Quebec-born woman reunites with biological mother after 26-year search

Jo-Ann Hatting had no idea the journey to find her biological mother would take 26 years, thousands of hours of detective work and three transatlantic trips. But that's the challenge facing many people adopted in Quebec, where adoption records remain sealed.

Getting information on birth parents difficult in province where adoption files still sealed

An adopted Quebec woman finally tracks down her birth mother after a 26 year search, discovering another sister along the way. 13:50

When Jo-Ann Hatting began searching for her biological mother, here's what she knew of her own beginning: she was born in a Montreal hospital on Jan. 18, 1957, and adopted seven days later.

She had no idea the journey to find her mother would take 26 years, thousands of hours of detective work and three transatlantic trips.

"Everyone should know where they're from," says Hatting, 59. "I see ... that it is a travesty that we have to go through this. I feel it is our right to know who we are."

The problem encountered by Hatting, and thousands of adoptees from Quebec, is that adoption records in the province are sealed.

British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have changed their laws to make it easier for adoptees and birth parents to access birth records. But in Quebec, adoptees are only entitled to "non-identifying information," such as the age of the birth parents and their reason for placing the child for adoption.

The problem encountered by Jo-Ann Hatting, and thousands of adoptees from Quebec, is that adoption records in the province are sealed. (Courtesy: Jo-Ann Hatting)

Last year, a government committee recommended sweeping changes to the province's family laws, including repealing the confidentiality of adoption files and recognizing the right of children to know their origins. Those changes have yet to be made.

But Hatting refused to let the province's "archaic" adoption laws stop her and recently had a very emotional reunion with her mother.

"I have been fortunate enough to find my mom, but there are others like myself that are still searching, and still don't have an idea where they come from and what their truth is," she says. "Because the secrecy still lies upon us."

Pregnant and unmarried

The "secret" Hatting uncovered begins with a young woman named Lorna Gauley. The single, 19-year-old was working as a nanny for a doctor in Montreal when she became pregnant in 1954. Premarital sex was a taboo subject at that time and birth control wouldn't become legal in Canada until 1969.

"It was quite embarrassing with other people who knew me. They didn't say anything but I knew that they were looking down on me," Lorna Palmer nee Gauley recalls of the pregnancy. "I didn't want to talk about it that much."

Hatting was born Jan. 18, 1957, in Montreal. A week later, adoption papers were signed and her birth records were sealed.

Like so many other young unmarried women in the 1950s, Gauley placed her baby for adoption. She got pregnant again in 1955 and also placed that baby for adoption. On Jan. 18, 1957, still unwed, she gave birth to her third child, Jo-Ann Hatting. A week later, adoption papers were signed and Hatting's file was sealed.

Not long after, Gauley married. She told her husband Lee Palmer about her babies, and swore him to secrecy. He kept the secret for six decades, as they raised a family of their own. Lorna Palmer says she suffered in silence.

"I'd go to bed at night and think, 'My God, where are they? What are they doing? Are they being properly looked after? Who's looking after them?' Very often I used to cry at night and wonder where they were. It hurt."

A long sadness

Jo-Ann Hatting was adopted by a Danish couple who had immigrated to Montreal, and who then relocated to the United States when she was an infant. She vividly recalls being five years old when her parents told her she was adopted. 

"I remember being so stunned, and I remember the sadness that was inside of me. It was like, 'Well when is she going to come and get me? Where is she? Who is she?'"

When Hatting was a teen, her adoptive parents moved to Denmark, a country she still calls home. Her search for her birth mother began in 1990 when she herself became a mother. It was an era before the internet and DNA tests, and she hit a brick wall.

"The grey baby market was legal to a certain extent in those days," Hatting says. "It was handled between doctors and a lawyer, not with the social services … that's what we call the grey baby market, and I'm one of those."

In 1999, when Quebec amended its adoption laws, she immediately applied to the province's adoption agency, Batshaw Family Services, for her non-identifying information.

It took 16 years to obtain. Hatting says she received no explanation why it took so long.

"It's inhumane. Because this is something you're by law allowed to have, and it's not supposed to take 16 years for a province to give you what is rightfully yours," Hatting says.

She coupled the non-identifying information with a DNA test, which informed her she had 1,003 cousins. She travelled to Nova Scotia to trace leads about her birth father. She also reached out to Canadian volunteers who specialize in connecting adoptees with their birth parents, known as "search angels."

With information gleaned from a search angel and a cousin who turned out to be a scientist, she was able to construct a family tree that would ultimately lead to her mother.

Joyful reunion

Wayne Palmer of Kemptville, Ont., became the missing link in Hatting's search for her mother. When she uncovered a photo of him, the physical resemblance suggested she was on the right track. A phone call to Palmer confirmed it.

But her mother, Lorna Palmer, despite years of suffering over having given up her babies for adoption, rejected her because she couldn't remember giving birth to baby Jo-Ann.

"She remembers nothing about going in, giving birth, or going home afterwards," Hatting says. "I knew that in those days it was quite normal that women were drugged so they wouldn't remember, so there wouldn't be any bond between mother and child."

Wayne Palmer of Kemptville, Ont., became the missing link in Jo-Ann Hatting’s search for her mother. His DNA test proved Hatting was his half-sister. (Courtesy: Jo-ann Hatting)

However, Wayne Palmer's DNA test proved Hatting was his half-sister. This past April, Hatting was reunited with her mother and the two spent a week getting to know each other.

"How she found me from way out in Denmark, that is remarkable," Lorna Palmer says. "Maybe I'll be a mother for a second time. I think it's wonderful."

Hatting says meeting her 81-year-old mother has brought her full circle. "It has been very, very joyful. I'm much more at peace within myself now that I have seen her."

Hatting is getting to know her five half-siblings and also connected with the second baby Lorna placed for adoption, Janet Cartee. She now hopes to locate her mother's first child.

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.