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Published Wednesday May 13th, 2009 at 10:48am

Original Article by Susan Respess

TEARS, HUGS, LAUGHTER and joy filled the picnic shelter at Blythe Island Saturday when six siblings were reunited after 52 years. They think most of their brothers and sisters were taken from their mother in St. Marys and sold in an illegal adoption ring in 1956. From the left are Kay Thomas, Shirley Morris, Louise Brandenburg, Patricia Rooks, Deborah Latham and Gerry Parnell.
Of all the children, Louise Hill Brandenburg hurt the most the day her mother collapsed in their St. Marys front yard as two cars sped away with her brothers and sisters. "I'll never forget that day in June, 1956," said Brandenburg, who at 15 was the eldest daughter of six girls and four boys and tended them as though she was the mother. The children were born in the 1940s and '50s like stair steps to impoverished parents, Willie and Minnie Hill. In the turbulent household, her mother had given 3-month-old twin girls to other families to rear in 1947, leaving the household with eight children. The Hills, originally from Gardi, a small community west of Brunswick, liked to drink and go dancing and they argued a lot, leading to a separation, she said.

"Mama moved in with another man and his mother, and we had been in the house about a month when a friend came to the house and told Mama, 'You need to get the kids and get out of here because somebody from the sheriff's office is coming to get your kids,'" Louise said.

"So Mama loaded us up - eight children - to go to South Carolina, and the car broke down near Brunswick," Brandenburg said. The family came back to the house where her mother hastily planned another way out and began packing up clothes she'd left behind.

"Two sheriff's department cars and another car showed up and a man handed mama a piece of paper and said he had a warrant to take the kids," she said. Six of the children were put in the police cars, but Brandenburg and the oldest boy, Bill Hill Jr., 11, were left behind.

"I don't know why they left us," Brandenburg said. "They left Mama screaming in the front yard. She passed out and I was trying to help her," she said. Her brother, Bill, ran down the highway shouting and futilely chasing the cars.

As she spoke, she stood in a picnic shelter at Blythe Island, looking toward the shade trees in the park and beyond to old pain that has hammered and haunted her most of her life. Surrounding her, though, on this day was the healing balm. Four of her sisters and one brother reunited Saturday at the park after 52 years of lost ties made whole again through private investigators and the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry in Atlanta.

"They weren't just my siblings," Brandenburg said. "They were mine, my babies, and I loved taking care of them. My mama was never the same when they took her children - she had a complete nervous breakdown."

Minnie Hill was given shock treatments, but never was told where her children were, family members said.

Brandenburg and her brother were taken to an aunt's house in Jesup, but the aunt's husband said he did not want any more mouths to feed. During the next few years, she said, she returned to St. Marys, and lived in 10 different homes in the area before running off to make her own way. Her intent was to leave the losses and heartbreak of rural Georgia far behind. Now she's a registered nurse, married to a retired minister and living in Oklahoma.

"I've never been able to deal with the feelings inside of me," she said.

One of the twin girls given away in 1947 was Kay Hill Thomas of St. Marys.

"I'm the only one who was adopted out [in a normal way], so I was blessed, and I feel guilty about it," Thomas said. "But I always felt I was a twin. Nobody told me I was adopted until I was 30."

Thomas became the produce manager at the Winn-Dixie supermarket in Kingsland.

"I probably talked to my real mother," she said. After her children were seized, Minnie Hill married the man she'd taken refuge with in St. Marys. Thomas is also certain she bought treats for her children from her real father, who drove an ice cream truck. But she never knew who they were. Both parents are dead now.

"I grew up in Glynn County, and one of my sisters, Shirley Hill Morris, grew up in Darien," Thomas said she learned recently. Her oldest brother, Bill Hill, grew up in Glynn County, too, with their maternal grandparents, whom she never met. "It's all so unreal."

Two more brothers, Buddy and Earl, were adopted by a family named Nichols in Pennsylvania.

"They weren't accepted well by the new family because they talked Southern," Thomas said. "They were given speech lessons to talk Northern."

Shirley Morris was 6 years old the day she and her brothers and sisters were put in cars and quickly driven away from their mother. She remembers it as Georgia State Patrol cars.

"I was sitting on the doorstep when the state patrolmen came. I was put in the back seat with my baby brother, Gerry," Morris said. "They said they were taking us to our new mommies and daddies."

The children were taken to a state patrol office in Brunswick where several other cars waited to get the children, family members said. "It was so fast, cars just driving off from there with the children, boom, boom, boom," Morris said.

At her new school, kids teased her about being adopted and she came home crying.

That's when she realized how long the adoption had been planned. Her adoptive mother told her that she was very much wanted. "She told me, 'I picked you out of your yard three months before we adopted you.' "

Her new parents tried to change her name in court. But Morris said she stood and told the judge her name was Shirley Mae. "The judge said, 'that's that.'"

She quit asking for her brothers and sisters when her new father told her that hurt her new mother's feelings.

Gerry Parnell, who lives in Statesboro, was less than 12 months old and had just started walking when he was taken, Brandenburg recalls. His given name was Freddie, but his new parents in Brunswick changed his name and also may have altered his birth certificate, making him several months older, she said.

Parnell, Brandenburg, Morris and other siblings said they were caught up in an illegal adoption ring that involved a woman from Tennessee who preyed on poor families and convinced or paid judges and lawyers to declare parents unfit so the children could be taken. That led to falsified records and sealed adoption papers that they said made it difficult to track each other down.

"My [adoptive] dad was in the Navy in Brunswick when they got me," said Parnell. "He soon retired and they hightailed it to Oklahoma" to avoid being caught, he said.

When Parnell was in high school, the family moved back to Georgia, settling in Albany. They had told Parnell he was adopted but said he was an only child. He didn't believe it and hired a private detective who helped him track down some of the siblings.

Other members of the family also were looking for each other. Last September, Deborah Latham of Ambrose called the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry, unaware that Parnell also had called the office.

Peggy Rothschild, coordinator of the registry in Atlanta, said she has no evidence that the adoptions of the Hill children were illegal.

"It would not surprise me that it was an illegal ring," she said. "All over the country there were illegal rings."

Her records of the Hill family indicate that Minnie Hill was overwhelmed with the number of children in her care and was unable to provide for them.

"Today, the state would have intervened and helped the parents and would not have taken the children away," Rothschild said. She understands how the children, now long grown, would feel bitter and think the system had failed them.

Latham first asked the agency for a summary report of her own adoption file, Rothschild said.

"Every adoption in Georgia ends up in the state office of adoptions," Rothschild said. "We have archives that go back to the early 1900s. She was quite surprised to learn she had siblings."

The registry contracted with a private investigator who found all of the siblings within a few months.

Elated, Latham got in touch with them and their families and arranged the reunion. She learned that two of the brothers had died. They are piecing together their lives.

Aunts and uncles and cousins met the Hill siblings, many for the first time, and shared a picnic lunch.

One of the aunts, Mary Hill of Gardi, is married to Jack Hill, a retired country minister and the brother of the siblings' father Willie.

"Jack tried to find the children for a year," Mary Hill said. "We were told the state took them. We were just devastated. He went to an orphanage in Baxley, but they weren't there."

On Friday, some of the siblings met Jack Hill, who's in a nursing home recovering from a stroke. He remembered them and even his pet name for one of the sisters.

"My role is to love 'em, love 'em, love 'em," Mary Hill said. "I see healing. It's happening. It's wonderful."