Searching

I just came across the article in the Boston Globe and thought I’d spread the word.  -GS

A cousin’s wish: Find Ashley, and let her know we love her

By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff  |  October 16, 2009

Audra Peek clings to childhood memories of her cousin Ashley Marie McFarland, of frolicking together at playgrounds or singing a favorite song from “Annie,’’ about an orphan dreaming of her parents.

The song held special meaning for Ashley Marie. Born to a drug-addicted father and a mother she never got to know, Ashley Marie was put in foster care when she was just a toddler. But the Peek family thought of her as one of their own, frequently sweeping the girl away for family outings or weekends at their Andover home. They hoped to adopt her, and young Audra made space in her bedroom for her “next sister.’’

But one day in 1995, they say, the 7-year-old was abruptly taken from her foster family and placed with another family in parts unknown. The heartbroken Peeks, without even a chance to say goodbye, grieved as though she had died.

Now, after nearly 15 years of wondering, Audra Peek has launched an all-out search for her long-lost cousin, driven by a deep longing to redeem the lost years and fulfill the dying wish of the girl’s father, who had eventually kicked his cocaine habit. Succumbing to cancer this summer, he asked Audra to find his daughter and tell her that, despite his failings as a father, he always loved her.

“He said: ‘I need you to find her. I need you to find Ashley Marie,’ ’’ Audra Peek, now 25, said as she cried softly at the memory of her uncle’s final days. “It was the first time I had ever heard him say her name, and I promised him I would find her.’’

Since his June 1 death, Peek’s personal quest, which she secretly began in high school, has taken on new purpose. She has enlisted more than 1,000 online volunteers, and in July launched a Web page, “A Wish for Ashley,’’ where she writes a blog about the search, and maintains a Facebook page. The family has approached state social workers, who advised them to file a court request that could give caseworkers permission to contact relatives. They were told the process can take years.

Peek, and the growing ranks of those who are taking up her cause, send a standard message to any 21-year-old they can find named Ashley or Ashley Marie. Over the years, Peek has cold-called hundreds of people in the faint hope one might be her cousin, and combed reams of public records for any clue to her fate.

They have precious little to go on: A few family photographs, showing a wide-eyed biracial girl with a mischievous, missing-teeth smile and a frizzy ponytail. A passing remark from a social worker that she had been taken in by a family in Connecticut. Her birthday, Feb. 20. And the closely held memories of a shared childhood that ended too soon.

“You may remember our trips to Amazement [an arcade and indoor playground], Papa Gino’s, and the big Christmas tree,’’ Peek wrote on the website. “You may recall the song you would ask my sisters and I to sing to you.’’

The popularity of the name Ashley was among the search’s greatest challenges, but more than 500 of the 1,400 Ashleys whom Audra contacted have joined the search, moved by her resolve in the face of steep odds. “I needed to find a way to make this work in my favor,’’ she said.

So far, Peek and her family have had no luck, and are now making their search more public. In recent weeks, Peek and her siblings have held up signs behind the set of a morning television program in Manhattan and passed out hundreds of pins to participants at a Boston charity walk. They are planning to wear sandwich boards in Times Square in New York City and pass out fliers.

Peek, who lives in Cambridge and works at an East Boston charter school, said she realizes her search “may not have a happy ending.’’ She recalled a harrowing time three years ago when a biracial woman of her cousin’s age named Ashley Marie Cesenas was murdered in the Midwest. A friend called the police and begged an officer to tell her about the victim. He eventually whispered that she had been born in Texas, not Massachusetts.

Audra also knows her cousin may not be interested in reuniting.

“I recognize she might not want to have anything to do with us,’’ she said. “All I want to know is that she’s OK and for her to know we’ve always loved her.’’

Alison Goodwin, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Children and Families, said the agency cannot release information on individuals once they reach adulthood without their consent, and are restricted in contacting people simply to tell them family are looking for them.

Still, Goodwin urged Peek to contact the department to determine whether anything can be done, saying officials evaluate each case individually.

“If they are looking for family, we’d like to help if we can,’’ she said.

Peek also feels bound to tell Ashley Marie about her father, how he always felt haunted that his drug use forced her departure, how he quit and rebuilt his life, and how he never stopped caring for her.

“She deserves to know he turned it around,’’ she said.

Peek recalls visiting her uncle, Will McFarland, when he was in prison on a breaking-and-entering conviction. She recalls him as a larger-than-life figure who made everyone laugh and feel like they belonged.

While in prison, McFarland relinquished his custody rights, hoping they would pass to his sister. When he was released, he got clean and landed a steady job, but avoided his family for years, ashamed of the man he had been. Not until he was hospitalized with prostate cancer in 2007 did he see them.

“He would say, ‘I thought you guys were better off without me,’ ’’ Peek recalled.

Over long bedside chats, Peek and her uncle reconciled, and as he neared death he asked Peek and her mother to find his daughter and tell her he loved her.

Peek had to confess to her mother, who had been so grief-stricken over losing Ashley Marie that she never spoke her name, that she had been quietly searching for years. When she left, Peek had already cleared space for Ashley in her bedroom, and remains bitter that her “next sister’’ was snatched away.

“She was my best friend,’’ Peek said. “I just didn’t understand. I still don’t. We had been her family since she was a toddler.’’

Peek remains hopeful that her cousin will turn up, that an e-mail will magically pop into her in-box. Recently, she has dreamed about taking a plane trip to see her again at last, spotting her in the crowd gathered at the gate.

“I see a girl, and I know it’s her,’’ she said.

“I would know her anywhere. We stare at each other, and she smiles.’’

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