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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 BlytheIsland Saturday when six siblings were reunited after 52 years. Theythink most of their brothers and sisters were taken from their motherin St. Marys and sold in an illegal adoption ring in 1956. From theleft are Kay Thomas, Shirley Morris, Louise Brandenburg, PatriciaRooks, Deborah Latham and Gerry Parnell.
Of all the children, Louise Hill Brandenburg hurt the most theday her mother collapsed in their St. Marys front yard as two cars spedaway with her brothers and sisters. "I'll never forget that day inJune, 1956," said Brandenburg, who at 15 was the eldest daughter of sixgirls and four boys and tended them as though she was the mother. Thechildren were born in the 1940s and '50s like stair steps toimpoverished parents, Willie and Minnie Hill. In the turbulenthousehold, her mother had given 3-month-old twin girls to otherfamilies 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 aseparation, she said.

"Mama moved in with another man and hismother, and we had been in the house about a month when a friend cameto the house and told Mama, 'You need to get the kids and get out ofhere because somebody from the sheriff's office is coming to get yourkids,'" Louise said.

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

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

"Idon't know why they left us," Brandenburg said. "They left Mamascreaming in the front yard. She passed out and I was trying to helpher," she said. Her brother, Bill, ran down the highway shouting andfutilely chasing the cars.

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

"They weren'tjust my siblings," Brandenburg said. "They were mine, my babies, and Iloved taking care of them. My mama was never the same when they tookher children - she had a complete nervous breakdown."

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

Brandenburgand her brother were taken to an aunt's house in Jesup, but the aunt'shusband said he did not want any more mouths to feed. During the nextfew years, she said, she returned to St. Marys, and lived in 10different homes in the area before running off to make her own way. Herintent was to leave the losses and heartbreak of rural Georgia farbehind. Now she's a registered nurse, married to a retired minister andliving 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'mthe 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 atwin. Nobody told me I was adopted until I was 30."

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

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

"I grew up in GlynnCounty, and one of my sisters, Shirley Hill Morris, grew up in Darien,"Thomas said she learned recently. Her oldest brother, Bill Hill, grewup in Glynn County, too, with their maternal grandparents, whom shenever met. "It's all so unreal."

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

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

ShirleyMorris was 6 years old the day she and her brothers and sisters wereput in cars and quickly driven away from their mother. She remembers itas Georgia State Patrol cars.

"I was sitting on the doorstepwhen the state patrolmen came. I was put in the back seat with my babybrother, Gerry," Morris said. "They said they were taking us to our newmommies and daddies."

The children were taken to a state patroloffice in Brunswick where several other cars waited to get thechildren, family members said. "It was so fast, cars just driving offfrom 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'swhen she realized how long the adoption had been planned. Her adoptivemother told her that she was very much wanted. "She told me, 'I pickedyou out of your yard three months before we adopted you.' "

Hernew parents tried to change her name in court. But Morris said shestood 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.

GerryParnell, who lives in Statesboro, was less than 12 months old and hadjust started walking when he was taken, Brandenburg recalls. His givenname was Freddie, but his new parents in Brunswick changed his name andalso may have altered his birth certificate, making him several monthsolder, she said.

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

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

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

Other members of the family also were looking for eachother. Last September, Deborah Latham of Ambrose called the GeorgiaAdoption Reunion Registry, unaware that Parnell also had called theoffice.

Peggy Rothschild, coordinator of the registry inAtlanta, said she has no evidence that the adoptions of the Hillchildren were illegal.

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

Herrecords of the Hill family indicate that Minnie Hill was overwhelmedwith the number of children in her care and was unable to provide forthem.

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

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

"Everyadoption in Georgia ends up in the state office of adoptions,"Rothschild said. "We have archives that go back to the early 1900s. Shewas 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 thereunion. She learned that two of the brothers had died. They arepiecing together their lives.

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

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

"Jacktried to find the children for a year," Mary Hill said. "We were toldthe state took them. We were just devastated. He went to an orphanagein Baxley, but they weren't there."

On Friday, some of thesiblings met Jack Hill, who's in a nursing home recovering from astroke. 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."