Greenwich woman’s long quest leads to her birth parents
GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) — In Hartford, lawmakers this term have been discussing whether men and women who were adopted as infants should have full access to their birth certificates and the names of their birth parents — part of a long-running debate in the state capital that extends back through several sessions.
To Terri Vanech, it’s a topic she has been pondering most of her life. Vanech, an adoptee who found her birth parents later in life, has been advocating for a full-access bill. She has also become an expert on the topic, interviewing more than 100 men and women who grew up in adoptive families for a book she recently completed, now being pitched to publishers with the help of an agent.
Vanech, a resident of Old Greenwich, says adoptees who are unable to find out about their parents are at a disadvantage, emotionally as well as medically.
“I should have the same rights as anyone else, to know who I am,” she said. “And to have a single piece of paper that validates my existence is important to me.”
Her search for the identity of her birth parents lasted more than five years, a process Vanech explored in a blog she runs called pushingonarope.com.
She had a great set of adoptive parents, she said, growing up in Port Chester, N.Y., with a sister who was also adopted. But she always felt something was missing.
“For me, it meant trying to figure out who I am. As an adoptee, I didn’t have anybody I looked like. Imagine never seeing anybody who looks like you. I didn’t know what my ethnicity was. I was raised in an Italian family - and it turns out I’m Irish,” said Vanech, a former editor at the Stamford Advocate now working as a public-relations professional.
“Not knowing those details about myself — wondering about the circumstances of my birth, it was something that weighed on me,” she said. “And as an adoptee, I always felt out of step, like I didn’t fit. And searching for biological connections was a way to try resolve that for me.”
There were also practical implications of her search — like discovering possible health issues or genetic tendencies that might be in store for her and her own daughter.
Vanech was born in New York, a state that does not allow adoptees to view their original birth certificate with their birth parents’ names on it. Every state has different standards. Nine states allow full access, others allow access with a judge’s order or specific permission.
Connecticut allows adoptees to get full records if they were born after Oct. 1, 1983, the date the state changed the adoption form.
Vanech, with the help of volunteer researchers, put together a series of clues about her infancy, one leading to another. Family Services of Westchester (N.Y.), a non-profit organization that arranged her adoption, gave her the first set of clues. She later learned she was born in Yonkers and baptized in Tarrytown. That eventually led her to baptismal records, naming her birth parents.
She tracked down her aunt, which eventually led her to find her mother, and then her father, both living on Long Island. Vanech had been born out of wedlock when her birth mother was 19, she learned, and her birth mother was sent to a residence for unwed mothers in Tarrytown run by the Episcopal Church.
She met her birth mother six years ago, on Long Island. They were both wearing the same color scheme, and had the same taste in jewelry.
“It was surreal. And it answered a lot of questions I had — then raised other ones that I’m still trying to answer,” Vanech said. “I searched for more than five years, which actually isn’t a long time to search. Some people search forever and don’t find anybody.”
It was a difficult kind of research project, touching on deep anxieties and high hopes.
“Searching is a really scary and emotional thing. You’re putting yourself out there, and for another potential rejection. Which does happen to people. It’s traumatic for everyone involved,” the author said. “For people who want to know who they are, it can be a really desperate search.”
Vanech’s adoptive parents were supportive of her quest, but it’s another troublesome issue that adoptees often face when they look for their birth parents — whether it will upset the people who raised them and served as their parents for most of the their lives.
After meeting her birth parents and hearing from many other adoptees, the idea of a book started to gel. Vanech started work on the manuscript, “Raised on Lies,” and found that many adoptees coped with the same issues. She interviewed 110 people, ranging in age from 32 to 82.
“My goal was to find out what it means to be adopted. Why people search, what they’re looking to find, what reunion is like. And what is it like to be rejected, because that happens,” said Vanech.
A common theme for adoptees, she said, is a sense that they are somehow alienated from the world around them.
“Being adopted for one man I talked to, it was always like he was playing a role,” she said.
Adoptees are four time more likely to commit suicide than the population at large, she said. That’s another reason, the author continued, why it’s important for adoptees to be able to find their birth parents, without having to hire a search firm, put out videos on social media or spend hours on genetic-tracking sites like Ancestry.com.
The bill in Hartford to give full access to birth certificates was recently sent to the state Senate, voted out from the Judiciary Committee. There have been concerns raised about the privacy of birth parents, as part of opposition to the law.
State Rep. Fred Camillo of Greenwich has been a vocal supporter of the bill. “Everyone should know, if they want to know, who they’re birth parents are,” Camillo said.
He said he understands the confidentiality argument: “But the good outweighs the bad by a lot. There are so many people who would benefit from it, both emotionally and health-wise.”
Vanech said she has benefited by meeting her birth mother and father, even though it’s been an ongoing process.
“Some adoptees do find that lightning bolt — it becomes a real watershed. For me, it will take me the rest of my life to sort through it all. And maybe that’s what it’s meant to be. It’s not black and white, it’s shades of gray,” she said.
But there were definite benefits to finding her bloodlines, and certain mysteries have been resolved. “I look more like my dad,” she said. “Although I have my mother’s smile.”