Simboli Ruffin turned 57 last month and she’s telling everyone. Friends, coworkers, the people she meets on the street. You would, too, if you had celebrated your first known birthday. Finally, she knows her age.
“Women don’t talk about their age. I’m running around boasting: ‘I’M 57!’”
It’s been one year since the Baltimore woman, who was missing child No. 1201298, found her identity. One year of changes big and small.
“Here it is!” she says, raising a little blue book like a holy relic. She chants, “Ommm...”
“First time in my life I’ve ever had a passport. Can you imagine? ... I haven’t even decided where I want to go.” She says, “All because of The Banner.”
She’s too generous in giving credit. Her decadeslong search brought her to the doorstep of self-discovery. A reporter just helped turn the knob.
The mystery of her life appeared last year as one of the first stories published by The Baltimore Banner.
She ran away after high school in the 1980s to escape abuse at home. On the streets, she adopted the name Monique Smith. She came to believe the woman who raised her was not her mother. Still, Monique had four children, bought a house, and built a career managing contracts for the Baltimore company R. E. Harrington Plumbing, Heating & Utilities, all without her identity.
Into her assumed 50s, she still didn’t know her birthday. She didn’t know her real name. She called herself the “longest living Jane Doe.”
Monique posted flyers in the streets and tried the FBI. She called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and opened a case on herself: Missing child No. 1201298. Years passed, then decades. She self-published a memoir and volunteered to help find missing and exploited children everywhere. Along the way, she told her story to anyone who’d listen.
The woman who raised her died with the secret three years ago. By then, Monique’s search for her identity consumed her life.
A Maryland State Police detective took up her case and helped arrange a genealogy search. Monique’s DNA matched five adult sisters in New York. They remembered her only as a baby; on the bed one day, gone the next.
The answers to her life rested in a birth certificate in New York. The Office of Vital Records Services stored millions of birth certificates. Without her real name and birthday, how to find it? She had to prove her identity to request it, but without her birth certificate she couldn’t prove her identity. It was a Catch-22, one more frustrating dead end.
That’s when the story of her search reached The Banner. A reporter emailed the records office to explain the trouble and provided the state police report. More emails, more phone calls. Weeks went by. One day, the director called her at work.
“They found it!” she cried out.
That was all last year: the drive to New York with her girlfriends and the reporter. She hugged the director in the conference room in New York. With trembling hands, she opened the file folder.
Her name was Simboli Ruffin. She was born May 13, 1966 at the old Fordham Hospital in the Bronx.
Back home last spring, her friends surprised her by offering to pay the application fee for her passport and send her off.
“Where do I even want to go? Maybe Belize?” she says one recent afternoon at her home. “I was going to go the nearest airport, BWI, and get on any plane and turn right back around. That was my goal for my birthday if I hadn’t had plans, but I got busy.”
She’s still adjusting to her new name. Some friends call her Monique. She practices the pronunciation: Sim-bo-lee? Sim-boli?
“I’m easing into it. Everyone says, that’s ridiculous. It’s a beautiful name. But I got to feel it.”
In addition, she says, the Lifetime network wants to film a two-hour scripted movie on her life story, but the project has slowed because of the film and television writers’ strike.
Her advocacy work, meanwhile, has redoubled. There she was last month with Gov. Wes Moore when he signed the Safe Harbor law to protect trafficked children from criminal charges. The governor’s pen sits on her home desk.
The emails and social media messages still arrive from other sons and daughters who suspect they were taken at birth. She’s there to listen, to say that she believes them.
“People just think that the milk carton kids, that every single child that goes missing, is deceased,” she says.
Indeed, it’s been a year of change big and small for the Baltimore woman known as the “longest-living Jane Doe,” but there remains one constant. She’s been saying it before she found herself. Seated now in her dining room, she says it again, her prayer for the kids on the milk cartons.
“Not all missing children are dead.”