Laws were roadblocks but, at last, a daughter finds her birth mother was never that far away

·9 min read
Kathy Donisi of Carlisle, left, hugs her daughter, Angie Foster of Pompano Beach, Florida, during a visit in December. Separated for 48 years,  a change in adoption laws opened records so the two women could find each other.
Kathy Donisi of Carlisle, left, hugs her daughter, Angie Foster of Pompano Beach, Florida, during a visit in December. Separated for 48 years, a change in adoption laws opened records so the two women could find each other.

“I’m looking for my birth mother.”

That simple Facebook message would change the life of Kathy Donisi. Though at first, she wasn’t sure the sender was really the same baby girl she had given up for adoption 48 years before.

The last time Kathy saw her daughter was in a Middletown delivery room, a month before turning 17. She remembered a nurse taking away a swaddle of matted dark hair before Kathy could even hold her.

How could she be sure this Angie Foster person on Facebook was the one, she worried.

For half a century, there was no easy way for the two of them to even get in touch. No way for Kathy to know her baby was OK. No way for her daughter to know what she was missing. No way for them to heal in a way they didn’t know they needed. No way for either of them to know what they had lost.

Kathy’s daughter was born in 1972. Nine years prior, an Ohio law had sealed all future adoption records. This meant Kathy’s baby would likely never know her birth mother’s name. Kathy knew that and accepted it.

But there were glimpses of hope. For decades, Betsie Norris, founder and executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland, led the fight for reversal of the law.

Thanks to her lobbying, in 1996 a new law allowed future adoptees to request their adoption file. Trouble was, state lawmakers refused to open previously sealed adoption files. That meant all adoptions that took place between 1964 and most of 1996 were permanently sealed.

That included Kathy's baby.

As the fight for access continued and other states opened sealed adoption records, the Ohio Legislature finally reversed course. A law passed in December 2013 opened all adoption records for children adopted in those “blackout” years.

Fifteen months later, in March 2015, the law went into effect. Roughly 400,000 children could now find the names of their birth parents. So far, over 16,000 of these records have been released.

One of those records belonged to Kathy’s daughter. And now, almost a half-century after Kathy’s daughter was born, and more than five years after the bill that made it possible went into effect, Kathy and her birth daughter were talking for the first time.

The decision

Kathy had grown up in Franklin, Ohio. She was almost 16 when she started to date.

A few months later, as these things go, she learned that she was pregnant.

For eight long months, Kathy kept her pregnancy a secret. She was terrified. Her body hid the scary truth. If you looked at Kathy, you wouldn’t have known she was pregnant. Alone and scared, even her body wouldn't give any outward sign that she was pregnant.

Until it did.

Kathy knew she couldn’t keep the baby. She was too young and believed she couldn't give her baby what parents are supposed to.

She knew a few of her neighbors had been adopted as children and saw how happy they were. She wanted the same for her baby.

So, on October 4, 1972, as soon as Kathy gave birth, she put her baby up for adoption. Because it was a closed adoption, she didn’t know who adopted her baby or her baby’s name. It also meant she had to promise not to look for her daughter.

Still, she gathered keepsakes, like a ring and love letters from her baby’s father, even the hospital bracelet and a hospital bill.

She just wanted to know her baby was safe.

A screenshot of a Facebook message between Kathy Donisi and Angie Foster which included Foster’s birth certificate.
A screenshot of a Facebook message between Kathy Donisi and Angie Foster which included Foster’s birth certificate.

The baby

Angie never thought much about her birth mom growing up. Her childhood in South Lebanon felt complete.

Being adopted didn’t feel that different, she figured, from being raised by your biological parents. Her parents, Bernice and Hubert Gabbard, told Angie and her adopted older sister the truth early on, but reframed it as “being special.” They always made clear that Angie knew she was theirs. Plus, Angie’s dark hair and deep brown eyes fit right into the family.

But every year on her birthday, Angie’s mind would wander to her birth mother, wondering if she was thinking about her baby.

Despite this, over the years and even after her adoptive parents passed away, Angie felt no desire to find her birth mother. She even saw the announcement in 2015 that she and others like her could open her adoption records. She wasn’t interested.

“I always said ‘I would never look for my birth parents. I would never have Thanksgiving dinner with strangers,'” Angie said.

Her attitude started to change a few years after moving to Florida. She was experiencing health issues that her doctor thought could be hereditary. He suggested she learn about her birth parents. Her daughter, Abbe, pushed too.

“I was so sick, and, just, I was on a lot of medication, you know, and I'm like, 'What is wrong with me?’” Angie said. “And Abbe’s like, ‘Mom, what if you get to be, like, 70, and you wish you would have done this?’”

It was the nudge Angie needed. Her daughter submitted the necessary paperwork to the Ohio Department of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. Weeks later, Abbe received a packet with Angie’s original birth certificate and court order decree of adoption. She called Angie and read the files. And here she found the name of Kathy Lee Wagner.

Angie searched the web for the name and landed on a “Kathy Wagner Donisi” who lived 20 miles from where she had grown up in. Oddly enough, they had two mutual Facebook friends.

But there was only one way to know if this Kathy was the one.

The text that opened the door.
The text that opened the door.

The text

Taking a breath Angie bit the bullet.

She texted this Mrs. Donisi: “Hi is your middle name Lee by any chance.” She typed. She tried to sound casual, but her heart was pounding.

Kathy checked her phone. Who the heck is Angela Foster? She could only see the name, not the message. Her mind went to her friend who had just been hacked on Facebook Messenger. She decided to ignore the notification for now.

On the other side of that text, Angie got antsy. She filled the time by trying to find out more. Scanning Kathy’s Facebook profile, her life seemed so, well, great. Her two blonde-haired daughters looked nothing like Angie.

But if this Kathy is the right Kathy, how would Angie fit into the picture?

“God, I need a drink,” she laughed.

A couple of hours later, Kathy got around to opening the message from Angie. Is your middle name Lee? What an odd question.

She didn't hesitate: Yes.

Angie saw the text. She didn’t – couldn’t – give herself a minute to second-guess. OK. Here goes. She typed: “I’m looking for my birth mother.”

Kathy’s heart dropped. Her mind raced with questions. Angie replied with a photo of her 1972 birth certificate and explained how the 2013 Ohio adoption law made it possible for her to find Kathy’s name in her adoption record.

“If that’s all true,” Kathy managed to write back, “I am your mother.”

Angie was so excited but, wait, she thought, "What if she doesn’t want this? What if I’m upsetting her?"

Kathy’s next text popped up. “I’ve waited almost 50 years for this.”

No secrets

Kathy told Angie that once she was born, she never kept the baby she had and gave away a secret. She even told her husband about Angie on their first date. Their two daughters, Brooke and Brette, learned about Angie when they were little.

Angie told Kathy about her husband, Chuck, and their two children, Abbe and Logan. She talked about her childhood and reassured her that she had indeed been safe and happy. But during their conversation, the two learned a few surprising things.

They had a life of near misses. Angie went to cosmetology school with Kathy’s next-door neighbor. Kathy got her hair cut in the chair next to where Angie stood cutting hair. Kathy’s daughter judged the same competitive cheer competitions Angie’s daughter competed in.

Just think: At any moment, the two could have met. They could have become friends.

It was the beginning of a new relationship, but it was still not enough. Angie’s husband pushed her: The two needed to meet. He booked a flight for the end of the week. “We’re going to Ohio,” Chuck told her.

When Angie protested that it was too soon, he cut her off. “She’s waited 48 years."

Angie Foster, far right, with half-sisters, Brooke Tinch and Brette Karas, and their mother, Kathy Donisi, during their Christmas visit.
Angie Foster, far right, with half-sisters, Brooke Tinch and Brette Karas, and their mother, Kathy Donisi, during their Christmas visit.

The meet

In March, the two women, related by blood but essentially strangers, met at a hotel in Springboro. For the first time, Kathy touched her daughter. She ran her hands through her long brown hair, astonished by how different her baby looked since she’d last seen her.

“I was like, here is this baby I just glanced at, you know, and now she's a grown woman,” said Kathy. “And I just couldn't fathom that was my baby."

Angie, releasing Kathy from an embrace, asked, “When you had Brooke, your second daughter, did you think of me?”

Immediately, Kathy replied, “Oh yes, I wanted all girls.”

Angie spent the weekend meeting her birth family. It wasn’t until the flight home that she started to weep. She realized she deeply missed her adoptive parents.

To console herself, she looked through a bag of photos she’d plan to show Kathy. Looking at her wedding photo, she glanced down at the wedding photographer’s name: Donisi. Turns out, he was Kathy’s father-in-law.

Her mother had been right there. Close. All this time.

“I just want anybody to know in the state of Ohio that this is possible,” Angie said. “And it has been all positive for me, like puzzle pieces connecting.”

It had been a second chance and she and her mother had taken that chance.

Since their first Facebook message, Angie and Kathy talk just about every day. The two playfully tease each other, as if they’d been doing so their whole lives. Kathy finally gave Angie the box of items she had saved for her, after all these years.

Although the two weren’t able to spend Thanksgiving together because of separate vacations, Angie celebrated Christmas with Kathy and her family. A moment that before Angie would have dreaded, she now sees as a blessing.

“I always said ‘I will never sit at a Thanksgiving table with strangers,’ Well, guess what, they weren’t strangers. My sisters told me, ‘you’ve always been our sister,” Angie said.

As for Kathy, she figures she got so much more than just the reassurance that her baby girl had been safe and healthy. She is with her now.

And during the holidays, Kathy got to finally celebrate that. She placed a miniature Christmas tree in a room she now keeps for when Angie visits.

On it, Kathy hung an ornament. It reads: “Baby’s First Christmas.”

Kathy Donisi and Angie Foster, together at last.
Kathy Donisi and Angie Foster, together at last.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: After Ohio adoption law change, daughter and birth mother reunite

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