At some point in your search, perhaps at the beginning, or maybe well into it, you will probably consider your options about hiring a searcher. In many states, provinces, and regions, confidential intermediary (CI) systems are in place, and a CI will be recommended to you by your agency or by the courts, or perhaps an inquiry of yours will lead to a solicitation by an independent searcher or a recommendation from a friend, or maybe you will stop in at the Volunteer Searching Network on the Web. This post is designed to help you through the maze of choices. I have strong feelings about the use of intermediaries and I will attempt to explain my opinions in detail. I also have a great deal of respect for Independent Search Consultants and I will explain why I think the money is worth it. In the end, however, the decision that you make will be the result of many different factors that only you know and only you can weigh appropriately.

Intermediary searches

Intermediaries are quite simply individuals with access to your file, either through court approval or because they work for an adoption agency, who use that information to find the party you are searching for. They will then ask that person or persons for permission to divulge to you, the searcher, their identity and whereabouts, or depending on the arrangement you have come to, they will obtain updated medical histories, or pictures or other information, to exchange through the intermediary. If the other party refuses, the intermediary closes the file and usually, the fee paid for the search is nonrefundable. Depending on the particular laws of your state or country, or the individual policy of the intermediary, contact may be attempted once more after a specified period of time, or the file may close permanently. In Hawaii, and possibly in other states, although none that I am aware of if an intermediary is unable to locate the person(s) for whom you are looking within a specified time period, identifying information is turned over to the searching party. After an intermediary search is completed, in any of these instances, however, there is nothing to stop you from pursuing a search on your own, or through another channel. You will probably run into the option of using an intermediary in one of three ways. Either the state, province, or region that you are searching in has a statutory intermediary system, and the court will appoint you one when you edition to have your records opened, or you can contact the CI organization directly. The second way is if your adoption agency has a system of intermediary searches, which many of them do. Usually, these agencies will utilize their own employees to conduct a search rather than an outside intermediary. The last way is if you contact an independent intermediary yourself. Some intermediaries work independently and privately but are certified and ask the court to release your records directly to them. This is slightly different than using an intermediary that works for an organization of confidential intermediaries, like WARM in Washington State.

Confidential Intermediaries

These intermediaries, sanctioned by the courts, have access to sealed adoption files to conduct an intermediary search. They generally ask for their fees upfront, and these fees are usually non-refundable if the party refuses contact, the party is deceased, or the search cannot be completed. This arrangement might be negotiable with certain independent intermediaries. Some intermediary systems and intermediaries will attempt contact with the nearest relative if the object of the search is deceased. The disadvantages in hiring an intermediary are the fee structure, the lack of control or input in the search, the inability to make the first contact, and the possibility that contact may be refused, and you might walk away poorer, with no more information than when you started. There is significant evidence that intermediary contact is less desirable for the party being contacted, particularly when it is a birthparent, than direct contact, and may lead to a higher rejection rate than direct contact searches. Also, in states where intermediary systems are entrenched, the individuals involved have sometimes actively blocked open records legislation, presumably because it would end their business. Also, intermediaries are not truly accountable to anyone. They usually collect fees upfront, and conduct their searchers on their own, with no identifying information or detailed updates provided to the searcher. Particularly with agency searches, there is little motivation to search promptly, and little motivation to utilize discreet methods of contact or searching. Court-appointed intermediaries have a steady stream of clientele, and seldom need to worry about word of mouth of their failures affecting them. The advantages are that the entire court file is opened to the intermediary, thus increasing the odds of success of your search, and you do not have to be involved in the search or make the first contact, which is a plus to some.

Independent Search Consultants

An often pricey, but very attractive option, is the use of an Independent Search Consultant. ISC’s are certified through extensive testing procedures. They are, in general, the best searchers money can buy. ISC’s are usually fast, and often you will pay no money upfront, or only a deposit until the person(s) you are looking for is found. ISC’s can run up to $3000, although most will be about 2/3 that amount. If you have a name or other pertinent information, your cost will decrease considerably. Some independent searchers are *not* ISC’s, who are perfectly capable. I recommend that you try to use an ISC when possible, but if you do use another professional searcher who is not credentialed, obtain references, and also try to find individuals who have used the searcher, outside of the list of names given to you by the searcher herself. You can find an ISC in your area by contacting the main office at P.O Box 10192, Costa Mesa, CA 92627, or visit their Website. The advantages of using an ISC are many. You get the convenience of a capable, fast searcher, usually, the guarantee of ‘no find no fee’, and the opportunity to make the first contact yourself. The disadvantage is singular but sometimes considerable, and that is cost. The solace I can offer is that if you search yourself, often through lost time, postage, document fees, travel, and assorted other expenses, you will often end up spending nearly as much as the ISC fee itself, although there you do have the luxury of spreading the expense out over time. One option is to start a search yourself to try and obtain as much information as possible before contacting an ISC, with the hope of decreasing the fee.

Detectives, Private Investigators

Another option is the use of a P.I. Usually they are less expensive than ISC’s, but the disadvantage is that they are seldom trained in adoption search, which is a very unique brand of ‘missing persons’. I recommend that if you go this route, unless the investigator specifically bills himself as an adoption specialist, only utilize their services if you have a name that your search is centered around, and have been unable to turn up anything yourself. Investigators are often skilled in this regard. Again, it is important to obtain references.

Investigative services, search organizations

You might also consider utilizing the services of a company such as RMI or Dataquest, that advertises adoption searches and/or ‘database’ searches. For some specific, narrow searches, such as DMV, credit file, birthdate, or Social Security traces (*not* SSDI searches or phonetic searches, which many people online will do for free or you can look up yourself)these services can be very handy, and many professional searchers use these companies. However, it is imperative that you obtain references, and are very familiar with exactly what information you will be receiving for your money, and what your other options are for receiving the same information. You can search the Social Security Death Index online free, from a link at Ancestry’s Website. See the document “I have a name, now what?” for more information on databases and links to sources of information.

You might also see advertised on Oprah or other talk shows, other companies or organizations such as ALMA, or those two slimy looking guys who shall remain nameless. I can’t think of a good reason to use any of these services. Most of the information and techniques these folks use can be found in any of the books I’ve recommended previously, as well as the ones that are in the book list FAQ for alt. adoption


Some people will conduct a search, or part of a search, free of charge, or at ‘cost’, which means different things to different people. A volunteer can be a good option when you need some ‘legwork’ done in a state or city that you do not live in, or are unfamiliar with. The advantages of using a volunteer are cost, although you should be clear upfront what expenses your volunteer expects to be reimbursed for. Do they include travel? parking? gas? Or are the expenses limited to document copying and retrieval? All of these things should be gone over in advance. You should also make it clear how far you want the volunteer to go with your search. On more than one occasion, I have heard or been party to situations when the volunteer was overly enthusiastic and initiated contact with the birth family or adoptee without the consent or knowledge of the searcher. The disadvantages of using a volunteer searcher can include time, as many of these wonderful folk have ‘real’ lives and paying jobs, and do the search work out of the kindness of their heart when their schedule allows. Also, volunteers are often less skilled than paid, credentialed, or professional searchers, and can make mistakes or generate false leads. I recommend using volunteers when you need very specific information and have no other way to retrieve it. Remember that most libraries have research librarians on staff who will take requests over the phone or via fax or letter, to research certain kinds of library holdings, like city directories, obituaries, and genealogy, usually for very reasonable hourly fees or merely the cost of the copies of the document(s) themselves. One very important thing to keep in mind is that volunteers are just that. Please do not abuse their services or neglect to pay, or expect them to act as quickly and thoroughly as professional, paid searchers. There is an infamous story, that I personally can vouch for, about a volunteer searcher who footed the bill for anyone who stated that they were unable to afford her services. One night, an individual who had claimed just such hardship, came to the volunteer’s house to pick up some documents. She drove up in her brand new Mercedes, wearing a ball gown, on her way to a $5000 a couple of fundraisers. The Volunteer Search Network, online, is a place you should check out if you are considering the use of a volunteer searcher.


Searching by yourself is certainly the most difficult, but often the most rewarding, choice. The advantages include cost, the ability to regulate pace, and the ability to make the first contact. Many people find the act of the search itself very therapeutic, others enjoy the challenge and still others like fulfilling childhood fantasies of being a secret agent or private investigator. Many searchers find that once their search is completed, they miss it, and they often become professional searchers or volunteers for others, or they engage in in-depth genealogies of their newly found birth families. The disadvantages include the time investment, the emotional investment, and, sometimes, the sheer difficulty. It is my recommendation that every individual pursues searching on their own, to some degree. Some who didn’t expect it may find that they enjoy searching and want to continue to the end, or until they hit an insurmountable roadblock. At any rate, for the initial stages of a search, the searcher himself is probably the most qualified and knowledgeable individual to carry it out. Beyond that, each person must weigh their time commitments, emotional strength, and ability to deal with an often unyielding and frustrating bureaucracy.

Bottom Line

Whenever you are utilizing the search services of an individual other than yourself or a close friend, it is important to obtain references first and foremost. Secondly, sit down with the searcher, intermediary, or volunteer, and obtain a detailed description of what steps they expect to take in your search, timelines, cost, and a system of updates that they will provide to you. Inquire about the fee structure and procedure for refunds, and obtain a written contract or agreement laying out the things you have discussed. In most cases, I recommend that you do not hire a searcher who requires an upfront fee, unless it is a partial fee for a deposit, and the contract spells out adequate and fair methods of refund and payment remainder. Check the fees that you are quoted with others who have had searches completed, but bear in mind the particulars of your search, and the state laws of the state your search will take place in. The best approach to searching is one that works for you in your individual circumstance.

This post was authored by Shea Grimm,, except where otherwise indicated. It may be copied and distributed freely, in whole or in part, as long as it is not sold, and as long as this notice is kept intact.

Credits: Shea Grimm