Jim Shomate is 34 and still owns a very small pair of boots. That is all he took with him to Sacramento, Calif., when he was adopted. And those little boots inspired him for 26 years to find the purchaser -- his real mother.
In 1956, when Betsy Vara was 7 years old, a playmate provoked an argument with the taunt: "I'll bet you don't know you're adopted." But Betsy learned from her mother that afternoon that six of her 10 playmates also were adopted. She went happily back outside to play.
Sandra Nesbitt was a bitter 8-year-old when she found herself with a new family. She found herself with a new family. She remembered her real one -- but until 1976, all she knew was that she had four sisters and a brother living somewhat in four states.
These people were lost by their mother, Ruby Cardarelli, in a massive adoption scandal in in Tennessee. Now in midlife with jobs and families of their own, they have been reunited and together seek three other sisters: Frankie Eugenia, Linda Fay and Betty Ann, now 36, 35, and 31 years of age, respectively.
"I've been cheated out of a relationship with five people," said Sandra Nesbitt, who now lives in Topeka, Kan., with her husband and two children.
"I'm 38 years old, and I just met my sister for the first time -- and we had a good time. We could have had all those years . . . ."
But in January 1950, their newly divorced 28-year-old mother was trying to raise the six children in a oneroom basement apartment on a $99 monthly welfare check in Memphis.
"I married Eugene Emmons when I was 19," Ruby Cardarelli said. "Things just went from bad to worse; and the kids came fast and furious. I was just a dump hillbilly in love."
Realizing that she could no longer manage on her own, Cardarelli asked the Tennessee Children's Home Somciety -- a private child-placement agency partially financed by the state -- to take her children for a few weeks until she could get back on her feet.
Afterward she tried to see them, But within seven weeks all six kids had been parceled out to new families. She was one of many vicitms.
That same year, the state of Tennessee appointed a special prosecutor, Robert Taylor, to investigate charges that most of the home's adoptions were going to wealthy out-of-state families.
Now retired from his law practice and living in San Antonio, Taylor recently told The Los Angeles Times that he discovered 1,200 children were adopted out of the home from 1944 to 1950, and only a few of them went to Tennessee families.
Taylor said the children came from needy, ignorant mothers who trusted the home's director, Georgia Tann, to help them through their troubles.
His investigation revealed that Tann worked with a juvenile court judge who would take children from troubled parents and declare them wards of the state.
The director died during the investigation, and the judge resigned and moved to another state, where she later died, Taylor said. The invesigation found that Tann received more than $1 million over the years from the adoptions.
Although Taylor was employed solely to determine the number of out-of-state placements and the fees charged for them, he claims Tann could have been prosecuted for obtaining money under false pretenses and for placing children out of state without a license.
"Like most states, Tennessee laws say you cannot sell children. You can give children to appropriate applicants and charge them for the services you provide." Taylor said.
He also found that Tann charged adopting parents for a background investigation she never pursued, for exorbitant air travel costs, and for adoption paperwork at Five times the actual cost. Profits were kept in a secret bank account under a false a corporation name.
Taylor said the matter was dropped after the director's death, and the Tennessee legislature passed a bill legalizing all the adoptions.
Earlier this year additional legislation was passed, calling for the state of Tennessee to help separated siblings find each other. Another bill, extending the same rights to parents of those children, was defeated.
Ruby Cardarelli remarried soon after her children were adopted and bore what she describes as her "only salvation," son, Jim, and a daughter, Deborah.
After that marriage soured, she married for a third time in 1960, moving to a farm 20 miles from Yucca Valley, Calif., where she works part time in a delicatessen.
Although she always wondered where her children were, until just a few years ago Cardarelli felt that it was too soon to start probing.
"I didn't think it was fair to look until they were all grown," she said. "What would I have done even if I'd found them? But when the youngest child (Betsy) turned 21, I still hesitated. I thought maybe they wouldn't want to see me . . . ."
In 1976, she recived an unexpected phone call -- from her oldest daughter, Sandra, who had been adopted by a Van Uys, Calif., couple at an age that allowed for a lot of memories.
"I was so bitter when I was adopted," she said recently. "I remember my brothers and sisters, but I totally blocked my mother out. I hated her for giving us up."
But she had always wanted to make that link with her lost family and tried in vain to obtain her adoption records.
"All I could get was non-identifying information from the post-adoptive service of the welfare department," she said. "But I got lucky -- while they were telling me what states the other children were in, they slipped my uncle's first name -- my father's brother-in-law. I had always remembered his last name."
Cardarelli had stayed in touch with her former husband's family in Memphis, in case one of her children ever contacted them. So when Sandra called her father's family, she learned that her mother lived only a short distance from her.
Sandra's phone call was the proof Cardarelli needed that her children might want to see her. She joined the Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association, a nationwide group with a cross-listing of adoptees and parents who want to find each other.
Three years later, the move paid off. Last month. Betsy Vera -- only 6 months old when a certified public accountant and his wife adopted her -- decided to register with ALMA.
"I hesitated to look for a long time. I always saw those TV programs where the kids finally find their mothers and she says, 'Nobody knows about you. It's over.'" said Betsy Vavra, named Sharon before she was adopted.
"I'd just sit there and cry when I saw what happened to people who had searched for their family all their lives."
Betsy, Sandra and their mother held a reunion in Yucca Valley in mid-September. In one afternoon, the three pieced together the events of 30 years from snapshots, scrapbooks and memories.
An article in the local paper was picked up by The Sacramento Bee, as were baby pictures of the other of the other four children. One of Jim Shomate's co-workers, who knew how deperately he had been trying to find his real family, told him about the story.
That night Shomate got his mother's phone number from the newspaper and called her.
"All I could say for the next four days was "What a trip,'" Shomate said. A week later, his friends at work took up a collection so he could fly to visit his mother for a weekend.
Shomate said his adopted parents had always discouraged him from looking for his real family, but several years ago he decided he had to identify the faces that he remembered from his childhood.
Through a friend he learned that he could obtain a copy of his adoption papers from the Sacramento County clerk's office. Those papers gave him his orginal name and parents' names, and he searched for three years for his father. But the man was a drifter and, as his mother told him last month, he died of a heart attack last year.
Despite the reunions, all three reluctantly admit they were better off to have been adopted.
"We can't see living our mother's life style now," Sandra Nesbitt said. "We all have better educations, better backgrounds than we would have had. We almost live in different worlds, as far as our values, standards and goals.
"I met my mom's other two kids, and they live in a whole diferent environment. Whether they're lucky or me, I don't know . . . Yeah, I do know. I was lucky."
She reflects on what might have been with great hesitancy. "I love my mother, and we have a wonderful new relationship. I don't want to sound like a snob."
Betsy Vavra glanced hesitantly at her mother's aged husband, who had come to visit her and her husband, Ed, owner of a hospital supply company, for the first time. Carmine Cararelli wore boots and a straw cowboy hat, spoke infrequently as he stooped languidly over the his two new grandsons playing with their toys in the driveway.
"I'm really lucky to be adopted," she murmured, turning her back on the Cardarellis. "My family situation was better than it might have been. Mom knows that, but I don't think she likes to admit it."
The newly assembled family now hopes that ALMA will work again in finding the remaining children. And they also have gotten in touch with a woman in Memphis, Carolyn Mitchell, who runs a grass-roots adoption service.
Mitchell, who was reunited with two sisters adopted out of the Tennessee home, calls her service the Tennessee Adoptees and Search, and uses the public library in Memphis as an intermediary.
"I know what it's like to search not knowing where to go or what to look for," Mitchell said.
"I know what it's like to search to knowing where to go or what to look for," Mitchell said.
"I can get information for these people. All I need is their adopted parents' names, their birthdate, post-adoptive name, and their age when adopted.
"My ears are falling off from always being on the phone, but I don't charge anything and I can help -- even do some legwork for people living far away."
The Tennessee Department of Human Service in Nashville also runs a one-man search operation for adoptees. Through legislation passed earlier this year, adoptees who lived with biological brothers or sisters before their adoption can request a search for those siblings through Kathleen Rogers, a program specialist in adoptions.
If Rogers finds the sibling(s), she gives them the name and address of the person looking for them. It is up to that person to contact the brother or sister who initiated the search.
People who were not adopted, looking for estranged siblings who were, can file information with the department only in the event the adoptee instigates a search for his real family.
Similar legislation matching biogolgical parents and adopted children passed the Tennessee Assembly early this year, but failed in the Senate. The bill will be revived again next spring.