She was a secret. She was a foster kid bounced from home to home. She was an adoptee. She was one of millions of Americans who callously rejected by their birth parent. But thanks to a robust adoption file and a keen eye for the media, Patricia Lloyd can now stick “Oprah’s sister” onto the pile of labels next to her name.
Monday’s Oprah Winfrey Show chronicled a tear-jerking, Oprah-worthy reunion between the talk show host and a half-sister who presented as an affable and sensitive Midwestern mom.
Patricia was born in 1963. Her mother chose to give up for adoption so that she could get off welfare and Patricia spent the first month of her life in the hospital before going through various foster homes for the first seven years of her life. She was then adopted but described her life as “difficult”.
In 2007 Patricia applied for her adoption records which she described as a “big old package”. She was able to get non-identifying information such as medication information and a description of her birth family but no names or addresses.
Wisconsin’s adoption record laws
In Patricia’s home state of Wisconsin they won’t give an adult adoptee the birth mother’s name without first obtaining her consent. So, if the birth mother says “Sorry, no.” That’s usually the end of the road for an adoptee searching for the truth. This is what happened with Patricia.
In her article The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records, Elizabeth Samuels explains that most American adoptions in the first half the 20th century were not buried in the secrecy of sealed records, amended birth certificates. She quotes author Jean Paton’s description of a probate court in 1942 “There was no rigmarole then; you were allowed to see your own paper in a kindly procedure”. In 1960, about 40 per cent of adult adoptees had access to their original birth certificate but from 1960 to 1990 most states implemented laws which restricted or eliminated an adult adoptee’s access to heir own birth records.
Fortunately for Patricia, her thick adoption file gave up enough clues to put more of the pieces together. A chance interview with Oprah’s mother on the local news station as well as an official Oprah biography was enough to convince her that she was, in fact, Oprah’s half sister.
She contacted other relatives, eventually connecting with Oprah who was thrilled to meet her new sister saying she looked forward to building a relationship with her in the months and years ahead.
It’s not just the birth mother’s call
Lori Jeske, an adult adoptee from Washington State, pretty much summed up my feelings on the story.
“What I hope comes across clear to the public is the fact that ‘contact’ or ‘reunions’ are not just the decision of the birth parent(s),” posted Jeske on an adoptee rights Facebook group. “There are adult siblings and other biological relatives that may in fact want to interact with the adoptee.”
I think Monday’s Oprah show is a perfect example of why closed adoptions or “birth mother has to agree to it first” reunions are so wrong.
If it was up to Vernita Lee she probably would have just hung up the phone and gone to her grave with that secret. But since Patricia’s sister has a huge public profile she was one of those rare adoptees who were able to circumvent the closed record laws of her state.
Vernita Lee was not enthusiastic about the reunion. During a home video interview Vernita Lee coldly refers to Patricia, who is seated next to her, as “it”, “that” or “the baby” as though she was talking about a ghost.
The reaction of other relatives, however, was profound. Patricia first approached Oprah’s niece who is the daughter of Oprah’s late sister who was also named Patricia. Oprah said that Patricia bears an uncanny resemblance to her late sister and described it as a Beloved moment, referring to a scene from the 1998 film in which a deceased sister comes back to life.
When Vernita Lee hung up the phone she was not just closing off contact between mother and daughter she was making an attempt, backed by the heavy hand of the law, to cut Patricia off from other relatives who as it turned out are happy to have her in their lives.
Patricia hit the nail on the hammer when she said this was a family matter that should be handled by family alone. Adoption has redefined the contemporary notion of family. The search for biological relatives and subsequent reunions, while not obligatory or inevitable, represent a healthy part of this new norm. It is up to adoptees and birth families to work this all out. The government, or any adoption agency, have no right to withhold records.