Last week, I wrote Part 1 of this post which addressed many of the worries and potential setbacks in deciding to find your birth family. Go back and read that post for the complete picture of an adoption search. If you are adopted and are considering moving forward in your search, this post addresses how to do it. There are a few very different paths you can take to get to the same hopeful ending - finding your birth family. But as stated in last week’s post, proceed with caution knowing that you might not uncover the results you were expecting. Also, understand that you might not uncover any results at all.
There are three different methods for finding your birth family. You can conduct your own search, hire someone else to conduct a search on your behalf, or attempt to unseal your adoption records through court action. There is no one right answer, no cookie-cutter formula that works for every adoptee across the board. Instead, it is prudent to educate yourself on all of the options available to you, then pick the one that you think fits you and your adoption situation best.
Conducting Your Own Search
To conduct a search on your own, you must be willing and able to put in the time and diligence required for a thorough search. It’s going to take a lot of homework on your part to figure out the best methods for searching, proper etiquette to use when asking for certain records, and what is legal/illegal in the state or states in which you are conducting your search. You must be prepared for mistakes along the way and the possibility of having to backtrack and redo research.
You will also have to do your best to remove your emotion from the search. It might be very difficult to keep your temper in check with the records clerk on the other end of the line who is refusing to give you even the smallest bit of information that you think is rightfully yours as the adoptee. It can be quite maddening. Also, if you do find contact information for your birth parent, sibling, or other relative, it might or might not be the right move to try and contact them yourself. They may refuse to speak with you, hang up on you, or deny the adoption entirely. You might accidentally spill the news to a spouse who never knew their husband or wife had a child who was adopted into another family.
You will also have to educate yourself on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), how it works, what it means, and how to successfully use it to your advantage when needed. This goes along with other adoption and privacy laws, which vary from state to state.
It is not impossible to conduct your own search. There are definite advantages. You don’t have to tell anyone else you are conducting a search at all. You can keep it completely private. It will only cost you your time and small amounts for accessing records that come with a charge. You can work at your own pace. If you need a break, you take a break. If you uncover some information that overwhelms you, you can stop and only continue at your later choosing. Everything is under your complete control and on your own timeline. Costs are minimal.
If you decide to conduct your search alone, I would highly recommend A Handbook for Adoptees and Birth Parents by Jayne Askin as a resource. There are other great resources out there too, so do some research and read several of them before undertaking your own search. This will help you organize your search, start with a clear head, and stick with a plan.
Hiring a Search
There are different kinds of people you can hire to conduct a search for you. You can find a genealogy expert, private investigator, or any other professional who specializes in adoption searches. The biggest disadvantage to this route is the cost involved, though there is one group I am aware of that conducts free searches and that is Volunteer Searchers Network (VSN). I know they conduct online research only and you just have to pay for expenses. I have no idea how thorough their searches are, how long their searches take, if they have certain criteria you must meet before they take your case, etc. But it might be worth looking into. Also, several states provide court-appointed intermediaries to conduct searches for birth parents, but I cannot testify to how this process works or the quality of their searches.
Adoption searches can end up being quite costly because of strict adoption laws still in place and the myriad of resources that can be involved in a search. These are not easy searches to conduct. A searcher might have to visit courthouses, perform neighborhood canvasses, interview people, make lots of phone calls, write and send multiple letters, search social media and other online resources, and conduct surveillance. This all takes time, which in the end, means money for you, the client.
Another disadvantage to hiring a professional is that you really need to do your homework and find the RIGHT professional. This can take a little bit of time. You obviously don’t want to hire a private investigator who doesn’t specialize in adoption searches. You don’t want to hire someone who is not going to be up front with their costs, methods, or timeline. Personally, I would be searching for a stellar communicator who seems genuinely interested in my search and who I feel will give all their effort to help me find my birth family. Look for someone who is legitimate. A professional website, social media presence, recommendation from a friend who used them, online reviews or testimonials, etc. are all indicators of a legitimate professional.
There are definite advantages to hiring someone else to conduct your search. A third party does not have to worry about having an emotional connection throughout the search. They can remain unbiased and simply act as a fact-gatherer. Also, hiring someone with experience can be a huge advantage, as your likelihood for successful results are higher. A professional knows where to go for the information they need. They know how and where to get information, how to use the FOIA to their advantage, and are often more efficient and time-effective than an individual who is conducting their own search. Finally, a third party can be very helpful to use for contacting a potential birth family member. If a birth parent isn’t interested in any contact in the beginning, they often change their mind with time and have a neutral third party to recontact and facilitate communication with the adoptee. A neutral third party is less intimidating than the actual adoptee themselves.
Taking Court Action to Unseal Your Adoption Records
Perhaps conducting a search isn’t necessarily something you are interested in as an adoptee. Maybe it is more enticing to you to take the legal route of attempting to unseal your adoption records via court action. Maybe you have a deep sense of injustice about sealed adoption records and you feel a burning duty to take up that fight. There can be a huge sense of accomplishment in this choice. It really takes out much of the search component and instead replaces it with fighting the system for something you feel is rightfully yours.
This is, unfortunately, the priciest choice of the three. It can be quite expensive to hire an attorney to work on your behalf to get your records unsealed. And to make the stakes even higher, you risk the chance that the court denies your request and you end up both poorer and no further in your search for answers. So it’s not just the most expensive choice, but it is also the riskiest. There ARE a handful of states that provide court-appointed intermediaries for adoptees who want to unseal their adoption records, so you should definitely check into this option as well.
If you ARE successful in getting your adoption records unsealed, you might find a treasure trove of information about your birth mom, birth dad, and your own birth records that you may or may not already have access to. You could uncover a different name you were given at birth before your adopted parents changed it. There can be a lot of value in those unsealed records.
It should be noted that every state approaches adoption records a little differently. There are some states where you already have access to your adoption records, you just need to ask! These laws are changing all the time, so be sure to do your research.
For especially complex cases, I would hire a professional to conduct my search. Otherwise, your every spare moment might end up consumed with research that lasts for years with no successful outcome in the end. On the other hand, if your adoption details seem pretty straightforward and you have quite a bit of information to start with, absolutely conduct a search yourself if you’re up to it. You can always choose to search on your own, then turn to a professional if things get too complicated or you just don’t have the time to dedicate to it anymore.
For those cases that just don’t have any details to go on, those cases with very limited information, taking court action to attempt to unseal your records might be the smartest move and your only hope for finding your birth family.
No matter which course of action you take, I highly recommend that you register with the state adoption registry in the state in which your adoption took place. This is easy and sometimes even free to do. Your information will stay in that registry and could be paired with a birth parent’s information that could be a potential match. Also, DNA matches are becoming more common in adoption cases. They work a lot like adoption registries, but are DNA-driven instead of information-driven. There is also a price for these kinds of registries. If a match is found, you and your birth parent will be notified. It’s that simple!
I also recommend joining an adoption search & support group. These can be found online with a simple Google search.
I sincerely wish you the very best of luck in your own personal adoption quest. I hope you can find success and the answers you are looking for. If you ever do decide to hire a professional, I’d love to be the one to conduct your search for you. These are my favorite searches for so many reasons.