ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan — She was a California girl with auburn hair and blue-gray eyes that seemed to change color with her moods. She was 15; it was 1968, and there was no question that when she had the baby she was carrying, she’d give him up for adoption.

“It was a very shameful thing,” Denise Dutton said. “There was never any discussion. There was no choice. I would give this baby up, and that was it.”

Dutton married the baby’s father — literally the boy next door. They had a daughter, and, years later, divorced.

They didn’t talk about baby “James,” whom Dutton named after her father who died when she was 9. But she always thought of him, even after remarrying.

Fruitless searches

A few years ago, Dutton contacted the adoption agency that placed “James” and filed a form consenting to be contacted by her son, in case he was searching for her. “I decided I would put myself out there for him to find me. I had always been hoping. But I didn’t want to intrude on him if he wasn’t interested,” she said.

But then, she began to think about trying to find him.

“Five years ago, as soon as I got my computer, the first thing I did was go online,” said Dutton, 51.

She registered with an agency of more than a million people looking for birth parents or their children. She called television shows that featured reunions like the one she wanted so much. She consulted a psychic. Nothing turned up. “Everything was like a brick wall,” she said.

Lost then found

Then, in September, at her home near Atsugi, where her husband is a civilian worker, she e-mailed a woman at, an Internet company that seemed to have great success finding people.

Some months and $1,850 later, she was on the phone with her apparent son, a 35-year-old, divorced salesman who loves to read, has traveled overseas and lives in Las Vegas.

“I just said, ‘Hi. I’m your birth mother,’” Dutton said. “He said, ‘I always knew you’d find me.’”

There’s been no DNA test, but something almost as good, in addition to the dates, names and places all matching up. “I asked him what color his eyes were,” Dutton said. “He said they’re blue-gray, and they seem to change color with what he wears or his moods. Like mine. I call them ‘mood eyes.’”

Then a photo he e-mailed, of himself in Alaska holding a big fish, confirmed it. “He looks like his sister. He has that same nose, the same smile. He asked me, ‘Do you have any doubts?’ Maybe at first, I did. But not now; in my heart, I don’t. There are too many similarities. He’s my son.”


Dutton flew off to California, husband in tow and other family members in a tizzy, last Wednesday. Her ex-husband is unhappy, she said; her daughter is stressed and her former in-laws, all in Orange County, Calif., think she must be insane. Because, if it all works out, Dutton will meet her son for the first time on a taping of the Dr. Phil Show on Wednesday, her son’s 36th birthday.

“All these years, I’ve seen reunions on shows,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Why isn’t that me? Why isn’t anyone helping me?’”

Dutton, a candid woman with a wry sense of humor who teaches English to Japanese people in her home, said she wanted to share her story, and encourage others like her to find their birth children. Plus, she said, she wouldn’t mind a little pampering from the show — a nice hotel, maybe a limo ride, possibly some money.

Her ex-husband and daughter weren’t so thrilled with the idea of going on the show, she said. Her apparent son, however, sounded like his mother.

“If someone wants to film me being reunited with my birth mom, that’s fantastic,” David Garner said in a phone interview.

Adopted life

Garner, who grew up with an adopted sister in Washington state, seemed to be taking the mother-son reunion in stride. “The funny thing about this whole thing is everybody I talk to seems to want to sensationalize it,” Garner said. “My life’s been an adventure, so this was kind of how things go. Sometimes, I feel like I’m not shocked and surprised enough for everyone.”

Garner said that all he’d ever known about his birth mother was that she was 15 when he was born. “I never felt a particular emptiness,” he said. “I have a great family.”

Garner is one of an estimated 5 million to 8 million people in the United States who’ve been adopted, according to the American Adoption Congress in Washington, D.C., although statistics are unreliable, because adoption records are scattered, incomplete and lost, and court records are usually sealed and inaccessible.

Dutton’s husband, Rick, said he supported her quest, in part, because he was adopted. “I know what it’s like,” he said.

Birth records began to be sealed in the 1940s, when social workers and judges decided that secrecy would protect all parties involved, according to the American Adoption Congress. In the mid-1970s, it became more socially acceptable for people involved in adoptions to seek out kin.

Only six states — Alaska, Alabama, Delaware, Oregon, Tennessee and Kansas — provide adult adoptees with original birth certificates containing their parents’ names. Other states provide “non-identifying information,” such as age and occupation, and a few allow adoptees to see who their parents were if consent has been given.

Lynn-Marie Carty, of, has managed to find hundreds of long-lost relatives. “If we have a date of birth, that helps a lot,” Carty said. “We try every trick in the book until something works. Sometimes, information on the records is purposely false. We love it when we crack those cases.”

Dutton mailed a figurine of an angel to Carty in thanks. “Since I found my son,” she said, “everything I do is perfect. … I want to be best of friends with him and be involved in his life,” she said. But if that doesn’t happen, she added, that, too, will be OK.

Dutton wasn’t the only one who’d always wondered and worried about the baby James, and who was joyous when he was found. “When I told my mother, she was so happy,” Dutton recalled. “She said she always remembered leaving him at the adoption agency in his little carrier, and she always thought it was her fault. So this is a good thing. As far as I’m concerned, whatever happens after this is a bonus.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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