Overcoming 'a bureaucratic demolition of human rights,' an intellectually disabled woman finds son taken at birth

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Jean Searle was forced to give up a child for adoption in 1981 when she was 17 and living in a Scranton institution for intellectually disabled youth. After searching for nine years, with the help of an advocate and an attorney, she found her son, Robert, and met him for the first time in May 2018, in Towanda, Pa.

Jean Searle never forgot the newborn who was taken from her in 1981 when she was a 19-year-old resident of an Allied Services facility for youths with intellectual disabilities in Scranton.

“I was told that I could never have contact with him because I wasn’t able to take care of me, or him, and that I would have no place to live if I tried to have anything to do with him,” Searle, now 55, said in a recent interview.

Hearing others talk about their children and wanting to know if her son was happy, if he was married, and maybe even had children of his own motivated Searle, who spent much of her childhood in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, to persist in searching for her son after a first attempt in 2007.

Despite a string of seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles, the search by Searle and a team of dedicated advocates succeeded, culminating in a first meeting between Searle and her son, Robert Cummings, on May 29.

As amazing as it was for Searle to connect with her son, she wants more. “I just want to have a normal mother-and-son relationship,” said Searle, who last year moved to Harrisburg and works as an advocate for Disability Rights Pennsylvania.

Camera icon James. W. Conroy
After a search that started in 2007, Jean Searle, center, met her son, Robert Cummings (right),  for the first time on May 29, at a Chinese restaurant in Towanda, Pa. With Searle and Cummings are James W. Conroy (left) and Maura McInerney (standing), who helped with the search.

Her 36-year-old son, Cummings, is also intellectually disabled. He lives in the small Bradford County, Pa. town of Athens, where he has two jobs, stocking shelves at Ted Clark’s Busy Market and washing dishes at Stateline Auto Auction. In his free time, he enjoys bowling and playing softball.

In a separate interview, Cummings said he was happy about his new relationship with his birth mother.

“He was smiling ear-to-ear” on the way home from lunch with his mother at a Chinese restaurant in Towanda, Pa., said Niq Sinsabaugh, who helps coordinate services for Cummings as a program specialist at the nonprofit Penn-York Opportunities Inc.

Beating the system

For James W. Conroy, of Wynnewood, an intellectual-disability expert who helped Searle with her search starting in 2009, the reconnection between Searle and Cummings amounts to a triumph over “bureaucratic demolition of human rights and identity.”

“We didn’t know his name. We had a birthday. The birthday was wrong,” said Conroy, who is known for monitoring individuals who left Pennhurst State School to ensure they did well in community settings and has consulted worldwide on the deinstitutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities.

Judith A. Gran, a disability rights lawyer deeply involved in litigation over Pennhurst, called Searle’s victory especially significant, “because the history of women conceiving and giving birth while they were in the institution is so hidden from view. There are no data that I know of. There are no statistics. I’ve never seen any kind of systemic analysis.”

Officials at Allied Services, a Clarks Summit nonprofit that operated the Scranton institution where Searle lived from 1975 to 1982, did not respond to requests for information about the organization’s policies on pregnancies or how many pregnancies there were in that era.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which regulates intellectual disability services, said the agency has no data going back that far, making it impossible to know how many intellectually and developmentally disabled women got pregnant in institutions.

Little is known about conditions at the privately owned Allied Services when Searle was there, but J. Gregory Pirmann, who worked at Pennhurst from 1969 to 1986, could recall only two or three pregnancies at the state-owned facility during that time.

The women left Pennhurst to deliver, Pirmann said. “They would come back, and they would not come back with a child. Who made the decision, whether consent was given, or whether consent was coerced, I really have no firsthand knowledge,” he said.

In Searle’s telling, her teenage story rings familiar, with some huge differences because of her placement in an institution. Authorities sent her to Scranton after a period of foster care in the Philadelphia area. Searle was the second oldest of seven children, all of them mildly intellectually disabled.

“I met a guy, fell madly in love. I thought we were going to get married and have a family together,” Searle said of her teenage romance. “When I got pregnant, I wanted to tell him, but before I could, he took off with somebody else.”

Maura McInerney, the lawyer who spearheaded Searle’s search for her son starting in January 2014, suspects that Allied sent the father away. “It’s unlikely that he was able to leave of his own volition,” she said.

What was even worse than the disappearance of her boyfriend, Joe, was that institution officials took complete control when they found out she was pregnant, Searle said. “They made every decision. They did everything. I had no say in what happened,” she said.

The search begins

When McInerney, who is the legal director of the nonprofit Education Law Center in Philadelphia, agreed to help Searle and Conroy, the operating assumption was that Searle’s termination of her parental rights coincided with an adoption.

But years of digging by McInerney revealed that the newborn Cummings went into foster care for two years before he was adopted. That transfer of custody to an agency made it much harder to establish a link between Searle and her son, which could have added years to the search.

Fortunately, with the help of Scranton connections through her education law work, McInerney was able to figure out that Cummings’s records, along with Searle’s termination of parental rights had been transferred to Bradford County, where Cummings was adopted, from Lackawanna County, where he was born.

After solving that puzzle, it took a full day at the Bradford County Courthouse in Towanda to convince a judge to appoint an official, called an “authorized representative” under Pennsylvania adoption law, who could locate Cummings and tell him about his mother’s desire to meet him. That appointment happened in May 2017, almost 3 ½ years into McInerney’s work on the case.

Even then, there was no guarantee of a happy outcome for Searle. The authorized representative, Fawn Davies, of Family Design Resources in Harrisburg, warned Searle that her son could be dead or might throw away the letter Davies would send him, suspecting it was a scam.

“There were so many opportunities for disappointment and sadness along the way,” McInerney said.

But instead of tossing the letter from Davies, Cummings, who had been interested in finding his birth mother, took it to Sinsabaugh, his program specialist.

Sinsabaugh helped facilitate the first phone call on May 3. “When he was about to hear from Jean for the first time — I don’t think I’ve ever seen Robert nervous before — but he was sitting in my office, legs were going 100 miles per hour,” Sinsabaugh said.

Searle, who recently marked her 24th anniversary of working for Disability Rights Pennsylvania and its predecessors, was happy to learn from Cummings that he had never been in an institution, and had never been sent to a sheltered workshop to be kept busy with menial labor.

Learning about her son’s life made Searle feel good. “I really want to get to know him much better, because just meeting him the first time wasn’t enough. I need more time with him,” she said.