Family Secrets: Long Lost Daughter

Looking For Mom

Just before midnight, on January 25, 1972, police responded to an anonymous call and found a newborn baby girl in a park in Addison, Illinois. She was wrapped in a white blanket and a plastic garbage bag. The temperature was in the single digits.

The baby appeared to be just a few days old. It looked like a home birth - the umbilical cord was tied off with thread.

Eventually the baby was adopted. But the couple divorced, and her childhood was rough. The child, who was named Liz Bagwell, was often left alone, or with her adoptive brother, who teased her about being abandoned.

After her adoptive mother died in 1996, Bagwell began the search for her birth mother. "I think there's somebody that loved me, and I just would like to know," she says. Susan Spencer reports on her incredible search.

For almost six years, every lead led to a dead end. Then last year, Liz registered on a Web site, Bighugs.com, which has reunited thousands of children with their biological parents.

If Bighugs investigators take a case there's a charge. But anyone can post a name for free, which Liz did. To her shock, six months later, a 48-year-old woman in Illinois left a message on the site.

"Love that has not been lacking for even a moment. Searching for a daughter that was taken from me. Wonder if she desires contact or medical info?" the message read.

A call to the woman, Sher Altenoff, confirmed details about Liz's abandonment. Bighugs called Liz with a message from her mother: "She loves you, and that she always loved you, from the day one, she has always loved you," said Arliene Dunn of Bighugs. "I think you have a family of people waiting to express that love to you."

Liz was overwhelmed. She discovered she had three half-sisters, including 26-year-old twin sisters. "I want to meet (my mother). I want to talk to her. I want to hug my sisters, I have people that probably look like me," she said.

Sher apologized for abandoning Liz. "That's okay. You don't have to be sorry I forgave you a long time ago. I have so many questions for you – I'm probably going to question you to death," Liz said.

Liz found out details about her birth: Sher had named her Angela, for example. Sher said that she had made the decision to abandon Liz at the last minute. She said she changed her mind, but the father had already taken Liz to the gazebo. Sher was of Italian ancestry. "Oh my gosh, I look Italian, I talk Italian!" Liz said. "I throw my hands around when I talk."

And Sher also found that she had five grandchildren – two of Liz's own children, and three step-grandchildren, Liz's husband's from a previous marriage. They decided to meet in person the following week. By the end of the phone call, Sher was crying.

"I have grandchildren," an ecstatic Sher said after getting off the phone. "I have a daughter that sure doesn't sound like there is one bit of hatred or anything in her."

"I never stopped thinking about her," said a nervous Sher before meeting her long lost daughter. Married three times, Sher is now a stay-at-home mom outside Chicago. She says she had always hoped to find her first child.

Sher's other daughters, twins Jennifer and Melissa and ten-year-old Morgan, went with Sher to Liz' home in Tennessee for a 24-hour visit. They were there to support their mother while she confronted the painful choice she made when she was 18.

Before the meeting, Liz talked about being reunited: "That used to be my dream every night, of getting reunited," she says. When Sher and her daughters landed in Knoxville, everyone hugged, and posed for their first family picture.

Sher met a grandson that until recently she didn't know she had. She could hardly take her eyes off Liz. "All I keep thinking is that – these are the eyes, and this is the face that I looked at and had to let go," she said, crying. "I promised you, I would see you again and told you to be good, and it happened. And I did get to see you again. And I love you darling."

Later, Sher and Liz talked privately about the fateful night. Sher says she and Liz' father married primarily so they could move and hide the pregnancy, which they successfully did. Almost nobody knew. But Sher still avoided giving details about exactly what happened right after Liz was born. Why wasn't the baby simply given up for adoption?

"I get the message that she's sorry and that she didn't mean for anything hateful to happen, which from the beginning, I've never had any angry bone in my body about what happened," Liz said.

Bighugs.com also located Liz' father, who is still living outside Chicago. He was shocked to hear from her. Liz learned that her parents split up two years after she was born. Her father has been married three times, and she has two more sisters she has not met. After some hesitation, he agreed to meet her in Chicago.

It was not an emotional reunion. "It wasn't like hugging and excitement and happiness. It was really silent. But I kept trying to ask questions. And he would answer them briefly and it would be over," she says. Plans are underway for her father to meet his grandchildren in Tennessee.

Liz and her mother had a second visit. Then after two months, her mother pulled back. "She kind of wanted to just hold off a little bit – back off and take things a little bit slower," Liz says. Since then, "not a word."

Arliene Dunn is not surprised. She says that after the initial euphoria, reunited parents and children often have to figure out what they want from the relationship.

Liz is disappointed about how her parents have reacted to her. "There's no regrets," she says. "But it does make me feel sad that after 30 years people can't just admit that they did a wrong and just come out and say why they did it."

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