North Dakota agency moving its 'sacred' adoption files for safekeeping
The closing of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota left many in the community asking where the agency's adoption records will be stored.
FARGO — Jim Holmes was put up for adoption twice.
Once when he was 6 months old, but his birth mother changed her mind. The second time was less than two months later, and his new parents brought him to Walhalla, N.D.
He never saw his birth mother, Ann Kopperud from Cooperstown, N.D., again. His father, Bill Davidson, the town butcher at the time, went West, “and as far as I know never looked back,” Holmes said.
Holmes' history may have remained a mystery if not for a caseworker at The Village Family Service Center who helped him find medical records, leading to more information on his birth family in 2003. One by one, the pieces of his life’s puzzle fell in place. He learned his birth parents had died, but that he still had many living siblings in the Fargo area who wanted to meet him.
“My adoptive parents were great folks, but there were a lot of differences. As I became a teenager I grew up knowing I was adopted, but wasn’t sure what that all meant. It became a growing interest of mine. When I was in my 30s and got out of law school, I started to try to find out, but I couldn’t. I had to have a court order,” said Holmes, who's now nearly 80 years old.
Holmes' search is just one of the stories hidden in the file cabinets stored at The Village. And on Wednesday, Feb. 3, those records of about 7,000 files nearly doubled after Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota added their adoption records to The Village's cache for safekeeping.
LSS, a 103-year-old agency, announced Jan. 15 that, due to the heavy drain on resources caused by its housing department, the agency could no longer survive.
The closure prompted concern among the community about the fate of the adoption records kept by LSS, and Sue Grundysen, a caseworker since 1983 first at LSS and now at The Village, took some of those calls.
“It’s all coming here, and it’s going to be safe,” she said she tells callers. “We’d hate for that information to be lost forever. It’s an honor to be the agency that holds this information for people.”
Bob Otterson, CEO of LSS, said he’s glad the adoption files are being moved to a safe location.
“I described these files as sacred because they really are for some people a life history,” Otterson said. LSS has had an adoption program for 101 years, and has shared adoption services with The Village for more than 21 years.
“When you talk about five file cabinets, it’s not huge, but it is to those people who may want to research their lives,” said Jeff Pederson, president and CEO of The Village. "It's hard though when we get requests and they really want to know who their parents are, and we have to tell them we can't do that without a court order."
Although Holmes didn’t know his birth name until much later in life, he found out that he was born at the Florence Crittenton System of Homes in 1941 as David Dennis Davidson. His mother tried to take care of him, but wasn’t financially stable, so she brought him to The Village Family Service Center, then known as the North Dakota Children’s Home, and placed him for adoption.
Growing up on a potato farm near the Canadian border, Holmes was surrounded by a loving family.
The Orphan Train
More than a century ago, orphans from East Coast cities were sent to the Midwest on what was known as the Orphan Train.
The Orphan Train was exactly as the name sounds, Grundysen said — a train filled with orphans needing homes. They were “put up” for adoption on the train station platform, and from there went to their new homes.
Holmes' adoption came about 50 years after The Village was formed to help North Dakotans with a smoother adoption process, and they’ve been saving the information since the first day.
The Orphan Train is partly how the North Dakota Children’s Home began, and the organization has records dating back to 1891 when the orphanage began, Grundysen said.
“Churches particularly would communicate with their congregations or folks that lived around the area, and they would come when that train came. That’s how it happened,” Grundysen said.
About 80% of The Village’s adoption records have been digitized, but there are also paper records that include letters, baptismal certificates and photographs, Grundysen said.
Holmes found a letter his mother wrote in 1941 to the orphanage’s superintendent, Harold Bond, which shows the personal and financial pressures she faced at the time.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing I can do is to give David up for adoption. It’s hard for the folks to get along themselves, say nothing about keeping me. I’m willing to take your advice and give him up. Would there be any chance of putting him in a home where they wouldn’t mind if I saw him once in a while? I wouldn’t be able to pay anything in advance for his board until he’s adopted out. I could pay you as soon as I start working, if that’s okay,” his birth mother wrote.
For years, Holmes was hesitant to tell his adoptive family about his search for his birth family.
“They told me about my adoption early, but it was never a topic of discussion after that. From the time I became a teenager and understood something about life, I didn't want to raise the issue as I was frightened to death that it would be an affront to their parenting. This is not uncommon, I’m told. I really never talked to them about it, and I didn’t tell them about the search I was doing until we got all this information,” Holmes said.
He wrote about his fears extensively in a book he had published in 2019 called " Remember, You’re Mine: An Adoption Story. "
“And then one night at the lake I pulled out the files … and told them the whole story. When we finally got up, my mother gave me a hug, and told me, ‘Jim, remember, you’re mine,’ and that’s where the book title comes from,” Holmes said.
All proceeds from the book are going to support The Village, Holmes said.