It is not uncommon for those who were adopted as infants or young children to search for information about their birth relatives when they reach adulthood. This group most often searches for birth mothers, but may later seek out birth fathers, siblings, or other birth relatives. An event in the life of an adopted person, such as an illness, the birth of a child or death of an adoptive parent, may trigger the actual search.
There are an expanding number of organizations that advocate for and assist in searching for birth relatives. This indicates both increased interest in and acceptance of this process. New legislation in some states permits more access to birth information, and new technology has the potential to make the searching process faster. A recent study shows that adopted persons are more likely to seek out information about their birth families now than in the past (Harris Interactive Market Research, 2002). And a study that reviewed estimates abroad and in the United States suggests that 50 percent of all adopted persons search at some point in their lives (Muller & Perry, 2001a).
Adopted persons who have decided to search for information about their birth families often start by talking to their adoptive parents to find out the name of the adoption agency, attorney, or facilitator involved in their adoption. It is also helpful to gather all readily available documents, such as the amended birth certificate, hospital records, and any other information. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, school, church, genealogy, health, military, DMV, and property records related to the birth kin all have potential usefulness for leading to a name and location of a birth parent.
Searchers may want to become informed about State laws regarding adoption and records access in the State(s) in which they were born and adopted, keeping in mind that some State laws vary according to the applicable years.
A number of States, as well as private organizations, offer reunion registries that allow adopted persons and birth parents to register the fact that they are searching for each other. Most of these reunion registries are “passive,” meaning that both parties (e.g., the adopted person and the birth mother) must independently register in order for a match to be made. When both parties register at the same passive registry and a match is made, registry officials share the mutual information and help to arrange for contact. Passive registries do not actively search for the other party.
Adopted persons may also petition the court which originally completed their adoption to have the sealed adoption records opened. Whether this is successful may depend on the State, the particular judge, the reason given for the request, and any number of other factors. Petitioning the court does not require an attorney’s services, but a petitioner may choose to hire an attorney.
People who were adopted from outside the United States (through intercountry adoptions) face unique challenges in locating birth parents. Each country has its own laws governing information access. In addition, there is great variation in record-keeping practices across countries and cultures, and in many cases, searchers will find that no information was ever recorded, that records were misplaced, or that cultural practices placed little emphasis on accurate record-keeping.