Sunday, January 6, 2008

Searching for Living People - should I be doing this?

Over the years, we have received several queries from people searching for living people - relatives, classmates or friends. I posted about one search last year that was successful - I was able to connect a lady with her father's half-siblings.

Recently, another query came in from a fellow looking for his elementary school classmate from the early 1960's in San Diego. He knew her name (Deborah Turner), her brother's name (Blake), and he thought he knew the father's given name (Robert Turner) [note: all names are fictitious here]. He wanted to contact her for personal reasons.

I charged off into the different California vital records databases, and then the and the Ancestry PeopleSearch databases, and was able to come up with:

* The birth dates of three Turner children, including Deborah, Blake and their sister Susan.

* Marriage dates and spouses names for Deborah and Susan.

* Birth dates and names of the children of Deborah and Susan.

* Lots of deed records for Deborah and her husband John in San Diego County, the string of which ended in about 1995. Did they move? Die? Stop dealing in real estate?

* A phone number and address for one of Susan's sons in San Diego.

* A probable phone number and address for Blake in Palm Springs.

* A MySpace page and some newspaper articles for Deborah's daughter.

* A Google search for Deborah with either Turner or her married name was fruitless - the name is too common, and there was the possibility of a re-marriage.

* A Google, Ancestry and for Robert Turner was fruitless - too many hits, and I didn't know if they were still alive.

At this point, I passed everything to my client, and he called Susan's son. He verified that Aunt Deborah was still in the San Diego area, but he didn't know where, and said that his Turner grandparents were still alive. He was going to see Deborah at Thanksgiving, and would pass the message to her to contact my correspondent by phone.

Nothing was heard for several weeks, so I suggested trying to track down the parents by obtaining Deborah's birth certificate. I did that, and found that their names were Charles (not Robert) and Edna Turner. I quickly found them living in San Diego, with a phone number and address, and sent that information off to my correspondent.

My correspondent telephoned them, and they remembered him from 40 years ago, and put him in touch with Deborah. They have talked now, and he found out that she is a widow. My correspondent will be coming to San Diego soon to see her. He wants to meet me too. He gave our society a donation for my services.

During this process, I was a bit leery of digging too deep in anything except public records. Even with that limitation, I fear that I (or my society) could be liable for damages if this turns out to be a stalking case. I'm wondering now if I should refuse to take cases like this in the future.

What do you think? I would appreciate comments about this situation. Have you had a similar experience? How did it turn out? What are my risks here? Should I even blog about it using fictitious names as above?

UPDATED: 6 PM - I edited the paragraphs above a bit for better understanding. Jasia and Terry have made cogent comments - see the comments below. There are also several blog posts referring to my dilemma - thank you all for your comments.


Jasia said...

I can relate to your questions and concerns Randy. As the webmaster (and keeper of member information) for my high school graduation class's web site I get asked to share contact information from time to time. When I recognize the person requesting information as someone who is also from our class I am happy to cooperate and attempt to reunite old friends/classmates. But when I get a request from someone who claims to have been from another graduating class, from another high school in my home town, or is a "friend from the neighborhood" (where I can't check it out) I become very leery.

As the years have gone by I'd have to say that I've become very suspicious... probably from watching so much CNN ;-) I have backed away from sharing that kind of information anymore. Sometimes I will contact the person of interest and pass on the email address and name of the person who has requested contact information but more often than not I refuse to get involved. As much as I like the idea of reuniting old friends I worry more about the potential of stalking. I have had classmates of mine that were stalked (not directly from information that I had given out) and it wasn't pretty. Now I'm more inclined to suggest the interested party hire a private investigator so that I don't lose any sleep worrying over my involvement in the situation.

Terry Thornton said...

Randy, You've touched on a raw nerve with lots of folks who wish to protect their privacy at all costs. I, personally, would neither search for living "strangers" for another nor would I post about that search. I think Jasia makes point to suggest that the client pass this sort of search on to a private investigator. Just my opinion.

Tex said...

I dunno. I ask myself this question a lot as a librarian. Just because I can, does that mean I should? Where does my professional obligation to help people locate the information they need end? As a genealogist and as a very curious person myself, not to mention a decent searcher and a "trained professional," :-)how involved do I get with folks who want to find birth parents or other living relatives?

I usually handle it by pointing out the newspaper databases, the city directories and the other local resources. I share some good pertinent titles and websites with them about doing such a search, and I can usually recommend some professional searchers from the community. In other words, I try to provide the tools for them to do the search.

It's a tough question. If someone hadn't been willing to help me years ago, with what was essentially a "cold call," I would have never been able to track my husband's family.

It's a delicate balance.