Candy Wagner was what one would call “a searcher”. For nearly 20 years, the 62-year-old retired physical therapist looked for a baby she gave up for adoption in 1967.
At 14 years old, with a newly absent father and a devastated mother, Wagner began dating a high school senior.
“[He was] my first for everything,” Wagner told ABC News’ “20/20.” “He was my rock, and there was no question that I was in very deep young love.”
When Wagner got pregnant and began to show, her mother placed her in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers located in Booth Memorial Hospital (now New York Hospital Queens) in Flushing, Queens.
“At that time, in a small town where there’s no place to hide, it is absolutely traumatic,” Wagner said. “There’s a huge degree of shame attached to unwed motherhood at that time.”
The Salvation Army ran dozens of such facilities across the country in the 1960s. Many babies born in these homes were immediately put up for adoption. Wagner and girls like her were confined to a wing in the hospital separated from the mothers-to-be in the main maternity ward.
“I would take very long showers at the home and because the water [was] running I could talk out loud to her, and I made promises,” Wagner said. “I promised I would find her.”
On April 17, 1967, Wagner’s daughter was born. But when Wagner asked to see her, she was discouraged.
“I had a meltdown,” Wagner recalled. A nurse eventually gave in and walked her to the nursery. Finally laying eyes on her daughter for the first time, Wagner wept.
“Please let me hold her,” she remembered asking. “And they said, ‘No, that would not be a good idea.’”
Wagner noticed her baby had a red mark on her cheek, a burn left by forceps. Not realizing the mark was temporary, she vowed to be on the lookout for a girl with a scar for years to come.
Within two weeks of giving birth, the freshman was back in school and expected to resume her life as if nothing had happened.
In 1970, Wagner graduated from high school second in her class. She went to college and worked as a physical therapist for almost 40 years. She eventually got married and adopted a son of her own. But every April, on her lost daughter’s birthday, the heartache would come back.
In 1996, Wagner finally gathered the courage to actively search for her daughter. But after 17 years of dead-ends and frustrating encounters with the adoption court system in New York, she almost lost hope—until she met Pam Slaton. Slaton, who had a negative experience after tracking down her own birth mother years ago, has made a career out of helping adoptees search for their biological families. She has helped people like Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of the rap group Run-D.M.C. find his birth parents and even had her own show on Oprah’s OWN Network.
This summer, Slaton was able to find Wagner’s daughter in less than 24 hours. It turns out Wagner and her child, Barbara Jo Gowan, were practically neighbors, living in the same community in upstate New York.
When the two were finally reunited, Wagner called the moment “absolutely surreal.”
“She had a hard time opening the front door, trying to hold back the tears,” Gowan told “20/20.” “And then [she] opened the door, and the first words out of her mouth were, ‘You’re beautiful.’”
Wagner said she has closure knowing that Gowan was cared for and loved, and the shame she felt has finally gone away.
“It’s just wonderful. I feel liberated. I’m not living the lie,” Wagner said. “I can let that go now.”