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Stolen Identity

Shirley Frankel of Huntington Beach has searched for her birth family for 30 years. Though the discovery that her adoption records were fabricated makes success seemingly impossible, she's not willing to give up.


For most of her life, Shirley Frankel has wondered over and over: "Who am I?"

Sometime before Frankel was placed with her adoptive family when she was about 6 months old, she was given a false identity--one so completely fabricated that she will probably never find the answer to the question that haunts her.

"I have no history," says Frankel, 65, of Huntington Beach. "I don't know if I was stolen. I don't know my genetic background or why I'm allergic to wheat. . . . This is my whole life," she says as she waves her bogus adoption records, part of the paper trail in a frustrating 30-year search to find her birth parents.

Frankel's adoption was one of many handled by Georgia Tann, now infamous for making a fortune black-marketing babies when she headed the Tennessee Children's Home Society in Memphis.

Her birth records had not simply been altered but represented a stolen identity. The same birth certificate, birth date and same mother and father belonged to someone else--someone completely unrelated.

When Frankel learned what had happened, she cried for days.

"I was so discouraged," she says. "All the times before, I would hit dead-ends. But this time it was a brick wall."

Each year, thousands of adoptees in this country search for their birth families. According the California Adoption Alliance, the best guess of the search and reunification movement is that between 2% and 4% of all adoptees search each year. The majority is successful--except in cases where records were falsified, as in Frankel's case.

Attitudes about adoption have changed so dramatically that today not only do adoptees and birth parents establish contact if they wish, but a birth mother often chooses the family where her child will be placed.

Frankel's case stands in stark contrast.

Not only was there deception in the original arrangements, but Frankel's adoptive mother never discussed the adoption with her--it was off-limits as a topic of conversation.


Frankel and her husband, Art, who have been married 46 years, have five children and nine grandchildren. She is a document processor for an insurance brokerage firm; he is a retired high school counselor and teacher.

The fullness of Frankel's life has not erased her longing to feel connected to an ancestry.

It was March 1932 when she was adopted by George and Libbie Marsh, Russian Jewish immigrants who lived in Des Moines.

Her adoptive father owned a taxi and rental car business, and her adoptive mother was a housewife. Both were 41.

Because of their ages and desire to adopt a Jewish child, Frankel said, it was probably difficult for them to adopt in their home state. The Marshes had contacted their rabbi, who knew of another Des Moines couple who had adopted a Jewish child through the Children's Home Society in Memphis.

At the time of Frankel's adoption in 1932, the Memphis branch was run by Tann, who in 1950 was accused of selling babies and reportedly made at least $1 million handing over infants to adoptive parents who believed she was dealing honestly with them. It is estimated that from the early 1920s to 1950, about 5,000 children were adopted through the Memphis branch, though not all were illegally surrendered or placed. As the case broke, Tann died of cancer, taking with her the truth about what transpired in Frankel's adoption and that of many others.

Frankel now doubts that she is from a Jewish background, as Tann purported in arranging the adoption.

"I probably was a Southern Baptist, if anything," says Frankel, who was raised in the Jewish Orthodox traditions and learned to speak Yiddish from her adoptive grandmother.

Frankel figures that even the Sept. 9 birth date she has called her own for so many years is not accurate.


As a child, Frankel says, she was teased by neighborhood children who told her the Marshes were not her natural mother and father.

"I confronted my mother, and she told me, 'It doesn't make any difference. You're like my own flesh and blood.' She said she loved me as if I was her own child."

The subject was never brought up again.

"Back then, you didn't discuss things like that. My mother was very strict and rigid," Frankel says.

When Frankel was nearly 6, her adoptive father died. Her mother supported them by sewing for the military, then working in alterations at a department store in Des Moines.

Frankel was about 11 when her curiosity about her adoption was again fueled. She had discovered a leather accordion file in her mother's bedroom dresser that contained adoption papers naming Hazel Beal as an unwed Memphis woman who had given birth to a daughter named "Sarah."

"I knew it was me, but I was too young to realize what adoption actually meant," Frankel says.

Throughout her childhood, there were many times when Frankel would sneak into the bedroom and peek at the adoption papers.

When Frankel met her future husband at a college fraternity party in Des Moines in 1948, she was 16 and still in high school.

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