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Wanted: his birth parents

After more than seven decades, old documents upset a life

Thursday, June 07, 2001

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For 73 years, all the pieces of Salvatore Balestrieri's life fit neatly into place. Born in Pittsburgh the oldest son of produce store owners, he served in World War II, got married, had a daughter, moved to Buffalo, had two more children, worked as a baker and retired in 1985.

Salvatore Balestrieri, center, with the help of his son, Sam, and his daughter, Fran Summerville, is trying to get information on his biological parents. He never knew he was adopted until his brother cleaned out their mother's attic and found an adoption decree. (Don Heupel)

Then, five years ago, somebody jumbled the puzzle.

In one phone call, Balestrieri learns he is not the son of Giovanna and Salvatore Balestrieri. He eventually finds out that he is the child of a 15-year-old unwed Pennsylvania girl and a 21-year-old tailor from Illinois.

The call comes in the afternoon. Antonio Balestrieri had been looking through some old papers in the attic of his mother's home in Mt. Lebanon. He finds what he thinks is his brother's baptism certificate.

He calls Salvatore to tell him of his discovery. But, wait. Antonio's wife looks at the document. It's not a baptism certificate, she says, it's a final adoption decree for Lawrence Farina.

"That's the first time I found out what my real name was," says Salvatore Balestrieri from his home in Buffalo.

His parents never told him he was adopted, he says. But once when walking with his wife and mother in East Liberty, they passed a family named Farina. He overheard his adoptive mother say to his wife that the woman they'd passed was "Sammy's mother."

Sammy is Balestrieri's nickname.

"I couldn't believe it because she never verified it or anything," Balestrieri says.

"I think it was harsh for them [his parents] not to even tell me anything. Here I am going to war in 1943, and they didn't even say anything to me. I should have been told."

What seems even harsher is that Pennsylvania adoption law prohibits Balestrieri and all other adoptees from obtaining original birth certificates or any other document that would identify birth parents. That includes baptism certificates and adoption records.

After learning he was adopted, Balestrieri, his son, Salvatore "Sam" Balestrieri, 52, and his daughter Fran Summerville, 47, spend a year trying to decide whether to search for his roots. Summerville and her brother also live in Buffalo. His other daughter, Jenny Kassab, is 53 and lives in Amherst, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo.

In 1998, at the behest of his children, Balestrieri petitions Allegheny County Court to get his adoption records. Common Pleas Judge Robert A. Kelly denies the request but, as required by law, appoints Martha Beamer, adoption director of Catholic Charities in Pittsburgh, to the case. Beamer has Balestrieri's adoption records. As permitted by law, she has given the family any information that does not reveal the birth parents. Her primary task is to find out if Balestrieri's mother is alive. If she is, Balestrieri would have to get her permission before he could get his original birth certificate. If she's deceased, he could obtain it legally because the confidentiality concerns would be moot.

"I wrote the judge personally and asked him if I were to bring my father to Pittsburgh would there be any way to change [the decision]," says Summerville.

But as things stand now, there isn't. She doesn't blame the judge. She knows the law is the law. Still, it's difficult, she says, to accept that her father may never be able to fill in his family tree.

"I don't want to ruffle anybody's feathers. I just want to know who he really is, and we want to know who we are, too," Summerville says.

What they do know is this:

Salvatore Balestrieri was born Lawrence Farina on March 2, 1923, at the Rosalia Maternity Hospital in the Hill District to a teen-age girl who used the name Mary. Rosalia was a place where many unwed pregnant women delivered their infants. Most of those infants were eventually adopted. Mary stayed with baby Lawrence at the hospital until Sept. 11, then left with the baby. She returned to the hospital Sept. 29 with the child and left him there.

Even though he was in his mother's custody, records indicate that the baby had been turned over to the Catholic Children's Bureau on Aug. 9. In the early 1900s, the bureau, which no longer exists, was a division of Catholic Charities. In October 1923, a woman named Mary Friel of the Catholic Children's Bureau took Lawrence Farina from the hospital. But there are no records that show where he lived before he was placed with his adoptive family May 18, 1924. At the time, there were several Catholic orphanages in Pittsburgh including St. Paul's, St. Joseph's and Holy Family Institute.

One year later, the adoption was final.

For the past three years, Summerville and her brother have been trying to assist Beamer in filling in the missing pieces of their father's family history.

"Within the first year we'd sent out quite a few letters, 20 or 30, maybe more, to people in the Pittsburgh area with the name Farina," Sam Balestrieri says. Those who responded knew of no connection between them and a child adopted more than 70 years ago.

Salvatore's adoptive parents owned Balestrieri's Produce on Lincoln Avenue in East Liberty. They lived in back of the store.

"I was a little go-getter," he recalls of his childhood. "I used to sell papers, shine shoes, anything to make a buck."

In 1943, he joined the Coast Guard and spent 31/2 years in the South Pacific. Balestrieri returned to the States in 1946 and married his fiancee, Josephine Busalacchi, on Columbus Day.

"I always say Columbus discovered America and I discovered her," Balestrieri jokes.

His parents, both of whom were born in Sicily, were hard-working people, he says, and they passed that work ethic on to their sons. Balestrieri, who attended baker's school during his stint in the Army, has been baking for more than six decades. Even though he's officially retired, he still works a couple of days a week.

What the Balestrieris didn't pass on to their sons, or anyone else it seems, was any information about the adoption.

Had Balestrieri known prior to 1985, he would have been able to get his original birth certificate. Although all Pennsylvania adoption records were sealed in 1947, adoptees who'd reached 21 could obtain their original birth certificates from the Office of Vital Statistics.. But in 1984, the state Legislature, after a six-year push by State Rep. Stephen Freind, R-Delaware County, passed a bill that closed what some people saw as a loophole in the adoption law.

But not everyone believes birth parents have an inalienable right to privacy when it comes to adoptions. Cynthia Holub is an executive committee member of Bastard Nation, an adoptee rights group, and a member of the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee to the Joint State Government Commission on Adoption Law.

Holub says the initial reason birth certificates were sealed was to protect from stigma the adopted child, who more often than not was born out of wedlock. It was a common practice even into the 1960s for birth certificates to be marked legitimate or illegitimate. Holub says that the records were not sealed until an adoption was finalized, which could be months after the adoptee's birth.

Holub, who lives outside of Philadelphia, organized her area's National Adoptees Rights Day activities this week. The six-day event, which started June 2 and ends today, began in 1998 when Oregon residents voted to allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates. However, legal challenges prohibited anyone from obtaining a certificate until last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a group of birth mothers. Oregon began sending birth certificates out June 2, 2000.

Alabama, Kansas and Alaska also have open-adoption record laws.

Balestrieri knows the chances of finding his mother alive, if at all, are slim. Still, he'd like to ask her those obvious questions that every adoptee has:

"Why did she give me up? Why didn't she ever get in contact with me? I would, in a way, like to find out. I wouldn't be jumping up and down for joy, but I'd like to find out more for my children and my grandchildren."

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