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Published Sunday June 7th, 2009 at 4:03pm

Original Article by Frank Dobrovnik

'The innocent ones' -- The Ontario government is making adoption history more readily available -- to adult adoptees and birth parents. But does the right to know always trump privacy?

The questions never really fade, no matter how many years pass and how old you get: Who am I? Where do I come from?

That's what Dawn Offord has asked herself since the late 1970s, when the only mom she had ever known dropped a bombshell on her. They were watching a program on adoption and Offord asked her mother -- who had been adopted many decades earlier -- whether she ever wondered about her biological parents. The old woman looked at her queerly.

"She said, 'If you were adopted, would you want to know?'" recalled Offord, who answered in the affirmative.

"'Well, you were.' Then she burst into tears."

Back in 1940s Toronto, Offord's mother had lost two babies, then her husband was overseas for six years in the Second World. "She was in her 30s, and realized she should adopt."

She eventually bore two boys, and no one knew the difference. With her blond hair and blue eyes, young Dawn and the rest of the family "were like peas in a pod."

It became increasingly difficult to tell the girl the truth as the years went on. As she told Offord later, she "always thought of me as her own."

It was little comfort. She describes her emotional state for the next year as "devastated. At 30, to find out you're not one of them, you start asking, 'Who am I?'"

The answer would have been a lot easier if Offord, now 62, had embarked on her quest today. As of Monday, adoptees age 18 and up in Ontario can apply for adoption orders and birth registrations. Before, applicants were eligible for "non-identifying information," which veered wildly based on the whims of the case worker of the day.

In Offord's case, the reply was tantalizing, if far from complete. Her birth mother was of Dutch descent and came from farmers. That was enough for a while, as she and her husband, Doug -- by chance, himself an adoptee -- raised a busy household of three children.

It was not until her mother died in the mid-1990s that Offord had the adoption records-- and the last name of her birth mother.

In 2005, CAS got back to her: they had contacted her biological mother. She "denied having a baby. They said it's a very common thing (to hear). They repressed it so long that by the

time they get that elderly, they actually believe it."

Three years ago, technology finally caught up with Offord: she found a young woman with the same last name through Facebook, and began a correspondence. They exchanged family photos and "the resemblance was incredible."

Dawn and Doug made the long trek to the address provided, near Leamington.

The woman who came out on the porch firmly closed the door behind her, Offord says. "No one was coming out, and we weren't coming in."

Offord had a message of her own to deliver: "I told her, 'I wanted to let you know I had a good life.'"

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It's just such a scenario that Joe Fratesi fears could become common under the new regime. Now chief administrative officer for Sault Ste. Marie, Fratesi spent the 1960s and '70s as one of the few lawyers licensed to place children in adoptive care. Birth parents had the option to "close" the file and seal their identity and, of the 250 cases he handled over two decades, he estimates all but a "very few" chose the closed option.

"It was all done anonymously. People would not know the name unless the parent wanted an open-style adoption, but typically they didn't want them to know," said Fratesi.

While he accepts access to one's medical history is valuable, he suggests a buffer between inquisitive adoptees and the birth mothers who gave them up long ago, confident they'd be able to continue their life anonymously while offering the child a better one.

"If the answer is no . . . I think they should be very careful because the system has been in place for years, and you could be doing some real damage."

Linda Dawe and Ray Cave are keenly aware the disruption the sudden appearance of a long-lost child can have--or, in their case, birth parents you never knew you had.

The parents of the high-school sweethearts forced them to give their baby away two weeks after Linda gave birth in 1967; she passed the next 40 years wondering about the little girl every day.

Widowed, she literally bumped into the twice-divorced Cave at the Sir James Dunn reunion in 2007, and it was love at first sight again. They placed a wedding announcement in the paper in June, with a plea for any information on their long-lost daughter, of whom they only had a birth name, Melanie Dawe.

Birth parents may also apply for the same documents, and the new legislation would have saved the couple about six months of time-and money-consuming legwork.

Now the problem was how to approach the 40-year-old woman, who had her own life, with no knowledge of the circumstances of her birth.

"It isn't just about the person you're searching for; it's also about their family and relatives and all the people all around them," Linda said.

"You have to move very slowly, take everyone's situation into consideration. A reunion or finding someone doesn't guarantee you're going to have a relationship."

Through her involvement with organizations such as the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers, she knows of "many reunions that were not successful.

You've got to realize though you're connected by DNA, you don't know this person."

Fortunately, for her and Ray, their half-dozen meetings with their daughter, whose identity they are protecting, have been promising. Ray's hopes are modest: "Our daughter has an entire life she built around herself, a great life. She had wonderful parents and upbringing. We just hoped she'd be able to include us at some point. We're basically an addendum."

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Doug Offord, too, is not setting his sights too high. After a lifetime of disappointment, Offord, now 65, will fill out the appropriate forms under the Access to Adoption Records Act but "I'm not putting a lot of expectation into it."

Doug always knew he was adopted. His biological past became an issue only after his twin boys were born, in 1977.

"People would ask whether we had multiple births in the family. I didn't know," he said.

That's when he and Dawn embarked upon the brambles of paperwork from which they have yet to emerge. "You get tired of filling out so many forms," said

Dawn.

Doug hopes the tide has finally turned. "It seems birth parents always had all the rights and adoptees had none. As humans, we should know where we come from."

His wife agrees: "We're the innocent ones. We didn't do anything not to know where we came from."