Montreal·CBC Investigates

Stymied by Quebec adoption agencies, U.S. man turns to DNA testing and strikes gold, at last

Adopted as a baby, Ken Waisanen always wanted to know where he came from. But after what he describes as a dizzying runaround from Quebec adoption agencies to find his biological father, it was a DNA mouth swab that finally gave him the answer.

Ken Waisanen met his Kahnawake relatives this summer after discovering his biological father's identity

Ken Waisanen's newfound relatives in Kahnawake, the Mohawk territory on Montreal's South Shore, presented Waisanen, seen here with wife Janet Gates and their son River, with a cake iced with the message, 'Nice to meet you, cousin Ken.' (Submitted by Ken Waisanen)

Ken Waisanen struggles to express what it means to him to know, at long last, the identity of his biological father.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Waisanen removes his glasses several times to wipe away tears.

"It's a relief, for sure," said Waisanen, who had to wait nearly half a century to learn his father's name.

A father to three sons of his own, Waisanen had always wondered where he came from.

He knew from a young age he was adopted, but the urge to put the pieces of the puzzle together grew overwhelming a few years ago after he watched a TV show about long-lost family members reunited.

It awoke his curiousity about who his biological father was, sparking a two-and-a-half year search that led him to Quebec, where he was born. 

Frustrating search in Quebec

What happened next left Waisanen angry and discouraged.

When he initially applied for his adoption record in 2016, he discovered Quebec has no centralized registry for adoptions.

Despite that, Waisanen figured that with the information he had — his birth mother's name and the name of the hospital where he was born — it wouldn't take long to locate his adoption records. 

After coming to a dead end with Quebec's adoption agencies, Ken Waisanen's wife, Janet Gates, right, suggested he try genetic testing to find his biological father. (CBC)

But for more than a year, his request was passed from one Quebec social services agency to another. No one seemed to know for certain which agency had his information, Waisanen said. 

"You can only send so many emails, and you can only ask so many times," said Waisanen, who couldn't believe the runaround he got. "It just seemed like this whole effort was stalled out. Nothing was happening."

DNA test traces roots to Kahnawake

Waisanen had already tried to get the answer through the genetic-testing route.

Based on one company's database of DNA results, his search was narrowed down to two brothers in the United States. One had died. Waisanen contacted the second man who, while friendly, refused to take a DNA test.

Unable to get the answers he needed from Quebec or a conclusive result from the first genetic data bank, he tried a second DNA test with a different company and a different database this summer. 

Waisanen says the combined results of the two tests allowed him to zero in on his biological father's identity.

Ken Waisanen's biological father, Kenneth Jacobs, who died in 1997, was a Vietnam War veteran and a well-known and beloved boxing coach in Long Island, N.Y. (Submitted by Ken Waisanen)

He learned that man, Kenneth Jacobs, had died in 1997.

Jacobs had grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but his mother's family was originally from Kahnawake, the Mohawk territory on Montreal's South Shore.

Many of Jacobs' relatives had moved from Quebec to Brooklyn to work as ironworkers in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Waisanen found out that after his biological father graduated from high school, he had lived in Kahnawake for a year before enlisting in the U.S. military and shipping out to Vietnam in the spring of 1969.

Waisanen was born about five months before Jacobs entered the army.

"He had no idea I even existed," said Waisanen, who was adopted by an American family as a baby. 

CBC Montreal Investigates found a newspaper article from Long Island, N.Y., following Jacobs' death, which recounted how Jacobs was wounded during one of his two tours of duty in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart. 

'Hugs and kisses' at family reunion

DNA confirmation of his biological father's identity led to an impromptu reunion with his extended family in Kahnawake in July.

Waisanen showed up at a local restaurant on the Mohawk territory and found himself surrounded.

"I could hardly get out of my car," said Waisanen. "All these people came out and greeted me. Hugs and kisses."

Ken Waisanen was adopted as a baby in the U.S. by a family who took him to Michigan. He says his biological father, who fought in the Vietnam War, never knew he existed.

"That was pretty cool."

His newfound relatives were eager to share stories with Waisanen about his dad, and he was thrilled to learn as much as he could.

"I found out he was a really good guy, a good character, a hard worker," said Waisanen. "He did a lot of coaching for boxing. He helped out a lot of kids in New York."

Waisanen said at dinner, some people apologized for staring at him because they couldn't get over how much he looked like his father.

At the end of the evening, someone brought out a big cake being with a message in icing: "Nice to meet you, cousin Ken."

"It kind of hit me then," said Waisanen, getting choked up. "They were just really super nice. Just really welcoming."

Waisanen is using Facebook to stay in touch with some of his Mohawk relatives, and he hopes there will be many more visits in years to come.

Waisanen also discovered his biological father had other children in the U.S.

He hopes to get to know them, but so far, he says, they haven't warmed to the idea.

"I'm OK with that. It is what it is," said Waisanen. "I found out who my dad is. I am happy."

Genetic testing the key

In June 2018, the Quebec government finally began to open its adoption records.

A centralized call service is now available to help adoptees navigate the system and get through the necessary paperwork.

Ken Waisanen says he's happy to have finally learned more about where he comes from and to be able to share relevant medical information with his three sons, pictured with him here. (Submitted by Ken Waisanen)

If the biological parents registered in an adoptee's file have been dead for more than a year, the pertinent adoption agency can provide their names.

If a biological parent is still alive and does not want his or her name disclosed, that parent has until June 2019 to register a veto.

Even though Waisanen's dad died more than 20 years ago, Waisanen never was able to get any tangible information from Quebec adoption agencies about him.

He hopes the Quebec government has improved the way requests like his are handled.

"We are just one case that fell apart," said Waisanen.

He credits time, patience and research for finally revealing his father's identity.

But DNA testing held the key.

"I could have never imagined even doing this without it," said Waisanen. "We never would have gotten anywhere."


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About the Author

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Contact her via our confidential tipline: 514-597-5155 or on email at montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.

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