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Texas families' lasting story shows what open adoption could be

Nicole Villalpando,
Sisters by birth Claire Gerlach, 21, and Bailey Howell, 23, didn't grow up in the same house, but they share some of the same expressions. [Dave Creaney / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Claire Gerlach, 21, and Bailey Howell, 23, share a look.

As their brother, Brett Howell, 22, describes it: “I’ll say something, and both of them turn and look at you and glare,” he says.

They also look alike. Same eyes, same curly hair, just a different shade. They’re a combination of their mother and their father, like all siblings are.

And they tease each other. Looking at photos of Claire’s 16th birthday party, Claire says to Bailey, who had been her hairstylist that day, “I don’t know why you did what you did.“

“You wanted it straight,” Bailey says.

“We tried to get you not to do that,” adds Claire and Bailey’s biological mom, Marcie Hunt.

Both the biological daughters of Hunt and Robbie Howell, Claire and Bailey grew up six hours apart after Claire was adopted as a baby by Andrea and Steven Gerlach. Despite the distance, their connection didn’t end there.

“As long as I can remember, we’ve always been a part of each other’s life,” Bailey Howell says.

When Hunt found out she was having Claire, it was a surprise.

“I was seriously just a punk kid,” she says. She was 20. They already had Bailey and Brett, who were 15 months apart. There would only be 11 months between Brett and Claire.

“I just knew that Robbie and I wouldn’t be able to take care of three kids,” says Marcie Hunt. “It was better for her.”

Hunt didn’t realize she was pregnant until she was about six months along.

“With the other two, I was so sick,” she says, but not with Claire.

Hunt was seven months pregnant when she went to the adoption agency. The agency asked all kinds of questions to make sure Hunt and Howell were certain about giving up their baby. Questions like, “If something happened to Bailey or Brett, would you want this baby back?”

The answer was no. It wouldn’t be their baby.

When Hunt was choosing adoptive parents, she went through a batch of letters from potential couples. Even though the Gerlachs were in that batch, she didn’t choose them. She thought that first letter was a little stiff.

A friend had encouraged the Gerlachs to write a second, warmer letter. Andrea Gerlach remembers writing about the nursery that would become Claire’s.

The Gerlachs had been trying to get pregnant for two years. “It didn’t happen and it didn’t happen,” Andrea Gerlach says.

And then they finally got pregnant, twice. They lost the first one at nine weeks and the second at 11 weeks. They say they tried many infertility treatments but stopped short of in vitro.

Then a friend said to Andrea Gerlach: “Do you want to be a mother, or to be pregnant?”

“That shifted our mindset,” Andrea Gerlach says. They applied with an adoption agency right away.

Hunt was looking for a couple who couldn’t have children.

She met with two families in one day, including the Gerlachs. The other family really wanted a boy, but Hunt knew she was carrying a girl. The other couple also didn’t want an open adoption.

Robbie Howell also didn’t want an open adoption, but Hunt had a big fear that one day Bailey and Brett would go to college and Brett would fall in love with somebody and it would be his sister.

“I couldn’t know she’s out there and not know,” Hunt says.

They met and chose the Gerlachs when she was eight months pregnant. About two weeks later, Andrea Gerlach was with Hunt when Claire came into the world in Lufkin on May 7, 1998, at 4:43 p.m.

Even though Hunt knew that Andrea Gerlach would be Claire’s mother, there was some worry on the Gerlachs’ part that Hunt or Howell would have second thoughts and not sign papers terminating their parental rights.

In fact, everyone was actually released from the hospital before the papers were signed. In Texas, a birth mother must wait 48 hours before she can legally place her child up for adoption. Marcie Hunt remembers being in pain because you can’t be under the influence of any narcotics when signing a legal document.

“It was terrible,” Hunt says.

Even though the Gerlachs had Claire with them, it was still an odd situation. They recall going to the mall while waiting for the 48 hours to pass.

“We had to go to a mall with a newborn baby,” Andrea Gerlach says. “It was all awkward.”

Steven Gerlach remembers feeling embarrassed when they buckled Claire into the car seat and Marcie, who was watching over them, asked, “Are you going to buckle in the car seat?” The seat was actually not buckled into the car. It was the difference between Marcie Hunt, the experienced mother, and the Gerlachs, the amateurs.

“We were just nervous,” Andrea Gerlach says.

Hunt says she was in so much pain that she really didn’t think about losing Claire that day. “All I could think is we had a 2 1/2 hour drive,” she says, from where Claire was born in Lufkin and where they lived in Northeast Texas. Even though it was an open adoption, there was no immediate plan for contact.

In Texas, the adoption isn’t official until six months later, which gives the state six months to make sure the adoptive parents are qualified. The Gerlachs were approved and held an official “gotcha” celebration.

“We all cried,” says Claire’s grandmother and Andrea Gerlach’s mother, Marion Bates.

Marcie Hunt was busy with Bailey and Brett. After all, Brett was not even a year old when Claire was born, and Bailey was just 2.

Hunt and Andrea Gerlach got in touch again when Claire’s Social Security card was mailed to Hunt. They began writing letters, then started sending emails, then made phone calls and sent pictures.

Hunt remembers thinking that of all three kids, Claire looked the most like her as a baby.

When Claire was about 11 months old, they all decided to meet as families at the Fort Worth Zoo.

Andrea Gerlach was nervous: “We hadn’t seen them since Claire was born.”

The meeting was weird at times because they hadn’t really established their roles or relationships yet. Andrea Gerlach remembers her sister, who went along for the trip, being a little uneasy when Hunt offered Claire a piece of banana. “She wanted the roles defined,” Andrea Gerlach says. She remembers her sister saying, “You’re the mother.”

But the meeting was a success, and they did it again the following year. That began the tradition of seeing each other at least once a year.

The roles began to define themselves, and Hunt became someone Andrea Gerlach could call for parenting tips.

“It’s so cool to pick up the phone and say, ’Why does she do this?’” Andrea Gerlach says.

One of the hardest conversations Andrea Gerlach remembers having with Hunt was when she found out she was pregnant with daughter Camille, who is now 18. The Gerlachs didn’t think it was possible. The had assumed they would either be a family of three or that they would adopt another child.

Andrea Gerlach knew that one of the reasons Hunt had chosen them was because they didn’t think they could successfully carry a pregnancy to completion.

“You called,” Hunt says, “And you said, ’I want to tell you something.’ I thought something had happened to Claire. You said, ’I’m pregnant.’”

Hunt remembers responding: “OK. But Claire’s OK?“

And so Camille became part of the family as well. When they talk about their siblings, Claire is quick to say, “and Camille.”

They also have connected with another sibling. Before Robbie Howell died from an aneurysm in 2012, he had daughter Myla, who is six years younger than Camille. They would see her sometimes in Northeast Texas.

Bailey, Brett, Claire and Camille all began visiting one another over the summer. At first Brett and Bailey would come to Buda to spend a week with Claire and Camille. Then, when Camille was 8, they would trade off: one week at the Hunt/Howell house in Gilmer in Northeast Texas, one week at the Gerlach house in Buda. They would meet in Corsicana, roughly the halfway point, to get in one car or the other.

They soon learned that Hunt was the stricter mother. Around her, the kids all say, “Yes, ma’am.”

For Camille Gerlach, Hunt is “like my second mom. I call her Mom.”

The same is true for the Howell children.

“It’s almost like having a second set of parents,” Brett Howell says. “They are always there if I needed them. ... They did raise two of my sisters.”

They share grandparents on both sides, too. Marion Bates introduces herself and husband Al as Mimi and Papa. “All the kids just call me that.”

“You’re in my phone as Mimi,” Bailey Howell says. “I got bonus grandparents out of this.”

Bailey says when they were younger, she would ask Claire, “Do you think it’s weird that we do this? Do you think it’s weird that we don’t live together?”

“It stinks a little bit that we didn’t get to grow up together,” Claire Gerlach says. “That we were six hours away.”

“If we did, we probably wouldn’t have the same relationship,” Bailey Howell says.

It’s like the way Claire and Camille fight because they grew up in the same house, but Bailey and Claire really don’t. Brett and Camille have become really close, too, and even plan events on their own.

At first, Camille was a little left out because of her age, not her genetics, but now she says they all hang out. “We’re like best friends,” she says. “It’s kind of cool how we’ve evolved as siblings.”

“There’s a level of closeness,” Steven Gerlach says of the siblings. They can sit in a room and not talk; they just share in one another’s company, he says.

They celebrate family occasions including graduations and, recently, funerals. Some of Hunt or Howell’s extended family members are still learning about Claire. Originally, the couple told very few people about Claire because they didn’t want anyone disapproving of their choice or offering to raise the baby within the family.

Besides the bonus of having siblings and another mother, Claire Gerlach can benefit from knowing her family’s medical history. Marcie Hunt recently had treatment for breast cancer, which her mother died from.

“I’m glad that I know that for the future,” Claire Gerlach says.

She also got to meet her birth father. If she had waited until she was 18 to look for him, when people who have a closed adoption can first request their records, he would already have passed.

Andrea Gerlach says that from the moment they brought Claire home, they’ve told her she was adopted. They sang songs and read books. “That just felt right,” she says.

“Claire is so well adjusted,” Andrea Gerlach says. “There’s no question of, ’Who does she look like?’”

What started out as an uneasiness, first at a mall with an hours-old baby, then at a zoo almost a year later, has turned into a large extended family with parents who have shared their children’s lives and siblings who became best friends despite the distance.

“Only looking backward does it all make sense,” Steven Gerlach says. “She was supposed to be here and our child, but they were all supposed to be connected, and then Camille was supposed to be.”

“It ended up being a beautiful thing,” Andrea Gerlach says.