Pamela Monachi Slaton, adopted as a baby by Ann and Ronald Monachi of Queens, was always curious about her biological mother.
It wasn't a painful longing - as a child, Slaton often delighted in having been "chosen." But she wanted to know: Who was she? Where was she?
Slaton's eventual and lengthy journey to find her - which started at 17 at the Spence Chapin adoption agency in Manhattan and ended around age 30 - was pocked with dead ends and crushing disappointment. But it also proved she was good at searching - what would become her life's work.
Today, Slaton, 48, a mother of two sons, is a nationally recognized investigative genealogist who has worked with more than 3,000 adoptees across the country, succeeding in arranging reunions in about 85 percent to 90 percent of clients' cases. Although there are about 100 companies nationally that conduct people searches - many including those for missing heirs or deadbeat dads - there are only about four that focus solely on adoption searches like Slaton's.
Among her more famous clients: Darryl McDaniels, one of the founding members of Run-DMC; Hollywood producer Cathy Konrad; and Sheila Jaffe, casting director of The Sopranos.
Her success led to a 10-episode TV series she hosted last year on Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network. A deal for a CBS series based on her life and work is in development. And Slaton's book Reunited (St. Martin's Press), which was published in May, tells her own story and the dramatic stories of some of her clients.
"Most adoptees aren't trying to redo their lives. They just want closure. That's a primal yearning," said Slaton, from her home in Lumberton. "It's about being able to say to your birth parent, 'I'm OK. I've had a good life. And I hope you have, too.' "
Unlike private detectives, which she used to find her mother back in 1994, she charges no fee for an adoption searches unless she finds the person being sought. Her expertise comes from doggedly educating herself on legal access to birth records, adept use of the Internet, and sheer grit. "I don't give up easily," says Slaton, whose fees range from $2,000 to $2,500 per case, and who occasionally takes on pro bono clients.
She also makes sure her clients know that not all reunions are happy ones. Her own biological father welcomed her initially, but later denied they were related. And when she first called her birth mother, the woman told her, "I never cared about you. I never even thought about you."
As a result: "I'm part cheerleader, part therapist, part voice of reality," Slaton said.
For Diane Palmer, Slaton was part shock absorber. Only one day after Palmer hired her last summer, Slaton gave her the news that, although her birth parents had died, she had six siblings and one half-sister. "It blew my sense of reality at first, and then I adjusted to the idea," says Palmer, 60, a psychiatric nurse from Gloucester City, N.J. "It's been amazing."
After her biological parents put her up for adoption because they were unprepared, financially and emotionally, to raise a child, the two eventually got married and created a large and loving family.
"I'm really, really happy that now, I'm part of it."
In September, Palmer met some of her siblings in an emotional reunion in Lansdale. One sister presented Palmer with a pin that had belonged to her birth mother and a watch that had belonged to her father. Later, she discovered after ordering the unusual ice cream flavor of pistachio that it was also her biological father's favorite; her siblings were stunned. Palmer is looking forward to more such discoveries.
"I suppose as we go along, I'll find so many other family traits - it's kind of a miracle to discover all this at 60."
Donna Helmes, too, grew up curious about her birth parents, but with little information to go on, she ultimately gave up hope of finding them.
Then Helmes was diagnosed with breast cancer at 42, and because she didn't know her family history, decided on especially aggressive treatment - she underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. That, about the same time that she became an adoptive mother, renewed her curiosity about her own story.
So last year, Helmes, who lives in Collingswood, signed on with Slaton, and within a few weeks, knew the identities of her birth mother and father.
The results were a mixed bag: Her birth mother would only speak with her by phone because no one from her past knew she had given up a child. But Helmes' birth father, a native of Hungary from a famous theatrical and literary family, was thrilled to welcome her. Last summer, Helmes, now 46, and her baby, Isabella, met him face-to-face in Northern California.
"I hit the jackpot," said Helmes, a grant writer for the Camden Redevelopment Agency. "I feel truly blessed."
In the case of Carol Pinkasavage, she was searching for the child she relinquished at 19.
Then a first-year student in 1977 and failing at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), she was asked out by one of the coolest, most handsome guys on campus. That night, she was a victim of date rape.
"I can't explain why, but I just knew I was pregnant," Pinkasavage said.
Desperate and confused, she sought an abortion - and then couldn't go through with it. She didn't tell her parents until her mother confronted her when the pregnancy was obvious.
In her seventh month, she was shipped off to a home for unwed mothers in Paterson, N.J., where Pinkasavage saw an ob/gyn for the first time in her life. Her subsequent labor to deliver her son lasted more than 24 hours, and ended with a caesarean section.
She tearfully signed the relinquishment papers and asked only to provide him a long, last feeding.
"I sat with my baby, I counted his tiny fingers and toes, and felt the most horrible emotional pain I'd ever felt."
Pinkasavage stipulated that her son's adoptive parents be committed to education, and also be people of faith - what faith didn't matter.
Years went by. She went back to college, married, had a daughter, and made a successful career in human resources.
But she never stopped wondering about her son, and in 1995, when she and her husband bought their first computer, she began looking at websites and search boards, to no avail. She eventually found Slaton.
That was in 2000. After several months, Slaton called Pinkasavage at work with the news that she had found her son, and would be forwarding his photo to her via computer.
"I honestly couldn't breathe," said Pinkasavage, now 54. "Then, as the picture revealed itself little by little on my computer screen, I saw parts of myself - my cheekbones, my eyes - in his face."
There would be several weeks of instant messaging as Pinkasavage's son, Oliver Sissman of Lawrenceville, N.J., a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, began to absorb the news that he was connecting with his birth mother.
The process took time, but even at their first meeting at Princeton's Palmer Square, there was a connection. "We walked and talked for hours," remembers Pinkasavage.
Today, Sissman, 34, now a New Jersey state trooper, is in regular touch with his biological mother, and her husband and daughter.
"You can never have too many people who care about you," said Sissman.