REGINA – Lori Campbell’s most prized possession is a thick folder filled with paperwork.
“This is how I know who I am,” she says. “This is how I know how much I weighed when I was born, what my smile was like.”
Campbell has spent the last 23 years searching for her family.
The Regina-born Metis woman was put into foster care at 14-months-old and later adopted by a white family.
During her harrowing search for her biological mother, she learned that she had seven younger siblings. Five brothers and one sister were all placed in foster care or put up for adoption. Another sibling died at birth in 1995.
Campbell, 42, met her mother in 2001 and completed her search for her siblings in October when she tracked down her last brother, Dwayne Lyons, in Ontario.
Social media helped connect the two, when Campbell posted a photo on Facebook detailing her missing brother’s name and date of birth.
But the public search has had some unexpected consequences.
Since posting that photo in January, Campbell says she has communicated with about 75 people who are looking for their birth families. With nowhere else to go, strangers have inundated Campbell with messages asking for help. She says she has a backlog of more than 100 people waiting for answers.
One man in Illinois knows he was born to a 15-year-old Metis woman in Regina. Another says he was 11-months-old when he was put into foster care. The list of people hoping to piece together their childhoods with minimal information seems endless, Campbell says.
“I have been constantly writing people back,” she says.
Much of the correspondence is with aboriginal people who were born in Regina but placed in foster care or adopted.
Aboriginal children are disproportionately represented in the foster care system. The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada show that in 2011 almost half of all children under 15 in foster care were aboriginal.
“(There are) all these people who don’t know who they are,” Campbell says.
It’s an all too familiar feeling for her.
“I remember always looking for someone who looked like me,” she says. “There was always this sense that I was dropped in the middle of nowhere and my life began when I was two.”
Campbell remembers sitting in the archives at a public school, flipping through old yearbooks. She would scan strangers’ photos looking for her own features.
Campbell would learn that her mother became a prostitute at age 13 and her father was a john. She also learned that some of her siblings had physical and cognitive disabilities.
Campbell’s mother has struggled with addictions and is coping with health issues including multiple sclerosis.
Brenda Campbell, 57, says she never thought she’d get to know her daughter.
“Everybody says she’s a miniature me,” she says, adding with a laugh, “well, a younger me.”
Ron Duncan, a reverend in Brampton, Ont., was instrumental in Lori Campbell’s search for Lyons.
Duncan says Lyons has had three different last names used for paperwork. He was also moved from Saskatchewan to Ontario, which made his records more complicated. It’s an example of how difficult it is to navigate the system, Duncan says.
“I discovered his experience was not unique and unfortunately, far from it,” he says.
Duncan believes connecting children with their aging parents is a matter of urgency. He adds that some children aren’t aware of their aboriginal status, which was the situation with Lyons.
“He was unable to access any of the benefits that come from that, particularly related to education,” says Duncan.
He adds that because foster care and adoption programs fall under provincial jurisdiction, it is often difficult to trace someone’s family across the country.
Robert Twigg, a psychotherapist based in Winnipeg, has worked in child welfare around the country.
“People need to know where they came from, what their ethnic, cultural, biological roots are, any kind of health concerns they should know about,” he says. “Whether it’s a passive or active thing, the system is set up to block that kind of thing.”
He adds that he’s not surprised to hear about the difficulties people face when navigating a system he calls “entrenched.”
He says during his career, he has seen records that are “pathetically lacking.”
“I wonder … if you could even go back to those, would they even be helpful,” he says.
Campbell is slowly wading through the messages that multiply each day.
She says the latest one comes from a man who is searching for answers about his father and three siblings.
“Are you the lady that found your birth mom and siblings after being separated at a young age? If so, I need help,” the message says.
The man explains his story and outlines the current information he has.
He asks Campbell the same question she faced in 1991, when she embarked on her search.
“Where do I start?” he says.