Judy Western, a social worker who helped people who were adopted locate their birth families, died of a heart attack Sunday at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The Inner Harbor resident was 78.
The former Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland divisional director, she spent the past 15 years as a volunteer who trained as a confidential intermediary to help people reunite with birth parents or other family members. She also trained people to become confidential intermediaries.
Born in Detroit, she was the daughter of John Gregory, a General Motors engineer, and his wife, Delitha, a teacher. She spent much of her childhood in Marion, Ind., and earned a bachelor’s degree at DePauw University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin.
She initially met her future husband, Loren Western, in the high school band. They both attended DePauw and married in 1963.
After living and working in Gurnee, Ill., she and her family moved to Baltimore in 1989. They lived in Homeland Mews and at the Inner Harbor’s Harbor Court.
She worked at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, then joined Family and Children’s Services of Central Maryland around 1994 as a clinical social worker and foster children specialist. She became Director of Children’s Services in 1995 and held that position until she retired in 2003.
At that point, Ms. Western became a volunteer. She spent two days a week at the Govans Presbyterian Church and two days as a confidential intermediary, helping adult adoptees reunite with birth families. She retained an office at the Family and Children’s Services on Falls Road. The agency had been an adoption facilitator for decades and had retained the paper files from other agencies it had merged with over the years.
“Collectively they held adoption records for hundreds of adoptions in the entire region,” her husband said. “By the ’90s, due to legalization of abortion as well as changing social mores, the demand for adoptions had decreased and the agency stopped funding that work.”
He also explained that Maryland’s laws changed from having such records sealed to allowing reunification with mutual consent.
“This created a huge demand for helping adult adoptees search for their birth parents,” he said. “They naturally turned to the agency where they were adopted for that help.”
He said that when his wife retired from the agency, its officials decided that they could no longer afford to supply staff to help with searching.
“That is when Judy decided she would, voluntarily, provide that service using the records that the agency held,” he said, adding that she also consulted death notices and other databases.
“She spent many other hours on the phone and internet, working with adult adoptees helping them find and reunite with their birth parent,” he said. “As a licensed social worker, she provided counseling when things don’t go smoothly as they sometimes do, all for free.”
Colleagues said the change in the laws and the increased demand for help in reunification created a need for training people to do this work. The state of Maryland created a program to accredit confidential Intermediaries.
“Judy was one of the first to undertake this training and has continued to be active in conducting the training for others,” her husband said.
Colleagues in her profession recalled her as a skilled confidential intermediary.
“As technology — the internet and DNA access — changed, the dynamics of searching for a person has changed, too,” her husband said. “Judy became involved in attempting to influence changes in the laws to be compatible with today’s technology. She loved her work.”
Her pastor, the Rev. Tom Harris of Govans Presbyterian Church, recalled her.
“Judy Western consistently and fiercely advocated for those in need,” he said. “In her understanding, the church existed to help others. She was generous with her time and skills. She volunteered in the church office every week, chaired the Stewardship Committee for many years and was a dedicated member of the Mission Committee.”
He also said, “As stewardship chair she emphasized the virtue of gratitude and believed people should give generously because we have been given so much. She was a pillar of the church in every sense of the word. Govans Presbyterian is a better church because she was a part of it.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Govans Presbyterian Church at 5828 York Road.
In addition to her husband of nearly 56 years, a retired Becton Dickinson chemical engineer, survivors include a son, Greg Western of Montpelier, Vt.; two daughters, Laura Western of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Julie Hall of Berryville, Ark.; and two grandchildren.