Porter grew up thinking that her father was a bad man. Her aunt told her that he had abused Porter's mother, then left her just after her little sister was born, in 1964. "When I was young, I didn't know what 'declared dead' meant," says Porter, who is now 37. "In my head I had been abandoned. He was missing in action to me."
The green-eyed, blond-haired Porter had a hard life growing up in New Jersey. Her mother remarried, and Porter watched helplessly as her mom was beaten by her new husband. In 1976 Porter's mother died of alcoholism, and Porter and her sister moved in with their paternal uncle in California. But Porter was a rebellious teen who didn't like living by her aunt and uncle's rules, so she agreed to be placed in a foster home with her sister.
The foster home didn't work out, either, and the sisters were sent to a home for delinquent girls, where they stayed for six months. By the age of sixteen, Porter was supporting herself with a job at McDonald's. In 1983 she met the man she would eventually marry, and in 1985 they moved to Denver to be close to his family. By the age of thirty, Porter was well-established in her career as an insurance agent, happily married and the mother of two boys. Although her life was finally settled, she yearned for something more.
"A lot happened when I turned thirty," she recalls with a hint of Jersey in her voice. "I had this humongous hunger to find family. Even though I had my own family by then, there was still this void. I had never even been back to New Jersey to see my mom's grave."
Porter couldn't stop thinking about her real father, nor could she shake the nagging suspicion that he was still alive somewhere. So she wrote to the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services to inquire about him. The department forwarded her query to the regional office of the Social Security Administration, which can search nationwide for a death certificate if someone--either a hospital or a relative--has reported the death to the administration. Porter finally received a return letter, stating that her father, Robert Elliott Pflomm, had been declared dead on February 1, 1971. She put the letter away and decided to forget about finding him.
But thoughts of her family haunted her, and one day in 1992, while she was driving home from work, she heard a song on the radio that reminded her of her mother. She can't recall the name of the song or why it brought back memories of her childhood, but the effect was strong enough to cause her to burst into tears. "I couldn't remember what my mom's face looked like. I had no photos from my childhood, and all my memories had become faded," Porter says. "I pulled over to the side of the road crying and called my husband on my cell phone. I told him that I needed to find my family."
Porter booked a flight to New Jersey. She worried that her aunt and cousins would be angry that she hadn't called them in sixteen years, but when she arrived at her aunt's house by surprise, her aunt was overjoyed. Her aunt also confirmed what Porter suspected all along--that her father wasn't dead. She explained that when Porter's father left, her parents hadn't bothered to get a divorce. Her mom had tried to locate him when she wanted to remarry; when she couldn't, she had him declared dead in order to annul the marriage. No one had heard from him since.
In the absence of a death certificate, declaring someone dead in Colorado requires convincing a judge that someone has been absent for five years and that all efforts have been made to locate him. While the requirements vary from state to state, Denver trust and estate attorney Mark Masters believes that New Jersey probably had similar provisions in 1971. He says people often declare someone dead in order to get a divorce, satisfy creditors or settle an estate.
Three years after her aunt's revelation, on a June morning in 1995, Porter was listening to radio station KIMN-FM/100.3 when she heard a man from a local search firm called Finds People Fast offering to locate someone free of charge for the tenth caller. Porter tried her luck and was caller number ten. She asked the man to find her father. Five minutes later the radio hosts called her back and gave her the names and birthdates of a Robert Pflomm Sr. and a Robert Pflomm Jr., who was born two months after Porter's little sister. "I immediately thought my father had left my mother because he'd gotten another woman pregnant," Porter says.