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Anatomy of a sealed adoption file

I recently received the complete contents of my father’s sealed adoption file. This is what I received.

Adoption petition


The “Petition of Mrs. Carrie Elizabeth Henderson and Roabie Wesley Henderson to Adopt Tommie Robert Brooks” begins with a three sentence statement attributed to Miss Glendora Brooks in which she says it’s her “desire” that her four month old child be adopted by the Hendersons, and that the child is illegitimate. The statement is dated October 14, 1941 – making it the first official record pertaining to my father. Her name is type-written – not signed.

The following month temporary custody of the child was awarded to the Hendersons. In 1942 the court accepted their petition and finalized the adoption and made the five following points:

– The Hendersons were morally and financially fit to take care of the child.
– Glendora Brooks signed a consent agreement for the child to be adopted by the Hendersons.
– The child was illegitimate.
– The child had no property.
– The Hendersons wished to change the child’s name to Tommie Robert Henderson.

Sealed envelope


I’ve read so so much about the impact of sealed birth records in the lives of adoptees. They’ve taken on a near mythical quality in my mind and I was curious to know what the actual physical sealed file looked like. I couldn’t find any pictures online so when I sent away for my father’s information I asked them send me a copy of the sealed envelope. Here’s what my father’s looks like:

“Original” birth record

This “Special Certificate of Birth” was not filed out until February, 1944 – some three years after my father’s birth. Apparently no certificate was filed out at the time of his birth. Despite the court order, which lists his birth name as Tommie Robert Brooks, the person filling out this form (presumably my adoptive grandfather) took it upon himself to record his birth name as Donald Wesley Brooks.

While there is no mention of the father there is a little bit of information about the mother. Her name is listed as Peggy Brooks. She was born in Missouri and was 17 at the time she gave birth to my father.

Amended birth record


The amended record is intended to replace the original birth record. My father’s name is listed as Donald Wesley Henderson and his adoptive parents, Roabie and Carrie Henderson, are listed as parents. Their place of residence is listed as Smiths Station, Alabama. This record wasn’t filled out until July, 1946 – two years after the original birth record and five years after my father’s birth.

The most interesting thing about this record is a mysterious witness signature.  Someone named “Mrs. Michael Voytovich” declared under oath that they had “known the child since birth.”  I wonder who this person was and what their connection was to my father. Perhaps a relative or a social worker.

Baptismal dedicational record


According to this document my father was dedicated as a member of the Eighth Street Assembly of God in Columbus, Georgia on May 15, 1942 under the name Donald Wesley Henderson although the document wasn’t filled out until May 8, 1943. This is the earliest record of the name “Donald Wesley Henderson”.

Analysis

My grandparents Roabie and Carrie Henderson (1920s)
My grandparents Roabie Henderson and Carrie (Gulley) Henderson (1920s) Photo courtesy of Jim Gulley.

In his early life my father used the names Tommie Robert Henderson and Donald Wesley Henderson. I figured one was his adopted name and the other was one his birth mother chose. I could never figure out which was which as they both appeared on different legal forms. His birth certificate and school records, for instance, are under Tommie Robert but in his father’s will and family correspondence he is Donald Wesley.

His adoptive family his parents named him Donald . In one dramatic story a relative described how he ripped up his birth certificate, told the Hendersons they were not his parents and renamed himself Tommie Robert.

The adoption petition, however, seems to debunk this theory.

According to the petition he was named Tommie Robert Brooks, presumably by his biological mother shortly after birth. The Hendersons initially intended to retain the name Tommie Robert, changing only the last name as per the court order.

By mid-1942, however, they dedicated (baptised) him under the name Donald Wesley Henderson. They used this name again on both his amended and “original” birth certificate.

I can understand why they would use Donald Wesley on his amended birth certificate –  that was he name they wanted to use going forward– but I don’t understand why the Hendersons chose to list his birth name as Donald Wesley Brooks.  It suggest that they were anxious to eliminate any trace of his origins.

The State of Alabama, however, denied the Hendersons’ request and stuck to the letter of the law. When they issued my father’s birth certificate in 1946 they did so under his legal name: Tommie Robert Henderson.

I find it ironic, and immensely gratifying, that the agency which kept my father’s birth records sealed for nearly 70 years also ensured that his original name would remain intact.

I was hoping this file would have information on my grandmother but sadly there wasn’t. It troubles me that her voice seems to be completely absent from this process. The petition says that she agreed to give up her son for adoption, but the words are clearly written by some lawyer and her “signature” is typewritten which makes me wonder if she was even a party to this process.

It’s my understanding that adoptions in that region were often conducted through an agency that would keep the identities of the birth parents from the adoptive parents and vice versa.  In my father’s case, however, it appears that the Hendersons knew Glendora Brooks making this something of an open adoption.

Conclusion

Tommie Robert Henderson (1959)

Overall I am a little dissapointed. I was hoping for more information – something that made my grandmother a little more human. Something that could link me to a living relative somewhere out there. More than anything, these documents provide a hearty dose of 1940s stigma, shame and dishonesty. It’s a lot of bullshit to unravel.

I do take comfort in learning that his name – his honest to god legal name – was the one his elusive birth mother intended for him.

My search for the truth continues!

19 Comments

  1. I just stumbled apon this site today, and I find the various comments so interesting. Here’s my story….my brother was 7y and I was 9y when we were in a courtroom hearing our mother crying as we were “taken” from her. We also had an infant sister who was placed with foster parents. My brother and I were not separated, but placed in a foster home in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, what’s so strange is that we were “never” adopted. The State even assisted in helping us get financial aid to enter and complete college . We have never re-connected with any of our real family. We don’t know if our mother eventually got our sister back, or whether she had other children. I remember (vividly) details of those early years. Being over 600 miles away all my adult life….has made it difficult to obtain information for events that took place in 1959. I am on a sincere mission to return to Atlanta and search archives like the fellow in the Antwon Fisher movie. Although I have a real birth certificate and info…I still feel so crippled because the “old” neigborhood no longer exists. My brother and I began searching in the early 70’s while we were in college. The more I think about this…reminds me of twilight zone. I am hoping that Georgia releases sealed records to me. Of course my foster parents never shared any information. They did not even allow me to discuss it with my brother when we were kids. My brother says that he does not even remember what our mother looked like….I certainly do.

  2. Hi Nathaniel, very interesting stuff…my mom was put up for adoption when her mom gave birth, not married, in 1942 in the Nanaimo hospital. She lived with a family for 6 or so months in Port Alberni and would have been adopted but the adoptive father got TB so my mom was put back into the system. Her natural grandmother was looking for her and managed to get her back. She was then raised by her natural mom and grandmother until her father came back from the war. They were married a year (in a double ceremony with a cousin) after my mom was born and then both couples lied about the year they were married for over 40 years so that my mom would not know she was born out of wed-lock. She did not learn her story until she was 40 or so…although she did wonder about lots of things. She has never found out who she lived with for the first 6 months of her life. There was also a question about paternity but that was dropped…no one will ever really know. The lies and the cover up that all 10 siblings of my grandmother and cousins and aunts and uncle were a part of continued for 40 years!

  3. Nathaniel,

    Thank you very much for sharing these most important documents. I pored over these documents with much interest. I am a natural mother who surrendered her newborn in 1964. I have never, ever seen any court documents pertaining to the adoption of a child, not even my own. I found the lack of a written signature by your natural grandmother to be most odd. I thought all legal documents had to have a hand-written signature….not typed. I also find it curious that your ngrandmother was born in Missouri, had her baby in Alabama and the adoption took place in Georgia..did I read that correctly? Your ngrandmother was only 17 yrs old and unmarried, so one does have to wonder just how *voluntary* her surrender was. Nevertheless I am thrilled for you, that you were able to access these records of your father’s birth and finalization of adoption. I sincerely hope you will find your natural grandmother and the rest of your family. This was your father’s origins and ancestry…it is yours as well. Wishing you much success in your future discoveries.
    Thank you again for posting these most important documents…as I said is a first for me. I am prohibited by law to see my own child’s (she is now 45 yrs old) birth certificate and any court documents. I never went to court, so I too did not sign any court documents. Some woman, I guess the adoption agency rep, came to my hospital bedside to have me sign the surrender doc. I was not given one shred of paper when I left the hospital, back in 1964.

  4. Pam: Sorry to hear about that roadblock… that DOES sound frustrating. If they say the name is “withheld” that implies that someone in that agency HAS that information but are not willing to divulge it. When you say “BF” do you mean your birth father? Did they give you your birth mother’s name at all?

    If you have any name that should help. I’ve found the best way to work around these roadblocks is to contact any living relatives or friends. Usually someone knows something that will lead you to the truth.

    If however, you weren’t given ANY names then it seems to me like it’s a political struggle for your basic rights. Fortunately, there’s a wonderful adoptee-rights movement out there. That is, a movement of people fighting for access to original birth records.

    Anyways, my mom bought me an account to ancestry.ca… I’ve been known to stay up all night on that thing so if you have some names I’d be happy to search ‘em out for you!

    I wish you all the best! Thanks for posting and please keep in touch with me! 🙂

  5. I am so impressed by your determination-I am in a similar situation. Unfortunately, I received my OBC and my BF name was listed as Information Withheld. I am still in shock and trying to work thru this roadblock – Thanks for the inspiration to keep going

  6. well if you want you can show every one the picture of our grandma in the 1970s compared to me so they can compare and vote on if they look alike

  7. This seems like such a convoluted process. I admire your patience. It seems like such a long story you have to put together. I know I feel like a reader who wants to know the next chapter.

  8. Gino: You don’t look like our father… at all! You look like grandma in the ’70s… 🙂 I’m workin’ on finding out what exactly happened to our father’s mother and I have several theories on who the father was… I might take some digging or a simple DNA test… we’ll see…

  9. Naomi.. If you think my dad is good looking you should get a look at me. Go to Gino sings music of the night on youtube and check me out….

    I am a much fatter version of my dad……

    🙂 but any of you here want to watch it and comment cool……

    If not thank you for supporting http://www.Nathaniel.ca bringing you all your Nataniel needs for nearly a decade…..

  10. Very loose laws back in the past. It is amamazing that the Birth certificate is an out right law…..

    It would be fascinating to find out about the Brooks family and who the dad is.

  11. I am glad you got this information finally, of course I am sad it did not give you more information that I know you want. But its not over. Now that his real name has been revealed maybe some new information will come about. I am going to meditate on it for a bit and see what I get.

  12. Nathaniel,
    Congratulations on finding this information that you worked so hard to get for so long. I know it doesn’t complete the picture by any means, but it must be very satisfying to you to know that this person Peggy Brooks though so much of your
    Dad that she wanted to give him a better home than she could provide. I hope and pray that somehow she got satsifaction from knowing he was being well cared for, just as I hope you know that he had loving people around him when he was an infant.

    Keep digging!!!!!

    cousin JimG

  13. Sadly, the stigma of the 1940’s persists even today. Sealed records, falsified documents, even outright lies are the norm for we adult adoptees who embark on the journey of discovering our histories. In the US, only 6 states allow adult adopted people to access their original birth certificates…SIX states. And those have been an uphill battle to be sure (except Kansas and Alaska, which never sealed them to begin with). And yet most other countries of the world have opened their records to adoptees decades ago, with none of the ill-effects that the opponents claim (increases in abortion rates, instances of harrassment, stalking, etc.). Yet organizations such as the ACLU and Catholic Charities lobby hard to keep our records sealed on the premise of the cowering birthmother who was “promised” anonymity forever after (even though no such law exists nor is implied in any surrender documents).

    Good luck with your research. And your story goes to prove that adoption and sealing records hurts not only the adoptee, but future generations as well. We ALL deserve to know our origins.

  14. Fascinating! Is that a mugshot of your father from 1959? He was a good-looking lad! I think it’s always preferable to know everything you can about where you came from, whether the information is favourable or not. Good for you for sticking with the search so doggedly. I hear Millenium Magazine is hiring. How’s your Swedish?

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