Adoption Record Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

The popular press, through its frequent reports about celebrities as Madonna and Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie, makes adoption seem in vogue. Reunions between birth parents and their children are reported as human interest stories in magazines, newspapers and on television. The issue, however, is much more immediate for the over 140,000,000 Americans who have experienced an adoption in their pressing families. The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse reported in 2003 that “72% of adolescent American adoptees want to know why they were adopted; 65% want to meet their parents; and 94% want to know which parent they look like.”

Until just a little over ten years ago, I knew of no adoption in my family. When my son married, however, I learned that my daughter-in-law had been adopted as an infant. What she knew about her birth-mother was limited to her surname, and this only because the name had been poorly redacted on a hospital birth record in the possession of her adoptive-mother. In helping her to identify her birth-mother and family, I discovered how difficult this research process can be. Another friend, also aware that she had been adopted, had a much different experience. She answered the phone one day to hear the caller tell her that he thought he was her brother, thus introducing her to her birth-parents and siblings.

Many individuals want to find a birth parent to better understand their own identities or to learn about family health histories. Similarly, there are birth-parents who wish to learn about the children whom they have relinquished for adoption. This process is made particularly difficult, however, by the often limited or nonexistent information on which to base any research. The issue is further stymied by the legal system which, in many cases, blocks access to adoption records.

This cloak of secrecy has not always been the case. We know from our family research that in earlier generations children born out of wed-lock, or whose parents had died, were often taken in by other family members or by another family in the community. Such transactions were not kept secret nor did they involve any formal process. “Legal adoption” did not come into being until the latter half of the nineteenth century when all such proceedings were documented in open court records. Later, such records began to be closed to the general public – but not to the individuals involved in the adoption. As time progressed, however, adoptive families sought protection from the possibility of interference by birth-parents. States began to seal original birth records and issue new birth certificates listing the adoptive parents’ names without indicating that they were not the birth-parents. Furthermore, another friend has discovered that these records are very difficult to access even when the information contained within them can no longer “cause harm.” Her efforts to access possible original adoption records in Baltimore for her now-deceased father (who had no other descendants) have resulted in nothing but bureaucratic frustration (a poorly-written response from a clerk asking her to send in the very document that she had submitted with her request, for example).

With half of the American population discovering at least one adoption in their immediate families, the implications for accurate genealogical research are significant. This issue is being addressed by organizations such as Americans for Open Records (AmFOR) which is working to reopen closed adoptions so that individuals who wish to know about their birth-parents or children will have ready access to the information. (Of particular interest on the AmFOR site is a genealogical circle/fan chart that documents the birth-family information on the top half and adoptive-family information on the bottom.) Another organization working on the issue is the American Adoption Congress, an umbrella organization of individuals, families, and organizations who are “committed to adoption reform.”

If you wish to begin research into adoption records, a basic source is Lori Carangelo’s The Ultimate Search Book, now in its fourth edition (Clearfield Co., 2011). Chapter One provides forty pointers for those starting research. As with any research, the process begins with a list of the facts you know. These facts may be documented in open-access records or in family documents, or gained from the personal knowledge of family members. (In my daughter-in-law’s case, she knew a surname, a location, and an approximate age of her birth-mother.) Other tips include how to discover the current name of a person caused by marriage, divorce or adoption; how to discover changes of address; how to use a Social Security number to pinpoint an individual’s general location at the time of application; how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) may help you gain access to records; how to locate prisoners (please note that the text indicates a broken link); how to use the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISSR); and how to hire a licensed private investigator, etc. The author’s discussion of six types of birth certificates (hospital, local/county, state, privately issued “family record,” religious baptismal, “amended” adoption, and foreign, is very helpful.

Other chapters discuss Internet research; research in individual states (Carangelo lists central record offices at the state level; adoption search and support groups; and, for some states, adoption disclosure statements); and research in individual foreign countries. An addendum lists state private investigator licensing boards.

Further information on adoption research is available through the almost 200 links on Cyndi’s List. Here you will find thirty-one links to professional researchers (listed as a courtesy, not as endorsement) including services provided by businesses, individuals and organizations. Two such services are the New York City Birth Index Search Service, which, if you provide the last digits of your amended birth certificate, will match those numbers to your original birth certificate (for a fee); and Birthsearcher.com, which specializes in California adoption record research. A variety of mailing lists are available,  including the Blackadoptiontriad Mailing List and the Adoption-Gen Mailing List. Of particular interest is John Fuller’s Genealogy Resources on the Internet – Adoption Mailing Lists which indexes links for all known genealogy mailing lists. Other Internet resources provide access to adoption information or services for specific areas as broad as Canada and the United Kingdom, or as narrow as adoptees born in Miami, Florida, between 1927 and 1963; and general resources providing searches, articles and online support.

In the course of my daughter-in-law’s research, she was able to contact an individual online who would search adoption agency and birth records for a specific time period. Once the agency had identified her, they contacted the birth-mother who sent my daughter-in-law a letter. In it the birth-mother explained that while she regretted not pursuing further personal contact, she did not want to do so as her family had never known about the birth and she did not want to open the issue with them now. (I must admit that the letter did little to offer closure, as it also indicated the existence of a sister who was in contact with the mother.)

Adoption record research is full of such pitfalls and closed doors, but searchers do achieve success in many instances. For this reason, we actively need to support efforts to secure open access to records, while respecting the privacy of living individuals who do not wish to be identified.

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