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Born in jail, woman hunts for lost family

Trail 50 years old in finding siblings abandoned here

Sunday, June 17, 2001

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

WINIFREDE, W.Va. -- For the first 15 years of her life, she was Stella Sue Snider, the name given to her by the couple she called Mommy and Daddy.

Sandra Carman -- Over the years, she has written hundreds of letters, searched court documents in several states and pored over fading newspapers and genealogy rosters in search of her siblings (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

She grew up in Lima, Ohio, the strawberry-blond daughter of Mabel and Oley "Red" Snider, a drugstore clerk and a sickly, retired veteran. The Sniders doted on her, nicknaming her "Susie," and chronicling her growth with expensive studio portraits.

With her 16th birthday approaching, she was filling out paperwork to apply for a Social Security number, a work permit and a part-time job when her mother abruptly spoke up.

"Don't sign your name there as Stella Sue Snider," Mabel Snider said, averting her eyes from her daughter's startled stare. "You'll need to write Sandra Frances Sanders instead."

Her mother's admission that she'd been unofficially adopted as an infant would send her on a 35-year quest to find the blood siblings she'd never known.

Now she goes by the name of Sandra "Susie" Carman, and she's centering her search on Pittsburgh, where, a half-century ago, the dissolution of her family was front-page news.

Newspapers photographed her seven brothers and sisters, then 3 months to 7 years old, after police found them abandoned in a filthy Downtown apartment. "Even Our Tough Cops Are Shocked," blared a headline in the March 24, 1950, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It was in Pittsburgh where Carman's birth mother went to jail while pregnant with her, then gave her away three days after she was born. It was in Pittsburgh where her older siblings went to foster homes, then disappeared into adoptive families.

"I've got roots with these people. Not ever knowing them has left a void in my heart," said Carman, 50, who lives outside Charleston, W.Va. "I need to know that they're OK, and I'd love to know what it's like to have them as family."

Over the years, Carman has written hundreds of letters, searched court documents in several states and pored over fading newspapers and genealogy rosters. She tracked down her two older brothers, only to learn they were dead.

She stepped up her search for the remaining five siblings after the death last year of her birth mother, who had cut herself off from Carman and repeatedly attempted suicide after Carman confronted her years ago.

"They're all gone now," said Carman, whose birth father and adoptive parents also have died. "I can't hurt them by asking questions that they didn't want to be answered."

Carman spent her first 13 years in Lima with the Sniders and their older daughter, Thelma, a foster child. The Sniders were a loving, religious couple, and Carman loved them "more than anything."

At times while her mother was at work, Carman was looked after by a woman she knew as her aunt, Marian Frances Parlette.

"I would carry [Parlette's] son on my hip and think, 'He looks just like me,'" she said. "But we were supposed to be cousins, so I didn't think much of it."

In 1963, when Carman was 13, Red Snider died. Mabel Snider decided to move to Marmet, W.Va., the Charleston suburb where she'd grown up.

It was there that Carman's decision to help support the family drove Mabel Snider to confess that Marian Parlette was Carman's birth mother and had given Carman to the Sniders to raise. Mabel Snider also told Carman that Marian Parlette had been in jail when she gave birth to her.

"All I could think of was that they'd lied to me all these years. I was so bitter, especially about the other kids," Carman said. "I called [Parlette] on the phone and told her I knew [the truth]. She got quiet, and she never said a word."

Nor did she ever.

Carman said she telephoned Parlette many times over the years, alternately harassing and begging her for information. Parlette listened silently, never responding to the tearful harangues.

Mabel Snider, too, balked at telling Carman anything more, saying, "We're your family now."

Carman graduated from high school in 1969, married and had a daughter and a son. Her marriage broke up in 1975; she spent the next three years working at three jobs.

She had no time to indulge her still-keen curiosity until she got married again, in 1978, to Nathaniel "Buddy" Carman, who supported her desire to flesh out her history and drove her on weekends to examine records in Lima.

Carman sent for her birth certificate, which she was able to obtain because she had never been legally adopted or renamed by the Sniders. Issued in Pennsylvania, it revealed that Marian Parlette's name previously had been Marian Frances Sanders and that she had been married to Luther Otis Sanders.

She obtained the Sanders' marriage certificate, which had been issued in Cranston, R.I. She learned Luther Sanders was shot dead in 1955 in Texas, apparently while committing a robbery.

His relatives had raised his oldest sons, Bobby and Luther Jr., after claiming them in 1951 from an orphanage in Pittsburgh. But by then, both Bobby and Luther Jr. had died, and the rest of the clan had no idea what had happened to the other five children.

A frustrated Carman started contacting Sanders families all over the country, spending more money than she dared to tally on stamps, paper and telephone calls. She sandwiched the typing and dialing between her obligations to her children, her 11 grandchildren, her job as a supervisor in a South Charleston auto-parts plant and her side business producing Christian-themed T-shirts.

In 1994, during a trip to Lima, Buddy Carman lifted his eyes from a microfilm reader in the public library and whooped. In the July 18, 1950, edition of a Lima newspaper was a photograph of 25-year-old Marian Sanders and a story about her arrest in Lima for abandoning her children in Pittsburgh.

She told police that she'd gone to Lima in March to seek work. Her husband had abandoned her over Christmas in Pittsburgh, she said, and she'd left the children with a neighbor.

But stories published in the Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press, which dubbed the children "The Seven Waifs," told a different tale. Pittsburgh police said she obtained a $200 relief check March 23, 1950, then left the children in a two-room apartment on Barbeau Street, then adjacent to the 300 block of Penn Avenue, Downtown.

She sent a telegram to Harl McGowan, a handyman at her apartment building, saying she'd gone back to Rhode Island and instructing McGowan to turn her children over to the Mothers Assistance Relief Agency.

The delivery of the telegram that afternoon to the apartment building prompted a neighbor to call police, who found the children but no food or money in the apartment. Two of the boys -- Donald, 3, and Charles, 2, -- had pneumonia; all seven were malnourished and wearing soiled, rotting rags.

The oldest two boys, Bobby, 7, and Luther Jr., 6, stayed at a county-run home on the North Side until the following year, when their father's relatives fetched them.

Three other children -- Nancy Lee, 5; Judy, 1; and John, 3 months -- were taken to the Roselia Foundling Home and Maternity Hospital in the Hill District, which also handled adoptions. Donald and Charles apparently joined them after their discharge from the hospital later that summer.

Police tracked Marian Sanders to Lima in July, determining that she'd gone there with McGowan, the handyman, who had arranged for her to work for relatives as a nanny and maid. Those relatives were Red and Mabel Snider.

Sanders and McGowan were arrested and brought back to Pittsburgh. Pregnant with her eighth child, Marian Sanders pleaded guilty in August to child abandonment, neglect and adultery.

McGowan pleaded guilty to adultery and was jailed for 30 days. A judge sent Sanders to the old Allegheny County Workhouse but directed that she be freed when her baby was born.

Carman arrived Dec. 12, 1950, and the Sniders fetched her three days later. Carman said her birth mother returned to Lima when she was about 3 years old.

Years later, Mabel Snider told Carman that Sanders allowed the Sniders to keep Carman because she pitied their inability to have children.

Sanders married again to Gene Parlette, raised their two children in Lima and maintained contact with the Sniders until they moved and Carman confronted her. Carman said her Parlette half-brother and half-sister know nothing about the missing Sanders children.

After learning last week of the Pittsburgh newspaper accounts about her mother and siblings, Carman planned to seek information from records in Allegheny County. But she's not sure what she'll be able to glean because Pennsylvania law generally bars access to adoption records.

Still, she believes she'll find her siblings someday. Her conviction is bolstered by a dream she had shortly after her birth mother's death. She saw her brothers and sisters picnicking with her in her back yard.

"I kept praying and asking the Lord to let our mother see all of us together happy. Then I had that dream, and I thought, 'Wouldn't that be the day,'" she said.

"If they don't want to be part of my life, I can accept that. But I want them to know I'll always be there if they need me, and that I love them."

Sandra Carman can be contacted by writing her in care of Post Office Box 96, Winifrede, WV 25214 or by e-mail at scarman1@msn. com.

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