Deception may give us what we want for the present, but it will always take it away in the end. –Rachel Hawthorne
On November 30, 1976 a baby girl was born. Her parents, Hollie and Rick, named her Michelle Lyn Riess. Four days later, she was handed to another couple who hoped to adopt her. For the next forty years, the young couple had no idea where their daughter was, if she was safe, healthy or even alive. Despite attempts to find her, they were unsuccessful. For the same forty years, Michelle was raised to believe she was the biological child of the couple who adopted her until an unexpected result on an Ancestry DNA test shattered their web of lies.
PREGNANCY – 1976
At the time of the pregnancy, Hollie and Rick were teenagers in high school. Despite Hollie’s desire to keep her baby, her parents made the final decision that her baby would be placed for adoption. However, the decision to place the baby for adoption was not made entirely on their own.
Throughout the last months of the pregnancy, and following delivery, the Ob/Gyn caring for Hollie offered his advice–heavily slanted towards adoption–and pledged to help the family during their time of distress.
Hollie’s parents put their trust into the physician, and because this was a completely new experience for them (without the benefit of the internet or other pregnancy resources that are available today) they followed his advice with the belief that he had their family’s best interests at heart. This was not the case.
The Ob/Gyn had an arrangement with a local attorney who was illegally arranging newborn adoptions on the side. The physician’s role was to convince the young mother (and more importantly, her parents) that adoption was their only option; then refer them directly to the attorney for placement. At the time, and being under great distress, Hollie and her parents were completely unaware of these details, or that they were being targeted.
EARLY 1976: BEFORE THE PREGNANCY
About eleven months prior to Michelle’s birth, a married couple met with the attorney that had this agreement with the Ob/Gyn. This couple (Michelle’s future adoptive parents) wanted to adopt a healthy, white newborn without the hassles and wait times associated with legal adoptions, and were willing to pay money and overlook obvious red flags in order for this to take place.
In early 1976, they hired attorney Edward Kent to find a healthy, white newborn for them to adopt. Kent was not authorized to assist with adoptions in New Jersey, in fact, it was illegal for him to do so–something he would have known as an attorney. It’s not clear why this couple, or the other adoptive parents involved in the 1978 indictment, chose to adopt using his services when he was clearly not qualified. There were numerous red flags in Kent’s adoption process that should have alerted any potential adoptive parents that something wasn’t right.
In the months following their brief meeting, there were no pre-placement studies conducted in preparation for a child being placed in their home—just the opinion of the attorney who spent a very short amount of time meeting with them. He alone determined that the couple was approved to adopt. Kent’s adoption procedures were contrary to the standard adoption practices and laws that existed at the time. They also went against common sense and professional ethics.
NOVEMBER 30, 1976
On November 30th, Hollie gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Hollie and Rick named their daughter Michelle Lyn Riess.
For delivery, the Ob/Gyn opted for complete sedation despite this not being a normal delivery practice in 1976. By the early 1970’s, it was no longer routine for women to be unconscious while their babies were forcibly removed from their bodies with forceps. There was no reason provided to Hollie or to her parents (who were not allowed in the delivery room) as to why this was medically necessary (ex. an obstetrical emergency.) To this day, Hollie has no memory of the birth, what happened immediately following delivery, or any explanation as to why she was anesthetized to the point of unconsciousness when there was no medical necessity for this to take place. Again, this was not a normal delivery practice in late 1976 in the Philadelphia area.
Soon after Michelle’s birth, the Ob/Gyn notified the attorney about the birth, and plans to proceed with the adoption were quickly started.
The next day, the attorney called the married couple (Michelle’s future adoptive parents) out of the blue to inform them he had a baby available if they were still interested in adopting. They hadn’t communicated at all since their initial meeting almost one year earlier, and they were not aware of the pregnancy until after Michelle had already been born. The attorney told them if they were interested in this baby he would need a decision by noon that day, or he would have to offer her to the next couple on his list. The couple quickly agreed, and the attorney gave them some basic information, including the telephone number of the biological family. He told them they should call the biological mother (and her parents) to seek their approval to place this baby with them.
Meanwhile, the same Ob/Gyn that had coerced Hollie and her family into adoption, delivered her baby–continuing to aggressively reinforce the plan for adoption at a very sensitive time when adoptions can “fall through” due to women changing their minds (in other words, choosing to raise their own child.) The physician made sure this was not allowed to happen by separating Hollie from her baby, and insisting that she had an obligation to give her baby to this couple since she had already agreed to do so (in other words, she was being told she couldn’t change her mind.)
Meanwhile, the attorney met with Hollie and her parents in the hospital. He told them the couple had been “thoroughly investigated” and would provide a good home for her baby. However, in reality, Kent had not conducted any investigation into their backgrounds beyond their short meeting months earlier. The only documentation he requested from them were some financial statements, and those were only utilized after Michelle had already been placed in their home and DYFS became involved*. (*involved as part of the investigation into the attorney’s questionable adoption practices)
At some point soon after this, Hollie’s parents informed Kent (the attorney) that they would agree to place Michelle with this couple based on their conversation, and the information Kent and the Ob/Gyn had provided to them. At this point, the attorney became heavily involved with Hollie and her family, despite not actually legally representing them, and provided them with very specific directions on how things would proceed. All of this contradicts Kent’s testimony during the trial surrounding his involvement in three adoptions.
HANDING OVER HER BABY
On December 4, 1976, Hollie was to be discharged from the hospital. It was at this time that she would hand her four day old baby to the couple hoping to adopt her. As she was instructed by the attorney, Hollie reluctantly handed Michelle to the couple, with his promise that this couple had been thoroughly evaluated, and reminded her that she was doing what was “best for her baby.” Today, this would be called a predatory adoption or a coerced adoption, and would not be granted by the court. (read more)
The adoptive couple, using fake names, took possession of Michelle without any pre-placement investigations into their background, family, finances, physical health, mental health, or their home–the attorney literally could have been sending her home with anyone. He followed the same procedure with at least three adoptions that he arranged in the 1970’s, though there may have been as many as six adoptions.
In 1978, Kent was indicted for his illegal and unethical actions regarding Michelle’s adoption and a few others he arranged. He was convicted.
This was not the attorney’s first ethics violation. In 1963, he was reprimanded by the Supreme Court of New Jersey for violating professional ethics in an unrelated case.
THE YEARS AFTER THE ADOPTION
In the years following the adoption, the young couple finished high school. They had been together since they were thirteen years old and were in love. They already knew they were going to stay together forever, which was why they chose to give their daughter Rick’s last name on her birth certificate. After high school, they were married and had three more daughters–Jenni, Jamie, and Jodi.
Over the years, Hollie tried locating Michelle through adoption reunion websites, directories and such, but she never received a response. However, since she had been given fake names by Michelle’s adoptive parents, she was searching for people who didn’t even exist. Sadly, Hollie assumed this lack of response from Michelle meant she did not want to find her biological family, which was devastating to her.
This was not the case, however, because MICHELLE WAS NEVER TOLD THAT SHE WAS ADOPTED.
Despite promises and statements made by the adoptive parents in 1976 and 1977 that they would tell Michelle about her adoption, they never followed through with their moral obligation, and clearly never intended to.
For four decades, Michelle grew into an adult who had no idea she was adopted, or that she had another family out there (in fact, very close–the two families lived about 15 minutes apart for most of their lives!)
It was a significant deception by the adoptive parents, and was contrary to promises they made to Hollie’s family, and all of the information they had provided to DYFS during the legal phase of the adoption.
Here are two excerpts from a 1977 DYFS report following a scheduled interview after the placement: (the plaintiffs are Michelle’s adoptive parents. ‘Christina’ is the name Michelle’s adoptive parents assigned to her)
“The plaintiffs state that they will explain the child’s adoption status to her when she is old enough to understand the meaning of adoption.”
“The plaintiffs express a healthy, open attitude toward adoption. They plan to begin explaining adoption to Christina as soon as possible.”
In the span of forty years, they never followed through with this moral obligation all adoptive parents must undertake. Forty years. That’s 14,897 days they could have told her the truth, but they made the choice not to—14,897 times.
SEPTEMBER 2017 DISCOVERY
In September 2017, Michelle was a 40-year-old woman with three young children of her own. She grew up as an only child and knew she wanted her children to have siblings–something she always wished she had as a child.
For the past fifteen years, she had been very interested in genealogy. A few years earlier, she took a DNA test through Ancestry.com to learn more about her family’s history. Her initial DNA matches did not provide any links to her family tree (or what she believed was her family tree!) It was very frustrating at times, but Michelle figured the ‘right’ people just hadn’t tested yet and that she needed to be patient. So she periodically checked her DNA matches list to see if there was anyone new.
In early September 2017, Michelle checked her Ancestry DNA matches on a whim. She was very surprised to see a new match at the top of the list labeled “Immediate Family” with a woman’s name she didn’t recognize. Michelle grew up as an only child with a very small immediate family, so she didn’t understand how this person could be so closely related.
Michelle wrote to the woman asking if she knew how they might be related, but the other woman, Jamie, had no idea. None of the names they shared with each other were familiar, and they couldn’t find a common link in their family trees. However, when the women shared some photos, they were very shocked to see they had a strong resemblance to each other. It was evident to both that something unusual was going on, but they weren’t sure what it was, or who might be involved.
Over the next few days, Michelle and Jamie went back and forth with their theories on how they might be related. Adoption was considered, but neither believed they were the one who had been adopted.
While doing some research into the specifics of their DNA match, and following some deep reflection, Michelle came to the difficult realization that she must be adopted. She felt very strongly that this was the case, but still needed confirmation from her (adoptive) father, which she received a few days later after directly questioning him about her origins.
A lie cannot live. –Martin Luther King Jr.
In the days following the adoption discovery, the two women–now confirmed as full biological sisters–talked about their lives and surprising similarities. Despite their shock, they were both very happy to find each other. The next step was to inform their parents, Hollie and Rick, about this very unexpected discovery.
Jamie met privately with their mother, Hollie, and told her about their unbelievable DNA match on Ancestry.com. Hollie was shocked and overjoyed upon hearing the news, but confused and angered to learn that Michelle had discovered her adoption the previous day because there was a clear understanding that she would be told about her adoption status by her adoptive parents from the beginning.
OCTOBER 2017: FAMILY REUNION
Almost immediately, plans were being made for the two young parents and their three daughters to be reunited with Michelle (who was called ‘Christina’ since her adoption in 1976).
On October 7, 2017 they all met for the first time in 40 years. It was, unquestionably, a very happy reunion. (photo gallery at the bottom of this post)
The Riess family continues to enjoy a wonderful reunion together. They communicate frequently and see each other often. It has been a very happy ending for the Riess family to something that began four decades ago under the most unfortunate of circumstances.
PHOTOS OF THE RIESS FAMILY’S ADOPTION REUNION (photos in random order)
The Riess family would like to thank Danielle of Digital Danro Photography for capturing this reunion. (some photos included in the slideshow are cell phone images taken by the family, but the rest are by Danielle)
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