It’s been nearly two decades since 49 Akron-area residents learned that they were sold as babies to local couples by a doctor in Georgia.
Now the so-called “Hicks babies” are making one last push to try and find their biological families before time runs out.
“Some of us are in our 50s and 60s, so the parents could be on their way out or already gone,” said Melinda Elkins Dawson, an adoptee who is helping to organize a DNA collection event near the Georgia border community of McCaysville, where the babies were born.
“It just seemed this is the time to do it,” she said. “This is our last shot.”
On June 21, the Cincinnati-based DNA Diagnostic Center will have a representative at the Ocoee River Inn in Ducktown, Tenn., to collect DNA samples from anyone living in that area who believes they may be related to one of the babies that Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks arranged to sell from his McCaysville clinic in the 1950s and ’60s.
200 babies in half a dozen states
In an era when it was shameful to have a child out of wedlock, many young Appalachian women turned to the clinic for help. Other mothers were known to give up their babies because they couldn’t afford them. More than 200 unwanted babies ended up in half a dozen states.
In Akron, word of their availability traveled by word of mouth through the rubber factory community. Some estimate as many as a fourth of the Hicks babies ended up here.
The Ducktown event is primarily aimed at potential family members, but reunion is only possible if samples are collected from the babies themselves. So DNA Diagnostic is also offering, free of charge, to arrange for the adoptees to be swabbed wherever they currently live.
“I can understand these people wanting to know where they came from,” said Jane Wolf, the company’s liaison. “They want closure.”
Testing of the samples will only be done if personal circumstances and stories suggest two people may be related.
Wolf and Dawson said there is no way of knowing how many people — if anyone — will show up for the four-hour event.
Since the story of the Hicks babies broke in 1997, there have been other efforts to reconnect families using DNA testing.
DNA Diagnostic was involved then as well, but the company had no success in matching anyone, Wolf said. She said she still has folders showing people in Summit, Stark and Wayne counties — as well as some potential family members in Georgia and Tennessee — were tested using blood samples.
Those samples are long gone, she said, so people who participated then need to have samples recollected using the more modern DNA practice of swabbing the inside of the cheek.
Dawson said if 20 or more McCaysville area people show up for the event, she’ll consider it a success.
“There have been some real receptive people in the area who believe they have [or relatives have] kids who were given up,” she said.
That kind of turnout might also suggest the town has done some healing.
In the first years after the story broke, many McCaysville residents were less than receptive to the adoptees. They complained that national media swooped in and portrayed the entire town in a bad light.
“Nobody was opening up to us. But we’re doing things differently this time,” she said.
The focus on the DNA event is not to dredge up the past, she said. The only goal is to bring together parents, siblings and cousins who genuinely want to meet each other.
“I’ve contacted the local paper down there, so townspeople know what’s going on and why we’re doing it,” she said. “We’re not talking about Dr. Hicks or talking about deep dark secrets or anything like that...We’re not looking to make waves.”
DNA Diagnostic said for any potential family members who don’t want to be reunited but would be willing to share medical history, the company will arrange for a private sample collection and keep their identities confidential.
Dawson said that’s one of the practical reasons for wanting to know one’s roots.
“In a traditional adoption, you have the option of finding out medical information your family might have,” even if the family’s identity is never revealed, she said.
That opportunity was lost when Hicks sold the babies, falsified their birth certificates, and failed to retain records.
“Getting older, that information is really important,” Dawson said. “I have no idea what awaits me or my family medically. That’s a big hole for me.”
But there is no denying that many adoptees also yearn for a biological connection to someone else.
“You wonder who do I resemble? Who do my kids resemble? Where did I get my auburn hair? Heritage is so important to me, it’s almost like half of you is missing,” she said.
Dawson and adoptee Paul Payne will accept calls from any Hicks babies or potential family members with questions at 937-248-4712 or 423-637-2617.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.