Sunday, April 10, 2011

Court Records and my $59.50 Adoption Revealed!

Learning about one’s family history is full of ups and downs and usually full of a lot of fascinating discoveries. During the past two years of research, I have focused my family history and genealogy research on near and distant ancestors with a primarily interest on the dearly departed. Recently, however, my focus has been drawn to a curious and nagging subject that I vaguely remember, but one that has had a profound impact on my life—my adoption. I finally took a little time to research the court records that quite literally changed my name.

At times throughout my life, I have deviously mentioned being an “adopted child” when conversing in polite company. The reaction is usually predictable. In one form or another, most people will get around to asking what it was like growing up not knowing your parents. I generally smile and answer, “No, I know who my parents were.” I must confess, I enjoy letting the puzzled look linger on the their faces for a few seconds before explaining.

As I have mentioned in past posts, my birth father, Albert “Al” Hersel Pounds, left my mother and moved away when I was very young. A little over a year following the divorce, my mother married James D. Hair, who I proudly call “Dad”. Dad has always been there for me and is a great father! Throughout my life, I have had little desire to learn more about “Al”, mostly because I didn’t know him and was close to James. As a child, I talked to Al on the phone a couple of times and recall receiving only a few birthday cards over the years. He passed away when I was sixteen years old and that was pretty much the end of it for me.

Twelve years ago, while my mother was struggling with the cancer that would soon take her, she told me something that has stuck with me ever since that day. “Don’t be too hard on Al,” she calmly declared. At the time, I dismissed it given my mother’s illness. Sadly, she passed away on December 13, 1999, but Mom’s words have never left me. In her own way, I now realize she issued a challenge to not only learn more about Al, but indirectly to discover my heritage along the way. It took me nearly a dozen years to get the message, but I got it.

The family history and genealogy bug finally bit about two years ago. Through a fair amount of detective work, I discovered a stepsister and stepbrother from Al’s second marriage to Marie Augustine. Both have told me stories about Al that has significantly altered my understanding of him. I have learned that Al cared very much for me, and reluctantly signed away his parental rights. It was extremely painful for him, and was something his second family was keenly aware of. He knew he was effectively out of my life, and more importantly his health was rapidly failing. In fact, he passed away six years after my adoption. As I see it now, he did the right thing, and I respect him for it.

In all of this, I have tried to recall the circumstances surrounding the actual adoption process. While my memory is a bit foggy, I remember it taking place around age ten. Unfortunately, no family records containing the legal paperwork have survived, with perhaps the exception of my amended birth certificate. By the way, one of the fascinating aspects of my adoption is how the process legally erased Al as my father and substituted James. If unaware of the facts surrounding the adoption, and looking strictly at my “current” birth certificate, no one would be the wiser.

To finally put the “process” aspect of my adoption question to rest, I located the court that issued the adoption decree and ordered copies of all paperwork. It took a few calls and telephone transfers, but I landed at the desk of Barbara Stillings, Circuit Court Clerk of Christian County, in Ozark, Missouri. It took Barb a few hours, but she located my “case”, made copies and got them to me in a little over a week—all for $6. What a deal! Thank you, Barb. If I’ve learned nothing else from this, I need to focus a little more effort on court proceedings in my family history research. At least in this case, it was much easier than I anticipated.

The package I received contained a variety of documents outlining the adoption process from initial request to a final attempt by the county to collect on outstanding fees from my parent’s attorney. That letter mildly hinted the amended birth certificate would be held up pending payment. Obviously, the County received their fees. I have the birth certificate as proof. Incidentally, the fees paid to the County throughout the entire four-month process, to include filing the request, hearings and all that was recorded afterwards came to a whopping $59.50! Those were different times. I can scarcely imagine what something like it would cost today.

The package of mostly legal size documents also revealed that I had my own lawyer! I certainly don’t remember that. In what’s called a “Guardian Ad Litem” appointment, the court presented me with an attorney to represent my interests as the “defendant” while my parents became the “Plaintiff’s” or “Petitioners”, at least according the “Circuit Court Judges Docket”. The more I look at the documents prepared by my attorney, the more I wonder what kind of representation I actually got for $35! On top of it all, the fee was billed to my parents. Go figure.

The documents (as secondary sources) did provide helpful evidence concerning two dates I have been struggling to confirm—my mother’s wedding date to Al (June 21, 1958) and the date of their divorce (April 5, 1963). One document even contained the circuit court case number for the divorce. Armed with this new found information, I should be able to locate those documents, and learn more along the way in my upcoming visit to Springfield, Missouri.

The most fascinating part of the package to me is the summary document prepared by the caseworker tasked with investigating our family. I clearly remember a pleasant lady interviewing me and asking all sorts of probing questions as my parents stood nervously by in the next room at our home in Billings. In my 10-year-old mind at the time, I remember being a little puzzled by her questions and didn’t grasp the importance of it. I couldn’t understand what seemed to be obvious to me—we were one happy family. In my opinion, there was no doubt I wanted to be adopted and that it would be a good thing for all involved. Besides, I hated having to hyphenate my last name as “Pounds-Hair” and was tired of the taunting I received from my classmates. Fortunately, I was bigger than most who teased me a little too much, so it usually didn’t last long.

Eventually, the caseworker came to share my feelings about the pending adoption as well. As she stated in the “Adoptive Home Study” document filed on May 21, 1971:

I talked with Andrew Alan who feels that he very much wants to be adopted by Mr. Hair. He calls him Daddy and they apparently have a very close relationship. Mr. Hair is the Cub Scout manager and also is the coach for the baseball and basketball team that Andrew is on. It is very obvious that these two get along quite well and there seems to be no problem involved.
She got that right! Moreover, I had completely forgotten how involved my Dad was with Cub Scouts and baseball. As for the basketball team, Dad was the head coach. My team had a very unique team name that I’ll never forget—the “Billings Wild Hairs.” We were pretty good too, but I’ll save that story for another blog post.

I was also drawn to the caseworker’s comments about my mother:

Sharon Kay Hair is 31 years old and is very young looking also. She has a very deep voice and has blond hair and blue eyes. They make a very attractive couple and Sharon is very much in favor of her husband wanting to adopt her son. She stated that while she doesn’t have a punitive toward Andrew’s father, she feels that it would be better if her husband were allowed to adopt the child since he has been more of a father to him than his own father.
That statement helps clarify what I believe my mother was trying to express prior to her death twelve years ago. She apparently had no hard feeling towards Al after all. I missed that message back then, but with age, and a little documentation and reflection, I can now put things in the proper perspective. I never guessed it would take (among other things) a court document to help bring all this into focus.

In the end, I recall sitting on the witness stand one warm summer day, raising my right hand with my left one on the Bible, and swearing to tell the truth. It was actually big fun at the time, and the judge and court personnel were very pleasant. While approaching the witness stand, I distinctly remember spotting a $1 bill on the floor at the foot of the stand. I nervously asked the judge if it belonged to anyone and if I could keep it. He said yes. I have often wondered if that was staged for my benefit to help put me at ease. It probably was, and it worked.

Following the final hearing issuing the adoption decree on July 9, 1971 in Ozark, Missouri, my parents took me out for a hamburger and fries to celebrate. That was a real treat back then. I even got a new toy before the day was out! Most importantly, however, I was finally rid of the dreaded hyphenated last name. I was a “Hair” and it felt good. It still does.

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