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Vermont woman reunites with birth family 44 years after going missing

Published: Oct. 28, 2020 at 12:38 AM EDT
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WATERBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - A Vermont woman adopted from South Korea met her birth family for the first time after going missing as a baby 44 years ago.

Forty-six-year-old Denise McCarty of Springfield took a DNA test while visiting South Korea in 2016. She got the testing done through a new program implemented by the Korean government that allows South Korean-born adoptees to submit their DNA in hopes of reconnecting them with their families.

Earlier this month, McCarty got a phone call from South Korea informing her that she got a match. On Oct. 14, she joined her family on a video conference and saw them for the first time.

“My heart was beating a hundred miles an hour," McCarty said. "Like, I could not believe this was happening.”

McCarty reunited with her birth mother, identical twin sister and older brother. The tearful and emotional reunion was a miracle for McCarty’s birth family who had been searching for her for 44 years.

In June 1976, McCarty, whose birth name is Sang-Ae, got separated from her grandmother and twin sister, Sang-Hee, while at a busy market. Sang-Hee was found three days later. McCarty was taken to an orphanage two hours away.

“But they never found me and I never saw them again,” she said.

But McCarty never knew any of that. When her Vermont family adopted her on Christmas Eve 1976, the adoption agency told them McCarty was abandoned at the hospital because she was sick.

McCarty’s omma, which means “mother” in Korean, never stopped looking for her.

“You are still registered as my daughter in Korea,” Denise’s birth mother told her during the video conference. She also told McCarty that she never left the village where McCarty went missing, in hopes that they would find her. She also kept a copy of the flyers that she put up across town when McCarty disappeared.

“I told my omma that I was sorry that I got lost and that she was worried about me," McCarty told WCAX News while tearing up. “And that she didn’t give up. And I wanted to thank her for that because it’s been so long.”

Reporter Erin Brown: That’s a woman of faith. That just speaks to her faith. She never gave up. She always believed she would—

Denise McCarty: She would find me. And she prayed.

Reporter Erin Brown: And against all odds, she was like, ‘No, I’m going to find my daughter.’

Denise McCarty: Absolutely. And she was always told my twin sister she always thought that I was still alive.

McCarty’s twin sister told her the family never forgot about her.

“We never abandoned you, Sang-Ae,” she said.

McCarty is thankful she got to meet most of her birth family. Her grandmother and father have since passed away. She found out her father became a heavy drinker after she disappeared and died of liver disease 20 years ago.

“And we had the reunion and I know he was there in spirit because I think that he just made this happen and I think that my maternal grandmother that lost us that day... I know she was there as well. I could just tell,” she said.

McCarty says one of the best parts of reconnecting with her family is seeing people who look like her. That’s something she never saw growing up in Vermont.

“To then know that I had a twin sister who looked just like me!” she said.

McCarty says she and her twin sister don’t just look alike, but they also have the same voice, like the same colors and foods, love traveling and have the same sense of humor. She says she’ll spend the rest of her life bonding with her birth family and they’re already planning to go to Hawaii on vacation. She also plans to introduce her birth family to her adoptive family.

McCarty says she feels blessed to have more people to love.

“I’ve just got this huge family now that loves me and that I love," she said. "You can’t be happier than that. You can’t ask for more than that.”

McCarty says she feels complete to know the real story behind her adoption. “To have that missing piece of what happened to me is just incredibly overwhelming and happy and it makes me feel whole.”

McCarty says she hopes to travel to South Korea whenever the COVID-19 pandemic ends so that she can meet her family in person. She says her omma told her she will cook her any food she wants and her sister said she will teach her Korean in exchange for McCarty teaching her English. She says until they can meet in person, they will continue messaging each other on an app that translates the languages for them.

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