Last year, Jim Pete, an elementary school teacher in McCain, PA, was in the middle of teaching a language arts class when he received a text message from his wife with a picture of an envelope from Ohio. His heart went to his throat. When he was able to respond on his lunch break, two hours later, his wife sent a picture of what was inside: his original birth certificate, displaying his birth name and, at last, the name of his birth mother. “As I happy as I am with my life, that is a big moment. Just having that honestly would have been enough,” Pete told The Outline. “I was forty-five at the time. I think my parents told me when I was six or seven that I was adopted. Forty years of just having it in the background and then all of a sudden it's not a mystery anymore.”
Pete had attempted to search for his birth mother on and off for years, but Charlene Hall, a stranger he met on the internet, gave him the guidance to follow through. She instructed Pete on how to get his original birth certificate (OBC) from Ohio, and how to use DNA tests and websites to build his biological family tree. A 2015 change in Ohio’s birth certificate laws had made it possible for Pete to acquire the document, which would be vital to the search for his birth mother. “Once they did that I thought, OK, so now if I can find out my birthday maybe I can go from there,” said Pete. Plus, his family was just as curious about his origins as he was. “My kids actually started pecking at me about it, because every time you turned on the TV there was an Ancestry ad.”
Hall advised Pete throughout his search, teaching him how to use the scant information that he already had in addition to offering 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. So I did know my birth name, but this is the first time I saw it officially on a document.” When the birth certificate arrived, they spent a week trying to find more information about his mother. Through an online search, Pete found her name from a marriage announcement in a New York magazine from the ‘70s, which mentioned she would be honeymooning in New Hampshire. In another search, Hall found someone with that name residing in New Hampshire. “I was literally throwing darts and it was trial and error, but over the span of a week we were able to get an address. Once we got the email address and the actual address then we started composing a letter that wasn't too daunting for someone to get, but gave them enough information to let them know this is who I am and are you who I think you are?”
Pete celebrated the momentous step in his search for his birth mother with his family. More than a thousand miles away in Houston, Hall was celebrating, too. Hall is one of the founders of Search Squad, a Facebook Group dedicated to helping long lost friends and family reunite. Pete came across the group, like so many of its 62,000 members and counting have, while hunting around the social media platform for any resources that could aid him in his quest to learn more about his origins.
The Search Squad was started in 2013 by five women who had all been involved in adoptee searches before and had met previously in another Facebook group dedicated to finding people, which has since been disbanded. Unsatisfied with the way the others operated, they created their own, with an emphasis on strict procedures, rules, stability, and compassion. They call themselves “search angels,” a term for people who provide assistance and support for those in the adoption community searching for their biological relatives. And while the founders of Search Squad didn’t invent the concept of search angels or pioneer the use of Facebook groups to facilitate searches, theirs has become one of the largest social media resources for people interested in conducting their own.
Four years after its founding, Search Squad has grown from offering the services of its five original search angels to offering those of around 80 search angels that group administrators have authorized to conduct searches on the group’s page. These searches are initiated by members creating a post on the page’s wall with as much information about the person they are searching for as they can provide — full names, maiden names, dates of birth, locations — as well as a brief description of their relationship to that person. All posts are looked over by one of the group’s ten administrators who make sure the post conforms to their guidelines before appearing on the Search Squad page for all members to see. At that point, an authorized search angel takes on the case, using clues provided to advise the poster on how to proceed in their search.
In a secret, search angel-only group that is maintained by Search Squad’s main founder and administrator Bonnie Holley, the volunteers discuss cases, share tips, and pool resources. Meanwhile, volunteer moderators police the main Search Squad group page, continuously on the lookout for disparaging comments and unauthorized search angels providing unverified information or making contact with suspected birth families on behalf of posters. “It's just more complex than we ever ever thought it would be,” said Holley, who works full-time as a real estate age and property manager in Tennessee. Every evening, once work and family responsibilities are taken care of, Holley sits at her computer and works on searches, keeping a careful eye on updates to the group to make sure all is running smoothly.
A birth mother herself, she estimates she spends up to 40 hours a week helping people she has never met discover the most intimate details about their origins. She says many of Search Squad’s angels come to this work because their lives have been touched by adoption in some way. Hall’s ability to relate is part of why Pete trusted her: She became an angel after completing a search of her own. Through phone calls and scouring online adoption registries, Hall found her sister, whom her mother had placed for adoption before Hall was born. It was a long, emotional process that Hall’s mother was hesitant for her to take on, but it eventually had a happy ending. “She met my mom, she met all my siblings, and it's just been wonderful,” Hall said. “And my mom, it really changed her. I realized that I had never known my mom without that question mark in her mind. She was so happy afterwards.”
Each search angel has their own reasons for volunteering their time, but what unites them is the desire to help others. The thrill of the detective work is just an added quality. “I think for some people doing searches is a escape from real life. It is very much like an endorphin rush when you've had a successful search and you're able to connect to someone with their birth family that they've been searching for for years,” Hall told The Outline. “It's a huge feel good and it can be very compelling to want to do it again and again and again.”
“We’re not the police department and we don’t do missing persons.”
That rush also forces Search Squad founders, administrators, and moderators to be intensely discerning about admitting new search angels into their ranks. Problems early on with well-meaning, but inexperienced members gave rise to the list of rules and regulations that now govern all activity on the group’s page. In one early search, angels unknowingly helped a neglectful parent find a child that had been taken from their home by child protective services (CPS). Now, Search Squad has rules around conducting searches for certain sensitive cases and it refuses cases having to do with CPS, the Department of Human Services, or those focused on finding anyone under the age of 21. Additionally, non-volunteer members of the group are forbidden from commenting on search posts unless they are tagging one of the group’s administrators or search angels or congratulating someone on a completed search. Posts including sensitive information are removed, as are those claiming to be on behalf of someone else or ones that include solicitations or links to GoFundMe campaigns.
Despite, or perhaps even because of, the strictness of these rules, more people appeal to the group for help every day. And while their focus is on people whose lives have been touched by adoption, the squad fields requests for help finding everyone from long lost relatives to long lost friends to requests from people who simply want to fill out their family trees. Still, there are certain cases Holley says Search Squad will simply not take on, especially those that may be centered on criminal wrongdoing. “We're not the police department and we don't do missing persons,” Holley said.
The page consists mostly of posts from people asking for help, but scattered between them are those that have been updated with stories of people who have completed their searches. Some describe happy endings and are complete with photos of smiling family members meeting one another for the first time. Others are less happy, with people reporting that the person they were looking for is dead or simply was not interested in being found. The Search Squad has reunited people from all over the U.S., including in Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, Ohio, as well as in Canada and overseas, accepting only praise along the way.
Throughout Pete’s search process, Hall offered emotional support rooted in her own search experience. “[When] you go through this, it seems like a singular process,” Pete said, “but the one thing that Charlene has shown me is that — and really not just Charlene but all the people through the years — is that there are so many people that are going through what I'm going through either on my end or on the other end.”
Search Squad’s popularity, as evidenced by the hundreds of new members that join each month, is the product of the confluence of a number of social currents. Over the past three decades, adoptee rights activists have made steady gains in the fight to give adult adoptees access to their OBCs. Still, in the U.S., only nine states allow them unrestricted access to these documents: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Rhode Island. Twenty others have passed legislation allowing access with restrictions such as the requirement to join a registry, the possibility that the OBC will include redacted information, a high fee, or the requirement that the person requesting access be born before or after a particular date. However, 21 states and the District of Columbia currently keep original birth certificates sealed. In those states, adoptees often must request a court order to access their OBCs. Some states grant these more willingly than others. New York, for example, is known among search angels for being one of the hardest states to get information from.
The fight to open up sealed OBCs at the state level is ongoing. Opponents argue that it compromises the biological parents’ privacy, but supporters claim the opposite. As Marci Purcell, an adoptee rights advocate based in Texas, a state with sealed OBCs, told Austin’s KXAN earlier this year: “[Adoptees] are able to go on Facebook and hold up a sign and say this is my information. So, the birth parent is outed in a very public way. Instead of me walking up to the vital statistics office and getting a copy of my birth certificate and calling them privately.”
Meanwhile DNA tests, in addition to facilitating adoptee searches and solving crimes, are extremely popular in the mainstream, often promoted alongside similarly popular genealogy websites. And the past two decades have brought increased attention on the realities of the Baby Scoop Era in the U.S., the time between the end of World War II and the Roe v. Wade decision during which newborn adoption rates spiked and many American women were coerced to place their babies for adoption.
Susan Friel-Williams, Vice President of the American Adoption Congress, an adoption reform organization started in 1978, told The Outline the web-based search angels movement began in the 90s as more and more households began to acquire personal computers. Adoptees found one another through AOL and other ISP chat rooms and message boards, sharing advice, tips, and encouragement as they worked through the emotional and intellectual labor involved in finding their biological relatives. “All of a sudden the PC movement happened. And it made it easier for people to find each other who are all doing the same thing.” Those early messages boards and chat rooms are Search Squad’s predecessors.
Search Squad is by far not the only resource for people in the adoption triad — the term used in adoption communities for people who were adopted, have adopted, or have placed a child for adoption — but the group has managed to become a central meeting point for searchers in ways other resources haven’t. “There's so many registries out there,” said Hall. “That's kind of the problem.” Friel-Williams estimates there are 70 to 80 search angel Facebook groups active now. She believes Search Squad is the biggest, but lacks the resources help to all of the users who appeal to it. “I mean, logistically it's impossible,” she said.
Friel-Williams also expressed concern about the security standards of Facebook search groups. The Search Squad stressed the rules and regulations they’ve put in place to safeguard users, but some adoption organizations and agencies caution against turning to the social media for help. “Some search angels are well trained and very responsible,” reads the Missouri Adoptee Rights Movement website. “Others are inexperienced and may not have the same idea that you do when it comes to proper ways of contacting family members.” Friel-Williams echoed this sentiment. “There's a whole movement on Facebook where well-meaning people are attempting to help other people find missing friends and family. That started off innocuously, but it can be dangerous,” said Friel-Williams. “And some of these states [where] people are helping, those states require licensing for any kind of investigation.”
Friel-Williams, who is herself a licensed private investigator in Florida, said about 29 states require investigator registration, a process that includes an FBI background check. “Where it crossed the boundary is when people stuck the title search angel engine onto their name and decided they were going to go and do what most investigators are better trained to do,” Friel-Williams said, adding that ego and the attempt to see who can get to a searcher’s information first also motivates rogue angels. Still, even with all of her reservations, Friel-Williams doesn’t outright discourage people from appealing to Search Squad—she’s even a member.
Even with all of the pay options out there for adoption triad members, for some Search Squad is a last resort. Michael Stohler, a 38-year-old college campus minister who lives in Virginia with his wife and one child, had searched for his birth parents on and off since he turned 18. He had updated his information in a number of online adoption reunion registries and and appealed to adoption forums before. He was determined to find his birth mother, but lacked the funds. “We really didn't have the money to drop three to five thousand dollars or more on a search that we didn't know was going to bring anything to fruition,” he said.
“I feel like his birth mother at the time was thinking, I'm going to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case he does ever want to look for me.”
In 2013, he posted the photo of his birth mother, his story, and an appeal for help on his Facebook page. It had been shared thousands of times before someone recommended he reach out to Hall and join the Search Squad group. For Stohler’s case, Hall had a completely different set of clues to work with than in her search with Pete. When he turned 18, Stohler, who like Pete was born in Ohio, received a letter his birth mother had left for him as well as a photograph of her. She had also left detailed notes on her family, called non-identifying information in adoption records, including some particulars about her siblings sizes and her older brother’s football career. “I feel like his birth mother at the time was thinking, I'm going to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case he does ever want to look for me,” said Hall.
Using that information, Hall searched through Ohio football team rosters and obituaries, eventually tracking down an old photo in a yearbooks archive that matched the one Stohler had been given by the adoption agency. That day, only a couple months after they had begun their search, Hall called Stohler to tell him she was sending him links to his biological relatives’ Facebook pages. “That was a pretty amazing thing,” Stohler told The Outline. “She wasn't asking for money, she wasn't saying ‘we're doing this as a business.’It's like a mission or a ministry that they they want to help people.”
All search angels, whether they are members of Search Squad or not, decline payment for their work. But in Search Squad, Holley says that people who inquire about payment are given the option to “pay it forward” by donating to a group PayPal account set aside to help pay for DNA tests for people who can’t afford them but whose searches can’t move forward without them. Holley estimates that Search Squad completes about a thousand searches each year.
With all of the opinions and emotions around what search angels do, their work can only be foolproof or successful to a point. Even the most diligent, careful, and ethical search angel cannot guarantee a happy ending for their searchers. In Stohler’s case, he believes he couldn’t have gotten a happier ending. He and his family are building a relationship with his birth mother and other birth relatives. “[Search Squad search angels] blessed my life,” said Stohler. “And my biological mom obviously didn't know that [at the time] but they've blessed her life now, too. Because we get to have a relationship now after not having one for for so long.”
For Pete, the journey to communicate with his birth mother has been more complicated. After his initial letter, which he sent in December, he and his birth mother messaged back and forth a few times, at which point she told Pete she would get back to him after the new year. In January, Pete sent her another email that included a couple questions about the circumstances of his being placed for adoption. A few days later, he received a letter from her, detailing more about his origins and family history as well as the fact that she was dealing with another emotional life event: She was taking care of her dying mother and preferred to communicate via letter. For Pete’s response he eschewed Hall’s advice to keep his messages reserved and short, instead penning a letter he says was long, emotional, and included more details about his family, his life, and the lingering questions he had. At that point, Pete’s responses from his birth mother stopped.
“When I got that first email, my mind went a little haywire and I thought, 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,” said Pete. “And it's a lot more complicated than that.” At times in our conversation, Pete seems to blame himself for his correspondence with his birth mother stalling. “Charlene keeps telling me not to make excuses,” he shares at one point. The bright side for him has been in the supportive community he found in Search Squad and the new friendship he has with his search angel Hall. “There was kind of a connection there just simply because you could tell she cared and she really wanted this to work. And not because she works for Search Squad, but just because she's gone through it herself,” said Pete.
Through Hall, he says he has been connected with other searchers with whom he shares advice on how to cope with the emotional part of the process. And indeed, each of the search angels that spoke to The Outline mentioned the importance of the community aspect of the group, even for the volunteers themselves. Despite, the deep connections formed in the group and the incredible work they have done with each other, distance and personal commitments have prevented the founders of the group from meeting one another in person. Though, they hope to finally come together someday.
On the other hand, Pete says he is going to take another shot at contacting his birth mother soon. Though he doesn’t currently have relationships with his birth relatives, he is still grateful to know about them. And through their shared experience in the search, Hall and Pete have grown close and still talk regularly. “The connection I have with Charlene is far superior to any relationship I've gotten from my birth family, and also I have the ability now to help her if she ever needs it,” he said. Despite the setbacks, Pete is not giving up on connecting with this birth family. “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?”