Not All Long-Lost Family Reunions Have Happy Endings

One day in 2016, an elementary school teacher named Jim Pete, from McCain, PA, was in the middle of teaching a language arts class when he suddenly heard his phone buzz, with a text message from his wife containing a photo of an envelope that was sent from Ohio.

A nurse / A multigenerational family / old family photos / DNA test results.

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He felt his heart in his throat. He had to wait two hours, until lunch break, to respond to his wife. She sent him another picture of what was inside the envelope: his original birth certificate, revealing his birth name and, finally, the name of his birth mother. He was 45 at the time. “As I happy as I am with my life, that is a big moment. Just having that honestly would have been enough,” Pete recalled.

A Man’s Search for His Mother

He remembers his parents telling him when he was six or seven that he was adopted. He spent about 40 years of “just having it in the background,” and then, all of a sudden, it was no longer a mystery. Pete tried looking for his birth mother periodically for years until a stranger he met online named Charlene Hall gave him some much-needed guidance.

A selfie of Jim Pete, his wife, and their two children.

Source: Facebook

A 2015 change in Ohio’s birth certificate laws made it possible for Pete to get his hands on the document. “Once they did that, I thought, okay, so now if I can find out my birthday, maybe I can go from there,” Pete said. His family was just as curious as he was.

Finding a Marriage Announcement From the 1970s

“My kids actually started pecking at me about it because every time you turned on the TV, there was an Ancestry ad.” Charlene helped Pete throughout the search process, teaching him how to use limited information in addition to offering him emotional support. “I knew the town that I was born in, and on the day that I was born, there were two people, and one was obviously me.”

Stacks of old newspapers and magazines.

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Once the birth certificate arrived, they spent about a week trying to get more information about his mother. Pete ended up finding her name online from a marriage announcement in a New York magazine from the ‘70s. The piece mentioned that his mother would be honeymooning in New Hampshire.

A Letter to a Mother From Her Long-Lost Son

In another search, Charlene found someone with the same name who was living in New Hampshire. It was a process of trial and error, but eventually, over the span of a week, they were able to get both an email and an actual address.

A hand holding a fountain pen and writing a letter.

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That’s when they started composing a letter that wouldn’t be too daunting for someone to receive. This woman was about to get a letter from someone claiming to be her long-lost son, after all. Pete celebrated this major step in his search with his family. Over a thousand miles away in Houston, Charlene was celebrating, too.

With the Help of a Search Angel

Charlene Hall happens to be one of the founders of Search Squad, a Facebook group with nearly 100,000 members dedicated to finding and helping long-lost friends and family members reunite. They call themselves search angels.

Close-up shot of female hands typing on a computer keyboard.

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After that first letter to his mother, which he sent in December, the mother and son messaged back and forth a few times. She then told him that she would get back to him after the New Year. She didn’t. So, in January, he sent her another email with questions about the circumstances of his adoption all those decades ago.

He Ignored Her Advice

A few days later, he got a letter from her with details about his origins and family history. She also told him that she was dealing with another emotional life event: She was caring for her dying mother (his grandmother) and preferred to communicate with him via letters as opposed to email.

A baby photo of Jim Pete.

Source: Facebook

Pete chose to ignore Charlene’s advice to keep his messages reserved and short. Instead, he wrote her a “long, emotional” letter that included details about his family, life, and lingering questions he still had. It was after that letter that his mother stopped responding.

It Wasn’t a Storybook Ending

Pete said that when he got that first email, his mind “went a little haywire,” and he thought to himself, “holy cow, I’m going to have one of these storybook endings where we’re going to meet somewhere in the middle and hug and oh my gosh, and we’re going to have this relationship.”

An older woman is embracing her long-lost son.

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That wasn’t the case. It proved to be a lot more complicated than that. Pete blames himself for his correspondence with his birth mother coming to a sudden halt. “Charlene keeps telling me not to make excuses,” he shared.

The Silver Lining

The silver lining in Pete’s case has been the supportive community he found in Search Squad and his new friendship with his search angel. But Pete says he plans on taking another shot at contacting his birth mother. He’s not giving up.

A man is working from home late at night.

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“I guess the optimist in me thinks that if I can just keep the door cracked a little bit, you never know. Maybe there will be that day where you get the TV show ending. Right?” We hope so, Pete, we hope so.

For Pete, his high hopes of a relationship with his birth mother were shut down. But in the following case, one woman’s discovery of who her real father was revealed her mother’s secret…

A DNA Test Revealed Her Mother’s Secret

Not all DNA tests are conducted for the purpose of reuniting adoptees with their biological families. In many cases – since it’s a lot easier and cheaper now – people decide to get their DNA tested as a way to learn about their family history.

Home DNA kits on a pharmacy shelf.

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What some people don’t realize, though, is that the pursuit can lead to some unexpected curveballs, sometimes revealing long-kept secrets. In 2016, a New York woman named Michèle and her husband went out on a whim and took a DNA test, you know, for fun. The results, however, weren’t as exciting.

Step One: Take a DNA Test

When the results came back, her life was turned upside down as it exposed the truth about a secret her mother had been keeping her entire life. It started when she began tracing her father’s family tree all the way back to the 1600s. Michèle wanted to take her research into her ancestry to the next level.

Papers are used to help research family histories, such as a family tree and marriage licenses.

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The first step would be to get her DNA tested through a database like Ancestry.com or 23andMe. The thing is that up to that point she and her husband didn’t have the money lying around to get such tests done.

Was She Partially Native American?

The couple had recently moved from Florida back to New York, and they had been saving up for fertility treatments, in order to start a family. So, spending money on a DNA test just wasn’t an expense they could justify.

A woman is sitting by her computer looking up the results of her DNA test.

Source: Pinterest

She remembered, however, someone telling her that she had some Native American ancestry from her father’s side of the family. She also knew that Native Americans and those with a certain percentage of Native American ancestry can be eligible for scholarships. Michèle figured that if she got a DNA test done, she could find out for sure what percentage of her ancestry was Native American.

The “Daunting” Process of Filling Up the Vials

Michèle was hoping that she could apply for some scholarships and ultimately help save money if she did end up going back to school. So, in May 2016, she and her husband ordered tests for themselves as early Christmas presents. They went with Ancestry.com.

The contents of an Ancestry DNA kit.

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When the test kits arrived, they were excited to get to work. Filling up the vials with their saliva “was daunting,” Michèle told The Guardian. The next day, they sent the kits back to Ancestry.com, which then had the samples tested in their lab. The couple was contacted six weeks later. The results were in.

Did They Make a Mistake?

They first looked at Michèle’s husband’s DNA results. She said his results pretty much reflected what he had always been told about his family history. Okay, no surprises there. Now it was Michèle’s turn. Unlike her husband, her results didn’t make any sense to her.

Scientist pipetting a sample into a vial in a lab with the DNA results on the screen.

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They didn’t seem to reflect ANY of the information she was told about her family. “The first thing that popped up is a pie chart, and one whole half was red and said ‘Italy,’” Michèle recalled. In fact, she was so taken aback that she automatically assumed that Ancestry.com must have made a mistake.

It Dawned on Her: She Discovered a Secret

“I was dumbfounded,” Michèle stated. Her husband looked through it, turned to her, and said: “Honey, they didn’t make a mistake. This is you.” Michèle started to panic and had her first-ever panic attack.

A pregnant woman stares out the window with her husband standing behind her. They both place their hands on the pregnant belly.

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“I just got very quiet. All these things from my past suddenly started going through my head: questions, feelings, things that couldn’t be explained, things that my mother would get angry or defensive about if I brought them up,” Michèle said. Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. And it dawned on her: She had discovered a secret.

Her Mother Dismissed It

By that point, Michèle and her mother were estranged; they hadn’t spoken to each other in about two years. But this was an event that justified breaking the ice. Desperate to get answers, Michèle called her mother that very night.

A young woman looks confused as she talks on the phone late at night.

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But her mother didn’t give her any helpful information. When Michèle brought up the Italian heritage, her mother was quick to claim that it was a mistake. Her mom denied having any Italian connection and claimed it was impossible. In addition to the Italian ancestry, her DNA test yielded a link to several people from Syracuse, New York, where she grew up.

Did Mom Ever Date an Italian Boy?

The names she read, however, were all names of strangers. Still, they were listed as her direct cousins. The next morning, Michèle called her mom’s sister, hoping her aunt would be more open and honest, as she knew her mother was clearly hiding something. Something big.

A teenage couple eating hotdogs outside at a refreshment stand table.

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It was a bit of a stretch, though, considering her aunt was only 10 years old when her sister (Michele’s mom) got pregnant at 18 years old. Michèle asked if her mother had ever dated an Italian boy. She told her aunt: “I’m looking at the last name: 100% match, first cousin.”

Her Mom’s Prom Date From Back in the Day

Her aunt then told her: “The only guy I remember who comes to mind is her prom date.” And she gave her the same last name as the one written on her results. Michèle stood up, with her laptop and phone dropping to the floor.

A young couple at their prom, circa 1950.

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“I ran to the bathroom and started vomiting,” she admitted. Michèle called her mother again, who denied the possibility that this man could be her father. She then told her daughter that it wouldn’t matter either way since he had died the year before in a motorcycle accident.

Getting the Paternity Test Results

“That’s how I found that out,” revealed Michèle. “It was very cruel.” She managed to find her biological father’s obituary. “It was literally the male version of me.” To be 100% sure, she decided to get a paternity test done with the man Michèle always assumed was her real father.

A vintage photo of a daughter and father decorating Easter eggs at the kitchen table.

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Both she and her father were devastated to discover that they weren’t related. You can imagine the feeling after learning that the person you have lived your life with is not who you thought they were – and the repercussions that come with that.

You Can’t Deny Science

According to Michèle, the two became even closer after that paternity test. But, as for her mother, Michèle completely cut her out of her life as she continually refused to admit the truth. She just kept insisting that the results were wrong.

A shot of a woman helping her senior father out of the car.

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Michèle eventually got in touch with her biological family who lived in upstate New York. She explained her side of the story, and once they saw the photos she sent them, they could instantly tell that she was her father’s child. The resemblance was uncanny.

Time Will Heal the Wounds

In August of 2016, Michèle went to Syracuse to meet them all for the first time. Her grandmother was thrilled to find out that she had a granddaughter since she had only grandsons up until that point! Michèle’s uncle took her to visit her father’s grave.

A grandmother is embracing her granddaughter.

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“It took me at least a couple of weeks to recover,” she said. “But they welcomed me with open arms.” There was a huge novelty factor in this whole chapter of her life, as well as excitement, but it wasn’t easy for her to deal with. She still had to reconcile with the fact that she was estranged from her mother. But time tends to heal most – if not all – wounds.

A Woman’s Search for Her Father

When Beth was growing up, there was an inside joke in her home. Her older brothers would tease her about being the postman’s daughter. Her brothers had dark hair and brown eyes while she was blonde and fair. Beth learned to ignore them, and the man that she was told was her father wasn’t even around anyway.

A shot of a daughter visiting her senior mother in the hospital.

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As Beth became an adult, her mother grew sick, and the question of who her father was became more urgent. During visits to the hospital to see her mother, Beth worked up the courage to ask her mom directly: Who is my real father? But every time she chickened out at the last minute.

She Feared the Truth Went to the Grave

Beth’s mother passed away in 2010, which scared Beth in more ways than one. She feared that the truth of her father’s identity went to the grave. She reached out to a friend, Christina Pearson, whom she knew had experience tracing her own family ancestry. Together, they collected as much information as they possibly could from Beth’s relatives.

A photo of Christina Pearson.

Source: Facebook

The goal was to fill all the gaps in her family tree, but the journey was filled with hurdles, and they were led down a series of blind alleys. Then, in February 2017, Christina read a story online about how DNA testing was being used by adoptees to locate their birth parents.

It’s Called Genetic Genealogy

Christina, a schoolteacher, didn’t know squat about genetics, but she found a Facebook group called DNA Detectives – a place where people share advice about how to use DNA tests to track down biological family. There’s a term for it: genetic genealogy.

A scientist is viewing DNA test results on a computer screen.

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In Christina’s previous genealogical research on her own family tree, she started the process with known close relatives and then branched out by going further back, searching for unknown distant ancestors. But with genetic genealogy, it’s very different. Christina took Beth’s closest DNA match from her Ancestry.com test, went back to find a common ancestor, such as a great-great-grandparent, and then built the branches forward to uncover the more immediate relatives.

It Was, Indeed, Her Father

It didn’t take long for Christina to pick up the skills. Within months she had identified a man she was pretty certain was Beth’s father! In May 2017, the two friends made the drive from Indiana to Kentucky to confront the man and ask him if he had known Beth’s mother.

Beth is posing for a photo with her biological father.

Source: Twitter

They met him, asked him, and got his response: He didn’t remember her. Still, Beth asked him to take a DNA test, you know, just to be sure. In the end, the results confirmed Christina’s hunch. The man, whom they learned had been Beth’s mother’s neighbor briefly in the ‘70s, was indeed the biological father.

A Double Whammy of Benefits

For Christina, the whole experience of finding her friend’s father was so profound that she made it her life’s work. She started offering her services to adoptees that she met online. By the end of the summer of 2017, she had closed nine cases.

A photo of a smiling multi-generation family sitting on the steps.

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To date, Christina has helped over 200 strangers reunite with their birth families. She’s part of a larger community known as “search angels,” a group of volunteers who help others find their roots. And aside from the benefit of helping others, these amateur genealogists are actually revolutionizing the very young science of genetic genealogy.

The First Search Angels Were a Response to the “Baby Scoop Era”

The first-ever search angels started helping others find their birth families decades ago as a response to the stigma and secrecy that characterized the messy adoptions of the mid-20th century. It was a period in time that is now referred to as the “baby scoop era.”

A nurse is standing beside multiple baby cribs of infants that are up for adoption.

Source: Reddit

In the early ‘80s, a woman named Priscilla Sharp, from Phoenix, Arizona, joined a group called Search Triad. Priscilla had her own history to reconcile with as she was a victim of the baby scoop era. In 1964, she was forced to give up her daughter, who was born out of wedlock.

She Felt Helpless and Invisible

The records were sealed, and a new birth certificate was issued. Priscilla felt utterly helpless – as if she was invisible. But things were different back then. She waited 18 years before she began searching. Unfortunately, all that was available from the agency was non-useful information about her daughter, like height, weight, and level of education.

A young woman is clinging to her infant child.

Source: Pinterest

In other words, there was no useful information that could point her directly towards her long-lost daughter. At Search Triad, Priscilla met other young mothers who were in the same boat – victims of the same baby scoop era.

She Paid It Forward

They offered her more than just moral support; they gave her practical advice on how to search through public records. It took her four years, but Priscilla was able to locate her daughter’s adoptive parents. The mother and daughter were reunited in 1986, just after her daughter turned 21.

Priscilla reunited with her daughter and meeting her granddaughter.

Source: Facebook

Priscilla’s search had a happy ending, but many of her friends weren’t as lucky. So, she decided to help them in her spare time and, in essence, pay it forward. In the early ‘00s, she retired and became a full-time search angel. By then, the internet had evolved, and the whole search experience was drastically improved.

Solving Cases Was the Exception to the Rule

Public records were now digitized, and online searchers shared their methods with each other on forums, emailing lists and chatrooms. It definitely made the searching easier, but the legal system was still poorly designed as it still withheld information.

A nurse locates an old medical file.

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Solving cases was the exception to the rule. Sometimes, Priscilla would secure a court order to unseal one of her client’s original birth certificates, only to find out that their names had been changed. “I spent hundreds of hours online searching fake names,” Priscilla stated. “I became very disillusioned.” By the mid-‘00s, some search angels started posting online about direct-to-consumer DNA testing.

Opening the DNA Doors

The idea was simple. Direct-to-consumer DNA testing can make searching easier. Priscilla was intrigued. She contacted a woman named Gaye Tannenbaum, who was already working with a group of search angels, trying to figure out how to use DNA to trace genealogy.

A doctor is holding up a gel with DNA test results.

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They were making progress, albeit slowly, but there was a problem. Consumer testing was still pretty expensive, and the databases were still limited. However everything changed in 2010when genetics companies started offering testing on autosomal DNA – the kind inherited evenly from both the mother and father. Suddenly, the doors to everyone’s family trees opened.

Filling In the Missing Pieces of the Puzzle

Now, the potential for discovery on both sides of the family tree was readily achievable – you just needed the time, patience, and determination. A genealogist named CeCe Moore and the search angels developed a new method for finding birth families. They called it “triangulation.”

A vintage family photo album and documents to help keep track of the ancestry.

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Triangulation was basically a type of reverse genealogy. The results of a DNA test could locate the closest relative match, and slowly but surely you could fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. Soon enough, the adoptees in the group started finding their birth parents.

In a Matter of Minutes

The search was still difficult, though, because there were so few people on the genetic databases. These search angels had to build out family trees of 40,000 people before they could put their finger on common ancestors.

A woman is opening the contents of a 23andMe DNA kit.

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By 2015, DNA databases had hit critical mass. 23andMe has over five million customers; Ancestry.com has over 10 million and GEDmatch has at least 1.2 million users. This means that an adoptee can take a single test, be matched with a half-sibling (for instance) and ultimately end a decades-long search for a birth family, all in a matter of minutes. To put it plainly: Long-lost families are reuniting.

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