AS A CHILD NESTLED IN BED, JANET KEALL would listen to her parents tell a magical tale about a baby left on a doorstep in Prince Rupert, B.C. The story was hers, and she wanted to hear it again and again because it had a happy ending. A nice man saw her wriggling inside a blanket and called for help. Then she came to live with her family, who love her very much. But as gently as the story was told, it raised a lot of questions: “I was in another lady’s tummy?” Janet would ask. “Who was she? Where did she go?” Growing up in Surrey, B.C., Janet was a bright and thoughtful girl who felt blessed to be so loved by her parents, Jerrilyn and Gordon Keall. Yet her questions persisted. At around age 10, she even fantasized that her birth mother was Whitney Houston.
Over the years, her emotions flip-flopped. “At times I felt very happy and grateful,” she says, “and other times I would feel very sad, very rejected. Why me?” At age 18, she was finally of age to request her birth records. She was dismayed when a thin envelope arrived in the mailbox. Inside were two scant forms with almost every box blank: mother’s name, father’s name, place of birth. Alone in her bedroom, she shouted and banged her fists on the floor in frustration. “It was the deepest grief I’ve probably ever experienced. I felt so powerless. To see that paper so blank, so nothing, it was a haunting moment,” she says.
Janet spent the next 21 years searching. Several times, she made the 1,500-km journey from Vancouver to the small northern port city of Prince Rupert, just 50 km from the Alaska border. She told her story to local reporters, launched public appeals for information and asked for help from any of the town’s 13,000 residents who would listen. Yet no one in the close-knit community, hemmed in by mountains and ocean, seemed to know anything. Even her attempt to find police and hospital records came up empty, the files apparently lost or purged. In 2005, she shared her story with Chatelaine, hoping someone might see the article and step forward. Plenty of people did reach out, some with their own adoption stories, others with offers of help. But information about her birth mother? “Nothing,” she says softly, “always nothing.” Then, this year, Janet had a stunning breakthrough, and then another that would finally put her mystery to rest.
NOW 39, JANET HAS BEEN MARRIED TWICE, raised two boys, built a high-powered career managing real estate, legal and technology companies, and spent her free time volunteering at orphanages around the world, helping other abandoned children. She and her husband, Hod Pharis, recently moved their family from Vancouver to Charlottetown, seeking a quieter life. Early in 2016, when her boys were teens and she had more time, she decided to make one last push for answers. On April 20, she launched a website, rupertsbaby.com, accompanied by a social media campaign. People anywhere in the world could see her face, track her story or drop an anonymous clue. Three weeks after the launch, over a morning coffee, an unusual email caught her eye. “I have a similar story,” the subject line said. Like many emails she’d received, this one began with “My name is” and ended with “It will be great to hear from you!” Over the years she’s heard from men who offered tips as a ruse to ask her out, and men who said they must be her father because they slept with lots of pretty women on the west coast in the ’70s.
But this message was different. It came from a man who said he, too, had been abandoned as a baby on a doorstep in Prince Rupert. “I think we look similar,” he wrote, attaching a photo. One click and there were two brilliant blue eyes, just like hers, peering back at her. Within a couple of hours they were talking by phone. Stephen* had been adopted by a loving family, grew up in the Fraser Valley in B.C. and was happily married with two children. “It was so amazing,” recalls Janet. “I got him. It was like we were the same.” Their birth stories were eerily similar. Janet was found on a hospital doorstep on October 14, 1977; Stephen was found 19 months later, on May 23, 1979, just blocks away, on the steps of an apartment building. Both babies were healthy and unharmed, bundled up against the cold. Of all the scenarios Janet had envisioned, finding a sibling who’d also been abandoned had never been one.
In that first phone call, they discovered they shared a rare genetic trait passed through the maternal line. But Janet needed more proof. She asked for a DNA test and Stephen agreed. From opposite ends of the country, they scraped their inner cheeks, mailed in their samples and waited. Two weeks after they first spoke, Janet and Stephen were back on the phone. He listened as she scrolled through tiny print on her cellphone, scanning the data charts and technical jargon that held their fate. “What does it say?” Stephen kept asking. “What does it say?” Janet was crying as she read: “The probability of half-siblingship is 97.3 percent.” One week later, she was back in her childhood bedroom in B.C., where once she had raged at her blank documents. This time, the sounds of laughter and happy chatter drifted up from the back garden. Her family and Stephen’s mingled, but Janet lingered upstairs, steadying her nerves, before she walked downstairs to hug the man whose life began as hers did—in the arms of a woman neither of them had ever met. “You know when you smile so hard your mouth hurts? That was me that day,” she says.
Family and friends were amazed at the similarities—the matching blue eyes and mouth shape, the way they laughed and stood. Stephen’s father had wondered 12 years earlier about those similarities, after he’d seen a newspaper photo of Janet with a story about her search. But Stephen wasn’t ready to reach out. The clipping sat in his parents’ kitchen drawer while he married, had children, built a home and a career—all while Janet was doing the same just a short drive away in Vancouver.
JANET’S STORY WOULD BE INCREDIBLE enough if it ended there, but it doesn’t. Because while she was hugging Stephen, she already had another lead: another baby, another doorstep. Years earlier, she’d found a local newspaper story about a young woman who said she, too, had been abandoned at birth in Prince Rupert, but Janet had never been able to find her. Then, miraculously, two days before she flew west to meet Stephen, she received an anonymous voice message, providing the email address of a woman named Kathie Rennie who lived in Maple Ridge, B.C. Janet fired off a message, which landed in Kathie’s inbox while she was coaching her daughter’s evening softball game. She had no idea anyone had been trying to find her. “I read it three times, thinking, ‘This is nuts,’” Kathie recalls. But she phoned the strange lady back.
Kathie had been adopted and grew up happy in North Delta, one suburb over from Surrey—the two girls had spent their entire childhoods just a 20-minute drive apart. Kathie had the same striking blue eyes and familiar laugh. The more they talked, the more they recognized each other: the goofy sense of humour, the independent streak, the never-say-die attitude. “I met somebody that’s my match,” Kathie says with a laugh. They ordered more DNA tests and the results landed on July 5. This time, all three of them were on the phone as Janet confirmed Kathie was their half-sister. Abandoned on February 7, 1976, she’s the oldest sibling, found on the steps of a private home just over 5 km north of Janet and Stephen. “Everybody got teary-eyed,” Kathie recalls.
Soon, the enormity of what they had discovered began sinking in. “You go through your emotions, and one of those emotions is anger that it’s not only once, but my biological mom did this three times,” says Kathie. Janet has uncovered only one other case in the world of three abandoned siblings sharing a birth mother. “The number three gives it a weight,” she says. As Janet got to know her siblings, the near misses were hard to accept. As a teenager, she and her mother shopped every Sunday at the same Costco where Kathie had a part-time job handing out samples. “It’s very likely we crossed paths,” Kathie says. The three siblings agreed on many things: gratitude at being adopted into happy families, delight at having found one another and a lingering desire to know what happened to their birth mother.
THEN, IN NOVEMBER, they finally got their first real shot at answers. Janet was at home in Charlottetown, preparing for her eighth trip to Prince Rupert, when she discovered a first cousin, a young woman named Amy. 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. 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. Still, she was able to build 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.
When Janet contacted Richard, 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 December 2, 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 in August. “I never got to meet her,” she says through tears. “I missed her by three months.”
THE WEEK THAT FOLLOWED WAS A BLUR. Janet made the cross-country trip from Charlottetown to Vancouver, where she, Kathie and Stephen 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. A meticulous researcher, 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. It’s possible he had no idea Sarah was pregnant.
Several months after Stephen’s birth, Sarah left the town and never went back. “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 who we get that from.”
JANET BRIEFLY CONSIDERED cancelling her trip to Prince Rupert after she got the final DNA results, but decided to go ahead with it to say goodbye to Sarah. This time, she arrived with a list of addresses where her birth mother had worked and lived, and 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 woman. The low-income apartment block where she last lived with her family is still there. 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. Standing in front of 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 says. The homeowner heard knocking and a woman yelling for help. By the time she came downstairs, Sarah was gone but Kathie was there, wrapped in a blanket. Twenty months later, Sarah was at the back door 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 to that door 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.” 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 pencilled 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.
The three babies were abandoned within 5 km of each other in Prince Rupert, B.C. 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 says, 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.” Whether the authorities connected the dots between the three infants remains a mystery. 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 she didn’t pursue it.
On her second night in Prince Rupert, 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.
*Name has been changed.