Teresa Stinson said she had spent her whole life wondering who her birth mother was and why she was given up for adoption 47 years ago. But what she didn’t know until recently was that her birth mother had been searching for her for decades.
Christine “Chris” Shirley, now 66 years old, had often wondered what had happened to her baby girl.
“I gave up hope as the years went on, because I thought, ‘well, when she was in her 30s surely she would want to know ... who her birth parents were,’” Shirley told ABC News' “Nightline.” “And in her 40s ... I was giving up hope.”
But it was her daughter, Teresa, who found her first.
In December 2013, a bill was passed in Ohio that opened adoption records between 1964 and 1996, allowing 400,000 adoptees born in the state a chance to request their birth certificate for the first time ever. The new bill made Ohio the newest state to allow adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates. Birth parents were given a one year period to request that their name be redacted from the birth certificate. Once the period expired, adoptees could request their birth certificates. Currently, only 12 states have open adoption records laws.
Betsie Norris of the Adoption Network Cleveland fought for over two decades to unseal the adoption records in Ohio.
“It’s been surreal,” Norris told “Nightline.” “When the bill finally passed after it having so many times that it went down in flames ... it finally sunk in that this is actually really, really, really happening.”
Two of those adoptees were Teresa Stinson, 47, and her sister Vanessa Navis, 44, who were both adopted by the same couple and grew up in Middlebranch, Ohio. Both came from different birth parents and said they had a happy childhood, but always knew they were adopted and had questions.
“Just millions of questions,” Teresa said. “Where did I come from? Did my birth mother ever think about me?”
When her adopted mother told Teresa that her birth mother loved her but couldn’t take care of her, Teresa said it was difficult for her to take in.
“Even as a young child ... I so internalized that and it became a point that I had a really bad self-image, and I was never good enough,” she said.
But it wasn’t until last month after the new law in Ohio went into effect that she had the first opportunity to find her birth mother because the records were sealed before.
Teresa, now married with two kids, also never thought that her birth mother would be looking for her all these years.
“It was easier for me to believe that I wasn’t good enough,” she said. “It would almost be too painful for me to hope, to have that hope that, ‘gosh, she might be out there looking for me.’”
When the law passed, Teresa applied for her original birth certificate -- she was issued a new one when she was adopted that included her birth date but not who her birth parents were. Meanwhile, her sister Vanessa started looking online and found the first clue to Teresa’s past in a post on an adoption registry website for birth mothers looking for daughter given up for adoption.
“I came across this adoption registry website and I thought ... ‘I’ll type in Teresa’s birth date,’” Vanessa said. “And then on that registry was her birth mother’s name and that she had registered in 2001. ... I just said, ‘hey, I think I found your birth mother,’ and she’s like, ‘what?’”
The post revealed that Teresa’s birth mother had attended Lake High School more than 40 years ago -- the same school where Teresa’s son was now a student.
So, Teresa and her husband went to Lake High School to look through old yearbooks from 1964 to 1967, hoping to find an old portrait of her birth mother.
“The first thing I wanted to do is look at pictures and see kind of what their lives were like in high school and see if I can glean anything from that, see if I was maybe really ... like her, if we had anything in common,” Teresa said.
But until she had her birth certificate and a name, Teresa couldn’t confirm that the photos she was seeing in the faded black-and-white pages of the old yearbooks showed her birth mother. When she did finally receive her birth certificate, Teresa chose to wait and open it while attending a support group meeting for adoptees.
Seeing her original birth certificate for the first time, tears started rolling down Teresa’s face. She learned she had been named Teresa, pronounced "Ter-ESS-a," by her adoptive parents, and her birth mother, then Christina Lewis, whose name she was also learning for the first time, had named her Teresa Lynn, pronounced "Ter-EESE-a," but with the same spelling. Teresa said her adoptive parents had no idea what name her birth mother had given her.
In seeing her birth name for the first time, Teresa said, “I’m a person of faith and I think this is totally God’s plan, that, I feel like it’s a little wink from him and he’s saying, ‘listen, I have a plan for your life and I’m just going to show you this has been your name all along.’”
And, she added, “It confirmed that I knew my birth mother’s name, which is great. It’s proof that I’m real.”
Knowing her birth mother’s name, Teresa was able to track down her phone number and called her the day after opening her birth certificate. Her birth mother was now Chris Shirley, and she had been waiting for this phone call for 47 years.
“I talked to her for about 15 minutes. She told me that she never wanted to give me up,” Teresa said. “That was really cool to hear that.”
Shortly after that first phone call, Teresa and Chris, who now lived in Orlando, arranged to meet for the first time at Chris’s house. Both were incredibly nervous.
“The last time I saw her, I looked through a glass window and I saw her little fingers and part of her head,” Chris said. “The last thing I said to her was, ‘I love you baby girl,’ and I walked away and that was it. ... I feel a lot of guilt because I wish I had kept her no matter what, no matter how hard it had been, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Upon seeing each other for the first time, Teresa and Chris shared silence more than words at first, hugging for what never seemed like long enough.
Although more than 40 years had passed, for Chris, 1967 has always played strongly in her mind. She said she and Teresa’s birth father were childhood sweethearts. He was her escort on the homecoming court. She was just 17 years old when she found out she was pregnant.
“[I] wanted to get married. It didn’t work out,” Chris said. “I didn’t want to give her up. I just didn’t want to.”
Back then, it was very shameful for a teenager to be unwed and pregnant, and Chris said she was sent to a home for unwed mothers and stayed there for five months until she gave birth. But she still remembered the day she went into labor on Oct. 17, 1967.
“I was by myself,” Chris said. “I remember waking up at one point and having about 12 nurses at the bottom of my feet watching the delivery for educational purposes, I guess, but I do remember afterwards, my dad came in and kissed me on the forehead, but during actual labor, nobody was with me.”
Afterwards, Chris said she wasn’t allowed to hold her new baby.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “I guess they didn’t want that bonding between the mother and a child.”
Chris went on to later marry and have more children, two sons and a daughter, but she said not a day went by that she didn’t think about Teresa. Chris has now been married for 45 years and said she told her husband from the beginning that she always wanted to find the daughter she had given up.
“[The family] all knew about it,” she said. “But I never stopped thinking about her, even though I had three children of my own.”
When Chris was pregnant with one of her sons, she said was due to give birth around the same time that Teresa had been born, so she said she asked the doctor to induce early so that her son’s birthday would be different than Teresa’s.
Jimmy was born on Oct. 15, Chris said. “I didn’t want it [to be] the same date. ... I just felt like I wanted to save that date special for her. ... I wanted it to be her day.”
“I felt guilt all the time, even though I had another daughter,” she continued. “I felt like God blessed me with three children, but I left one behind.”
Hearing Chris’ story was emotional for both women, and their reunion now was bittersweet, joyous to have finally found each other and be together again, but hard to relive the years of pain of leaving Teresa behind. But, Teresa said for the first time, she finally felt “complete.”
“This is really funny because I feel validation for my personality, I see where I got my personality,” Teresa said. “It’s weird, some mannerisms, some likes.”
Mother and daughter would also learn that they shared a lot in common. They both like the same foods and blue flowers. They both are claustrophobic and enjoy gardening.
“When we met, it was like she was never gone,” Chris said.
ABC News reached Teresa's birth father and when asked for comment, he said that he was happy she connected and that his family has been thinking about her for years.
As Teresa and her birth mother start this new chapter, Teresa’s sister Vanessa was inspired to search for her own birth mother and has started researching her past.