Sally File
A Remembrance

by Linda Davis

     On February 23, 2011, an era in adoption search ended when Sally File passed away in her Albuquerque home. Sally had been born and adopted in Denver, CO. Years later, when Sally decided to search for her birth family, she attacked the problem in her characteristic way ... with her whole being. She told of getting up in the morning and spending the entire day on the telephone hunting for a birth father with a common name who had lived somewhere in California. Sally would choose a city and start calling anyone with a similar name. Day after day, week after week Sally repeated this routine. She had no idea then, that she was honing her search techniques for helping thousands of others, beginning with an adoption group that she would help start in New Mexico.
     In 1979, Sally attended an American Adoption Congress Conference in Washington, D.C. While she was there, she met two other Albuquerque women who were interested in adoption issues and in searching for their birth families. When they returned home, they placed an ad in the local newspaper announcing a meeting of anyone “interested in search for reunion.” This first meeting of the group was held on May 24,1979. Sally said, “We’re looking for our identities as adults,” and suggested Operation Identity (O.I.) as the group name.
     Sally was elected Vice President of the organization and the two other women became the other officers of O.I. Monthly meetings were open to interested persons in all aspects of the adoption triad: adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, extended families and other interested persons. This gave people in each aspect of adoption a chance to converse with those who had different experiences and views. Sally was especially concerned that the meetings would be mainly a discussion group to support those who needed to voice their questions and issues concerning the positive and negative effects of adoption on their lives. Her second concern was for obtaining open records for adoptees and birth parents so that contact could occur and questions could be answered.
     Sally began helping the O.I. group members with their searches. The number of searches rapidly grew. Sally had a phenomenal intelligence and memory. For years, she remembered names, dates, and search details of each person that she helped. It was only when the total number of searches passed 1,500 that some of the details began to merge in her memory. Sally stopped counting after completing 8,000 searches.
     Since the beginning of O.I., each newcomer has been given a Soundex form. They can fill it out and send it to the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR). The late Emma Villardi started this free registry in Nevada. When a new form has similar information to one on file, the registry contacts both parties and informs them of their match. Hundreds are matched each year through this service. At the A.A.C. Regional Conference in 1984, Sally was presented with the annual national Emma Villardi Award for her service to the cause of openness in adoption.
     Sally got minor financial support from Operation Identity to attend meetings of national adoption related groups. These were an opportunity for her to meet other searchers and learn how other states had worked to amend their laws to facilitate searching. The searchers from across the country became friends, allies and resources that Sally and O.I. members could consult. At a moment’s notice, Sally could tell a caller exactly who to contact in the state their documents were in, and usually advise what times were best for calling that individual.
     About twenty years ago, a popular national afternoon television program had an entire hour-long show on adoption issues. During that show, Sally’s home telephone number was shown repeatedly on the screen as a resource for searching. Immediately calls started coming in non-stop day for more than three weeks. Again, Sally was on the phone from morning to night, day after day. Her answering machine and some O.I. members helped her handle the inquiries. No one had anticipated that the number of responses would be around one thousand.
     During the 1980s and ’90s, search and reunion were controversial and suspect. Home computers were uncommon and the Internet was not a source of search information. High school and college yearbooks, newspaper obituaries, public property records, and microfiche were some of the resources used for searching. Sally collected and used telephone books and city directories from any community in the United States. O.I. members and their families would add to her stocks of phone books after their travels. When the piles intruded into the living space of her home, Sally had several rows of shelves built around the interior of her large garage for their storage.
     Sally was a constant advocate for improvement in state and federal adoption and search laws. Along with the Legislative Committee from O.I., she spent hours contacting legislators, judges, and workers in the social services departments in Santa Fe by phone and in person. Sally was always warm and charming, yet direct in conveying her desire to give members of the adoption triad access to identifying information from the original birth certificates.
     A contact in one of the state offices became a friend after receiving many calls from Sally during searches. He was instrumental in explaining the legislative procedures to Sally and other O.I. members. Finally, in 1993, the New Mexico law allowing the current confidential intermediary system officially went into effect. At the time, this was groundbreaking legislation. It allows adult adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents to connect without having to declare a medical need or another “just cause.” It made searches in New Mexico much simpler. A court-appointed intermediary accesses the records, completes the search, and contacts the parties involved. Sally was the first appointed intermediary in the state.
     Approximately four years ago, Sally was told that she had lung cancer. Again, Sally put her whole being into something...her fight against the disease. However, Sally could not totally turn loose of her work to help people separated by adoption. She contacted ISRR, and obtained their records from more than thirty years. She got a headset and other equipment to facilitate her project. Methodically, she started at the front of the alphabet. She viewed thousands of forms, made hundreds of calls, and culled forms from completed matches. By the time Sally drew her last breath, she had updated everything from A through S using her determination and limited strength.
     It is hard to believe that, in addition to all of her adoption work, Sally found time to enjoy and nurture her two sons and their families, travel, collect antiques, play bridge, and be a wife. She made contact with her birth family and had a loving relationship with them for many years. A half-brother from that part of her family gave one of the several loving tributes at her funeral service.
     Sally was an unusually compassionate and dedicated woman. She was also lively, and a joy to be around. She did not live to see open records in New Mexico, but she left her loving mark on tens of thousands of lives and hearts. That mark is wide and deep. She will be gratefully remembered for many years. No tribute to her is adequate.

Excerpted from the April 2011 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2011 Operation Identity