Two brothers, raised apart, are united

New law helped biological sibling of adoptee meet him for first time

August 30, 2008 
Gregg Fishel grew used to hearing the question from his mother as she lay in bed at a Spring Valley hospital, dying of liver cancer.

“Did they find him yet?” she'd whisper in his ear each day, referring to another son, the one she gave up for adoption when she was 16.

“No, Mom, but they're still looking,” Fishel recalls telling her.

Yesterday, about three months after his search began, Fishel met his biological brother, Steve LaRocca, at the Linda Vista offices of the county's Child Welfare Services.

The meeting was too late for Fishel's mother, Alyse Vierra, who died June 26, but it wouldn't have happened at all if not for a new state law that makes it easier for adopted people to connect with their biological siblings.

“I'm just amazed,” said a smiling Fishel, minutes after coming face to face with LaRocca in a county conference room. “It's absolutely amazing.”

Fishel, 41, and LaRocca, 48, have talked on the phone and traded family photos since their first conversation July 18. The two grew up on opposite sides of San Diego County and now reside on opposite coasts – Fishel in Portland, Ore., LaRocca in Ovieda, Fla.

When they finally met, they shook hands and hugged. Bursts of conversation and laughter were punctuated by moments of awkward silence.

Their meeting was set in motion in May, when Vierra told her son to find the boy she gave up in 1959. Fishel had known about the adoption, but his mother never wanted to talk about it. Then her health worsened.

She thought about the boy every day of her life, Fishel said, and she wanted to know he was OK.

It was “driving her crazy not knowing anything about him,” he said.

Fishel didn't know where to look. He started with the Internet. He called Catholic Charities, which acted as an intermediary during the adoption. Eventually he connected with Child Welfare Services, where he learned about the new state law.

In the past, the most a sibling could do was fill out paperwork and have it placed in the adoption file with the hope that the other sibling would one day do the same. Government agencies could not intervene unless there was consent from both parties.

Under the new law, which took effect Jan. 1, a sibling can submit a waiver to the county, which then petitions juvenile court for the right to contact the other sibling and ask if they'd like to talk or meet, said Margo Fudge, a social worker for Child Welfare Services.

The idea is to give more control to siblings affected by adoption, county officials said.

“Sibling relationships are deemed as being some of the most significant elements of our lives as humans,” said Kim McAlister, a supervisor in the county's adoptions program. “We (the profession) underestimated that in the past.”

The county has been authorized to help with 14 sibling meetings so far, McAlister said. About half have made contact, mostly byphone.

Because the law is so new, the county has not yet determined how it will track sibling meetings. There is no government funding for the service, so whether an agency can help depends on its resources.

“There are probably counties across the state that aren't doing this because they can't afford it,” McAlister said.

San Diego County places, on average, about 630 babies, children and teens per year into adoptive homes, Fudge said. The number does not include adoptions by independent adoption agencies.

Fishel and LaRocca decided to meet at the county offices so they could personally thank Crystal Nivens, the social worker who helped connect them.

Fishel will introduce LaRocca to many family members this weekend, including Fishel's older brother, Stephen Fishel, 44, who arrives from Salem, Ore., today.

A family barbecue and reunion of sorts is planned at an uncle's ranch in Jamul. Family members will scatter Vierra's ashes at Lake Jennings tomorrow.

Fishel is relieved to have fulfilled his mother's last wish. Meeting LaRocca brought him some closure, he said, and the potential for a new relationship with a brother he never knew.

LaRocca looks forward to meeting Vierra's relatives, but said “the whole process has been kind of strange for me.”

“I've been blessed my entire life,” he said, describing loving adoptive parents, a happy childhood with a sister who was also adopted and a good life with his wife and kids in Florida. At the same time, he's open to this new dimension of family.

“I'd hate to close any doors,” LaRocca said.


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