MANKATO — Some of the forms have next to no information — a birth city, maybe a hospital name.
Others have numerous details — their mother's eye color, their parents' occupations, even last-known residences.
They all have a couple of things in common: They're all searching for people, and Gary Schaefer of rural Mankato is playing a key role in solving the mystery.
For the past 15 years Schaefer has facilitated the website and nonprofit G's Adoption Registry, which now receives between 8,000 and 11,000 unique visitors each month who were somehow involved with an adoption and are searching for unknown family members. The idea for the site came in 1998 after his late wife, Danna Schaefer, began searching for her birth mother.
As the Schaefers set out to find her, they realized there were plenty of people who they call “search angels” out there (people working various channels to assist in searches related to adoptions). But there weren't many good websites to serve as one-stop shops for all the information needed, such as state adoption laws, resources available to aid in searches, forums to connect searchers with “search angels” and also with each other. There also were costs associated to many sites.
So G's Adoption Registry was born, beginning as just a Minnesota site that was free of charge to help people conduct searches. And by 1999 the Schaefers had helped solve the first case.
Schaefer didn't keep good records in the beginning, so he doesn't know who that first person was. But he remembers it wasn't long after that other states were added to the site, numerous search angels were signing on to volunteer to help conduct the searches, and many other connections were being made — one of them was Danna's mother before Danna died in 2007.
“We found her birth mother, and we got to meet her,” said Schaefer, whose step-father was the late Rex Macbeth and whose family owns R & R Tire Shop. “It was like a light went on. She was just so much happier, just knowing the truth.”
Schaefer has kept much more detailed records the past few years, as is evident on the website which is filled with dates — dates forms were submitted, dates they last were updated, dates families were found and dates searches were closed. The site is also filled with hundreds of links and articles, which may seem overwhelming to someone finding the site for the first time.
But Schaefer knows that these kinds of details are important. You never know what avenue will lead to someone being found, he said.
Schaefer only counts a family as being “found” when all sought family members have been located. So far, more than 3,790 searches have been completed — on average, more than 30 per month — which serves as great inspiration to first-time visitors.
“It gives people hope,” Schaefer said. “They say, 'Hey, if this person did it, I can do it.'”
Every day from Schaefer's home he goes through dozens, sometimes hundreds of emails and reformats search forms that come in before posting them to the website. He sends the forms out to volunteer “search angels” in states across the U.S. and a few countries internationally based on identifying information in the forms. He also sends the searchers instructions on how to use the G's Adoption Registry website.
The site has a message board and live chat, where people can meet and exchange emails to help in searches or simply boost morale. In the meantime, the “search angels” use public documents — such as driver's licenses, housing records and military records — and hundreds of websites, from Facebook to peoplesearch.com to whitepages.com — to attempt to find the right clues that will lead to the family member being sought.
“(These days) you can find out anything about anybody. If you own a house, you have a record. If you have a driver's license, you have a record. If you're on the 'Do Not Call' list, you have a record,” he said.
In those ways and numerous others the Internet has made the connections much easier. But recently, Schaefer said the fear of safety and security on the Internet has started to curb the ease of searches.
People are taking off their birth dates, home addresses, email addresses and phone numbers from their Facebook pages and other social media sites, for example. Sometimes they're not using their full names, opting instead for screen names that don't identify them to strangers.
The outcomes of the searches are as diverse as the means of making the connections. At times people don't want to be found. Danna learned she had a birth brother, whom she didn't find before she died. When Schaefer eventually did locate him — which turned out to be G's Adoption Registry's 2,000th find — he didn't want to meet.
Sometimes connections can even save lives. Schaefer said there are searches on the website labeled as “medical emergencies.” Often, children who are adopted don't know their medical histories and that information can become vital when there's a serious illness.
“Medical histories are a big reason people search (for birth parents),” Schaefer said.
It's not just people who aren't Internet savvy coming to G's, he said.
“It's everybody,” he said. “Most people don't have time, or maybe they don't understand their state's adoption laws.”
There are laws in each state that govern when and how adoptees and birth parents are allowed to contact each other. When both parties want to be found, letters of consent are filed with appropriate agencies, which then make the connection and provide contact information.
People like Schaefer and his search angels come in when, as his site says, “Life isn't quite that easy.”
“Sometimes a birth parent or an adopted child doesn’t want to be found. Not all adopted children even know they were adopted. Not every father knows he is a father. And, though unlikely, it’s possible that a child or parent doesn’t really care one way or the other,” Schaefer says on the site. “... All you can do is hope and pray for the best results and for the strength to be able to handle whatever comes your way.”
There are even resources on the site to help people choose a way to reach out to their family member once found, and to cope with whatever kind of reception occurs thereafter — including rejection.
“As any search angel can tell you, people can change overnight, though it may take a while. A loved one who seems non-receptive today may just need a few weeks or months to 'sort things out' or to 'grow up in a hurry' or to 'burn off' any long-held bad feelings. And then one morning they may wake up and realize that they’re finally 'over it' or that 'it all makes sense now' — and then they warmly contact you.”
For Schaefer, spending all his free time on the site is the best use of his time, he said. He gets no financial compensation; the site's few donations have gone to costs associated with the site and searches. But it makes him feel good to help others.
“And it gives me something to do,” he said.
One woman's search
Diane Steele (her adopted name) was born Aug. 9, 1959, in Mankato. She was adopted by Robert and Agnes Steele in Farmington, where she still lives today.
By the time she was verbal her parents made her aware of her adoption, and seemingly for just as long, Steele has wanted to find her birth family. When she was 18, she filed paperwork with the adoption agency in hopes of connecting with them.
When Steele was in her early 20s a letter came from her mom. It didn't include her name or current address, just her medical history and a couple of other personal details.
The letter eluded to Steele's conception resulting from sexual assault. It also stated that her mother was married and had two children before Steele.
But despite the lack of an invitation for further contact, Steele said she wasn't disappointed. She knows that happy endings in adoption searches are far from guaranteed.
“I was realistic,” she said.
But she also hasn't given up. After having two fraternal twins, who are now adults, Steele began in earnest searching for her birth mother and sister, who had tried previously to meet Steele. The adoption agency wanted a lot of money to make the arrangement, Steele said, so it never came to be.
Steele has since registered with as many adoption registries as she could find, including G's in 2007. But she has limited information to go on in her search. She knows her family had a business that closed down before she was born, but she doesn't know what kind or what it was called.
Going forward, Steele said she's open to any contact. She would even be accepting of contact from her biological father, despite the circumstances of her conception.
“It still would be nice to talk to somebody,” said Steele, who also would like an update on her medical history. “I'm wide open.”
For more information, to volunteer or to donate, visit www.gsadoptionregistry.com.