Detectives Offer Searchers Professional Help

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MORRISTOWN, N.J. -- Joe Collins finds people. Not just any people, though. He specializes. Birth parents and adoptees are his targets.

``I have the greatest job in the world,'' he says. ``I bring people together who spend most of their lives thinking they'll never see each other again. They don't know how to thank me, they're so happy sometimes. . . And I get paid for this. Unbelievable.''

There are professional searchers like Collins in every state, some of whom earn thousands of dollars for each person they locate. An unknown number of amateurs also conduct searches nationwide; they are usually birth mothers or adoptees who believe in their cause and often don't charge fees.

``Quite often, we don't even talk to our customers directly or identify ourselves . . . but use go-betweens,'' explains a searcher in Colorado. ``That way you minimize them asking how we get information like sealed court documents or computer files.'' While most do their work by scouring public documents, telephone books, and cyberspace sites, the search underground is inhabited by people who won't discuss how they do their jobs; computer hackers who tap into supposedly secure documents; and sympathetic government and adoption agency employees who surreptitiously slip copies of birth certificates and other records out of their offices.

Searchers rarely get public attention, but they starkly illustrate the intense sentiments around this issue.

In 1993, for instance, two birth mothers in upstate New York pleaded guilty to stealing state computer records during a years-long effort that helped hundreds of people find their biological parents or children; one received five years' probation.

The same year, a searcher in Ohio and another in Florida were indicted for obtaining Social Security records in a similar enterprise. One of the two women turned state's evidence and the other, a birth mother named Sandy Musser who gave up her baby daughter in 1954, served four months in federal prison.

``There are people who will do anything because they think the adoptee or birth mother has a right to know,'' says Collins, who has worked as a searcher in New Jersey for six years. ``I don't need them here, to be honest with you, because state laws let me see everything I need. . . . But in other states, it doesn't hurt to have someone with a connection.''

Collins is a by-the-book detective who scours telephone directories, public filings, and computer data bases. His fee is on the low side -- $900. He asks for nothing up front and gets paid only if he succeeds. In the six years he has been searching, Collins estimates he has found about 500 birth parents for biological children and about 35 adoptees for the people who gave them up. He says he's also located several biological siblings, and a few adoptive parents have hired him to find their children's birth parents.

Collins, 57, is an unusual activist in the world of adoption: He is not adopted, has no adopted children, has never placed a child for adoption, and has no close family members in the ``triad.'' His interest grew out of a love of solving mysteries.

When a job counselor asked him what he wanted to do after he sold the pub he owned 10 years ago, he replied that he'd like to be an FBI agent. Or find missing children.

Instead, he tried his hand at adoption searches and discovered that ``I'm pretty good at this.''

Now he has stories to tell.

Like the one about the identical twins who were split up at birth in 1952 and were reunited last September. One girl had been adopted by a Jewish couple in Connecticut, the other by Catholics in Kentucky. Collins also tracked down their birth mother, who initially said she wanted no contact but soon asked for Christmas cards with her daughters' photos.

When he finds someone, Collins asks if that person wants to be contacted. He passes along that preference to his client, along with the search subject's phone number and address.

Collins says he has tried to remain objective, but his experiences have shaped strong conclusions -- many echo those of adoption professionals.

He has found that the vast majority of searches are instigated by female adoptees looking for birth mothers rather than fathers. And he says he's never run into anyone exploring her past because she's unhappy with her adoptive family.

``I sense that a lot of adoptees are just curious, others have this compulsive need to know . . . and some subconsciously believe they were given away because they did something wrong,'' says Collins. ``They want to hear the reasons to ease their minds, and they want to hear it from the source.''

Nearly all the adoptees who have hired him have been between the ages of 28 and 38, he says, and all the birth mothers initiated their quests after their children were in their 20s or older. He adds that only a handful of biological mothers, including those who had requested anonymity when they gave up their babies, later refused to see their children.

``They were told to go on with their lives and forget about this child,'' he says. ``But they never forget.''

For more information, please contact:

Adam Pertman, Executive Director
Adoption Nation Education Initiative
617-332-8944 (work)

Credits: Adam Pertman

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