After 40 years, a family is reunited with daughter lost to an illegal adoption

INTRODUCTION
On November 30, 1976, a baby girl was born to a teenage couple, Hollie and Rick. Together, they named their daughter Michelle. A few days later, Michelle was placed with an older married couple through a private adoption.

For the next forty years, Hollie and Rick had no idea where Michelle was or if she was okay. Over the years, Hollie attempted to find her through adoption registries, telephone directories and later, adoption reunion websites, but was unsuccessful.

For the same forty years–and only a few miles apart–Michelle was manipulated into believing she was the biological child of the couple who adopted her. This deception continued until 2017 when an unexpected match on an Ancestry DNA test shattered their web of lies.

This is our family’s unbelievable story.

Michelle Riess Christina Gellura
Michelle Riess at five days old (December 1976)
PREGNANCY 1976
In the spring of 1976, a young woman discovered she was pregnant. At the time of the pregnancy Hollie and her boyfriend, Rick, were teenagers. Despite Hollie’s desire to raise their baby, her parents made the final decision that the baby would be placed for adoption, primarily due to their young ages. 
However, the decision to place the baby for adoption was not made on their own. Throughout the last months of the pregnancy, and immediately following delivery, the doctor caring for Hollie offered his advice–heavily slanted towards adoption–and pledged to help the family during their time of distress.
Rick Riess Hollie Riess
Rick & Hollie in 8th grade

The reality was that Hollie’s doctor had an arrangement with a local attorney who was illegally organizing newborn adoptions on the side. The doctor’s role was to convince the young mother (and more importantly, her parents since she was a minor) that adoption was their only option; then refer them directly to the attorney for placement.

This was a time before the internet and before widespread access to information for young pregnant women about their options, and their rights. Being under great distress and having no experience with a situation like this, Hollie’s parents trusted her doctor and had faith that he would provide them with honest advice and information. They were completely unaware that they were being lied to and targeted throughout the process.

EARLY 1976: BEFORE THE PREGNANCY
About eleven months before Michelle’s birth, a married couple met with the attorney who had this agreement with Hollie’s doctor. This couple (Michelle’s future adoptive parents) wanted to adopt a healthy, white newborn without the hassles and wait times associated with legal adoptions.

In early 1976, they hired attorney Edward Kent to find a healthy, white newborn for them. Kent was not authorized, nor qualified, to arrange adoptions in New Jersey. In fact, it was illegal for him to do so–something he would have known as an attorney. 

In the months following their brief meeting with the attorney, there were no pre-placement investigations made in preparation for a child potentially being placed in their home. The attorney alone determined who was approved to adopt based on minimal information obtained directly from the couple, and after accepting their initial payment. As of spring 2020, we have not been able to find evidence that Kent took any steps to verify the information the potential adoptive parents provided to him, or that he conducted even the most basic investigation into their potential fitness to adopt. 

Kent informed Michelle’s future adoptive parents that he would be in touch if he found a baby for them.

For the rest of 1976, they didn’t hear back from him with any news, updates or information–until approximately eleven months later, a few days after Michelle was born.

MICHELLE’S BIRTH – NOVEMBER 30, 1976
On November 30, 1976, Hollie gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Together, Hollie and Rick named their daughter Michelle Riess. They gave their daughter Rick’s last name because they already knew they were going to stay together for the rest of their lives. They also wanted to make sure it would be easy for Michelle to find them in the future.

Riess Adoption 1976
Hollie & Rick a few weeks after Michelle’s birth (Dec. 1976)

Shortly after Michelle’s birth, Hollie’s doctor notified the attorney, and plans to proceed with the adoption were quickly initiated. 

THE ATTORNEY TAKES OVER
The morning after Michelle’s birth, the attorney called the married couple who had hired him to find them a baby. He called 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 the couple was not aware of Hollie’s pregnancy until after Michelle was already born. Kent told them if they were interested in this baby, he would need a decision from them 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 baby’s biological family. He told them to call the biological family to seek their approval to place her baby with them.

During this telephone conversation with Michelle’s family, the potential adoptive parents used fake names to purposely conceal their identities. 

Meanwhile, the attorney met with Hollie and her parents in the hospital. He told them some details about the couple hoping to adopt Michelle. He indicated they had been “thoroughly investigated” and would provide an excellent home for her baby. The attorney and the potential adoptive parents also made promises that Michelle would be told about her biological family so that someday they might be able to find each other. 

The following day, Hollie’s parents verbally informed the attorney that they would all agree to place Michelle with this couple based on their telephone conversation and based on the information the attorney provided to them about the couple. They were unaware that they were being lied to from all parties involved.

At this point, the attorney became heavily involved with Hollie despite not legally representing her, and provided her with precise instructions on how things would proceed. Kent met with 15-year-old Hollie numerous times in the hospital, even while her parents were not present. All of this contradicts information taken from Kent’s testimony during the trial surrounding his involvement in the adoptions. Kent and the physician also reminded Hollie that she was obligated to follow-through with this adoption since she had already informally agreed. In other words, they were telling her she did not have the right to change her mind. There was no informed consent.

HANDING HER BABY TO STRANGERS
On December 4, 1976, Hollie was to be discharged from the hospital. Everything was happening quickly. It was at this time that she would be required to hand her newborn daughter to the couple hoping to adopt her.  As she was instructed by the attorney representing the adoptive parents, Hollie reluctantly handed Michelle to the couple with his promises that the couple had been thoroughly evaluated and reminded her that she was doing what was “best for her baby.” 

On December 4, 1976, the adoptive couple, using fake names, took immediate 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 Michelle home with anyone. He followed the same procedure with at least three illegal adoptions he arranged in the 1970s, though likely he arranged at least six adoptions.

ATTORNEY INDICTED FOR ILLEGAL ADOPTION PRACTICES
In April 1978, after an investigation by the State of New Jersey, Edward Kent was indicted for his illegal involvement with Michelle’s adoption and a few other adoptions he arranged. He was convicted. These were not the only adoptions he arranged, but they were the only adoptions he was indicted for.

Not surprisingly, 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.

“His conduct is dishonorable and brings the profession into disrepute.” -a NJ Supreme Court Justice referring to Edward Kent in 1963

THE YEARS AFTER THE ADOPTION
In the years following the adoption, Hollie and Rick completed high school. They had been together since they were thirteen years old and were in love. Following high school, Hollie and Rick were married and had three more daughters together–Jenni, Jamie, and Jodi–Michelle’s three full biological sisters.

The Riess family and Michelle’s adoptive family lived just minutes apart for their entire lives.

Christina Gellura Michelle Riess Hollie Rick
Hollie & Rick in high school after Michelle’s birth

Over the years, Hollie tried locating Michelle through adoption reunion websites and other directories, but she never received a response. She also tried locating her using telephone directories, but since Michelle’s adoptive parents had given her fake names, she was unknowingly searching for people who didn’t even exist. Hollie assumed this lack of response from Michelle over the years meant she did not want to find her biological family, or that perhaps something had happened to her. That was not the case.

Despite their promises and clear moral obligations, the adoptive parents never told Michelle that she was adopted. In fact, they went as far as to create their own “facts” to fill in the blanks or whenever Michelle had questions that couldn’t be answered without revealing she was adopted.

For four decades, Michelle grew into an adult who had no idea she was adopted, or that she had another family and siblings a few miles away. It was a significant deception by the adoptive parents. It was contrary to promises they made to Hollie, Hollie’s family, and all of the information they had provided during the adoption process.

Here are two excerpts from a 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.”

and

“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 obligation all adoptive parents must undertake.

FORTY YEARS LATER–AN UNEXPECTED 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 with no cousins and a very small immediate family, so she knew she wanted her children to have siblings–something she always wished for as a child.

Michelle was very interested in genealogy and spent years researching her maternal grandmother’s unknown family’s origins. In approximately 2012, she took a DNA test through Ancestry.com to learn more details about that part of her family, especially since she had been told since her early childhood that this was the branch of her family tree that she most resembled physically.

A few years later, in September 2017, Michelle checked her Ancestry DNA matches. She was 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 to her, yet she had never heard of her.

Michelle sent a message to the woman asking if she knew how they might be related, but the other woman, Jamie, had no idea either. None of the family names they shared were familiar, and they couldn’t find a common link in their family trees. Michelle mentioned to Jamie that her family was from Italy, Greece, and Ukraine, but Jamie indicated her family was German, British, and northern European. Both women were perplexed about how they could have such a close DNA match based on the information they shared.

When the women shared some photos, they were shocked to see they had a strong resemblance to each other. It was immediately evident to both that something unusual was going on, but they weren’t sure what it was, or who might be involved.

DNA Match Sisters Adoption Riess Gellura
Full sisters Jamie (L) and Michelle (R) meeting for the first time in 2017

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 ones who had been adopted. Both women assumed there was some other explanation for their DNA match.

A few days later, after doing some additional research into the specifics of their DNA match, and some deep reflection, Michelle came to the painful realization that she must be adopted. She felt very strongly that this was the case but still needed final confirmation from her adoptive father, which she received a few days later after directly questioning him about her origins.

“Deception may give us what we want for the present, but it will always take it away in the end.”

ADOPTION CONFIRMED
In the days following the adoption discovery, the two women–now confirmed as full biological sisters–talked about their lives and found surprising similarities. Despite their complete shock, they were both very excited 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. Hollie was shocked and overjoyed hearing the news but confused and angered to learn that Michelle had only just discovered her adoption the previous day because there was a clear understanding that the adoptive parents would tell her about her adoption status from the beginning.

Michelle Riess Jamie Christina Gellura
Photos of Michelle & Jamie at around the same age

OCTOBER 2017 REUNION – FORTY YEARS IN THE MAKING!
Almost immediately, plans were being made for the two young parents and their three daughters, Jenni, Jamie, and Jodi to be reunited with Michelle.

On October 7, 2017, they all met for the first time in forty years. It was unquestionably a very happy reunion that continues to this day.

Michelle Riess Hollie Rick Adoption
Hollie, Rick & Michelle together for the first time since 1976 (Oct. 2017)

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