How Marilyn Churley found the son she gave up for adoption

At 19, Marilyn Churley gave up an infant son for adoption. Decades later, when she was an Ontario MPP, she reunited with him.

Former Ontario MPP Marilyn Churley is shown with the son she had given up for adoption, William, in the early years of their reunion. They were first together again in 1996.



Former Ontario MPP Marilyn Churley is shown with the son she had given up for adoption, William, in the early years of their reunion. They were first together again in 1996.

As an Ontario MPP, Marilyn Churley fought hard and long for adoption reform, but there was more than politics at play. She had a personal impetus for doing so: at 19, Churley had given birth to a baby boy and put him for adoption. It was a secret she kept from many, including her parents, and it was one she was still harbouring when, 24 years later, she was first asked by her boss, then premier Bob Rae, to back changes to adoption disclosure laws. In an excerpt from her new memoir, Shameless, Churley recounts how, in parallel to her efforts to help other birth parents and adoptees reconnect, she was able to keep a promise to her baby, made in a hospital nursery so many years ago: “One day I will find you.”

In January 1994, just a few months after Bob Rae sought my support, as registrar general, of Tony Martin’s Bill 158, I got a lead about my son’s whereabouts. Back in the mid-1980s I had applied to the Family and Children’s Services office in Simcoe County for non-identifying information about the people who had adopted my son — things about them and the circumstances of the adoption, but not anything that would positively identify them . . . In April 1985, the office sent me a patronizing note telling me that I, as the birth mother, was not entitled to that information. But I kept trying, and almost a decade later, I received the information I had requested.

All along, I’d known my son’s birth date, obviously. I’d also known the date and region in which the adoption had taken place; at the time, papers had been sent to me to sign. Now I learned that his parents were involved in a local Dutch church and that at the time of adoption they owned a small fabric business.

I had always intended to look for my son someday, but I’d hoped that he would take the initiative and find me. I made it as easy as possible to locate me should he begin a search. Churley is an unusual name, and mine was the only listing with that spelling in Toronto’s huge phone book.

In 1985, I had also filed with Ontario’s adoption registry, but they informed me after a few years that, since my son had not registered, they were unable to proceed. At about the same time I registered with Parent Finders, the oldest and largest organization for members of the adoption community in Canada. They had years of experience and information about adoption, search and reunion. I received their monthly newsletters, and for years I would eagerly scan the list of adoptees searching for their birth mothers. And each month I would be disappointed.

Now that I had more to go on, you might think that I would become more active in my search right away. But I didn’t know where to begin, and as much as I wanted to find my son, I still hoped that he would contact me first; that way, there would be no risk of my barging into his life and being turned away. I just sat on the information for a while. When I did decide in 1995 to start a search, it occurred to me just whom to call for help — Holly Kramer, then president of Parent Finders Inc. Holly and I worked together on Tony Martin’s adoption disclosure bill, and she told me that in the 1970s, on her own initiative, she had found her birth mother.

Holly was a shrewd leader, articulate and smart as a whip. Her sparkling blue eyes positively crackled with purpose and clarity. She was the go-to person for the media and politicians alike when they wanted information on adoption disclosure, and she knew all about lobbying the government. Holly never referred to adult adoptees as adopted “children,” and it really irritated her when other people did. She wanted to be sure that politicians and the public knew we were talking about the rights of adults, not children, to gain access to their histories. And I knew that Holly was very generous with her expertise and with her time in helping people search for each other.

Using the little information I had about my son’s adoptive parents, Holly began conducting a search on my behalf. I didn’t have much, but Holly said I was lucky compared to many others who were doing the same kind of thing.

Holly enlisted the help of Alice MacDonald, a pioneer in adoption reunions long before computer databases were created. Alice and her husband, Rick, scoured old newspapers for adoption notices. Then, in a spreadsheet, they entered the names in alphabetical order, along with all the accompanying information. Adoption notices typically gave the baby’s approximate date of birth; names of adoptive parents, grandparents, and siblings; the adoptive mother’s birth name and place of residence — in short, quite a bit of information. Eventually, Alice and Rick started the Canadian Adoptees Registry Inc. (CARI). Working as a full-time volunteer, Alice was responsible for bringing many families together.

With my information in hand, Holly asked Alice to look at her list of notices in that time frame and area. The pair started checking old city directories, looking for men’s occupations. Eventually they hit upon a family that was connected to a fabric store and had a Dutch-sounding name, and they were able to learn the names of everyone in that family. We were off and running. Holly used whatever secret methods she had at her disposal.

Running the name through Canada 411, which at the time was published quarterly on diskette, she discovered that the family lived not too far away from where they’d been in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Holly and Alice believed that the family’s son William could be the child I was looking for. They were able to find out where the children from that family went to school. It turned out that Alice’s daughter had gone to the same high school in the early 1980s, so Alice asked her whether she was aware that the boy she had known as William was adopted, and whether she knew if William knew it. The answer was yes to both questions. After a bit more sleuthing, they confirmed that his date of birth was the same as that of the son I had named Andrew, and they began searching for the family’s address.

Alice, whom I hadn’t met, kindly mailed me a blurry, black-and-white photocopy of William’s picture from his high school yearbook. Though I couldn’t quite make out his features, it was still the first glimpse I had of my son in almost 30 years. (Alice would die suddenly in 2010, but her invaluable work still lives on. Gail Hadley and a few other dedicated volunteers continue to maintain the CARI database and give hope to thousands of people like me; the site is “dedicated to the memory of our angel, Alice.”)

The process of searching for my son took more than a year. During that year, Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives won a majority government. Premier Bob Rae and the NDP, buffeted by a difficult term in office that coincided with a serious worldwide recession, were thrown out of power. I now found myself sitting with only 16 fellow New Democrats on the opposition benches.

Then one night in November 1995, I came home to a telephone message from Holly. She had some information. I was trembling when I picked up the phone to call her back. The news was good — Holly had found my son’s adoptive family, and although she was unable to locate him directly, she had the name and address of his brother.

This she knew for certain: the son I had named Andrew had been renamed William. I had his full name, and I had an address through which he could be reached.

My reaction was intense. I put down the phone feeling completely overwhelmed. I started to tremble uncontrollably. What felt like a tight spring in the pit of my stomach — something that had likely been there for years — began to uncoil in waves, and finally I felt it melt away.

My son’s name is William. My son’s name is William. My son’s name is William.

I finally had a little piece of him. It was so precious that I wroteit down, put it in an envelope and carried it with me everywhere. I often would slip it out and stare at it, and at night I kept it under my pillow. My son’s name is William.

I decided to write him a letter and send it to his brother’s address, the only address I had. What do you say to your child who is not your child, to someone you love but don’t know at all, to someone you are not sure will welcome a letter from you?

I sat on my bed with a pad of paper, struggling to find the words. I wasn’t certain he knew that he was adopted, but I had to proceed on the assumption that he did. Working determinedly, I ripped up page after page of rejected attempts. Finally, I decided to keep it simple, and mention only a few key things: I didn’t want to cause any upheaval in his life. It was his decision whether we should meet. He had a half-sister who was dying to meet him. And at the very least, no matter what he decided to do, I longed for him to send me a picture so I’d know what he looked like.

I mailed my letter on Nov. 29, 1995, with a covering letter from Holly written in the careful terms that such letters use. Here is what she wrote:




Dear Mr. Boertjes,

I am writing to you on behalf of my friend, Marilyn, about a very personal matter. I’ve sent this letter in care of your brother Brian, because I was unable to determine your personal mailing address through public records, and unwilling to disclose the reason for my wanting to get in touch with you to anyone else.

When she was very young, Marilyn gave a child to adoption. The social climate at that time left her little alternative, as she was single and unable to care for him by herself. She wanted her son to have all of the benefits of the love of two mature parents, financial security and a stable home. She hoped that he be nurtured and cared for, at least as much as she loved and cared for him.

Marilyn’s son was born on January 30th, 1968 in Barrie, and she named him Andrew. On February 9th, he went home to his parents and his named was changed to William.

Since then, not a day has gone by that Marilyn hasn’t thought of her birth son, worried and wondered whether he is alive and well and happy. Some time ago she registered with the provincial disclosure registry; however, due to funding cutbacks and a lengthy waiting list for services, about a year ago, we began to conduct a discreet, active search using the non-identifying information supplied under Ontario’s Child & Family Services Act, old city directories and the like.

I too was adopted. I found my birth mother in 1979 through my own efforts, and for us reunion has been a joyous experience and one which I wish all adopted people and their birth mothers could share. I was fortunate in that I had the support of my family. Though some people choose — understandably — to keep contact with a birth relative very private, in the sixteen years I have worked in this field more often than not adoptees are delightfully surprised to learn that their parents want to share this with them.

In any case, Marilyn has no desire to disrupt anyone’s lives. She would like very much to correspond with her birth son, and to meet him, even once. She needs to know that he is okay, that he understands why she had to relinquish him, and to reassure herself that she made the right decision under the circumstances.

Never the less, Marilyn will respect his feelings and wishes: she sincerely has no intention of intruding.

I’d like to add here that Marilyn is a lovely woman — kind, empathetic, bright, with a wonderful sense of humour and a demonstrated social conscience. She is well educated, holds a respected position, and is well thought of by her colleagues, many friends and in her community.

I truly hope that you will be able to help Marilyn complete her search and that you will find it in your heart to get in touch with one of us. Enclosed is a sealed note from Marilyn and a self-addressed envelope. If you would rather talk, don’t hesitate to call (collect) in confidence.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Yours sincerely

Holly Kramer



I followed Parent Finders’ recommended process for making that first contact: the return address and phone number were in care of Holly at Parent Finders. Now all I could do was wait. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Christmas came and went. Nothing. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, I had built up my hope that I would be sharing that Christmas with my son and my daughter together.

In January 1996, Holly called. I could hear the excitement in her voice. She’d heard from William.

It took a few minutes for this news to kick in. Then I asked her a million questions. What was his voice like? What did he do? Was he married? Did he sound kind? Did he seem hostile? Did he want to meet me? She laughed and patiently told me that he was a university student, that he wanted me to know that he harboured no hard feelings toward me and that he would be writing to me soon.

It was another agonizing wait. February passed. Then came March, with the legislature recessed for a week during spring break. On Tuesday, March 12, a lovely spring day, I finished a mountain of constituency work and went to a movie with my friend Lesley. When I got home, I reached into the mailbox. I was used to coming out disappointed, but on that day, there it was — a letter with William’s name and return address.

I went inside and sat on the couch, studying the unusually beautiful handwriting on the envelope. Then, slowly, I opened it. The letter was very kind, beginning with an apology for the delay in his response. He explained that he was attending university in Waterloo and his brother had called him to tell him a registered letter had arrived from someone named Holly Kramer. He didn’t have a clue who Holly was, so he was not particularly concerned, and he asked his brother to just hold onto it until he came home for Christmas.

William wrote that while visiting his family on Christmas Eve, he had opened the letter and had been stunned by its contents. He did not tell his family immediately, but took the letter back with him to Waterloo. He needed some time to digest it and decide what to do. He said that he was shocked to hear from me, but that he had always known he was adopted, that he had often wondered about me and didn’t resent me or hate me. He said his adoptive parents were the kindest people in the world; they loved him unconditionally and would do anything for him. He wanted us to correspond for a while, to get to know more about each other before we met.

Folded in the letter was a beautiful colour photograph. He was wearing a tux, walking down the aisle at his brother’s wedding. He was slender, with dark hair down to his shoulders, and he was absolutely gorgeous. Like Brad Pitt, only better. I carried that picture everywhere and kept it in front of me, no matter what I was doing. I even propped it up on my water glass at my legislature desk and stared at it between questions.

I couldn’t get enough of that face — my son’s face, more than 28 years later.

We sent letters and pictures back and forth, telling each other about our lives, about our families, about our likes and dislikes. I had kept my daughter, who was 22 years old and a new young mother herself, in the loop throughout all of this. Now I hightailed it to her house to show her that first letter. She was as excited as I was and couldn’t wait to see him.

I wrote back immediately and, after we’d exchanged a few letters, I started to think that if I didn’t make a move soon, our meeting might never happen. He had mentioned in his second letter to me that he felt ready, but he had exams the week of April 22 so it would have to be after that. Then there was silence. It was making me crazy. I was dying to see my son, to touch him and to hug him if he’d let me.

I fantasized about driving to Waterloo and parking outside his unit just to get a look at him. I wouldn’t do anything to alienate him or make him hesitate to see me, but I was getting impatient. My first letter to him had been sent in January, and we still had not met or spoken on the phone.

One chilly evening in early May, I had a meeting in my constituency with Jack Layton, who was then the city councillor in my riding. Jack had been there through every step of my search for my son. That evening, we went out to a bar and I told him how frustrating it was waiting for my son to suggest a time to meet. Jack replied, with a twinkle in his eye, that if William was like most guys, it might take him a while to get in touch. He suggested that I take the bull by the horns and try to set something up.

I came home just tipsy enough to muster some courage, strode purposefully into the house and, without taking off my hat or gloves, picked up the phone and dialed 411. I had no idea if William had a phone listed under his name — he was sharing a townhouse with other students — but I gave his name to the operator and got a number. I punched it in.

The phone rang. A male voice said, “Hello.”

“Is William there, please?”


My knees buckled. This was the first time I had heard his voice. “William, this is Marilyn,” I said calmly, though shaking on the inside. “I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time we set a date to get together.”

I held my breath. There was a long hesitation. Then he said yes, he was ready, too. We set it up for the following week.

I dressed carefully that day, like I was going on a first date. I was so excited in the car that just before I got on the highway, I spilled coffee all over myself and had to go home and change. When I got to Waterloo, already 45 minutes late, I promptly got lost. I pulled over and called his number from a pay phone. It turned out I was only five minutes from his door. The moment I had waited so long for was about to happen.

I was trembling as I approached the door. It was an ordinary door, but I knew that when it opened, I would enter an extraordinary new world. I had spent so many years thinking about the day when I would come face to face with my son. But now that it was here, I was barely thinking at all. I could feel my heart racing and my body trembling; my mind went very, very still. I was simply in the moment.

I knocked. Waited. Heard footsteps.

The door opened and there he was — my son.

We stood there transfixed. The world around me disappeared. It was just him and me, inches apart. The last time I had seen him was the heartbreaking day I said goodbye through a pane of glass, telling him that I would find him some day. And the day had arrived.

Excerpted with permission from Shameless: The Fight for Adoption Disclosure and the Search for My Son by Marilyn Churley, Between the Lines Books, 2015. Marilyn Churley is a former Toronto city councillor and former member of provincial parliament. She has served as the deputy leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party and was the Ontario legislature’s first female deputy Speaker. She has been referred to as the mother of adoption disclosure reform in Ontario.

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Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

@Goshreally Ontario is funded with Billions of Dollars for the Criminal Cartel of 54 private unaccountable private corporations engaged in the trade of children for adoption, foster parenting and worst of all, applying a fascist program of Gender Superiority to remove children from fathers.

Marilyn Churley is to be congratulated and commended not only on her personal battle to find her son but her work in bringing changes to the legislation and the attitude of society.

There is a fascist idea that any adult with more money is a better parent for a child with a parent or parents who are financially struggling.

We live in a culture that supports fabrication of evidence by Ottawa's Criminal Cartel of Children's Aid's Society.

Ontario now actively and effectively promotes domestic violence by women towards men especially full time fathers who have their children removed from them by the worst examples of humanity in Ontario.

The Children's Aid Societies of Ontario.

Ottawa Mens Centre