One of Caitlyn Kasper’s best friends speaks frequently about her Haitian heritage. Another tells stories of ancestors from Portugal and Italy. And International Day at her parochial school in Somerville celebrates students from all over, including Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
Which led Caitlyn to wonder last year, as she approached her 8th birthday: Where am I from?
It’s a more complex question than it might seem for such a child as Caitlyn, who is not only adopted but one of 27 newborns surrendered anonymously to authorities under the state's safe haven law since 2005.
In her early years, Caitlyn said, she imagined — and wished — she was from Mexico, or some place in Latin America, because her favorite Nickelodeon character, Dora The Explorer, came from there. Caitlyn believed the two of them shared strong bonds — a love of rice and beans, a flair for Spanish words, and strong female can-do personalities.
“Maybe I’m Spanish!” she told her mother.
The path to an answer came to her one day after school last fall. Caitlyn was playing with toys on the floor of her living room, when she heard a TV commercial focused on “discovering your past.” She perked up.
The voice over the television promoted a kit called AncestryDNA, which enables a person, through providing a saliva sample, to learn all about their genetic history. Caitlyn listened intently, learning about how a specimen is sent to a lab, which produces results weeks later.
The second-grader turned to her mother.
“Mom?” she asked. “Can we do this?”
Her mother paused, then proposed she include this on her list for Santa.
At a time when mental health experts emphasize the importance of transparency in adoptions, the state’s safe haven law stands as a stark exception. Approved about a decade ago after a spate of baby abandonments in such places as dumpsters and public bathrooms, it allowed desperate mothers to drop off newborns at a police or fire station or hospital, without leaving any information.
Adoption advocates called the law regressive, depriving these babies of critical information that could influence their sense of identity and well-being. They supported other ways of helping troubled pregnant women keep their babies or take part in more open adoptions to remove the secrecy and shame long associated with the process.
But others argued that the top priority is saving babies’ lives, and asking too many questions of mothers in crisis might cause them to flee. Similar statutes to rescue vulnerable infants, sometimes called “Baby Moses” laws, have passed in all 50 states.
Massachusetts lawmakers ultimately chose a compromise, saying authorities receiving a newborn could ask mothers to provide information about the parents’ names and medical histories but not require it.
In Caitlyn’s case, no information was given. The answers to her origins, records show, left when the “unknown mother” walked out the sliding doors of Whidden Memorial Hospital in Everett on Dec. 7, 2008, a day that is marked as Caitlyn’s birthday.
This woman had approached a desk clerk with a healthy 7-pound baby swaddled in a blue blanket, and said simply: I can’t take care of the baby. I’m leaving her here.
No birth name was offered, so hospital staffers assigned the girl, with blonde hair, hazel eyes, and fair skin, the name “Jane Doe” and listed her address as “homeless.”
The state’s child-protective services agency later placed the newborn with Irene and Jim Kasper, a Woburn couple who had gone through adoptive parent training and were eager to raise a child. They were on the older side to start a family – she was 46, he was 51 – but social workers saw in them good people with stable work lives who could offer a loving home.
The baby would be the 11th surrendered child under the safe haven law, which its supporters have credited with stopping a disturbing pattern of two or three abandonments a year, sometimes leading to the infant’s death.
The Kaspers fell in love with the newborn girl. Based on her Celtic looks and the fact so many Irish families live in the Boston area, the couple made assumptions. They named her Caitlyn Rose.
Caitlyn’s somber beginnings were never a secret to her. A 2009 Globe article about her adoption on National Adoption Day in Middlesex Juvenile Court in Cambridge is framed in the family’s Woburn living room.
Sitting on a couch at home one afternoon, Caitlyn talked about the woman who left her at the Everett hospital — someone whom she would some day like to meet.
“I really knew she really loved me because she didn’t leave me on the street,” she said. “She brought me to a hospital. She couldn’t take care of me.”
Caitlyn, who keeps that blue blanket in a keepsake bin, says she knows she has to take the initiative if the wants to learn about her past.
“When you’re adopted, in my case when you’re a safe haven baby, that person who had you, they just don’t have to give you any information,” she said. “So you have to figure pretty much everything out by yourself.”
Adoption specialists say it’s not surprising that Caitlyn’s curiosity was increasing around her 8th birthday. They say adopted children, in their earlier years, typically want just a simple narrative. But sometime later in elementary school, they begin thinking more broadly about their adoption story and their place in the bigger world.
“There’s an evolving sense of what it means to be adopted,” said Dr. Lisa Prock of Boston Children’s Hospital, a developmental behavioral pediatrician who specializes in adoption issues.
The discovery of a medical issue can be a stark reminder of the ever-present influence of birth parents. This happened with Caitlyn two years ago when doctors discovered she had Type 1 diabetes, a condition that Caitlyn talks as freely about with friends at school as she does her adoption.
Some adoption experts say the latest technologies around DNA testing are a boost for many children. Prock said these children then have “something to hold onto” that connects them to at least a region of the world.
“They can say: At least I know something about me,” she said.
As the holidays approached, Caitlyn told many at her school that she might be receiving a gift that would help her unravel some of the mystery of her past.
“She was so excited,” said principal Marian Burns.
Once Caitlyn tore apart the wrapping paper on her AncestryDNA kit — one of dozens of gifts that she received last Christmas — she was eager to submit her sample.
Her mother, who works as a municipal cashier, admitted to some mixed feelings as she read more closely the sets of available results. If Caitlyn’s biological parents — or close relatives — also happened to have submitted samples to AncestryDNA, its database could reveal that Caitlyn had close DNA matches — and possibly a way to trace her birth parents.
Though Irene Kasper has long believed that Caitlyn was better off knowing as much as possible about her past, she wasn’t sure she, or her daughter at this young age, was ready for this meeting.
Jim Kasper, Caitlyn’s father, knows these stories don’t always have fairy-tale endings. He was adopted too. His mother, just a teenager, left him at Catholic Charities, and his foster family, the Kaspers, later adopted him. It was when he was a teenager, he recalls, that he started becoming interested in his birth parents, who he had heard were of Italian and Albanian ancestry. But he never contacted the adoption agency, reviewed records, or took steps to find his birth family until he reached his 40s.
It would prove to be too late to meet his birth mother, who died a year before he located her in Burlington, just a few miles from where he lived; still, he was able to meet some half-siblings. When he found his father, who lived in Pennsylvania, there was no warm reunion.
He recounted that his father said basically, “I want nothing to do with you.”
He said he hopes that his daughter never experiences this rejection, though he knows that Caitlyn, inquisitive as she is, will likely pursue her past no matter where it takes her.
Said the father, who works as a landscaper, “As you get older, you want to know more about you.”
In mid-February, while at her cashier’s job, Irene Kasper noticed an e-mail from AncestryDNA had dropped into her in-box: Your DNA results are in.
She confessed to taking a peek at some of the results right away and seeing no close DNA matches.
She waited for a quiet afternoon during last month’s school vacation week to tell Caitlyn that her DNA results could now be viewed on the computer screen.
Caitlyn stood next to the living room table, which held the desktop computer. Her miniature pinscher dog, Hollywood, was nearby. Her mother, seated, clicked open the file.
The lab results of Caitlyn’s genetic material showed 37 percent could be traced to roots in Great Britain, 28 percent to Ireland, 24 percent to a mixture of Italy and Greece. The remaining 11 percent was identified as a mixture of genes linked to Western and Eastern Europeans, European Jews, Scandinavians, Finns, and Russians.
When she saw the results, Caitlyn smiled and, overwhelmed, buried her face in her mother’s shoulder.
“I guess I’m a little bit of everything,” she said later.
Upon further thought, Caitlyn decided that she wanted to learn more about England, and that her parents rightfully guessed she had a lot of Irish blood. She said she wanted to know more about that country. too, though she made it clear she already has some knowledge.
“Last year my teacher was Irish,” she said, “and he said there are leprechauns that live there.”