Dennis H.R. Sumlin - A New York Adoption Story
A Blind Songwriter and Artist Recruiter's Long Journey Home
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Feb 25, 2010 Donna W. Hill
Dennis H.R. Sumlin finally met his brother after 20 years. Their story demonstrates the enduring value of family and how laws thwart efforts to renew these natural ties.
Do you know your parents' names, where they grew up, what they like or their medical histories? Most of us do., For people like Dennis H.R. Sumlin and many other adopted Americans, however, ordinary tidbits about birth families are precious gems, which often take years to unearth. In states like New York, things that could help, such as original birth certificates containing birth parents' names, are sealed.
A Rough Start for a Talented Kid
Sumlin (32, Manhattan) is a talent recruitment specialist for the Visionary Media Company, president of the nonprofit Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind (PAD, NFB) and an R&B/Pop songwriter. A mentor to teens and active in the New York State Adoption Reform Lobby (NYSAR), he was elected president of the Westchester chapter of the NFB of NY in January, 2009.
Dennis, who spoke with Suite 101 about his experiences, was given up for adoption when he was six months old. His mother, who was living on the streets of New York, had drug problems and couldn't look after him. Born with glaucoma, he lost his sight at 12 and ultimately dropped out of high school. His adoptive father died when Dennis was 16; his mother when he was 21.
Longing for Acceptance and Family
His adoptive parents, the Holston's, were almost 50 when Dennis came into their lives. Their natural children were grown with families of their own. Though Dennis has warm memories of them and their life together in a Brooklyn brownstone with his aunt and cousins, there were problems the Holston's couldn't fix.
Age was one of them. Normally uncles are older than their nieces and nephews. In Dennis's case, since the children of his adoptive siblings were older, Dennis was their younger uncle. Also, The Holston's daughter resented the attention her mother was giving to Dennis, and he never felt accepted by that side of the family.
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There was also his brother. The Holston's, who didn't change his birth name other than adding their last name, were always open with him about what they knew about his birth family. He had a younger sister and an older brother. The brother had also been adopted.
Until age seven, Dennis occasionally visited his brother. He doesn't remember those early meetings, but the Holston's kept those memories alive, and he longed to find him. What he didn't know was that his brother was looking for him too.
Technology for the Blind Enables Dennis to Search for His Birth Family
Although Dennis wanted to reconnect with his brother, he didn't know how to proceed. A high school teacher, knowing this, gave him Oprah Winfrey's contact information, but he didn't use it. At 24, he learned about a New York state form for adding his contact information to a registry in case his relatives were looking for him. Again, he didn't act on it.
Dennis's search began in earnest at age 26 when he learned to use a computer with text-to-speech software, which removed blindness as a barrier to web-based research. Profiles he posted on several ancestry sites led to distant connections. An act of selflessness, however, gave him his big break.
A Family Reunites
No stranger to the foster care system - his aunt took in foster kids - Dennis joined a mentoring program matching adopted adults and teens. His first kid was a 16-year-old in NYC's foster care system. At an end-of-year gathering, '80s rapper Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C., who was also adopted, and his private investigator Pamela O'Brien talked to the group, showing a documentary about Darryl's quest to find his birth family.
Dennis had just learned that New York adoptees can't get their original birth certificates. He wanted to change the law. Darryl, who was trying to change a similar law in New Jersey, connected Dennis with NYSAR's Unsealed Initiative.
In March, 2007, Dennis received a call from another mentor. He had Dennis's brother's adoptive mother's phone number. She had been waiting for his call. Dennis spoke with his brother the next night. A month later, Dennis went to North Carolina to see his brother for the first time in twenty years.
Since then, other leads have materialized. Dennis found his younger sister living right near him and learned that their birth parents, who never married, had died in the '80s. He has connected with many cousins and other siblings. He hopes to find his youngest brother.
"I'm a believer in lineage," says Dennis, who recently changed his name to reflect all of his parents (Holston, Richardson and Sumlin), "I like to know where I came from and represent that in everything I do."
The Ongoing Legal Struggle
Dennis and NYSAR continue to lobby for the unsealing of birth certificates. Bills are in both houses of the New York legislature.
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The copyright of the article Dennis H.R. Sumlin - A New York Adoption Story in Law, Crime & Justice is owned by Donna W. Hill. Permission to republish Dennis H.R. Sumlin - A New York Adoption Story in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
Unsealed Initiative Activist Dennis H.R. Sumlin, John Sumlin Unsealed Initiative Activist Dennis H.R. Sumlin