by Julia Ryskamp, Duke Engage Intern

Originally published at Duke Engage Blog; reprinted with permission.

Now that my DukeEngage experience has come to an end, I’ve been able to reflect on everything I’ve learned and accomplished during my summer in Seattle and at Amara. The chance to live in and explore a new city was an experience like no other—productive, enriching, and fun—and the opportunity to contribute to Amara’s impactful and unprecedented Project Search & Reunion gave me knowledge and skills I hope to carry with me for a long time. Throughout my eight weeks at Amara, I learned so much about nonprofit work, past and current adoption practices and laws, the needs of children in foster care, and the importance of post-adoption support, and I have a new appreciation for those who work to support adoptees and their families and who push to protect adoptee rights.

I am especially grateful for the unique and rewarding experiences I received, including the ability to meet new and wonderful people. Near the end of our summer, John Honeycutt (the other DukeEngage intern at Amara) and I had the opportunity to meet and talk to confidential intermediary Carole VandenBos, who works with Amara on its search cases. Both John and I consider this one of the highlights of our time at Amara.

I had no idea what a confidential intermediary (CI) was before I began work at Amara, but in Washington, and many other states, one is required if an adoptee or birth parent desires to search for their family. In Washington, adoptees do not have free, unrestricted access to their adoption files. Since 1943 adoption records have been sealed in Washington and an air of secrecy has largely reigned over the adoption process. Only nine states in the US currently give adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates or adoption records. In 2014, progress was made in Washington when a law was passed giving adoptees the ability to obtain their original birth certificates—although not without conditions. But a confidential intermediary is still required to access adoption records and initiate a search, acting as a third party between an adoptee and a birth parent.

Carole VandenBos, now 82, has been a CI for over 37 years. For those four decades, she has been a pioneer in adoption rights and has helped catalyze changes to Washington’s adoption laws and practices. John and I were thrilled when our supervisor, Rena, arranged a meeting for us with Carole one day at Amara, and we came prepared with a list of questions, hoping to learn as much as possible about her life and work. Her story is truly incredible, and I am very grateful to have been able to hear it first-hand, and honored to now have the opportunity to share it with others.

***

Carole brings a unique perspective and very personal connection to each search she works on: Carole herself is a birth mother. In 1957 she gave birth to and relinquished a son. She was 20, unmarried, and working at Boeing. Carole signed the relinquishment papers in the hospital almost immediately after giving birth. Almost immediately after she got home, she called her attorney and doctor and tried to get her son back—but no one would respond to her calls; it was impossible to get him back. The only thing to do, as Carole was told, was to “get on with your life.”

Carole’s story was a reality for most unmarried pregnant women at the time. This reality had become evident to me as I helped audit Amara’s own adoption files from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I read countless court documents—so jarring and aggravating to read today—from these files with sentiments similar to the following: “[birth mother] is unable to provide a home, care, or training for the said child by the reason of the fact that: She is unmarried.” At that time, unmarried girls more often than not had to give up their babies. There was no counseling, no open discussion regarding pregnancy out of wedlock, and no sex education. Unmarried girls who got pregnant were labeled “bad” and often sent off to boarding homes to hide their pregnancies.

Twenty-four years after relinquishing her son, Carole saw a TV program about a group helping adoptees search for their birth families. This group would eventually become the Washington Adoption Reunion Movement (WARM). WARM, started in 1976, is a nonprofit still in operation today that works to reunite family members separated by adoption. Before then, Carole had never received any indication that she could ever search for her birth son. There existed a general sentiment that, because birth parents had relinquished their children, they had no right to search for them later. But Carole went to a group meeting, signed paperwork, and was helped to begin her search. At that time, Carole’s birth son was not ready to meet her—but his adoptive mother was.

Carole and her birth son’s adoptive mother became best friends, and their relationship and intertwining stories were filled with a series of too-impossible-to-believe coincidences. Each time they met, without planning it, the two would wear almost the exact same colored outfits. Carole recalled their last meeting, where she wore a fur coat, slacks, and black heels—an outfit she would never normally wear. Her birth son’s adoptive mother walked in—wearing a fur coat, slacks, and black heels. The adoptive mother worked for a TV company, and Carole had once dated a man whose family owned the same company—meaning there was a great likelihood that the two women had met before. These coincidences extended beyond the two mothers. The birth father of Carole’s birth son was a pilot, and her birth son and nephews too had their pilot’s licenses. Most amazingly, Carole discovered that, for 24 years, she had lived within a few miles of her birth son and never even knew it. I couldn’t help but marvel at these amazing occurrences, and wonder if there does not exist some invisible, unbreakable, ineradicable thread that always links families—whether birth or adoptive—together. If there is one thing in particular I have taken away from my time at Amara, it is the importance of family—such a driving and shaping force in all of our lives—and especially the importance of protecting and strengthening family, in all of its forms.

(John and I had the opportunity one day in July to volunteer at Amara’s booth in the Tacoma Pride Festival, and we had the chance to ask people who came by what family meant to them. There are almost limitless answers to the question, but to most people, family is love and security and whom you belong to—it’s everything to most people, and it can’t be defined by rigid boundaries. Amara strives to be inclusive to all families, and believes that reunification, and not adoption, should be the end goal of foster care.)

***

Carole’s birth son was eventually ready to meet her, and Carole described how nervous she was for that moment of reunification. They met for dinner at a restaurant, and they talked for hours. Any outsider would not have been able to tell that it was their first meeting—Carole and her birth son seemed like old friends catching up.

After Carole found her son, in 1982, she was asked by WARM if she wanted to help other people search for their birth families. Indeed, she had already participated in a couple of searches. Her birth son’s adoptive mother was an adoptee herself, and Carole had helped her find her birth family. At this time there was no confidential intermediary system; the use of confidential intermediaries was not recognized, required, or provided by law. As adoption records were sealed to them, adoptees had difficulty getting the answers about their past and identity that they deserved.

Carole helped initiate the first official confidential intermediary program in Washington. Along with other members of WARM (of which she eventually became president), Carole traveled to almost every single county in the state, asking judges if they would agree to open adoption records for searches. The judges were, in general, open to this, on condition that a third party be involved. Carole was instrumental in creating the legislature that officially recognizes and provides for the CI system, giving adoptees a means of discovering identifying information about their past and a starting point for searches, facilitating contact between adoptees and birth parents.

Thirty-two years later, in 2014, Washington passed an adoption law allowing adoptees the ability to obtain their original birth certificates. Carole was again instrumental in shaping this law into being. For six or seven years, Carole had worked tirelessly, lobbying senators and representatives in Olympia to support this bill. Eventually, she says, they just got sick of her, and agreed to pass the law. There was resistance to this though, arguing that birth parents had been promised confidentiality when they relinquished their children. Due to this, under the 2014 law, birth parents still have the ability to restrict adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates.

My supervisors at Amara had been the first to introduce me to the concept and importance of adoptee rights, especially of the right to their own records and information. Learning about sealed records laws and poring over adoption files—reading adoptees’ stories and pasts, knowing that they themselves did not have access to this information, and seeing missing or inaccurate information, especially regarding birth fathers—had made me both upset and confused. But meeting with Carole—a woman who has impacted the lives of so many people and instigated so much positive change—offered me inspiration and hope that continued progress is possible.

Indeed, near the end of our conversation, Carole reflected on the changes to adoption practices that have already been seen in the past decades, changes that inspire confidence for the future and that reflect a progression towards free choice, increased education, and openness. Women, especially, have more choices—they can choose to have a child on their own or choose to involve the birth father. Carole considers increased access to sex education to be one of the biggest positive changes. DNA testing and genealogy websites make it easier for adoptees to search for their birth families on their own. There is an increased trend towards open rather than closed adoptions, encouraging communication between birth and adoptive families. Carole hopes this progress will extend even further—that adoption records will be unsealed and adoptees and birth parents will be able to access their own information for themselves, eventually without the need for confidential intermediaries.

Throughout the past 37 years, Carole has carried out over 3,000 searches. I asked her if there were any cases that stuck out in particular, but she couldn’t decide: every case is different and wonderful, but each one is “always a triumph” that never ceases to be exciting.

***

We ended the interview by asking Carole what she wished her legacy to be. Her response: that she helped people reunite who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so.

I seized onto the word ‘opportunity,’ and wondered how much of our lives are shaped by the opportunities we are given and choose to take. In 1982, Carole VandenBos discovered an opportunity to seek out her birth child. She was later given the opportunity to help others do the same, and now thousands of lives have been touched by her decision to do so. Carole chose to give back her own opportunity and help others through the search process just as she had once been helped; this desire to give back and help families reunite still drives her today. There is no doubt that Carole’s legacy will be lasting and strong, having helped so many people to find what many consider the most important thing in life—family. I thought about the opportunities I’ve been given throughout life, including both inside and outside of Duke. Especially I thought about the opportunities DukeEngage and Amara gave me—to discover a new city, to live like both a tourist and a local, to make new friendships, to work with a nonprofit in a field I would have never in the past imagined myself getting involved in, to contribute to the vastly important Project Search & Reunion—all of these opportunities like no other.

And now I can’t help but wonder what I will make of those opportunities, now and tomorrow and always, and how I will choose to give back my opportunities to others.

Learn about assisting with Project Search & Reunion here!