Reunited After 25 Years
11/05/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
On an August night in 1982, in an Iowa maternity ward, 19-year-old Tina Kathol held her newborn girl for an hour, then placed her in the arms of a nurse who would eventually hand the baby over to her adoptive parents. "I wished I could take her home, but I had nowhere to go," says Tina, whose last name now is Coughlin. "I thought, 'Someday, I'm going to find her.'"
Twenty-five years later Coughlin, by then a married legal secretary in Overland Park, Kans., was talking to a teenage neighbor about her unsuccessful attempts to find her biological daughter through public records. The girl's first question: Had Coughlin tried searching MySpace.com? Guided by her friend, she sat down at her computer, called up the Web site and typed in her daughter's name, Nicole Muller, which she had dug up with the help of an adoption researcher. Within seconds, Coughlin was staring at a younger version of herself on the screen. "It was amazing," Coughlin, 45, recalls of Muller's image. "She had my eyes, my nose, my smile. I started crying and said, 'That's my girl!'"
MySpace—the popular social networking site where members post pictures and information about themselves—is emerging as a new tool in the search for long-lost relatives. While the site doesn't keep statistics on how many reunions it has fostered, it's well-known to people like Laura Brandl-Witherspoon, a so-called "search angel" who helps family members find missing relatives at no cost. "MySpace is my first stop if I have a name to work with," says Brandl-Witherspoon, of Bel Air, Md. "If you're a birth parent or adopted child wanting to be found, putting yourself on a social Web site is the way to go." With 205 million registered accounts, MySpace is proving "very useful for people in a way we didn't imagine," says president Tom Anderson. (At Facebook.com, another social Web site, a rep says she isn't aware of site-facilitated reunions.)
Some adoption experts say there's a downside. "People might not want to get an e-mail saying, 'I am your daughter,'" says Herbert A. Brail, head of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. Barbara McMahan, 37, of Orlando, Fla., learned that the hard way. Adopted as an infant, McMahan had begun to develop a relationship with her birth mother in 2002 after hiring a detective to find her. Four years later, after McMahan learned she had two half-brothers, she went on MySpace to find them, against her birth mother's wishes. When one brother's page popped up, she sent him an e-mail, only to get an angry reply asking her never again to seek contact. "I was in tears," recalls McMahan, a pet sitter. "I'll never get to know him."
For other far-flung families, though, cyberspace reunions can help heal a painful past. Alex Estrella had seen his baby daughter April only once after her birth in August, 1985—on a week's leave from his assignment in Korea—when the former Army Ranger's wife left him and moved away with their daughter, leaving no forwarding address. "I felt so helpless," says Estrella, 48, who still wanted to see his daughter even though his ex-wife had full custody. In 1988 Estrella remarried and in 1990 had a daughter, Linda, all the while following up on out-of-date addresses and other fruitless leads to April's whereabouts. Then, on one day last July, Estrella was working as a security guard at a Hollywood, Fla., condo complex when a 12-year-old boy who lived there asked to borrow Estrella's laptop to check his MySpace account; sure, Estrella said, but could the boy search for April? Less than a minute later, the MySpace page of a 21-year-old April Estrella popped up—and Alex fired off an e-mail. "I wrote, 'If you were born in Savannah and [this is] your mom's name, call me. The next morning she called. She said, 'Dad?'"
Discovering they lived only two and a half hours apart, April drove to Estrella's home in Hollywood, Fla., that weekend. "The first time I met him, it was like looking in the mirror," says April, now 22 and studying to be a medical assistant. Father and daughter already have gotten together once more and call each other every day. "He gives me good advice," she says. "I just love him so much." Says Alex: "It's bittersweet. She's not a little kid anymore. But now I'm a part of her life."
Once reunited, family members face a big question: What next? In August 2006, Jake Melancon, 21, decided to look for his little sister Christina on MySpace. The last time Jake and brother Josh, 22, had seen her, all three had been removed from their home in Texas and placed in foster care; Christina, then 5, was eventually adopted by one family; Jake, then 8, and Josh, 10, by another. Suspecting that his sister may have been adopted by a previous foster family, Jake typed in "Christina Lynch." Sixteen MySpace pages popped up, but Jake zeroed in on one. "I didn't recognize the picture, but she had written, 'I'm adopted,'" he says. They exchanged e-mails and, finding, to their amazement, that they lived within 35 minutes of each other, met for pizza that night. "I was crying—it was crazy," says Christina, now 17. Although they keep in touch by phone and e-mail and have met several times since then, Christina wants to take things slowly. "It's hard for me to let people in," she says. "It's scary. But we're trying."
So are Coughlin and Muller, who have gotten together twice in Minneapolis, where Muller works as a case manager at an insurance company. For both Muller and her adoptive parents, the reentry of Coughlin into her life "has been an adjustment." Still, they've discovered some commonalities—they both love swimming, have black-and-white cats and dream of visiting Africa—and Muller is grateful for some answers their reunion has brought. "Now," she says, "I can see why my nose looks like this."