“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 to a young couple in New Jersey. A few days later, without their knowledge, she was placed with a married couple through an illegal adoption scheme.
For the next forty years, they had no idea where their baby was, if she was safe, healthy or even alive. Over the years they searched for her through adoption registries and reunion websites, but were unable to find her.
For the same forty years–and only a few miles apart–their daughter was manipulated into believing that she was the biological child of the couple who adopted her. This continued until 2017 when an unexpected result on an Ancestry DNA test shattered their web of lies.
This is our family’s unbelievable adoption story.
PREGNANCY – 1976
In spring 1976, a young woman named Hollie discovered that she was pregnant. At the time of the pregnancy, Hollie and her boyfriend, Rick, were teenagers in high school. 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 entirely of their own free will.
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.
The reality was that Hollie’s doctor had an agreement with a local attorney who was arranging newborn adoptions on the side–despite this being an illegal practice in the State of New Jersey. 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.
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 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 to adopt. 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. It’s not clear why this couple, or the other adoptive parents involved in a 1978 indictment against Kent, chose to adopt using his services when this was not his area of practice. There were many red flags in the attorney’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 investigations made in preparation for a child potentially being placed in their home. Kent alone determined who was approved to have a child placed in their home based on minimal information the couples provided to him, and after accepting their initial payment. As of mid-2019, we have not been able to find any evidence that Kent took any steps to verify information the potential adoptive parents provided to him, or that he conducted even the most basic investigation into their backgrounds or their potential fitness to adopt.
After their brief meeting, 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. For delivery, the doctor opted for complete sedation despite this being an outdated delivery practice in late 1976. There was no medical reason provided to Hollie or to her parents–who were not allowed in the delivery room–as to why this took place (ex. an obstetrical emergency.) To this day, Hollie has no memory of Michelle’s birth, what happened immediately following delivery, or any explanation as to why she was sedated to the point of unconsciousness.
Shortly after Michelle’s birth, the doctor notified the attorney and plans to proceed with the adoption were quickly initiated.
Together, Hollie and Rick named their daughter Michelle Lyn Riess. They gave their daughter Rick’s last name (Riess) 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.
THE ATTORNEY TAKES OVER
The following 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 the couple was not aware of Hollie’s pregnancy until after Michelle had already been born. The attorney 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 biological family. He told them to call the biological mother (and her parents) to seek their approval to place her baby with them. He also gave them very specific instructions on what they should say to the biological family and what they should not say. During these telephone conversations with Michelle’s family, the potential adoptive parents used fake names and provided other false information about themselves in order to conceal their identities from Hollie and her family.
The attorney met with Hollie and her parents in the hospital. He told them some details about the couple who would be calling them. He told them they had been thoroughly investigated and would provide a good home for her baby. However, in reality, the attorney had not conducted any investigation into their backgrounds beyond their short meeting almost one year earlier. There were no pre-placement screenings conducted. 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 after DYFS conducted a pre-scheduled interview with the adoptive parents.
Meanwhile, the same doctor that had pushed Hollie and her family into choosing adoption and delivered her baby, continued to aggressively reinforce the adoption at a very sensitive time when adoptions can “fall through” due to women changing their minds. In other words, they are choosing to raise their own child, which is every biological parent’s right (obviously in the absence of abuse, neglect, etc.) The doctor made sure this was not allowed to happen by separating Hollie from her baby, and insisting that she had a moral and legal obligation to give her baby to this couple since she had already informally agreed to choose adoption. In other words, she was being instructed that she couldn’t change her mind. Much of this coercion took place without her parents present (she was a minor.) (read more about birth parent rights)
At some point soon after this, Hollie’s parents informed the attorney that they would agree to place Michelle with this couple based on their telephone conversation, and based on the information the attorney and the doctor 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 (who was a minor at the time) despite not legally representing her, and provided her with very specific directions on how things would proceed. He also met with her numerous times 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. (view newspaper articles)
HANDING OVER HER BABY
On December 4, 1976, Hollie was to be discharged from the hospital. Everything was happening quickly and often without her parents present. It was at this time that she would be required to hand her four-day old 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.” Today, this would be called a predatory adoption or a coerced adoption, and would not be granted by the court. (read more)
On December 4, 1976, the adoptive couple, still 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 he likely arranged at least six adoptions.
ADOPTION ATTORNEY INDICTED
In 1978, after an investigation by the State of New Jersey, Edward Kent was indicted for his illegal involvement with Michelle’s adoption and two other adoptions 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.
“His conduct is dishonorable and brings the profession into disrepute.” –a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice referring to attorney Edward Kent in 1963
THE YEARS AFTER THE ADOPTION
In the years following the adoption, Hollie and Rick finished high school. They had been together since they were thirteen years old and were in love. After Michelle’s birth, they went on to complete high school, were married and had three more daughters together–Jenni, Jamie, and Jodi–Michelle’sthree full biological sisters.
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 she had been given fake names by Michelle’s adoptive parents, she was unknowingly searching for people who didn’t even exist. Sadly, 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, which was devastating for her. This was not the case.
Despite the promises and clear moral obligations of the adoptive parents, for forty years THE ADOPTIVE PARENTS NEVER TOLD MICHELLE THAT SHE WAS ADOPTED. Despite statements they made in 1976 and 1977, they never followed through 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, Hollie’s family, and all of the information they had provided 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, and clearly never intended to.
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 with no cousins and a very small immediate family, so she knew she wanted her children to have siblings–something she always wished she had as a child.
For about fifteen years, she was very interested in researching her maternal grandmother’s unknown family’s origins. A few years earlier, 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 looks like (read about red flags.)
Her initial Ancestry DNA matches did not provide any clear links to her family tree. Most of her matches were in the 4th cousin to distant cousin range and did not share any common names or common geographic locations of origin (ex. Greece, Italy, Ukraine.) At the time, Michelle assumed this simply meant their common ancestor must have been so long ago that they really couldn’t be helpful to each other in their research. 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 to see if there was anyone new.
In September 2017, Michelle checked in on her Ancestry DNA matches. 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 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. None of the family names they shared with each other 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 very confused about how they could have such a close DNA match based on the information they shared with each other.
However, 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.
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, or that there was some other explanation for their DNA match.
A few days later, Michelle contacted Ancestry.com to discuss the specifics of their DNA match. After speaking with Ancestry, Michelle learned that there were only three possible scenarios for their match based on the high levels of DNA they share: 1) parent/child, 2) grandparent/grandchild, 3) or full siblings (not even half-siblings!)
After processing all of the information provided by Ancestry, doing some additional research into the specifics of their DNA match, and 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 final 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 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.
OCTOBER 2017: FAMILY REUNION
Almost immediately, plans were being made for the two young parents and their three daughters, Jenni, Jamie, and Jodi, 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 that continues to this day.
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. * Be sure to listen to Michelle’s interview and bonus podcast on Scott Fisher’s Extreme Genes (episode 276) *