Adoption Research: The Agony of the Search; the Thrill of Success

by Jeanne Larzalere Bloom | Jul 2, 2009

Jeanne Larzalere Bloom

Adoption research can be exhilarating. With the secrecy surrounding many adoptions, it can be frustrating. It sometimes seems that you take two steps forward only to take one step back. To be successful, you need to be familiar with the appropriate state's laws, the unique language of the adoption community, and how to locate the records of agencies involved with adoptions.

Treating adoptions as secrets did not begin until the 20th century. Before 1940 the birth parents of surrendered children were generally married. A family crisis was often the reason that a child was surrendered. For instance, the death of a parent created a situation where one or more of the children were placed for adoption. Often there was contact between the birth and adoptive families. New birth certificates were created for these children. The birth parents names were replaced with the names of the adoptive parents. The court files were open.

It was shortly after World War II that states began to close and seal court adoption files. Some states sealed the court records for adoption cases filed before the 1940s.

During the late 20th century a movement began urging states to open adoption records. One of the arguments for opening the files was the need of adoptees to learn their medical histories.

Adoption laws set by each state differ. Some states now have open adoption-case files. Some states will provide a copy of the original birth certificate when an adoptee reaches age 21. Other states have Confidential Intermediary programs.

To know what records are open or partially open you will need to investigate the specific laws of the state of interest. You can learn about a state's adoption laws and post-adoption programs using a state government website. Or you can used a website like Bastard Nation's (BN) that has links to adoption-disclosure laws for the 50 states. Be advised that some of the BN links are broken and some information is out of date.

Adoption research has a unique vocabulary. The term used above, "Confidential Intermediary", is an example. Illinois law (750 ILCS 50/ 18.3) provides a way for adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents and other birth relatives to connect. A Confidential Intermediary (CI), trained and certified to provide this service, is appointed by the Court to locate a sought-after relative. When the relative is located, the CI explains the reason for the contact, describes the options available, and helps facilitate a mutually-agreeable outcome. Each person's privacy and confidentiality is protected during the process.

You can find an excellent dictionary of abbreviations and definitions on BN's Website.

Adoption agencies, hospitals, and/or other institutions often made the arrangements between the birth and the adoptive parents. Upon request these agencies generally share non-identifying information. But, some of these institutions have closed. How do you identify and find these institutions? Where are the records?

In the 1970s Reg Niles, a search consultant in the adoptees' right movement, recognized the need for a directory of adoption agencies, orphanages, and maternity homes. He spent years researching and compiling a historical directory. His sources included directories, censuses, annual reports, telephone directories, help-wanted ads, books, old letterhead, etc. The compilation, Adoption Agencies, Orphanages and Maternity Homes: An Historical Directory - Volumes 1 & 2.

This out-of-print book used to be difficult to find. Few libraries had copies. Occasionally a used copy would come up for sale. Often an adoption researcher needed to either know someone that owned a copy or know someone that lived near a library that had a copy.

Niles has generously agreed to allow TRIADOPTION to scan the entire book and place it on their website.

Adoption secrecy is fading. A person born after the Roe v. Wade (1973) Supreme Court decision may find it difficult to understand the pressure placed upon an unwed mother to surrender a child. The personal stories of 100 of these women were gathered by Ann Fesser for her book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden Story of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. The voices of these women are haunting and their stories compelling.

The records for adopted children can be found. It takes patience and persistence. It takes skill. And it requires knowledge of the laws. Good hunting!

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