By Trace L Hentz
August 18, 2011
Depending on where you live, what state you were born and what records and information your adoptive parents have shared with you, every adoptee can now search for their birthparents and biological relatives. Despite the closed adoption records and laws, many adoptees are successfully finding their birthparent’s identity.
How do they do it? A wealth of information and the Internet, including Facebook.
As I am writing this, I remember how I used to think more about my birthmother. Let me remind adoptees - you have two parents and each has their own medical history and genealogy. Like I did, an adoptee may only have one parent’s name but that is enough to begin a search.
As I wrote in my memoir, I opened my own adoption through a kind judge in Wisconsin. I didn’t actually meet my mother after I found her. I met relatives on her side of the family. My uncle helped immensely. Then after I wrote to my mother requesting my father’s identity, I met him and we agreed to do a DNA test to prove his paternity. Many adoptees will do DNA with their dads.
Since I started my search in the late 1970s, I did it without the internet. Yes, I used the phone book. (There are later steps when you do get a name which I will outline in Part 2.)
Why is it so hard? Why are laws sealed? It’s complicated, convoluted, medieval, appalling and simply aggravating – yes, my friends said this – but it can be done. If I could do it, you can do it!
First, there are websites to register your birthdate information on the internet. For many adoptees, a birthdate (and hospital) may be all the information you have. First, look closely at your amended birth certificate issued when you were adopted. The hospital where you were born is probably listed and correct. But may be not! The hospital in Minnesota and county where I was born was correctly listed on my amended birth certificate. (The amended birth certificate is issued after an adoption and lists your adoptive parents as your natural parents.)
Check the date when your birth certificate was notarized and what state signed it. I was born in 1956 but the amended birth certificate wasn’t signed until 1958. Like many adoptees I was born in a state different than where I was adopted. In my case, I was adopted in Wisconsin. Adoptee birth certificates are usually missing information. Mine did not list my birth-weight or inches. Missing information is the sure sign you were in a closed adoption.
There are different types of adoption: Foster-to-Adopt; Infant or newborn adoption; International adoption; Step-child adoption; Semi-open adoption; Older Child adoption; Closed adoption; Relative – Kin adoption; Foster Child adoption; Special Needs adoption; Military Overseas adoption; and Embryo Adoption. If possible, ask your adoptive parents which type of adoption and ask them to show you all the paperwork on your adoption. If your adoptive parents are deceased, you may inherit your adoption paperwork, so you need to read them carefully for clues.
Sadly, adoptive parents are not always the best source of information. Asking them could upset them or they might be unwilling to talk with you. This might be the riskiest step of all. If you are not able to talk to them directly, use another family member to collect the adoption paperwork and information for you. They can explain why to your adoptive parents. A compelling reason might be future medical conditions like diabetes and cancer. They can say you need to know about ancestry, siblings, ethnicity, religious heritage, the genetic background of each birthparent, or possible inherited medical conditions. This is a very sensitive step and careful decisions need to be made to keep the peace between family members but it’s important to get all the information you can.
One example: My adoptive mother saw papers you don’t normally see when they adopted my brother. She had his birthparent’s names but did not write them down. This may be the case for other adoptees. Your adoptive parents may know your birthparents name and what you were named at birth. My adoptive mother told me I was named Helen. That was not my name on the adoption paperwork that I read when I was 22. I was named Laura Jean. My birthmothers name was Helen. So remember some information your adoptive parents have may or may not be correct.
For adoptees, there are two types of information you will need: identifying and non-identifying. Identifying information is the real deal with real names – yours and your birthmother. Non-identifying information has no names but descriptions.
In the past, nearly all States required a court order for adoptees to gain access to their original birth certificates. In 26 States: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico, all require a court order (reported in 2009). This will require a lawyer and a judge in the state you were born.
Access to your identifying information is not always restricted to birth parents and adoptees. In 36 States biological siblings of the adoptee are allowed to seek and release identifying information upon mutual consent. They are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. Depending on where you were born, adoptees should write a letter and consent to be contacted.
Some States have a search and consent procedure called a confidential intermediary system: States using confidential intermediaries include Alabama (when consent is not on file), Colorado, Illinois (to obtain updated medical information), Michigan (when consent is not on file), Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.
Some States have imposed limitations on the release of identifying information. Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas require the adoptee to undergo counseling about the possible consequences of search and contact with his or her birth family before any information is disclosed. In Connecticut, release of identifying information is prohibited if it is determined that the requested information would be seriously disruptive to any of the parties involved.
Other States use an affidavit system so birth family members can file their consent to the release of identifying information or they can refuse to be contacted and deny the release of identifying information. In Alabama, Alaska, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the written permission of adoptee and birth parents is called a consent, waiver, or authorization form. Some state laws allow information access: Through a court order when all parties have consented - Idaho, Mississippi, and the Northern Mariana Islands. At the request of the adult adoptee: Alabama, Alaska, Maine, Oregon, and the Virgin Islands.
Never give up, adoptees. It may seem impossible at first but help is out there.
Ask your adoptive parents for your adoption paperwork, if they have it.
Find the Department and Application Website for Your State
According to sources such as U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Child Welfare Information Gateway, states with open adoption records include Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon and Tennessee. If your adoption took place in one of these states -- or in states such as Massachusetts that allow some adoptees to access their pre-adoption birth certificate -- you can find out how to obtain your original birth certificate by going to the vital records department of that state for the appropriate address and procedure.
Complete the Application
The application form to access an original birth certificate, also known as a pre-adoption birth certificate, asks the adopted adult for information such as your full name, current contact information, place and time of birth, and names of parents if known. Most states require that you include a copy of your state-issued picture ID with the request. This may be a driver's license, a passport, a military identification card or a tribal identification card; follow the specific requirements of your state. Most states charge fees of about $20 to process the request. Wisconsin charged me $50 per hour to search for my adoption file last year. Details about the fees and who the check or money order should be made out to will be included on your state's application, which will outline your options for submitting your materials.
State Vital Records Websites
Specific information from several of the states that allow open access to pre-adoption birth certificates to adopted adults can be found on the websites of the vital records departments of the individual states. The state of Tennessee's website instructs adopted adults to contact its Post Adoption Services office in Nashville. In 1999, the state of Tennessee upheld a 1996 law when its court system concluded that making adoption records accessible "does not impair the vested rights or violate the right to privacy under the Tennessee constitution."
Adoptees need to know what to request, and how much it will cost and what conditions need to be met to access your adoption records and original birth certificate.
Register with every Reunion Registry:
http://www.isrr.net/ - FREE, The International Soundex Reunion Registry is a non-profit agency founded in 1975 by Emma May Vilardi. ISRR is a mutual consent reunion registry for persons desiring a reunion with next-of-kin. This agency serves the needs of family members who have been separated from each other by adoption, divorce, foster care institutional care, abandonment, etc.
http://www.registry.adoption.com/ - FREE, The Internet’s #1 Adoption Registry.
http://www.gsadoptionregistry.com/ - FREE, for adoptees desiring a reunion with their birth family, or to learn about their medical history and birth family genealogy and for birth mothers, fathers, siblings and birth family members desiring a reunion with the adoptee that was given up for adoption, or to give the adoptee their medical history or birth family genealogy. They offer Search Forms for the US and other countries, helpful links, live chat, state adoption laws, links to support groups, a Black/Grey Market registry for adoptees, and Search Angels.
http://www.adoption-free-search.org/ – FREE, Emergency Medical Locators for Adoptees (EMLA) is a nonprofit organization that conducts free biological searches for those who are in critical need of their family medical histories in times of life-threatening medical crisis. Each year, thousands of adopted men, women, and children lose their precious lives to catastrophic illnesses because they are unaware of their biological medical histories. Many more live day to day without knowing that they are at risk of contracting any number of disorders—including diabetes, heart disease, and many forms of cancer —that could be effectively treated, if not prevented, had they sufficient time, adequate information, and access to what is rightfully theirs: their family medical histories. EMLA is equipped with a worldwide, around-the-clock team of expert emergency medical locators who have successfully retrieved vital information on behalf of countless adoptees facing medical emergencies. This information has ranged from critical data on familial disorders to links that have resulted in lifesaving bone-marrow transplants.
http://adopteebirthparentsupportnetwork.org/ - FREE, The Adoptee-Birthparent Support Network (ABSN) is an all-volunteer search and support group serving those in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC and related areas, whose lives have been affected by adoption. ABSN is an affiliate organization of the American Adoption Congress and is active in adoption reform efforts locally and nationally.
http://www.metroreunionregistry.org/ – FREE, help in searching VA, DC, MD and more!
http://registry.adoption.com/ –FREE, Reunion registry for adoptees, adoptee blogs and information.
http://groups.yahoo.com/search?query=Adoption+Search – FREE, There are several Adoption Search groups in states like New York, Michigan, South Carolina and more. Look up Adoption Search and your state and join the yahoo search group to get daily emails, advice and free assistance. For example: Finding-in-Florida@yahoogroups.com – This is the Florida Search Angel Group on Yahoo.
http://almasociety.org – NOT FREE, The Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, or The ALMA Society is a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation funded entirely by registration fees and donations which are tax-deductible. ALMA does not do the search for members. They assist with your search through our chapters and search assistants. They do not act as an intermediary in contacting birth relatives, etc. Registration fee of $50 covers expenses. Volunteers are strictly volunteer. EMAIL: Marie Anderson, firstname.lastname@example.org or write a letter to: The ALMA Society, P.O. Box 85, Denville, NJ 07834
http://www.miraclesearch.com/ -NOT FREE, Paul Brown (Private Investigator-Adoptee) offers a free search evaluation but will charge a fee. Their website: We are a premier search organization with two primary search programs for Adoptees, Mothers, Fathers and Siblings separated by adoption: Consultation Approach - We will consult you throughout the search until you find who you are looking for. Our coaching will help you narrow down the choices and identify your biological mother, biological father, or biological siblings. Full Search Approach - We will conduct a full search on your behalf until we locate the individual. We will find your biological father, biological mother, or biological siblings where ever they may reside.
Google Adoption Search Registries for more but these are some that were recommended.
Get your non-identifying (Non-ID) from the state where you were adopted. Non-identifying information includes birthparents age and (in recent years) medical history at the time of the child's birth; their physical description (height, weight, eye color); heritage (religion, national origin, race); number of other children, and whether they’re adopted. More detailed data is collected describing your birthparents, not adoptive parents.
Nearly all States allow the adoptee to access non-identifying information upon written request. Usually the adoptee must be at least age 18 before they may request information. States that allow birth parents and adoptees access to non-identifying information are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. (This information is current through June 2009.) Also 15 States (Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont) give such access to adult birth siblings.
You simply must have your non-identifying paperwork so search angels and registries can post all your information. Put a consent letter in the state files where you were born. LAWS in each state govern when and how adoptees and birthparents may be allowed to contact each other. When both the adopted child and the birthparent want to be found, each can file a "letter of consent" with the appropriate agencies. Read this tutorial: http://www.gsadoptionregistry.com/beginnerstutorial.html.
Policies on what information is collected and how that information is maintained and disclosed vary by State. Read more: http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/infoaccessapall.pdf.
Go to a judge in the county where you were born and request to read your adoption file. (I did this in Wisconsin in 1978, a sealed record state)
Ask your adoptive parents to file a request for your adoption file and court proceedings. If they signed the documents, the adoptive parents have the legal right to request them and read them with the adoptee. Your birthmother had to sign the paperwork, too.
File a court order through an attorney to access your adoption file citing the reasons why you need this information. (Use medical reasons)
Contact a local newspaper where you were born and tell a reporter your story, and follow up especially if you find your parent or sibling. Some adoptees run ads in newspapers or create a Facebook Page with their birthdate. There are free ads on Craig’s list. One adoptee wrote a tribal newspaper and his siblings recognized him in his photo and contacted him right away. Use the media!
Contact your own state’s Social Services/Human Services and work with a social worker to gain access your adoption file.
Use SEARCH ANGELS: Search Angels like Soaring Angels http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SoaringAngels and Mary Weilding’s I-CARE in Wisconsin are volunteers who help you though all aspects of the complex process of a search, from start to finish. They may direct you to Web pages or other resources that you may need to explore. Some may ask for gas and expenses for their time and effort to search records.
Use Mutual Consent Registries - they are available in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia. A mutual consent registry requires at least one person from the birth family and one from the adoptee/child's family to register. These registries often fail to work because birth certificates are often falsified in closed adoptions when birthdates may be altered or incorrect. The original adoption agency from 10, 20 or 30 years ago may no longer be in business. Or, the birthparent or adoptee may not know or remember the agency's name or address (or state or country). Also, accidents happen, so mutual consent-forms that were filed previously may have been lost or damaged, due to fire or flood or human error. Plus, some adoptions did not involve agencies at all, or were not fully legal, so there may be very few (or zero) paper-trails or current-day administrators or storehouses of the adoption agencies’ paperwork. Mutual consent is not the best but do it.
Watch “Adoptees - Knowing Your Family History Can Save Your Life” by Jean Strauss: http://vimeo.com/23282016 . The Surgeon General of the United States and top geneticists concur - family medical history is a key component of a person's health. He said for adopted Americans, even knowing your original last name can be of great benefit, for it may give clues to their ethnic heritage. Access to information could, quite possibly, save your life. Get educated on why you need to open your adoption and have the tools to make your case when you speak to your adoptive parents, the media and others who inquire.
If you need help and support, visit: http://www.adoptionhealing.com/ - Adoption Healing is the largest network in the world for helping those separated by adoption with over 400 adoption search and support groups worldwide. A not-for-profit 501(c) 3 charity, Adoption Healing has adoption-related literature, support groups, healing weekends, conferences and a nightly chat. They are dedicated to helping people who have been separated by adoption to find each other.
Remember, knowledge is power. Every adoptee must do the emotional work to be ready for the next steps which include the searches and reunions. It will take more courage and persistence. The adoptees I know seem to have that in abundance!
UPDATE: LAWS in Washington state, Rhode Island and Missouri have changed so it is very crucial that you check with your state as to its laws. Some adoptive parents WERE allowed to change your place of birth so adoptees may have only their birthdate to start with. Just be aware that it is difficult to search if you don't know WHERE you were born!
Part 2 (2015) here: https://blog.americanindianadoptees.com/2015/03/states-with-open-adoption-records.html
(Copy and paste, print, or share this with every adoptee you know, please! Megwetch.. Thank you.