Forty years later, three siblings discover who abandoned them as newborns in a B.C. town
Janet Keall was one of three babies mysteriously left on doorsteps in Prince Rupert in the late ’70s. Finally, after decades of searching, Janet learns the truth about her birth mother.
By Julia Nunes
[In part one of Janet’s story, she discovered she had a half-brother, Stephen, and a half-sister, Kathie Rennie, who had been abandoned by the same birth mother, all within a 5-km radius between Feb. 1976 and May 1979. The three met for the first time this past summer. Each of them had been adopted into loving families. But Janet’s search was incomplete.]
On December 8, 2016, Janet Keall made her eighth trip to the northern B.C. town of Prince Rupert. Some things about the place never change: the looming mountains, the massive cargo ships anchored in the harbour and the deep isolation. On past visits, Janet went with questions, hoping to find out how her life began. But this time would be different.
Janet Keall in December, 2016.
She had originally planned the trip to advance her search. She would present her story at a town hall and ask residents for help. Many families in the community go back several generations. Surely someone knew her birth mother. But just three weeks before the town hall, at home in Charlottetown, P.E.I., Janet had a breakthrough: She found a first cousin, a young woman name Amy, who lives in Vancouver. The genetic testing company 23andme had analyzed their DNA samples and matched them along maternal lines, which meant Amy’s birth mother and Janet’s were sisters. For the first time, she had a real chance of finding her birth mother.
Amy was adopted, too, and had never looked for her biological family. She did, however, have her birth mother’s name. For 10 days, Janet scoured the web, researching potential relatives on Facebook, sending them emails and making cold calls. Only one had heard of Janet’s search and nobody knew anything about a family member abandoning babies.
Janet started building a family tree, and one name stood out. Amy’s biological mother had a sibling named Sarah,* who left Prince Rupert around 1980 and moved to the Vancouver area, maintaining only minimal contact with her family. She had married and raised a son named Richard* in the same suburb where Janet grew up. If Sarah was Janet’s mother, they’d spent years in each other’s shadows — just a five-minute drive apart.
When Janet contacted Richard by phone, he had no idea who she was. Sarah had said almost nothing about her early life. He’d grown up believing he was an only child. After a few conversations, he agreed to a DNA test. “He really wanted to be part of it,” Janet says, “even though I think for him it was very shocking.”
On Dec. 2, just six days before her trip to Prince Rupert, the DNA results came in. They confirmed that Richard was Janet’s half-brother. Her 21-year search was over: Sarah was her birth mother. “I haven’t really fully processed this at all,” she says quietly. “‘Wow, I’ve done it.’ I still keep saying that.”
Janet was never starry-eyed about meeting her birth mother. She never envisioned having “tea every Sunday,” she says, though she’d hoped to talk to her and ask her questions. But Janet’s search ended too late. Sarah had died of heart failure back in August. “I never got to meet her,” she said through tears. “Missed her by three months.”
Janet Keall in December, 2016.
The week that followed was a blur. Janet made the cross-country trip from Charlottetown to Vancouver, where she, Kathie and Stephen —her biological siblings, also abandoned by Sarah in the late ’70s — met Richard for the first time. “Our half-brother really has met us with open arms even though this is a difficult time for him,” Janet says.
She and her siblings have agreed not to reveal identifying details about their birth mother: her real name, her age, her defining physical features. What she knows of Sarah’s early life is fragmented, drawn from snippets of old memories offered by her relatives. Ever the detective, Janet has pieced together a timeline as best she can.
Sarah grew up in Prince Rupert in the 1960s and ’70s, boom years when a thriving fishery drew thousands of boats to the harbour every spring, earning the town its nickname: “Halibut Capital of the World.” Dozens of canneries dotted the surrounding coastline, and seasonal workers flooded into town, cashing in for a few months then clearing out before winter.
Sarah was the eldest child in a large family that didn’t benefit from the boom. There were financial struggles and frequent moves. It was a chaotic, crowded life that often erupted in conflict, and Sarah was a caregiver to her younger siblings. “She definitely had a challenging childhood,” Janet says. “She moved out of her family home at a very early age when she should’ve been doing regular things like going to school or attending prom. She must have been very independent.”
Over the next three and a half years, Sarah moved around and changed jobs often. No one was ever quite sure where to find her. She worked at a local cannery for a time, and at an Italian restaurant, probably lugging food trays to cars at the drive-in. These were the years when she was pregnant three times, giving birth to and then abandoning Kathie, Janet and Stephen as newborns. They all had different fathers. (Janet still has no information about her birth father other than her DNA tests, which show he is of Irish, British and European descent. He may have stayed in Prince Rupert only briefly, as so many fishermen and cannery workers did at the time. He probably had no idea Sarah was pregnant.)
Several months after Stephen’s birth, Sarah left the town. “She was still a young woman and she was starting fresh,” Janet says, “building a new life, shedding the pain and the challenges from Prince Rupert.”
While she was living in the Vancouver area, Sarah gave birth to a daughter. Born with a rare genetic condition, the baby girl lived just 39 days. The bright light in Sarah’s life was Richard, the only child she ever raised. From Richard, Janet learned that Sarah was a loving mother and a devoted grandmother to his young children. She and her husband divorced, but she enjoyed a good life. She loved baking and cooking. She had a soft spot for animals. “Kathie and I always say we’re so sassy,” Janet says, “and it was the same with her — big personality. She’d say what was on her mind. Now we know where we get that from.”
Janet’s trip to Prince Rupert in early December, then, was unlike her previous ones. She arrived having found Kathie and Stephen and with a list of addresses where her birth mother had worked and lived. She could retrace her footsteps. Prince Rupert’s boom years are over, the fishery is in decline, but the little city by the sea has retained its ’70s flavour. Clapboard houses still dot the hillsides and small boats still bob in the marina. On downtown streets, there’s not a high-rise in sight. It’s easy to picture the place as it was when Sarah was a young.
The low-income apartment block where she last lived with her family is still there. She moved out abruptly one day and never went back. Kathie was abandoned a few blocks away from it, outside a large house on a pretty residential street. Janet believes Sarah gave birth outdoors, in a wooded area between the house and the apartment building. Seeing the house for the first time, Janet pointed to the step where her newborn sister was placed under a covered carport. It was late at night but the homeowner had left a pram outside and a light on upstairs. “My guess is she was walking by and thought, ‘This is a good place for my baby to go,’” Janet said. The homeowner heard knocking at the door and a woman yelling for help. By the time she came downstairs, Sarah was gone but Kathie was there, wrapped in a blanket.
The low-rise apartment where Janet believes Sarah lived as a young woman.
Twenty months later, Sarah was at the backdoor of the city hospital, again in the middle of the night, with newborn Janet wrapped in a green bedspread. Over the years, Janet has made many pilgrimages here but without ever knowing who left her. This time she could picture Sarah choosing a safe spot where someone would surely find her baby: a back entrance with a small alcove, covered and well lit. The nurse who brought her inside later told Janet that she felt a presence, as if someone was watching from the bushes nearby. “I see a young woman very frightened,” Janet says through her tears. “And she did the right thing.”
The door at Prince Rupert regional hospital where Sarah left Janet back in 1977. Photo, David Zelikovitz.
Nineteen months later, just a few minutes’ drive from the hospital, Sarah left Stephen in the stairwell of an apartment building where Janet believes she was living at the time. She’d wrapped him in a tea towel and sheet, and attached a brief penciled note that said he was three days old. The building owner who took him in said he was cold and naked but otherwise healthy. She had no memory of a pregnant woman living there at the time.
When Janet visited, though, there was nothing to see but mounds of rubble covered with a dusting of snow. The building had been demolished just weeks earlier. “It really bugs me that it’s gone,” she said, pausing to take a photo for Stephen.
During Janet’s stay in Prince Rupert, as she talked to people, it was clear to her that Sarah had been very isolated. Few people remembered her. For decades, Janet had searched for someone, anyone, who knew what her birth mother had done. She now believes nobody did. “She was alone in all of this. Nobody knew of our abandonments let alone her pregnancies,” she says. “I feel really sad for her that she suffered like that alone.”
The abandonment sites of the three babies in Prince Rupert, B.C.
Whether or not the authorities connected the dots between the three infants remains a mystery. Hospital officials say admissions files are kept for only 10 years, and the Prince Rupert RCMP have been unable to find records of the abandonments. Jerrilyn Keall, Janet’s adoptive mother, says there was an extensive investigation at the time, but it uncovered no information, and she wasn’t aware of the two other babies until this past summer. During Janet’s search, only one social worker said she suspected a connection between Kathie and Janet, but didn’t pursue it.
Janet shares her story at a town hall in Prince Rupert this December. Photo, David Zelikovitz.
After the DNA test with Richard, Janet considered cancelling her trip. In the end, she went ahead with the town hall to say goodbye to Sarah, and thank the people of Prince Rupert for their support. On a cold Friday night in December, Janet stepped onstage at the local concert hall and shared her story. About 150 loyal Rupertites came to listen; many had been following Janet in the news for years. She talked about her plans for the future, which include writing a book and a “quieter search” for her birth father. She thanked her parents and the parents who adopted Kathie and Stephen for giving them all such rich lives. But mostly she expressed forgiveness. “Let’s celebrate [Sarah]. Let’s talk about why women abandon their babies,” she told the crowd. “They’re not bad people. She wasn’t a bad person.”
Janet now keeps photos of her birth mother framed around her house and looks at them often. “The eyes are there, the cheekbones are there, the smile,” she says. “It’s so strange to see someone who looks like me looking back at me.” The photos are the closest she can get to the woman who still eludes her.
*Names have been changed.