Adoption Search Lingo

For Adoptees and Their Biological Family Members

Whether you are embarking on your own search or hiring someone to search for you, there are several terms you should familiarize yourself with. They will give you a clearer understanding of what lies ahead for your search.

Important Terms To Know

The following 24 terms are listed in alphabetical order:

Adoption agency

The primary goal of an adoption agency is to facilitate adoptions between birth parents and waiting adoptive couples. These agencies are often considered the “middle man” in the adoption process. Some states require the use of adoption agencies for adoptions and most are licensed. They most often provide matching services, counseling, home studies, education, preparation of legal paperwork, and post-placement visits.

See home study below for further clarification.

Adoption petition

This document is filed prior to the adoption and on behalf of the adoptive parents. It typically contains such identifying information as the adoptive parents’ names, ages, and address at the time of the adoption.

See identifying information below for further clarification.

Adoption support group

Just like any other support group, an adoption support group is meant to provide support to adoptees, birth parents (and sometimes other biological family members), and/or adoptive parents. It is a community of peers who can benefit from each others’ shared experiences, advice, lessons, etc.

Adoption triangle or triad

This group consists of the adoptee, biological parents, and adoptive parents.

Amended birth certificate

An amended birth certificate contains all of the same information as an original birth certificate, but replaces the biological parents’ names and information with the adoptive parents’ names and information. Amended birth certificates also list a different name for the child if their given name is being changed.

See original birth certificate below for further clarification.

Closed adoption

Closed adoptions are those that prevent any kind of interaction or swapping of information between the biological parents and the adoptive parents. Identifying information for each party is kept confidential by a third party (attorney, adoption agency, physician, etc).

See identifying information below for further clarification.

Confidential intermediary

A confidential intermediary is an individual who is appointed by the court to make contact with one of the members of the adoption triad on behalf of another member of the adoption triad. This person is sometimes a state employee, but can also be a volunteer acting on behalf of the court. Some states require the use of a confidential intermediary for an adoption search.

See adoption triangle or triad above for further clarification.

Decree of adoption

The adoption decree is sometimes also called the adoption certificate. It is the document that is issued by the court once an adoption is finalized. It states that the adoptee is now the legal child of the adoptive parents.

DNA registry

Many adoptees, birth mothers, and birth fathers are registering their DNA with companies who offer ethnicity estimates and relative matching features in the hopes of identifying and locating long lost biological relatives. Some who aren’t necessarily interested in finding relatives might only be interested in their health history and/or ethnicity. Some of the top providers currently are AncestryDNA, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage.

Home Study

A home study is required by all 50 states for any adoptive families applying to adopt a child or children. The process normally takes several months to complete and includes a case worker visiting the adoptive family’s home multiple times prior to completion. The study itself is a written report that encompasses the adoptive family’s fitness for adoption. This includes but is not limited to general background, finances, education, employment, social life, parenting style, references, and background checks.

Identifying information

In regards to adoption, identifying information refers to any information about a member of the adoption triad that, when disclosed, can lead to the positive identification of the individual. A person’s given name is the ultimate identifier, but other pieces of information can also be included under the umbrella of “identifying information” such as date of birth and physical address, among others.

See adoption triangle or triad above for further clarification.

International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR)

This is an international reunion registry for adoptees, foster children, or anyone separated from family who is at least 18 years old; birth parents, birth siblings, or other biological relatives; adoptive parents or legal guardians whose adopted children or foster children are under 18 years old; legal guardians or representatives of persons with disabilities; genetic offspring of deceased adoptees (or their legal parent or guardian); foster parents or foster family members; family members of abducted, kidnapped, or missing children; and genetic relatives, surrogates, sperm and egg donors in which the date and place of birth is unknown.

ISRR is a mutual consent registry for anyone who desires a reunion with their next of kin. It uses “soundex”, or a phonetic method of indexing names by sound to eliminate the problem of misspellings and/or alternate spellings for the same name. Therefore, it can find names in databases even when it has multiple potential spellings.

See mutual consent below for further clarification.

Maternity home

Historically, these homes housed pregnant women who needed a place to live for the duration of their pregnancy. Many single pregnant females were sent to maternity homes so as to “save” their families from embarrassment or shame. Many babies born to women in maternity homes were placed for adoption.

Mutual consent registry

For reunion registries in cases of adoption, mutual consent is often required before identifying information will be shared with the party seeking the information. This means that if an adoptee is seeking to identify his or her biological parents, the biological parents must give their consent or approval that the registry can share their identities and personal information with the adoptee. Often, if consent is not on file and/or obtained, it takes a court order to release those records to the party seeking the information.

See reunion registry below for further clarification.

Non-identifying information

In regards to adoption, non-identifying information refers to any information about a member of the adoption triad that, when disclosed, cannot lead to the positive identification of the individual. Non-identifying information often includes physical description, age at adoption, nationality, religious background, medical history, education, and social background, among others.

See adoption triangle or triad above for further clarification.

Open adoption

Open adoptions are those that provide some kind of interaction or swapping of information between the biological parents and the adoptive parents/adoptee. Open adoptions can take on many different forms such as meetings, letters, photos, etc.

Original birth certificate

An original birth certificate is issued for a child when he or she is born. It contains such information as their full name, date of birth, place of birth, sex, birth weight, birth length, time of birth, names of parents, name of doctor, etc. The information on birth certificates varies from state to state and has changed over time.

Redacted information

Concerning documents related to adoption, some content is often “redacted” or censored so as to make it unreadable or missing altogether. Adoptees are often given copies of adoption paperwork, only to find all of the identifying information has been redacted.

See identifying information above for further clarification.


Relinquish means to give up. A child placed for adoption is sometimes referred to as a relinquished child.

Reunion registry

This is a formal entity with a primary purpose to reunite adoptees with their biological families. Some are free of charge. Others charge a fee. These registries can be facilitated by government agencies, private businesses, or non-profit organizations. Many states have their own reunion registry. Adoptees and biological families are encouraged to register with the state in which the child was born.

Sealed records

In cases of adoption, records are often sealed by the state. This means these records are inaccessible, even by the adoptee him or herself. If records are sealed, they can often only be unsealed via a court order. Records are mostly sealed to protect the identities of those involved in an adoption.

Social history

In adoption cases with sealed records, identifying information is most likely the information that is being kept hidden. Non-identifying information is often shared, which sometimes includes a social history for the birth parent(s). This social history often includes some form of physical, medical, occupational, familial, religious, and/or educational information. It can also include hobbies and other tidbits of information about the birth parent(s).

See identifying information and non-identifying information above for further clarification.

State birth index

States began keeping birth records at different times. Some are kept confidential for up to 100+ years. Access to these records might require proof that you are a direct descendant of the individual of whose record you seek.

Some states have a state birth index that lists all of the births between given years. For example, California’s index includes births from 1905 through 1995. Adoptees might be listed under their birth name, adopted name, or even both names. Some might not be listed at all.

Waiver of confidentiality

Adoptees and birth parents can place a waiver of confidentiality in the adoption file with either the adoption agency or the state where the adoption took place. This signed document gives permission to the agency or state to release whatever personal information you’ve outlined to an adoptee or birth parent, should they come looking for you in the future.

For anyone who is unsuccessful in locating the child they relinquished to adoption or the birth parent they never knew, I highly recommend placing a waiver of confidentiality in the adoption file.

See adoption agency and relinquished above for further clarification.