The sisters hadn’t seen each other in more than two years. They share the odd phone call and email, but when Angela Johnson and Andrea Hill physically got together in October for a photo, it was a rarity.

They live about 100 miles apart – Johnson, 32, in Santa Barbara County, and Hill, 25, recently moved from Orange County to Long Beach. They both work long hours in retail.

  • Sisters Angela Johnson, left, and Andrea Hill were separated in the foster care system. Johnson found Hill nine years ago. Hill also found a younger brother with the help of Seneca of Orange County. They meet for a picture in Anaheim Hills, California, on Friday, October 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
  • Sisters Angela Johnson, right, and Andrea Hill have the same biological mother but grew up without knowing each other existed. Seven years apart in age, both were taken into protective custody as youngsters. Johnson found Hill nine years ago. Hill also found a younger brother with the help of Seneca of Orange County. They meet for a picture in Anaheim Hills, California, on Friday, October 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
  • Andrea Hill, pictured as a child, has the same blue eyes as her older sister, Angela Johnson, who she never knew growing up. They found each other nine years ago, and then also united with a brother through the help of Seneca or Orange County. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Hill)
  • Andrea Hill, pictured as a child, was separated from her sister, Angela Johnson until she was a teenager and Johnson was in her early 20s. Born seven years apart to the same mother, each was taken into protective custody at a young age. Johnson was adopted; Hill mostly lived with her paternal grandmother. in the foster care system. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Hill)
  • Angela Johnson, pictured as a child, was adopted at a young age and grew up without knowing she had biological siblings. She found her younger sister, Andrea Hill, nine years ago in Orange County when she was in her early 20s and Hill was a teenager. They share the same mother and also have two younger brothers. (Photo courtesy of Angela Johnson)
  • Angela Johnson, pictured as a child, was adopted at a young age and grew up without knowing she had biological siblings. She found her younger sister, Andrea Hill, nine years ago in Orange County when she was in her early 20s and Hill was a teenager. They share the same mother and also have two younger brothers.(Photo courtesy of Angela Johnson)
  • Sisters Angela Johnson, right, and Andrea Hill hope to build a closer relationship someday, after growing up without knowing about each other. They meet for a picture in Anaheim Hills, California, on Friday, October 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
  • Lawrence Murray, search and engagement liaison for the Family Finding Program at Seneca of Orange County, chats with sisters Andrea Hill, left, and Angela Johnson, who grew up without knowing about each other. They found each other, and then with Murray’s help located a younger brother who is now in college. They meet for a picture in Anaheim Hills, California, on Friday, October 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
  • Sisters Angela Johnson, left, and Andrea Hill were separated in the foster care system. Johnson found Hill nine years ago. Hill also found a younger brother with the help of Seneca of Orange County. They meet for a picture in Anaheim Hills, California, on Friday, October 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
  • Sisters Angela Johnson, right, and Andrea Hill have the same biological mother but grew up without knowing each other existed. Seven years apart in age, both were taken into protective custody as youngsters. Johnson found Hill nine years ago. Hill also found a younger brother with the help of Seneca of Orange County. They meet for a picture in Anaheim Hills, California, on Friday, October 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Sisters Angela Johnson, right, and Andrea Hill have the same biological mother but grew up without knowing each other existed. Seven years apart in age, both were taken into protective custody as youngsters. Johnson found Hill nine years ago. Hill also found a younger brother with the help of Seneca of Orange County. They meet for a picture in Anaheim Hills, California, on Friday, October 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

And there’s this: While Johnson and Hill are sisters, by blood, they grew up as strangers. Both were taken away from their mother at young ages and placed in the child welfare system.

Most of their lives, Johnson and Hill had no idea the other existed. Or that they have two younger brothers — one now at college in Berkeley, and another perhaps still in high school, somewhere, still unknown to them.

Johnson and Hill, who share the same blue eyes and taste for fashionable high heels, found each other only through the services of volunteers and professionals who re-connect relatives separated as youth when they were taken into foster care.

In that world, their story isn’t unusual.

For some, seeing lost siblings can be pure joy; for others, it’s frustration.

But for everybody brought together after being separated in foster care, seeing or learning about lost relatives – what many envision as a potentially happy ending – is actually the journey’s beginning.

Strangers reunite

“Meeting her was joyous,” Johnson says of the day in 2008 when she and Hill finally got together.

Joyous, they both say, but complicated.

Johnson was 23 then, and Hill was 16. They were both born to the same troubled woman, but other than that they shared little.

Johnson was taken from their mother before her first birthday. She read in court records, much later, that police found her as an infant in a filthy bedroom, malnourished and underdeveloped. She was suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome and failure to thrive.

Johnson describes her biological mother as an addict, often homeless and driven to selling her body. Today, she has no contact with her mother and doesn’t know the name of her biological father.

But around age 3, Johnson’s luck changed. She was adopted by a loving couple who wanted a child. She lived with them in Mission Viejo, as an only child, until she was 11, when the family moved to Solvang, in the Santa Ynez Valley, where her parents still live.

Johnson was raised with love and support, and remains close to her parents.

“I was fortunate,” Johnson says. “I’ve never taken for granted what my life could have been, and what my life is.”

Hill, born 7 years later, had a different path.

She was almost 3 when authorities took her into protective custody. She says she lived with her paternal grandmother until she was in her mid-teens, a woman Hill described as always encouraging.

But, Hill says, the time she spent around her biological parents was scarring, marked by watching them struggle with substance abuse. Both parents eventually stopped using drugs, she says, but her relationship with them remains frayed.

“To this day, they don’t even talk to me unless they want something or they feel guilty about something.”

So when Johnson and Hill first met, nine years ago, they were linked by biology, but separated by age and background. Their expectations were high; maybe too high.

“What I imagined was this happy family, a reunion of sorts, and an instant bond,” Johnson says. “What I found (in Hill) was a girl lost, seeking direction, stability.”

“It was heartbreaking,” Johnson adds, “to understand the opportunities I’d been given, but this young girl had to live the life she had.”

Both women remain happy they’ve met, and still hope to grow closer.

But Hill points out that, biology aside, their situation isn’t automatically easy.

“There is no book written about how you should feel,” Hill says.

“This is my sibling; I  feel like I should have that connection. But at the same time, this person is a stranger.”

File mining

Foster reunions, even in the 21st century and even in a foster care system that can involve lots of paperwork, remain difficult. Confidentiality laws and spotty information can complicate the process.

Like others in foster care in Orange County, Johnson and Hill had two primary resources available to them – the Family Connections program at CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Orange County, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one advocacy and mentoring to abused and neglected children, and the Family Finding program run by Seneca of Orange County, an adoption and foster care services agency. Similar programs exist in other counties.

The Seneca reunion program is a one-man operation. At CASA, there is a single paid staff member who supervises 25 volunteers.

Both programs rely on donations and both handle dozens of requests, mostly from children still in the system and from young adults who have left the system and are searching for relatives.

Lawrence Murray, the search and engagement liaison for Seneca’s Family Finding Program, has been reconnecting children and their biological relatives for 11 years. The job has taken him all over the United States, and he’s introduced hundreds of children who were involved in the foster care system to long-lost family members.

Murray, who has access to sealed court files, says he can find a lot of people on Facebook. But Seneca also employs a powerful search engine that allows him to generate a search packet with information that runs 10 to 20 pages long. Once he has information in hand, Murray says he starts making phone calls, writing letters, knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, visiting jails – whatever it takes.

Each reunion is unique.

Murray recalls trying to help a young woman searching for her mother, only to come up with sad news – she’d died of a drug overdose under a bridge. All he could do was give the young woman her mother’s ashes.

But even that, he learned, was better than nothing.

“That was closure for her. She didn’t have to wonder ‘Where’s my mom now?’ The unknown is scary for them.”

Murray gets search requests from county social workers, from within Seneca, and from Orangewood Foundation, whose services include providing resources to former foster youth.  Murray’s work used to be funded under a contract with the Orange County Social Services Agency, but budget cuts ended that in 2008, he says. Today, the program is propped up by fundraisers and donations.

Mostly, Murray works on behalf of children ages 11 to 17. But he’s done searches for kids as young as 4 and for adults in their early 20s. Right now, his waiting list is at least 10 children deep. Murray adds that kids who live in group homes with no family connections, and kids who are about to turn 18 and graduate out of foster care without outside family connections, get to “the front of the line.”

At CASA, any child or adult served at any time by the agency can request help in finding family, says Matthew Wadlinger, advancement manager at CASA who was in charge of Family Connections program from 2011 until this past June.

The average search takes about nine months, Wadlinger says. And in the 200-plus cases undertaken since the program began in 2006, Wadlinger says a relative or some significant person – such as a teacher or other mentor – has been located about 90 percent of the time.

Typically, relatives are shocked to learn about the existence of the child.

“A lot of times, what we’re looking at is kind of the black sheep of the family had a kid, and the kid ended up in the foster care system,” Wadlinger says. “And nobody knew.”

Wadlinger hopes that any former foster kid-turned adult in search of family, like Johnson, will contact him or Murray if they need help.

“We all come from someplace,” Wadlinger says. “Even if it is just the dignity of knowing, everyone deserves that.”

Surprise relatives

Johnson started looking for her biological mother when she was 15, with the blessing of her adoptive parents. But the only thing she knew was a first name – Susan. And without an accurate last name, all the early leads about her birth mother were dead ends.

Finally, pro bono social workers at a nonprofit adoption agency came up with contact information for Johnson – a biological uncle and her maternal grandfather.

She met with them at a McDonald’s in Dana Point. They told Johnson about her sister, Hill, but did not mention any brothers. Johnson describes the meeting as a perfunctory sharing of information. She was told her mother was in a better place, had a job, and was trying to repair her relationship with Hill. Because of what she viewed as a chilly reception, Johnson waited a couple more years before seeking out her birth mother, who Johnson later learned had not been told about her outreach.

Johnson met her mother and her sister, Hill, on the same day.

By then, the 16-year-old Hill wasn’t living with her grandmother – who died in 2008. Instead, she shared a Tustin apartment with another teenage girl through an independent living program for older teens in foster care. She finished school and found a job while in that program.

The year before, Hill had been living with a close friend’s family in an arrangement she thought would be idyllic, but was instead fraught with conflict.

Hill says she’d always wanted an older sister; someone to braid hair and share makeup tips. She had no clue about the existence of Johnson or any other siblings until she was in her teens, and her grandmother mentioned an older sister. Then, her biological father mentioned a younger brother, who’d been adopted out as a baby. That brother, now 22, is Hill’s only full-blooded sibling.

Hill was given only a first name – Russell.  At 18, she started a search for him. Murray, the relative-detective with Seneca, steered Hill to the website OC4kids, where she could fill out forms to waive her right of confidentiality and have the county’s adoption services cross check information in their database. Once Russell’s adoptive family was found, in Orange County, it took about six months before his adoptive mother was ready to have Hill and Johnson meet him.

Neither Russell – a Boy Scout who graduated high school with honors – nor his adoptive family wanted to be interviewed or have their full names used in this story. He is still in college at Berkeley.

“I remember getting off the phone and crying,” Hill recalls. “My brother’s so smart. I was just so happy to hear that he was doing good.”

Hill shared the news about Russell with Johnson. And after an initial get-together in 2012, Johnson, an avid hiker, organized a walk for the three siblings.

“I didn’t know how to bond with an 18-year-old boy,” she says, “especially one I just found out I was related to.” She still struggles with that bonding, and Johnson has only seen him twice. But, she adds, “He blows my mind.”

Hill and the brother are closer, and they’ve celebrated holidays together.

Hill and Johnson have a second brother, by yet a different father. Hill says her mother told her about him “out of the blue” when she was around 15. The sisters know little of him, except the name their mother gave him: Dean. They believe he is still underage, which would restrict their ability to contact him.

“I’m not sure how old he is, or where he is,” Hill says. “My mom only mentioned him to me a couple of times.”

Work to be done

When Johnson and Hill first got to know each other, Johnson says her instinct was to act the role of surrogate parent.  

Johnson lived in Orange County at the time and she took Hill to college fairs and to apply for jobs. She taught her how to do her makeup and present herself as a professional at work.

But, during that period, Hill made some life choices that Johnson opposed, a source of friction that can happen with any siblings but in their case proved a high hurdle in their relationship.

“I want her to know that I love her and support her, but sometimes that support has to come from a distance,” says Johnson.

“I can’t carry the pain that goes with watching her go through these things.”

Hill says her life is better now. She’s advanced in her career and helps to manage stores for a children’s apparel chain. After a troubled early marriage ended, she’s in a happy relationship with a boyfriend and recently moved to a new place in Long Beach.

Discovering Johnson was her sister, Hill says, “was just the coolest thing ever to me.”

She adds: “She still is.”

Even if the sisters aren’t as close as they had imagined they would be, Murray, who has seen the process many times, believes that’s still a possibility.

He watches as they sit for photos at Seneca’s Canyon Acres campus in Anaheim Hills, and notes that it’s good to see them together.

When the last pictures are taken, Johnson and Hill say they’ve got some sisterly plans: lunch and a manicure.