Sudbury·Audio

How the shocking discovery of a Sudbury woman's birth mom is changing lives

After learning she was adopted as a child in Sudbury, Ont., Lise Laforge spent years looking for her birth mother — only to deal with a long struggle to accept the shocking truth. Now 48 and living in Toronto, she's an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, something that's changed her life.

Lise Laforge, 48, says learning her roots wasn’t easy but she's now helping people experiencing homelessness

Lise Laforge, 48, lives in Toronto and volunteers to help local organizations collect donations for people experiencing homelessness. Laforge learned she was adopted at age eight, but later discovered her birth mother spent years without a permanent home in Sudbury, Ont., something she learned to identify with to help others. (Supplied by Lise Laforge)

After learning she was adopted as a child, Lise Laforge spent years looking for her birth mother — only to deal with a long struggle to accept the shocking truth in adulthood.

The Sudbury, Ont., native, now 48 and living in Toronto, was 21 when the Children's Aid Society told her that her birth mom was a woman who had experienced homelessness all her life. 

Although the discovery at first led Laforge to internalize her feelings, she later began speaking to people and underwent counselling. Today, she's working to ease the suffering of others, something that's "changed me." 

"If I walk by a homeless person, for instance, I stop in my tracks and I think about what their story is, and what happened, and I wonder if they have a support system, and that … those people must be really hurting," Laforge said in an interview with CBC Sudbury.

Laforge told her story about her journey to learning her background so she could raise awareness about helping people in need.

Self-discovery starts with hidden papers

Laforge was eight years old when she was told she was adopted. Her only link to her birth mother was a few pieces of paper that her adoptive mom kept in an armoire. 

Laforge would sneak in and look at the papers every chance she could. Although most of the information didn't make much sense to her, she'd read over her birth name — Debbie Roberta — again and again.
Laforge, at about three years old, the first picture her new family took of her after she was adopted. (Submitted by Lise Laforge)

"We never talked about it, it wasn't something that was talked about in our home … It was very much between me and me."

But at 18 and old enough to search on her own, Laforge and her best friend went to the Sudbury Children's Aid Society office to fill out papers to help her locate her birth mom. 

At that point, all they could do was wait. 

Eventually, Laforge stopped thinking about uncovering the mystery that she'd been dealing with since childhood, and moved to Toronto to pursue a career.

'You need to sit down'

Three years after first filling out forms with the CAS, Laforge received the call that changed her life forever. 

"First they said, 'You need to sit down,'" said Laforge. 

"I remember where I was standing, I remember the feeling, I remember everything. I remember being petrified." 

They asked her if she knew anyone by the name of Claire, and Laforge said no. Next, they asked her the puzzling question: "'Do you know the bag lady?'"

With the stigma that surrounds mental health and just adoptions, it's not always the topic that you just start talking about, so it just wasn't talked about, so I internalized it.- Lisa Laforge, after learning about her birth mom

Immediately, said Laforge, she knew who the CAS was referring to, because people in Sudbury generally referred to the woman they'd seem around the city as the "bag lady."

CAS said to Laforge: "'That's your birth mother Claire.'"

The stunning revelation troubled Laforge. She kept her discovery to herself, because she felt she'd be judged or, even worse, pitied — being enveloped in a shroud of secrecy made her feel very alone. 

"With the stigma that surrounds mental health and just adoptions, it's not always the topic that you just start talking about, so it just wasn't talked about, so I internalized it."

Laforge learned she wasn't Claire's only child. In fact, Claire had given birth to 11 children between 1962 and 1979, according to documents Laforge received from the CAS that helped her piece together her mother's story. They included detailing Laforge's life as a baby, when she was put into foster care, as well as an account of all of her birth mother's interactions with CAS workers.

The road to accepting who she is

Over the years, however, she began talking to people and went to counselling. She came to realize that for anyone struggling with mental-health issues or living in a dangerous situation as her birth mother Claire was, having an advocate — someone who could speak up on their behalf — could help.

Now, Laforge embraces her past. Recently, she joined a Facebook group that discusses talking about the homelessness situation in Sudbury, and her mother's name came up.

This photo of Claire as a child is the only picture Laforge owns of her birth mom. (Supplied by Lise Laforge)

Laforge learned that Claire was a victim of domestic violence, had mental illness, and spent years in and out of the psychiatric unit at a Sudbury hospital.

Laforge said Claire's schizophrenia went undiagnosed for years. After giving birth, each time, she'd try to keep her children from being taken away by the CAS by moving and hiding."She really needed help, way before she was on the streets," said Laforge.

CBC Sudbury reached out to the CAS to see if anyone remembers Clarie from decades ago, and would be able to speak about her story. But the CAS worker has long retired. But Laforge said the worker did give her the paperwork that has helped her piece together her life so she could get some kind of closure. 

Laforge checked on her mom before her death 

After 1981, Claire lived on the streets for decades. That's when people started calling her "the bag lady" — the only real memories Laforge has of her birth mom. Before Claire died in 2003 in Sudbury, Laforge learned she was living in a nursing home, so called to ask if her mother was OK. Staff would tell her Claire was fine, but would stay under the covers most of the time. 

Through her Facebook group, Laforge discovered other things about her birth mom.

One police officer posted a memory about seeing Claire trying to direct traffic at the corner of Elm and Van Horne streets in Sudbury. 

Another person remembers talking to and helping Claire out when she could. She wrote that the bags Claire carried around contained her children's special belongings, and she said Claire loved to talk about her youngsters. 

Laforge said learning Claire's story has made her aware of the need for people to get help, and has shaped the person she is today. 

She's not alone in knowing the needs of people with no permanent home.

Forum hears 1st-hand experiences  

At a recent City of Sudbury public meeting on the homelessness situation, outreach nurse Joel Boivin shared his own experience of living in poverty and squatting in an unsafe space with no windows or heat.

"Currently I am in a position of being transiently housed," he said.

Every person that you pass, you feel like a lesser being just because you know that they're not possibly in as much pain and hunger as you are right now.- Joel Boivin, outreach nurse, who experienced homelessness

"Some of the starvation ... that's something that unless you experience it yourself, you have no idea the shame that you feel. Every person that you pass, you feel like a lesser being just because you know that they're not possibly in as much pain and hunger as you are right now."

Kryslyn Mohan, a social worker who also spent time homeless and is with an advocacy group that helps people living in poverty, said there's urgency to helping people with no permanent living arrangement.

"We're having to take that extra moment just to look at their face, and to hold their faces in our memories, because we don't know that they're going to be here the next day," said Mohan.

"I think it's really hard for people who haven't been through it  to understand, and I appreciate that, but I just hope that you can try," she told councillors.

In the interview, Laforge said sitting back and doing nothing won't stop people from ending up on the streets.

"And I've often just looked up at the sky and went, 'You know, I'm sorry that I didn't know and I didn't help, and … I hope that this is helping.'"

You can listen to the full radio documentary Finding Claire by clicking below.

Hear the journey of a Sudbury woman whose life has changed drastically since finding out who her birth mother is... a documentary by the CBC's Jan Lakes. 8:41

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jan Lakes

Producer

Jan Lakes is a producer at CBC Sudbury. You can reach her at jan.lakes@cbc.ca or find her on Twitter @lakesCBC.

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