false information on the birth certificate so the child can’t find her,” says Woodward.
That isn’t always enough to thwart the powerful urge to find family. Woodward worked with one mother who recalled having nurses put a towel over her face so she couldn’t see her child, but she listened to everything that was said in the delivery room and later wrote it down — who was there, the names of the doctor and nurses, time of the birth. On the child’s birth certificate, the name of a nurse was listed as the mother. And yet, from the details the biological mother was able to provide from what she heard in the delivery room, she and Woodward were able to find her child.
“This job can be frustrating, but I love it all,” says Woodward. “I’m passionate about it.”
Woodward can’t help becoming emotionally involved with the people who come to her. She often comes to the office early and stays late. “Carolyn, you gotta go home,” co-workers tell her frequently.
“I just can’t turn away,” she says. “I’m the only one who does this, the only one who can go and find these people they are looking for. This is my baby.”
She opens a file that is crammed 2 inches thick with thank-you notes from the people she has helped. There are more at home.
“It makes me feel like it’s worthwhile,” she says.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org