NYC agency plans to mark 140 years of adoptions

By: By JENNIFER PELTZ, Associated Press Writer
By: By JENNIFER PELTZ, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Alberta Sorensen grew up knowing nearly nothing about her origins - not even her true birthday. What she knew was a Manhattan building and a nun her adoptive parents proudly took her to visit once a year.

Decades later, the memory is still strong enough to pull her across the country. At 78, the Walnut Creek, Calif., resident is one of dozens of adoptees planning to attend a first-time homecoming in October for those adopted through the New York Foundling, one of the nation's oldest and biggest child welfare agencies.

"I guess you could call it a sense of identity - 'Yes, that's where I was,"' said Sorensen, who eventually got to know her birth parents' families.

She is among more than 90 people who responded when the Foundling began an unprecedented drive to reconnect with its adoptees. About 65 of them have said they will or may attend the reunion, which will mark the organization's 140th anniversary, executive director Bill Baccaglini said.

For some, "reaching out and making contact with us has been cathartic," he said. "For a lot of folks, they go through their life not knowing, or they go through their life not wanting to know."

The organization has arranged more than 10,000 adoptions over the years, Baccaglini estimates, while undertaking new ventures ranging from a Bronx charter school aimed at foster children to a Head Start program in Puerto Rico.

It also has picked up famous supporters, including Paul Newman, who gave the Foundling $106,000 in profits from his salad dressing and spaghetti sauce business in the 1980s and '90s. A Foundling staffer helped Darryl McDaniels of the seminal rap group Run-DMC explore his roots in a quest that became the Emmy-winning VH1 documentary "DMC: My Adoption Journey," aired in 2006.

As its 19th-century name attests, the Foundling's history is entwined with the sometimes painful evolution of child welfare.

The Sisters of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious order, established the Foundling at a time of public alarm over the plight of infants abandoned on the streets.

In the early years of what was then the New York Foundling Asylum, distraught mothers left their babies anonymously outside its doors, sometimes with heart-rending notes: "She is sick and I can no longer care for her." "Please care for my beloved, as I have been shamed and lied to by his father. I beg for your compassion."

The city and some religious groups ran similar institutions at the time, but the Foundling was notable for its willingness to take in any baby left on its doorstep, said Julie Miller, a history professor at New York's Hunter College and the author of "Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City."

Some scholars of adoption criticize the Foundling for the large-scale orphanage that characterized its early decades, when diseases such as measles sometimes spread fast and lethally among the close-quartered children. The organization was slower than some of its peers to seek an alternative, said E. Wayne Carp, a historian at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

The leading alternative at the time - the "orphan trains" that carried thousands of children west from the Foundling and other urban East Coast institutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s - also proved problematic. What were envisioned as wholesome country homes sometimes amounted to indentured servitude, and some families selected children explicitly on the basis of their appearance.

The Foundling views these chapters of its history as sincere efforts to grapple with an onslaught of abandoned children in a rapidly growing city, Baccaglini said. As foster care and adoption became more prevalent in the 20th century, the Foundling became known for its work on preventing child abuse and neglect.

The Foundling's various programs now help roughly 7,500 people at any given time, with the federal, state and city governments covering most of its $95-million-a-year budget.

Services now include the work of two full-time staffers who handle requests from adoptees looking for their birth parents.

Sorensen began searching in her 40s, after her adoptive mother's death. She had only her original name and birth date, which she hadn't learned until age 15. As far as she knew, her life story started with her arrival at the Foundling, at 16 months.

It took 20 years of poring through public records and placing heart-pounding phone calls until the retired elementary school teacher identified her late birth parents. Their relatives have explained that she was surrendered for adoption amid marital problems between her parents.

The information - eventually she found herself in city birth records and linked her love of singing to a grandmother who sang opera - has provided "a piece of truth" to fill out the mosaic of her life, she said.

For other adoptees, the Foundling is beginning enough.

Like Sorensen, the Rev. Francis Gasparik grew up regularly visiting the place where his grateful parents had adopted him as an infant. He has never cared to probe his background beyond that.

Gasparik, who directs the Capuchin Franciscan friars' mission and development office in New York, plans to officiate at a special Mass during the Foundling's October anniversary celebration.

"It's part of my extended family," he said, adding that his youngest brother recently adopted four children from the Foundling.


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