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Searching for Birth Relatives

Confidentiality in adoption has been the norm in this country since the 1930's. Traditionally, it has been perceived as beneficial to all sides of the adoption triad--the adoptive parents, the adoptee, and the birthparents. Adoption agencies have supported the policy of confidentiality, and as a result the practice of concealment is almost universal in the United States. Hawaii and Kansas are the only States that allow adult adoptees complete access to their birth and adoption information.

More recently, there has been more discussion about this issue. In years past, it was almost unheard of for adult adoptees to search for their birthparents, and for birthparents to search for the children they placed for adoption. However, in recent years, searching for birth relatives has become more frequent.

Self-help search organizations such as the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) promote adoptees' rights to search for their birthparents, and birthparent support groups such as Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) encourage their members to search for their birth children if they so desire. The American Adoption Congress (AAC) is another organization that advocates for access to adoption information for all parties to an adoption who are at least 18 years old. These groups also support a policy of openness in current adoption practice. This means that at the time of an adoption birthparents and adoptive parents would share information directly or indirectly and possibly meet face-to-face. They could even agree to have some degree of ongoing contact over time.

Advocates for unsealing adoption records argue that sealed records allow adoptive parents the opportunity to deny the adoption and inhibit the birthparents' mourning of their loss. Proponents of sealed record adoption purport that confidentiality facilitates the uninterrupted bonding between children and their adoptive parents. Confidentiality is also thought to protect birthparents from later intrusion into their lives by the child and to allow them to "put the past behind them" and to "go on with their lives." A traditional closed adoption alleviates the adoptive parents' apprehension that the birthparents may one day reappear to try to claim their child, and thus possibly cause confusion and turmoil for the child.

While controversy in the adoption community regarding access to birth records continues, adult adoptees and birthparents are taking matters into their own hands. Many of them wish to search for their birth relatives, and articulate various reasons for wanting to do so. If you are a birthparent, adoptee, adoptive parent, birth or adopted sibling, or anyone with a close connection to someone in these categories, the following reasons for wanting to search for birth relatives may sound familiar to you.

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Why People Search

For some, the interest in searching is a matter of intense curiosity. They seek a sense of connection to someone of similar genetic makeup. They want to know if their birth relatives look like they do, speak as they do, or demonstrate similar gestures or body language. They want to know if they share similar characteristics such as a dry sense of humor, athletic or musical abilities, or an outgoing personality.

For others, searching is important for their emotional development. Some adoptees have a desire to know and understand why their birthparents made an adoption plan for them. They want to know if their birthparents ever regretted their decision or missed them. Birthparents, on the other hand, wish to tell their birth children the reasons and circumstances for placing them for adoption. Birthparents also wonder if the adoptive parents treated their child well, and if the child has been happy.

A third reason that adoptees and birthparents search is one that has engendered a lot of activity in the past few years -- to share medical and genetic information. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the University of Maryland School of Social Work have recently held conferences on this topic. The conferences covered topics that included how to gather, store, and transmit genetic information in ways that would be beneficial to all parties. In many States, this reason is the only one that judges believe justifies the opening of sealed adoption records, and for which they will issue a court order to do so.

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Ways to Get Help


Literature is growing on the adoptee and birth relative search movement. Many helpful books and articles have been written on the subject by adoptees, adoptive parents, birthparents, birth and adoptive siblings, and professionals who work with them. If you are considering undertaking a search, familiarize yourself with this literature and gather all the helpful information you can.

Support Groups

People who have searched advise new searchers to begin the process with a realistic rather than an overly optimistic or pessimistic attitude. Searchers should be prepared for either positive or negative outcomes. As a prospective searcher, you should also be connected to a supportive individual or group with which to ventilate your feelings before, during, and after the search. The supportive individual might be a spouse, friend, or professional counselor. The supportive group might be a local or national self-help group that has been formed expressly for adoptees and/or birth relatives.

Support groups do not only provide emotional support. Members of these groups may also have helpful hints for you as to how to go about the search process. Hearing about another person's successful efforts would certainly provide encouragement for you as you consider the possibility of searching. The national groups are listed at the end of this article. For referrals to groups in your State or the State in which the adoption took place, contact NAIC.

Adoption Agencies and Social Service Departments

If you know the name of the agency through which your adoption was arranged, start your search by contacting the agency directly. If you do not know the name of the agency, the adoption division of your State or county department of social services might be able to help you. That agency can also tell you about the laws governing disclosure of adoption information in your State.

These laws vary from State to State, and sometimes change, as new legislation gets enacted. Within the last few years, new legislation has been introduced in several States, and it is likely that other States will be enacting legislation in the future. Some national adoption groups are deeply involved in the effort to get legislation enacted allowing all adult members of the adoption triad access to adoption and birth information. The legislation generally is concerned with the type of information that can be revealed, the age and specific relationship to the adoption proceedings of the person requesting the information, and the procedures to be followed in obtaining the information.

In some States, it is possible to obtain birth data by contacting the Bureau of Vital Statistics. In a few States, a request for information can be made directly to the probate court in which the adoption proceedings were filed.


Some adoptees and birth relatives may not wish to undertake an active search for their relatives but are willing to be contacted if their relatives are looking for them. Mutual consent registries that match identifying information of adoptees and birthparents have been established in many States and by some national organizations. You provide your identifying information, current address, and telephone number to the registry. If anyone is looking for someone whose information matches yours, the staff of the registry put you together. In some States in which records are unconditionally sealed, these mutual consent registries are one of the only avenues open to you. However, some adoption organizations have found these registries not to be very effective. The national registries are listed below with the other national organizations.

Search Consultants

Professional search consultants are individuals who have made searching for missing people, and specifically, searching for adoptees or birth relatives, their specialty. They charge fees for their services. It would be important if you hire one to check his or her credentials thoroughly and ask for references from former clients. Before you hand over a retainer fee, you want to be sure that you are dealing with a reputable person.

Computer Networks

The latest computer technology is now also being used by those who are searching. Many of the commercially available online services have adoption forums or mailing lists. They may have forums for general discussion on adoption, as well as specific areas for adoptees, birthparents, or adoptive parents. Note: For those for whom the Internet information is a foreign language, either find a friend who knows about it to help you, or contact one of the other services for help in entering this route of the information superhighway.

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What's the Next Step?

Once you gather background information and get help from all these sources, you may still be left searching on your own. What's the next step? If you are an adoptee, you might want to talk to your adoptive parents and other relatives who may remember details that would help you to put the pieces together. You will want to be tactful in the way you phrase your questions. Birthparents might discuss possibilities with individuals who were confidants at the time of the adoption. You will have to think creatively and not necessarily logically to come up with appropriate strategies for your search.

Birth, death, marriage, divorce, school, church, genealogy, health, military, and property records can be useful, so use them. Newspaper articles and classified ads in personal columns may also be helpful. Some search organizations publish newsletters or magazines with personal columns as well. Keep accurate notes throughout the process. You never know which seemingly insignificant detail, when added with another one, will be the breakthrough clue for you.

For instance, one adult adoptee was able to find out which high school her birthmother attended. She then located the yearbooks for that school for her birth year and the years before and after her birth. She pored over the photographs of all the students until she zeroed in on the one she felt was her birthmother. She was correct!

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How Many People Search?

One source states that more than 60,000 Americans are searching for birthparents or children from whom they were separated as a result of adoption. Another source states that only 1 to 2 percent of adoptees search for their birthparents, while still another source states that 10 to 15 percent of adoptees engage in an active search. It is difficult to obtain an accurate assessment of the number of searchers in the United States and, of that number, how many actually locate their relative and establish contact. It is known that more female adoptees search for their birthparents than males do, and that usually it is the birthmother for whom they search first, especially if they were adopted as an infant. The growing numbers of search organizations indicate that more people are interested in searching than ever before. The important point is, if you feel a search is the right thing for you to do, you should do it. Furthermore, if you need help, it is available for you.

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How Long Will a Search Take?

There is no pat answer to the question of how long a search will take. It will depend on the availability of reliable sources of information, the laws in the State in which the adoption took place, the amount of help and resources you have, and various other factors. Again, if it turns into a long and difficult process, you will be glad you have your support network ready to see you through it.

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Some Things to Think About

If you decide to conduct a search for a birth relative, you are sure to experience many different emotions. Fear, guilt, anger, anxiety, and exhilaration all may play a part. The phase of life you are in at the time of the search may be an important factor, too, especially if you have recently experienced a major life event such as a marriage, divorce, birth, or death. You may change your mind about your decision to search more than once, or do some work on the search for a while and then suddenly stop. This is understandable and quite normal.

You might want to give some thought to or discuss with your support network what might occur or what you would like to occur if your search is successful. Do you intend to have an ongoing relationship with the person you find, as much as time, distance, and resources allow? Do you want the person you find to meet the people who are significant in your life at the present time? Do you want to meet the people who are significant to the person you find? How might your finding each other affect them? Do you want to satisfy your curiosity, briefly, and then move on?

The last question is very important. If all you want to do is satisfy your curiosity, you could cause more pain than if you never established contact. If the medical or genetic information is important to you, but an actual relationship is not, perhaps you should arrange for a third party or the adoption agency to obtain that for you. The literature on searching indicates that once birth relatives are found, they want to stay in touch. Therefore, think through very carefully how much contact you might or might not want to have with the found person over time. If you think you might be willing to stay in touch and maintain the relationship, expect some rough spots along the way. This is new territory for both of you. It might take a couple of years of living through birthdays, holidays, and Mothers' Days or Fathers' Days together before you find a level of contact or participation in each others' lives that feels comfortable.

When you conduct a search, the information you acquire may be positive or negative. If you are able to meet your birth relatives, they may be thrilled to know you or less than welcoming. You must be prepared for things to go either way. However, most searchers say that knowing as much as possible about their birth relatives provides a feeling of closure and satisfaction that cannot be duplicated. Good or bad, knowing your history or the outcome of your earlier actions hopefully will be helpful to you. Maybe if you learn only one crucial piece of information, it will be enough to give you a peace of mind that you did not have before the search.

Remember, a decision not to search is absolutely fine. However, if you decide to take the risk, may it be an enlightening and rewarding journey for you. If NAIC can help you in any way (see box below), please call or write again.

Written by Debra G. Smith, ACSW, Director, NAIC. Originally published 1990; revised February 1995

Nationally Based Adoption Search Resources

*Adoptee Liberty Movement Association (ALMA)
P.O. Box 85
Denville, NJ 07834
(973) 586-1358

Adoption Search National Hotline & Reunion Registry
P.O. Box 100444
Palm Bay, FL 32910
(407) 768-2222

*American Adoption Congress (AAC)
1000 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 9
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 483-3399

National Organization for Birthfathers & Adoption Reform (NOBAR)
3821 Tamiami Trail, #301
Port Charlotte, FL 33752
(941) 637-7477

Birthparent Connection
P.O. Box 230643
Encinitas, CA 92023-0643
(619) 753-8288

*Concerned United Birthparents (CUB)
2000 Walker St.
Des Moines, IA 50317
(800) 822-2777 or (515) 263-9558

*Council for Equal Rights in Adoption
401 East 74th St., Suite 17D
New York, NY 10021
(212) 988-0110

International Soundex Reunion Registry
P.O. Box 2312
Carson City, NV 89702
(775) 882-7755

National Adoption Registry
6800 Elmwood Ave.
Kansas City, MO 64132-9963
(816) 361-1627 or (800) 875-4347

P.O. Box 7945
Aspen, CO 81612
(303) 927-2400

Foreign Search/Support

Adoptees (Irish-born Americans) Search
c/o Catherine O'Dea
18460 Bishop Lane
Strongsville, OH 44136
(216) 238-1004

ALMA - England
P.O. Box 10
Rainham Essex
0708 55 6961

Overseas Adoption Helpline
First Floor, 34 Upper Street
London N1 OPN

Family Care
21 Castle Street
Edinburgh EH2 3DN
31 225 6441

*These national organizations may be able to refer you to local organizations near you.

Newsletters, Magazines, and Computer Networks for People Interested in Adoption


Birth Mothers of Minors (B.M.O.M.S.)
Cherokee Station
P.O. Box 20510
New York, NY 10021
(212) 532-4104

Birthparents Today
3423 Blue Rock
Cincinnati, OH 45239
(513) 741-0929

CUB Communicator
Concerned United Birthparents (CUB)
2000 Walker St.
Des Moines, IA 50317
(800) 822-2777 or (515) 263-9558

The Decree
American Adoption Congress
1000 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 9
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 483-3399

Geborener Deutscher
805 Alvarado Dr. N.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87108
(505) 268-1310

On the Vine
Sweet Pea Press
P.O. Box 1852
Appleton, WI 54913-1852

Open Adoption Birthparent
721 Hawthorne St.
Royal Oak, MI 48067
(810) 543-0997


Adoptive Families
Adoptive Families of America
3333 Highway 100 North
Minneapolis, MN 55422
(612) 535-4829

Pact Press
3315 Sacramento St., Ste. 239
San Francisco, CA 94118
(415) 221-6957

People Searching News
P.O. Box 100444
Palm Bay, FL 32910-0444
(407) 768-2222

Reunions, The Magazine
P.O. Box 11727
Milwaukee, WI 53211-1727
(414) 263-4567

Roots and Wings
c/o Cynthia Peck
30 Endicott Dr.
Great Meadows, NJ 07838
(908) 637-8828

On the Internet

Mailing Lists

Triad (Adoptive Parents, Birthparents, Adoptees)
Contact: owner-adoption@listserv.law.cornell.edu

To subscribe send E-mail: LISTSERV@indycms.iupui.edu
Type in body of text
firstname lastname

Adoptees (ONLY)
Contact: hartung@crl.ucsd.edu


General Discussion: alt.adoption
Persons Interested in Adoption: alt.adoption.agency


Andersen, Robert S. The Nature of Adoptee Search: Adventure, Cure or Growth? Child Welfare, v58 n6, Nov-Dec 1989, pp. 623- 632.

Anderson, Carole J. Thoughts for Birth Parents Newly Considering Search. Des Moines, IA: Concerned United Birthparents, 1987.

Anderson, Carole J. Thoughts to Consider for Newly Searching Adoptees. Des Moines, IA: Concerned United Birthparents, 1987.

Askin, Jayne with Molly Davis. Search: A Handbook for Adoptees and Birth Parents, 2nd Edition. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.

Auth, Patricia J. and Shirley Zaret. The Search in Adoption: A Service and A Process. Social Casework, v67 n9, Nov 1986, pp. 560-568.

Campbell, Lee H. et al. Reunions Between Adoptees and Birth Parents: The Adoptees' Experience. Social Work, v36 n4, Jul 1991, pp. 329-335.

Carlson, Jone. The U.S.A. Search Resources Directory. Ft. Lauderdale, FL: J.E. Carlson & Associates, 1992.

Fisher, Florence. The Search for Anna Fisher. New York: Fawcett Crest Books, 1973.

Gonyo, Barbara and Kenneth W. Watson. Searching in Adoption: For Most, the Decision to Search Comes After a Long Process of Internal Struggle and Ambivalence. Public Welfare, v46 n1, Win 1988, pp. 14-22.

Johnson, Richard S., Lt. Col. How to Locate Anyone Who Is Or Has Ever Been in the Military: Armed Forces Locator Directory. Fort Sam Houston, TX: Military Information Enterprises, 1990.

Klunder, Virgil L. Lifeline: The Action Guide to Adoption Search. Cape Coral, FL: Caradium Publishing, 1991.

Lifton, Betty Jean. Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience. New York: The Dial Press, 1988.

Musser, Sandra. I Would Have Searched Forever. Cape Coral, FL: Jan Publications, 1979.

Rillera, Mary Jo. The Reunion Book. Volume I. Westminster, CA: Triadoption Publications, 1991.

Rosenzweig-Smith, Janet. Factors Associated with Successful Reunions of Adult Adoptees and Biological Parents. Child Welfare, v67 n5, Sep-Oct 1988, pp. 411-422.

Sachdev, Paul. Adoption Reunion and After: A Study of the Search Process and Experience of Adoptees. Child Welfare, v71 n1, Jan-Feb 1992, pp. 53-68.

Silverman, Phyllis R. et al. Reunion Between Adoptees and Birth Parents: The Birth Parents Experience. Social Work, v33 n6, Nov-Dec 1988, pp. 524-528.

Strauss, Jean A. S. The Great Adoptee Search Book. Worcester, MA: Castle Rock Publishing Company, 1990.

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This material may be reproduced and distributed without permission; however, appropriate citation must be given to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.

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