A Brief History of Operation Identity

by Barbara Free

     How did Operation Identity come about? How did it get such a name? What’s the real purpose of O. I.? And why are we still here after twenty-five years, when many other adoption support groups have gone out of existence?
     In March of 1979, a woman named Pam Bell, who had searched for birth family, put an ad in the Albuquerque Journal: “If anyone is interested in search for reunion, please come to...,” and gave an address. She expected perhaps 10 or 12, and fixed coffee and cookies accordingly. In the end, over 60 people showed up. They decided to meet again, and out of that, O.I. was started. The first official O.I. meeting was held May 24, 1979. Part of the minutes read as follows:
     We had 34 in attendance and 16 joined that evening. Our memberships are $15 and they are family memberships. The corporation papers are being prepared, as is the non-profit status. Pam Bell was elected President Sally File Vice-President, Pat Intermot Secretary-Treasurer. Reaction from the group was great. We have a search committee, a legislative committee, and a newsletter committee, as a start. We will meet once a month, with a board meeting prior to the general meeting. The board will consist of the officers, chair-people, and interested members. Pam, Sally, and Pat met wit New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici while in Washington, D.C., for the American Adoption Congress. We discussed the issue of open records for adult adoptees, and sent him a follow-up letter. We were unable to meet with Senator Harrison Schmitt and in place sent him a letter on the issue. Operation Identity wants to help the movement in any way it can and stands ready to help.
     About the name: Sally File made it up after seeing a notice on television about a group called Operation Identification, which worked to fingerprint children to prevent kidnaping, and she thought, “Well, we’re looking for our identities as adults.” Unfortunately, the woman heading the other group was also named File, and there were lots of mix-ups for quite a while.
     O.I. has been part of the American Adoption Congress since its inception. As those minutes stated, Pam, Pat, and Sally went to the AAC Conference in Washington, D.C. in 1979, and actively pushed for open records. Sally can tell the story of going to Pete Domenici’s office, suitcases in hand, between the conference and the airport.
     O.I. has always been an advocacy organization for openness and honesty in all facets of adoption, and remains so. Any individual member can be as active, or not, as they desire, of course. After twenty-five years, there is still a great need for that activism and for legislative changes across the country and in New Mexico.
     Sally and others were instrumental in getting New Mexico’s laws changed to put in place the current confidential intermediary system, whereby adult adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents can search, through a trained and court-appointed intermediary, for their family, without having to declare a medical or other “just cause,” and in making it legal and relatively simple to search in this state. Yet, as far back as the minutes of the January 1981 meeting, we read that “Les Houston had phoned Pam Bell and said that he wanted to hear from our group.” As you know, we still don’t have open records, and even those states which have changed their laws in recent years do not have open records for birth parents.
     In those days, of course, there was no Internet, no easily accessible computer data bases. Searching was done through telephone directories, city directories, high school yearbooks, MVD records, newspaper records, microfiche records and libraries, letters–anything searchers could find, and sometimes they had to be rather surreptitious. Linda Davis reported that her son’s assignments were to bring back a phone book whenever they traveled to another city. Even now, searchers sometimes hit a brick wall and have to be very creative to find someone. Sally and others have completed literally thousands of searches in these twenty-five years, and they’re still at it. Although some searchers have long since ceased being active in this endeavor, Sally and Leonie Boehmer continue. Leonie searches in the German-speaking countries, and could write a whole separate book about her adventures. (In fact, she has written a brief booklet about the methodology of searching in Germany and other German-speaking countries.)
     In that same January 1991 meeting, we read: “Sally reported an ad had been placed in 17 major newspapers across the country stating that anyone who was interested in search could write to a Post Office Box in Stillwater, OK. The lady who placed the ad got 63 replies to American in Search, felt overwhelmed at the response, and promptly mailed them all to Sally to take care of. Sally and several of our members will get all the inquiries answered before our next meeting.” At that time, the group did a lot of brainstorming and helping each other search. Now, O.I., as a group, does not conduct searches, but is a support group for all triad members and their families, and encourages those who are contemplating search, are searching, or who are reunited.
     Members offer suggestions to aid in search or in building reunion relationships, but do not conduct therapy in any way. We always emphasize this at our meetings, but still we’re sometimes misunderstood as a place to go get your search done, or as group therapy.
     Because search and reunion were so controversial in the early days, O.I. was incorporated in 1981 as a non-profit organization to protect it from lawsuits and to establish itself as a legitimate organization. Therefore, unlike many support groups, we have officers and a Board of Directors. In that same meeting, it’s reported that “Judy Perry, Margaret Bailey, Linda Davis, and Sally File volunteered to be on the committee for Nominating Officers, in hopes that they each would keep from being railroaded into an office that they didn’t want.” In perusing these old minutes, letters, and other materials, it becomes clear that O.I. has always advocated for improvements in state and federal laws. We’ve always exchanged newsletters with other groups across the country and helped other groups in their efforts.
     At the AAC conference in Kansas City this past spring, photograph albums of all the years of AAC showed many pictures of Sally, Leonie, and of Bill Gage, as well as other O.I. members who attended past AAC conferences. For those of you who don’t know him, Bill does the wonderful job of putting our newsletter together, laying out the text and graphics, and doing such a professional-looking job.
     As some of you know, O.I. was represented at this years’s conference by four people–Ann Massman, Nancy Parkhill, Jay Johnson, and myself. In January of 2000, O.I. hosted the Southwest Regional AAC Conference, the last regional conference held to date. They had previously hosted it in 1984. It’s a huge job for such a small group, and it was a great success, with many persons who first presented at our 2000 conference going on to become frequent AAC speakers, authors, and film makers.
     Another organization that facilitates reunions is the International Soundex Reunion Registry in Carson City, NV, which was started by Emma May Villardi (now deceased). Each year at the AAC Conference, someone is presented with the Emma Villardi Award for their service to the cause of openness in adoption. Sally File was one of the first recipients of the award.
     Over the years, O.I. has put together birthday books, cookbooks, pins, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and other items for fund-raisers, and had only raised the dues once, in 1984, from $15.00 a year to $20.00. That was 20 years ago! We’ve discussed raising them several times since then, but haven’t so far. At this time, we are planning a yard sale fund-raiser September 25th and we’re open to any and all suggestions and donations.
     O.I. used to have informal “rap sessions” in between the monthly meetings. Now, we have a couple of social events a year, such as the Holiday Potluck, Birth Mother’s Day Potluck, and this picnic. Maybe it’s time to revive those discussion groups. Today, many people assume that searches are conducted easily by anyone with a computer–which isn’t true–but even if it were, there is no substitute for a live group of people who care, and who can share their experiences.
     Among the records of O.I., there is a large folder of poems and essays written by members in the early years. Some are handwritten, lighthearted verses about Sally File. Here’s a sample:

Our good friend is named Sally File
She’s traveled many a mile
In search of a parent who’s lost or just errant
And she does it with such charm and style.
Sally File is a really good friend
Her services she’s willing to lend
If you’re a searching adoptee
It’s certain she’ll be a help to you right to the end
This woman is named Sally File
She’s a cookie with lots of great style
The changes she’s wrought on the people she’s sought
Take a while, Sally File
This woman is named Sally File
She’s a cookie with lot of great style
The changes she’s wrought on the people she’s sought
Make a list much to long to compile
Les, we all think you really are grand
You always give all that you can
Our group changed your life
Since we took over your wife
But beside every great woman’s a great man!

     Well, it never won a Pulitzer Prize, but it shows how much people thought of Sally, and it sounds like they had fun writing. Not everything about O.I. is serious!
     We’re reviving our Legislative Committee and trying to get more visibility in newspapers and television. We are participating in the Annual Registration Day on October 2nd, and we’ll be sponsoring a one-day conference on November 13th. Our newsletter is published four times a year and sometimes articles get reprinted in other newsletters. We still meet every fourth Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in the Sandia Room at Kaseman Presbyterian Hospital, and we still welcome all interested triad members and extended family. We’d love to have 60 people show up again at one meeting! Tell your family and friends who have adoption connections. We hope to be around another 25 years, because it looks like we’ll still be needed!

Excerpted from the October 2004 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2004 Operation Identity