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Published Wednesday October 7th, 2009 at 11:10am

Original Article by Ed Arnold

Shirley O'Grady is a determined person.

The fruit of her determination landed in her mailbox on Aug. 27. It was a government letter. She opened it alone in her apartment and began to cry.

The senior citizen had been fighting for more than 30 years to see a copy of her birth certificate, easy and routine for many of us, but not for someone given up by her birth parents and adopted at five days old.

Shirley was born in Kirkland Lake and moved with her adopted family to Orillia when she was two.

At eight years old, her parents told her she was adopted and were adopting a sister for her.

"I asked what my birth name was, they told me and I watched for that name all of my life," she said in an interview.

Her birth name was Diana (she doesn't want the last name used) but that was all she knew. She applied to the Kirkland Lake Children's Aid Society but got only sketchy information, very sketchy.

"Everything was a secret."

She moved to Peterborough, Ontario Canada as an adult in 1975 and joined a support group for adopted people.

"There were so few groups around in Ontario I was so glad to find this one in Peterborough."

Two years later she married Fred O'Grady, a well-known city man.

As an adoptee, she says her and others' greatest fears are not knowing the health background of their biological parents and not knowing whether you have married a relative.

She didn't know when she started her search that it would take years, decades, with so many emotional twists and turns.

The years flew by.

She wrote to Simcoe County CAS in 1987.

By 1989 she received a non-identifying information letter that adoptees can get but without any names or places on it. The only thing it stated was she was born in "Southern Ontario."

"When you're born in Kirkland Lake southern Ontario could mean North Bay," she laughs.


She had placed her name on the Adoption Disclosure Registry in 1987 with no response so in 1992 she placed an advertisement in a Toronto newspaper.

"This was a scary thing to do because I was so afraid of crank calls," she remembers.

She got one call.

"The lady and I played a cat and mouse game with each other trying to not divulge names and some specific information."

The only thing she learned from her was that she was "not calling long distance" and the caller had to talk to an "older lady before she went any further."

Shirley had said to her husband that even though she was looking all over the place for her relatives she had "this strange feeling, a strong one, that everyone was around me."

Three days after that woman's call, on Oct. 13, 1992, she called again.

"She told me she was my half sister and said as soon as she heard my voice she knew it because it was so much like our mother's."

She told her their mother was alive and living in a nursing home in Lindsay but had been living in Peterborough.

She also learned she had two brothers and two sisters and her niece had been her neighbour living directly across the road, someone Mrs. O'Grady had seen and also seen with an older woman who was "my mother, she was that close to me."

They set up a time to meet the sisters two days later.

"It was an amazing day. We had no trouble breaking the ice. We started at 10 a. m. and they didn't leave until 7:30 p. m."

They shared life information, photographs, and especially photographs of her mother at different ages showing a striking similarity to Mrs. O'Grady.


They told their brothers about their new sister two days later and three days later she met the mother who had never told the family or anyone else about Shirley or little Diana's birth.

Her mother, stricken with Alzheimer's, unable to talk very well, did not know her first daughter, born out of wedlock, was coming to visit more than 50 years after giving her up. They told her only that someone special was coming.

"I walked into her room and her eyes were like saucers. She was sitting in a wheelchair, she even cut her hair the same way as me."

"My sister went to my birth mother and said 'Mother, we found Diana.' My mother laughed and cried and yet we were not sure if she completely understood. I was in shock as it was me sitting in the wheelchair. When we went to take pictures, my mother held onto my arm and said, 'My Diana, my Diana' as clear as anything. There were no dry eyes in that room."

Because of her condition she was never able to converse with her birth mother who would forever be confined to the nursing home.

"Four years later, she died in my arms."

Mrs. O'Grady wanted to find out more about her parents and search and on Feb. 14, 1994 was told by ADR it would not proceed with a search because she had found her birth mother and they were too busy to give her a confirmation of this.

"They wanted to remove my name from the registry and I said no. I still had to wonder who else may someday want to search for me."

In 1995 there was a pilot project started that if you gave your birth father's name they would tell you the name that was in your file of your birth mother. Shirley needed that confirmation.

Her aunt had given her the father's name so she wrote to the project. It replied she had the right name but since he never claimed paternity she couldn't be given the name. But a woman did confirm they had found the mother's birth name, although she wouldn't give it to her.

"Bureaucracy," says Mrs. O'Grady while rolling her eyes.


By 1999 when she wanted to make a change of address at the registry they told her things had changed and the worker would see what she could do about the names.

The worker got back to her with the name and the sad news that her father was deceased. The worker told her she could only be given the year of his death but was given his date of birth.

She knew death records were public documents so she applied to the Registrar General for his death certificate.

"A wealth of information came back to me and I was completely astounded."

There were even more Peterborough connections. Her father was born in Bancroft, died in Port Hope and was cremated in Peterborough in 1977.

She knew where he had worked and the cause of death, which was similar to her health problems.

She still had plenty of questions but because the father had not claimed paternity she didn't feel she had many rights to ask too many questions.

On May 10, 2007, in the Peterborough Public Library on its Ancestry Library site, she put in her father's name and came back with his parents' names and their parents' names.

She now had the names of her paternal grandparents and great grandparents and there on the same page as her paternal grandparents she found first cousins of her adopted parents.

She knows there was no connection but "just another coincidence in the saga of my life."

In 2008 the 1891, 1901 and 1911 census was on the Internet.

She found the names of her grandparents' siblings but still no record of her father having any other children except her, which was why she kept searching.

In June of this year, government rules were changed and she applied for a copy of her original birth certificate which arrived in the mail on that Aug. 17 morning.

"I cannot put into words the emotions that I went through that day. It was a journey that took 39 years of active searching but success was finally in my hands."

Before her eyes was confirmation of her birth name, her mother's name, her father's name and her birth date, which was the one her adopted parents had kept.

"As a reunited adoptee I have learned to appreciate that I have two families. I feel close to each of them in so many ways."

"It was an amazing journey of discovery."


Shirley O'Grady:"Having the adoption records opened will be helpful to each one of us. No more secrecy. No more feeling like a second-class person. No more living in a state I can only describe as 'Living with Amnesia.' The truth is so much better and can be dealt with. Every story will not be as happy as mine. That is life. My goal always has been to learn the truth, to know where and who everyone is. I have no right to be judgmental of what my birth mother had to do for the survival of both of us. I now know that most adoptions occur because of finances and society's rules.

"Times have changed. Just having this Statement of Live Birth in my hands -finally having something which gives my birth name and my birth mother's signature is a joy I can't describe. The only thing more perfect would have been to have my adoptive and birth parents alive to share with me."

Shirley O'Grady and a birth mother, who was reunited with her son, are co-chairs of Adoption Disclosure Support Group in Peterborough. They meet at the Children's Aid Society at the Access Centre on the third Wednesday of the month.

For more information on the new laws you can attend their meetings or go to the government web site at