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 what was presented to them as a “private adoption.”

For the next forty years, Hollie and Rick built a life together, but had no idea where Michelle was. Over the years, Hollie attempted to find Michelle through adoption registries, telephone directories and 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 INCREDIBLE true story.

Michelle a few weeks 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 and very much in love. They had been together since they were 13 years old and Hollie knew they would stay together for the rest of their lives. Despite Hollie’s desire to keep her baby, her parents ultimately made the final decision that her baby would be placed for adoption, primarily due to their young ages and also so Hollie could finish school. However, the decision to place the baby for adoption was not made completely on their own. Throughout the last months of her pregnancy, and immediately following delivery, the Ob/Gyn caring for Hollie offered his advice-–heavily slanted towards adoption–-and pledged to “help” the family.
Rick & Hollie in 8th grade

The reality was that Hollie’s doctor had an arrangement with a local attorney, Edward Kent, 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 his attorney friend for placement. 

This was a time before the internet and before widespread access to information for 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 the doctor and had faith that he would provide them with honest advice and information. They were completely unaware that they had been targeted and were being lied to throughout the entire 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. (i.e. home study, background checks, references, medical & mental health info, etc.) They were willing to pay money to make this happen.

In early 1976, they hired attorney Edward Kent to find them a healthy, white newborn. Kent was not authorized, nor qualified, to arrange adoptions in New Jersey. In fact, it was illegal for him to do so-–something he absolutely 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 single-handedly determined who was approved to adopt based on minimal information obtained directly from the couple–and after accepting their initial payment. As of 2021, 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. We believe he did this with all of the adoptions he illegally arranged. [Related: Did Edward Kent arrange your adoption?]

In early 1976, Kent informed the married couple (Michelle’s future adoptive parents) that he would be in touch when and 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. Then out of the blue, approximately eleven months later, he called them with news of a baby girl.

MICHELLE’S BIRTH – NOVEMBER 30, 1976
On the night of Tuesday, November 30, 1976 Hollie gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Together, Hollie and Rick named their daughter Michelle Lynn 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. More importantly, they wanted to make sure it would be easy for Michelle to find them in the future. Shortly after Michelle’s birth, Hollie’s doctor notified the attorney, Edward Kent, and plans to proceed with the adoption were quickly initiated.

THE ATTORNEY TAKES OVER
After Michelle’s birth, the attorney called the married couple who had hired him to find them a baby (Michelle’s future adoptive parents). He informed 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. Edward Kent told them if they were interested in this baby he would need a decision by noon that day, otherwise he would offer her to the next couple on his list. He would also need further payment including his fees and any unpaid medical costs for the mother and baby.

The couple quickly agreed, and the attorney gave them some basic information including the telephone number of the baby’s biological family. He instructed 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. They also provided some details about themselves that were untrue including where they lived, their occupations and other family information.

Meanwhile, the attorney for the adoptive parents met with Hollie and her mother 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 Michelle. The attorney and the potential adoptive parents also made promises that Michelle would be told about her biological family from a very young age so that someday they might be able to find each other. None of this was true. Edward Kent had no knowledge of what type of people the potential adoptive parents were, and did not verify anything about them beyond the amount of money in their banking accounts. 

The following day, Hollie’s parents verbally agreed to place Michelle with this couple based upon the information they were given during their telephone conversation and the background information the attorney provided to them about the couple. They were also being instructed by Hollie’s Ob/Gyn to proceed with the adoption. They were unaware that they were being lied to from all parties involved.

At this point, the adoptive parent’s attorney, Edward Kent, 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, to obtain information and have her complete paperwork. All of this contradicts information taken from Kent’s testimony during the trial surrounding the illegal adoptions. During this time, Edward Kent and the Ob/Gyn periodically reminded Hollie & her parents 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 absolutely no informed consent. This was adoption fraud.

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, Michelle, to the couple that wanted to purchase 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 investigated and reminded her that she was doing what was “best for her baby.”

On December 4, 1976, the adoptive couple, still using fake names while meeting Hollie and her family in the hospital, took immediate possession of Michelle without any pre-placement investigations into their background, family, physical health, mental health, or their home. Edward Kent 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 he likely arranged at least six adoptions.

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

ATTORNEY INDICTED FOR ILLEGAL ADOPTION PRACTICES
In April 1978, after an investigation by the State of New Jersey, Edward Kent was indicted for his involvement with Michelle’s adoption and a few of the 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 had three more daughters together–Jenni, Jamie, and Jodi–Michelle’s three full biological sisters. They are still married and in love today. Their three amazing and successful daughters are a testament to the loving and supportive parents they are, despite being young parents.

Hollie & Rick in high school after Michelle’s birth

Over the years, Hollie tried locating Michelle through adoption registries, 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 provided 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 as adoptive parents, the adoptive parents never told Michelle that she was adopted. In fact, they went as far as to fabricate facts to fill in the blanks for 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 just 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. It’s clear from their actions and lies that they never had any intention of telling Michelle the truth.

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 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 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. [Related: Could You Secretly Be Adopted?]

A few years later, in September 2017, Michelle checked her Ancestry DNA matches again. 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, 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 probably 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 of themselves, they were shocked to see they had a very 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.

Childhood photos of Michelle & Jamie at around the same age

Over the next few days, Michelle and Jamie sent messages back and forth to each other with their theories on how they might be related. Adoption was considered, but neither believed they were the one who had been adopted. Both women assumed there had to be some other explanation for their DNA match.

During this same time, Michelle repeatedly contacted her father about this DNA match and included some photos of Jamie. He never responded to any of her messages which was unusual for him. This began to make Michelle more suspicious.

A few days later, after doing some additional research into the specifics of their DNA match, and speaking directly with Ancestry, Michelle came to the painful realization that she must be adopted. She felt very strongly that this was the case, but still needed confirmation from her adoptive father. A few days later, after directly questioning him in person, he reluctantly admitted to her that she was adopted.

“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. They even grew up a few minutes apart their entire lives! 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 about Michelle, but confused and angered to learn that she had only just discovered her adoption the previous day. Hollie indicated there was a clear understanding that the adoptive parents would tell her about her adoption status from the beginning. 

Sisters Jamie and Michelle meeting for the first time (2017)

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.

The Riess family continues to grow together and build on their relationship. It’s been a difficult journey, but Hollie and Michelle are happy to finally have each other and to know the truth.

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