Jenessa Simons wrote everything she knew about her birth parents on a poster board last Sunday.
It wasn't much when and where she was born, the name her first parents gave her, the month and year they were born and the fact that "they were both sixteen."
Simons included an email address and a simple request: "Please like and share."
Within two days, the post had been shared more than 70,000 times and among the many messages she received was one that sounded promising. It was from a woman who said she'd gone to high school with a couple whose story seemed to fit the circumstances Simons described. The woman wanted Simons to know she had passed along the information to the woman who might be her birth mother.
"I was really surprised, but I was not getting my hopes up because it only took two days," said Simons, who lives in northern Utah.
By that afternoon, Simons' search was over. The woman called her that afternoon and shared undisclosed details about Simons' birth and adoption that no one else could have known. She even had the baby photos the adoptive parents had sent during the first months of Simons' life.
They met for the first time on Wednesday, and Simons discovered she has her mother's eyes and that they share many of the same interests. She's also had several conversations with her birth father.
"When I met her, it was perfect," Simons said. "It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had."
A transformation • Simons, 21, is among a growing number of adoptees along with birth parents, adoptive parents and biological siblings who are turning to social media in hopes of closing gaps in their personal histories. Among the happy-ending stories are those of Helen Torres, of California, who was reunited in 2011 via a Facebook plea with Christina Gray, the daughter she'd given up 63 years earlier. Gray's adoptive parents were deceased by then and hadn't told Gray she was adopted, according to news reports.
In December 2012, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute issued the first in a series of reports on the "profound" impact of the Internet on adoption, which it said is being transformed by social media. The ease with which adoptees and birth parents can deploy social media to find each other poses challenges for policies and practices, it said, and may signal the end of closed adoptions.
But the use of social media in adoption searches also raises important ethical and legal questions, the report said. What about adoptees who are minors, for instance? Or birth parents who don't want contact? Or, parents who might be a danger to children because their rights were terminated for cause?
The Internet has eclipsed adoption agencies, which in the past often vetted search requests, and mutual consent registries operated by many states, including Utah. That's in part why Adam Pertman, executive director of the Adoption Institute, says there is a need for policies and practices "that protect vulnerable children and parents, while taking full advantage of the benefits that this new technology can bring."
At the end of December, Utah's adoption registry had 4,053 active filings, most from birth mothers. Since its creation in 1987, there have been 178 matches through the registry, according to Carolyn Woodward, the court-order specialist who oversees the registry for the Office of Vital Statistics and Records.
To work, both parties have to file with the registry and keep their information updated something that is also true of independent registries such as troyslist.org. To file with Utah's registry, adoptees have to be at least 18.
Woodward goes through new filings at the start of each month and calls immediately when she gets a match; depending on when an application is received, though, a first-time filer might wait up to three weeks for a response.
"The birth child is the No. 1 person who has to sign up," Woodward said.
She receives numerous calls from birth mothers on the anniversary of their child's birth, hoping for news of a match.
"I cry, they cry," said Woodward, who helped her own two adoptive sons track down their birth parents.
On one occasion, sealed records showed a woman and man who had found one another through the Internet were not mother and son, as they hoped. But Woodward's favorite job is making calls to let registrants know she's found a match.
One birth mom, who signed up with the registry in 2010, got such a call this week after her son filed with the registry on Tuesday.
"It worked for me," said the woman, who was in her late teens when she placed the boy for adoption and asked that her name not be used for privacy reasons. "It's a beautiful thing. It worked exactly as it should have. It's a happy ending to a very long story. I've spent all these years hoping and praying and wondering if he's OK. I have that now. I wanted to know that he was raised in a loving home, and he was. I am so thankful for that."
'Likes' kept climbing • Before turning to Facebook, Simons contacted the agency that handled her adoption and also signed up with Utah's registry. But before either responded, Simons had found her birth mother.
Her adoption was closed, and the adoptive parents, using aliases, provided photos until she turned six months and then letters only until her first birthday.
Simons always knew she was adopted, and her parents supported her search. She said she was inspired to enlist the power of social media by posts from children who said their parents have promised them a pet if they got 1 million likes. People pay attention to that, she thought, and it's cute, so why not?
Simons posted the photo of herself with her poster on her Facebook page Sunday afternoon. When Simons checked the page the next morning, the post had been shared 5,000 times. A few hours later the tally had climbed to 7,000 shares and friend requests were piling up in her message box.
By Tuesday morning, the post had been shared 40,000 times. By the end of the day, that number had climbed past 70,000 and she had thousands of friend requests.
"My mind was blown," Simons said. "I was scared to get online. … I had to sign out of Facebook to get my phone to stop buzzing [with new alerts]."
Simons said she got a few fraudulent pitches that she was able to quickly dispatch. By Thursday, days after her search ended, the post had been shared more than 144,000 times and she was overwhelmed by all the attention.
She briefly deactivated her Facebook page, admitting she "got scared" and asking for privacy for her birth parents.
"Everything happened so quickly, and I saw myself losing sight of the real reason I posted that picture on Sunday," she wrote. "I posted it to find my birth parents. I have done that. They are wonderful, loving, kind people, and I could not be happier."
Simons hopes to now transform her page into a community space for adoptees and birth parents to connect and share experiences. On Friday, she shared posts by two adoptees holding their own posters detailing information about the birth parents they hope to find.
"I've had people email me saying they've been searching for family members for 30 years and they've had no luck," she said. "They need to have more resources out there, where people can put information and be found."
Utah's mutual consent adoption registry
Adoptees, biological siblings, birth parents, other blood relatives and adoptive parents may file with Utah's adoption registry. It costs $25 to file an application with the registry and $5 to update a file. Adoptees must be at least age 18 to file.
To fill out a registry application, visit 1.usa.gov/11vee9X.
For more information about the registry, call 801-538-6363.