While adoption is a beautiful way to provide a family to a child who needs one and an opportunity for families wishing to grow in a nontraditional way to do so, it also involves the separation of the birth family—be it through private and closed adoption early on or foster to adopt. While an adopted child may grow up happy and well adjusted in a loving forever family, that does not mean that he may not be curious about his past or where he came from or wish to learn more about his medical history or siblings. Just as much as a birth parent or relatives separated by adoption may wish to pursue meeting their birth child or relative if for no other reason than to see how they’re doing and to make sure they’re all right.
Adoption search is quite common and even more so now with social media, more relaxed laws, and a push to end the secrecy surrounding adoptee records. Not every adoptee or birth family wants or feels the need to pursue adoption search and that’s all right, too. Every adoption is unique, as are the adoptees and birth families involved. As with most things adoption-related, it’s important to do some soul-searching and research before you begin your adoption search.
Am I Ready?
The adoption search spans all of the emotions from anticipation and excitement to anxiety and sadness due to uncertainty and so many unknowns. It can feel overwhelming for those curious about or interested in locating a family member to know how or where to begin. Before you take your first step, make sure to take some time first to understand what an adoption search may mean for you and what you hope to get out of it. Ask yourself:
- What is the goal of my adoption search?
- Am I mentally and emotionally prepared for whatever answers I may find?
- What are my expectations post-adoption search?
- Do I have a good support system in place?
- How might an adoption search positively or negatively affect me and am I okay with either/both?
No matter what you may learn from an adoption search—however much or little information, good or bad, happy or sad—you should recognize that it will have an impact on your life.
Adoptees and birth family members choose to pursue an adoption search with the hopes of finding answers, healing, and in some cases, adoption reunion.
The American Adoption Congress website offers some myths related to adoptee searches: “In a study of American adolescents, the Search Institute found that 72 percent of adopted adolescents wanted to know why they were adopted, 65 percent wanted to meet their birth parents, and 94 percent wanted to know which birth parent they looked like.
“Psychological literature has established that whether mental or actual, searching is an understandable, common and part of healthy adaptation for adopted persons. (A Psychosocial Model of Adoption Adjustment by David Brodzinsky, Marshall Schechter and Robin Marantz Henig)”
And regarding birth mothers, “Ninety-four percent of non-searching birthmothers when contacted by their adult birth children were pleased, according to a recent British study. (“The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of Adoption Search and Reunion Experiences,” British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2005).”
Hopes and Fears
There are many successful stories of happy birth family reunions. This, however, as pointed out by author Angela Barra in the article, Adoption Reunions: 5 Things I Have Learned As An Adoptee, does not mean that happy reunions are all rainbows and unicorns. She says, “Growing up, I held idealistic and unrealistic expectations of my biological family. I had convinced myself that reunion was going to be the answer to all my deep insecurities and grief around being adopted. I courted feelings of rejection and abandonment and I was not prepared for the complex path of reunion.” Barra goes on to say to those who decide to pursue adoption reunion, “Each experience will be different, so I can only offer general advice based on what I have learned and it is this: you have a right to know where you come from, go slowly, have at least one confidant who understands and supports you, seek out support from a service, link with other like-minded adoptees, be realistic and most important please practice healthy boundaries and self-care! I also recommend that you read, talk and find out as much information about reunions as you can.”
You should be ready for the potential of a failed search where you are unable to find the person that you’re looking for. You should be ready for the potential that you may find the person that you’re looking for, but they may not be ready or welcoming to the idea of having been found. You should acknowledge the possibility of finding the person you’re looking for, but that they may not be who you were hoping for.
Adoption.com offers a free eBook download called Reunited that may be helpful. It presents the stories of 19 people who open up about their own experiences of search and reunion, explaining the process and their experience of finding birth family members.
You may wish to discuss your plans with close family or friends who know your story and can help you through this step of your adoption journey. And as much as you may be hoping for shared excitement, also be prepared for worried looks and, “But what-ifs.” As with anything, it never hurts to talk with others to obtain the pros and cons and especially others who have walked in your shoes. Connect with fellow adoptees, find a support group, and consider learning about what the experience is like from a birth parent’s point of view.
You can find state by state support groups here.
Do Adoptive Families Count?
Adoption search is an intimate decision to make on the part of an adoptee. Some adoptees have shared that although they are curious about their birth family, they are afraid to hurt their adoptive family by pursuing a search. The Adoption.com article, “13 Reasons Adoptees Don’t Search for Their Birth Families,” says of adult adoptees, “Another huge obstacle might be that you’re afraid of how your decision to search might impact your relationship with your adoptive family. Even if they don’t voice their feelings, some adoptive parents are prepared for the date you finally decide to search. Reciprocally, some adoptive parents may guilt their children for their natural curiosities. No matter what, your relationship with them will inevitably change. It’s important to share your curiosities and concerns with them however, and to tell them that your search is not a rejection of their parenthood.”
According to American Adoption Congress, many therapists believe that adoption search and the process of finding one’s past history is so helpful to the adoptee that it can actually work to strengthen the adoptee’s relationships with their adoptive families. “Research conducted by the University of Minnesota and University of Texas reveals that parental fears about entitlement in open adoptions were unfounded, and in many ways, contact with the birth family strengthened the bond between adoptive parents and children. (Openness in Adoption, Harold D. Grotevant and Ruth G. McRoy)”
Know the Laws
Before you do anything, you should familiarize yourself with laws related to adoption that may impact your adoption search—both federal and state as well as understanding your rights to accessing your adoption records.
According to ChildWelfare.gov, “In nearly all States, adoption records are sealed and withheld from public inspection after an adoption is finalized. Most States have instituted procedures by which parties to an adoption may obtain both nonidentifying and identifying information from an adoption record while still protecting the interests of all parties.
“Nonidentifying information generally is limited to descriptive details about an adopted person and the adopted person’s birth relatives. This type of information generally is provided to the adopting parents at the time of the adoption. …All States and American Samoa have provisions in statutes that allow access to nonidentifying information by an adoptive parent or a guardian of an adopted person who is still a minor. Nearly all States allow the adopted person to access nonidentifying information about birth relatives, generally upon written request. Usually, the adopted person must be at least age 18 before he or she may access this information.
“…Identifying information is information from the disclosure of adoption records or elsewhere that may lead to the positive identification of birth parents, the adopted person, or other birth relatives. …Statutes in nearly all States permit the release of identifying information when the person whose information is sought has consented to the release. If consent is not on file with the appropriate entity, the information may not be released without a court order documenting good cause to release the information. A person seeking a court order must be able to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that there is a compelling reason for disclosure that outweighs maintaining the confidentiality of a party to an adoption.”
Many states use a mutual consent registry, according to ChildWelfare.gov, this is a way for individuals or parties who are directly involved in adoptions to note if they would or would not like to have their identifying information released. While procedures vary from state to state, many registries require the consent of one birth parent and an adoptee. Until recently, nearly all states required adoptees to obtain a court order to gain access to their original birth certificates; however, the laws are changing, allowing earlier access to these confidential records:
- “Through a court order when all parties have consented
- “At the request of the adult adopted person
- “At the request of the adopted person, unless the birth parent has filed an affidavit denying release of confidential records
- “When eligibility to receive identifying information has been established with a State adoption registry
- “When consents from the birth parents to release identifying information are on file
Beginning Your Adoption Search
What is (or Who is) an Adoption Search Angel?
Some people choose to work with an adoption search angel to help them through what can be a very confusing process. According to the website Adoptionsearch.com, adoption search angels are “volunteers who use their time, expertise, and talents to assist biological parents in finding their children who were placed for adoption. Adoptees also utilize search angels in helping them locate biological parents, siblings, and other extended family members.”
Adoption Search Costs
You can imagine that an adoption search takes time and money. Pinpointing the exact amount of time it will take or how much it will cost is difficult to do as each search varies due to different circumstances. While some adoptees or birth families may work with private investigators, others choose to rely on social media or services such as Adoption.com’s Reunion Registry.
According to the article, “The Financial Costs of Search and Reunions,” “The time and costs associated with any search and reunion can vary by each individual case. A highly-qualified and well trained private investigator or adoption detective can utilize very little information to get successful results. No private investigator can guarantee results, but be wary of any who make such promises. Ethical private investigators will charge you accordingly for their expertise and time, and that can fluctuate from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars based on their agency or organization. Do your research and ask the right questions framed above to begin the process of getting the information or reunion you desire.”
While definitely not impossible, adoption search can prove difficult, costly, long, and may come with many unexpected ups and downs along the way. Adoption search is just as much a part of the overall adoption journey as is anything and should not be dismissed as anything less than what it is to an adoptee—a desire to find the missing pieces of his life. Similarly, for birth families who choose to reach out to an adopted child, the questions and the longing are real and yours alone to work through.
And just like the uncertainty that begins when a child is placed for adoption or when hopeful adoptive parents begin their journey to bring a child into their home via adoption, the search aspect is no less easy or guaranteed to yield a positive outcome. Those who seek biological family members should be prepared for anything to happen and know that it is your choice to proceed or end an adoption search for whatever reason.
Adoption search can feel overwhelming and confusing to those considering it or who may have started to search but are confused as to how to proceed. However, many adoptees and birth families have successfully completed the process and discovered and uncovered things about themselves and birth family members that have helped to complete the puzzle that is the life of all involved in the adoption triad, but especially the adoptee. If you’re interested in adoption search, check out Adoption.com’s Reunion page for articles, guides, registries, and forums and the Search and Reunion Guide for a tour through the basic steps of finding your biological relatives.