Young adult adoptees hoping to find more information about their roots may be facing a frustrating or prolonged process. Some have heartbreaking stories of lost documents due to fire, flood, or multiple moves. There are other stories of dissolved adoptions, relationships gone bad, or just a disconnection. Parents and military officers, domestic, and international adoptees all may feel the need to search. Sometimes, the search begins with an adoption agency, with the hopes that the agency will have answers for them—that somewhere in an agency’s files, we have original adoption documents they can request, and we can produce.
Although adoption agencies are generally required by law to retain basic information (rules and requirements can vary state by state), often that is not the only information the adoptee is seeking. Many adoptees insist that agencies should have all of the information about their biological family, but in fact many files have very little information.
Sometimes agencies have since closed or merged, making files less accessible for interested adoptees. Due to state and federal laws, full case records can rarely be handed over to adoptees; often, the limited information retained by the adoption agency can be provided only in redacted form.
Domestic and International Adoptions
Domestic adoptees who once had their original documents can replace these fairly easily, but for international adoptees, documents can be very difficult and costly to replace, as often only one copy was provided to the adoptive parents and replacement requests need to go through the original foreign court or Central Adoption Authority.
Tips For Starting the Process
Taking notes and trying to get the most complete history possible is a good way to start a search. Determine what information is available:
- Which agency or attorney facilitated the adoption?
- Was this a domestic or intercountry adoption?
- Was it an open or closed adoption?
- Is the original birth certificate available? Is there information available on the biological parents?
- Does the individual have their original birth certificate or a copy?
- Is it possible to speak with both the adoptee and their adoptive parent(s) in an effort to obtain as much information as possible?
Providing Information: What Is Available?
The first step when placing or receiving these calls is to obtain as much information as possible. It is important to gather all the known facts, as well as information that the adoptee or adoptive parents only vaguely recall. The information may be coming from a verbal report provided via translator, remembered by the adoptive parent, etc. Or the information may be a result of what the adoptee remembers from comments made during their childhood. If the individual already has their original adoption documents but is hoping for additional information from the agency, that gives the agency a stronger foundation on which to help them try and locate additional information.
It is important to determine exactly what information is available in the agency files, as well as what can be provided to the adoptee according to state law. Every agency must be aware of what is allowed in its own state.
Each state provides information on how to obtain original adoption records for domestic adoptions. It is also helpful to search online for government resources within your state, and find out whether the adoptive parents are aiding in the search or presenting roadblocks. Redacted records are usually readily available for both domestic and intercountry adoptees.
Each adoption agency has information that is retained for every adoption. Depending on the state, that information is retained for a period of years (ranging from five years in some states to 100+ years in the majority of states). However, over the years, files are often “thinned,” scanned, misplaced, or destroyed in fires or floods. Agencies close, attorneys retire, and their records may be transferred and stored according to state laws; some may also be untraceable.
Families move or lose contact with their agency for any number of reasons, perhaps missing the notification of an agency’s closure or move. For adoptive parents who finalized their adoptions in another country, the agency might have requested that all documents provided to parents in the foreign country also be provided to the agency upon return home, but not all families will have supplied their agencies with these documents.
There are also state and federal laws about information that can be provided to the adult adoptee. Although some states allow the release of limited adoptee information, often it cannot be released until the adoptee is 18 or 21 years of age. Sometimes it also requires the birth parent to first sign a release allowing for the records to be accessed. All states and agencies allow for redacted information to be readily provided to the adult adoptee, but that rarely answers all of their questions—for some, not having some information limits or slows their ability to obtain legal identification and proof of citizenship.
For many adoptees, the redacted information only offers clues as to their biological family history. Often they want their adoption file or original records so they can find and contact their biological family. Although not every adoptee has an interest in or feels a need to learn about their biological family, for some adoptees it is a critical piece of their identity that they feel is missing. Does the biological family have the right to privacy and secrecy or should the adult adoptee have the right to know all of the information contained in their records? Different states have different answers, and for many it has changed over the years.
Every state has a process by which the domestic adoptee can access their adoption records as an adult. However, some states allow for full disclosure once an adoptee reaches the age of 21, and other states only allow for the release of redacted information, which does not include full names or information about the biological parents/family of the adoptee. In some cases, it is possible for the domestic adoptee to register with their state, so that if their biological parents want to provide information or allow contact, they are connected with one another. But these registries are generally not well-advertised.
In international adoptions, information about the child’s birth family is often minimal at best. Occasionally there will be a basic history from birth, and some information about the birth family, but it is rare to have a detailed, accurate history. If a child was abandoned at birth, then no information about family history is available.
When families travel to the country to confirm their referral for the adoption, in many cases that is also when the family receives whatever information is available about that child. If there is involved biological family, more information may be available. It may require the adoptive family to take notes or repeat what they heard in court; they may record the information or keep it in their head. Sometimes that information is provided to the adoption agency or the family may have shared that information, but it is rare to have more than a few paragraphs of history and perhaps a few photos at the time of referral.
Acquiring And Maintaining Information For Adoptees
Adoption agencies should have a plan and a procedure to follow when receiving information requests from adult adoptees. First, obtaining all of the adoptee’s information is critical, including:
- Adoptee’s name
- Birth name if known
- The adoptive parents’ names
- The adoptee’s place of birth
- The birth parents’ names if known
If the individual was adopted internationally, try to determine which documents related to their adoption and citizenship they have in hand.
In a domestic adoption, birth parents typically complete a profile, describing any medical issues as well as any historical information about the family they want to share with the adoptee and their family. Sometimes there are letters, photos, etc. that have been left for the adoptee. In addition, there are state records about the adoption that may be accessible to the adoptee.
In a domestic adoption, adoption records can often be retrieved, though some information may be redacted. It helps if all involved in the placement – which may include attorneys, agencies, or other professionals – can be located and records requested.
After determining the basic facts of the situation and precisely what the adoptee is seeking, agencies must follow state protocols for the release of information. It is important to have the individual who is seeking information sign a release of information form so that the agency can speak to others on behalf of the adoptee.
States may require notarized forms, and often the individual must have reached the age of 18 to 21 before information can be released. Educating the family or adoptee as to which documents might or might not be in the client record is an important step.
Additional International Information
In an international adoption, information will often be far more limited. Some countries provide scant history, and there may be no way to obtain more information for an international adoptee. Some families choose to adopt via intercountry adoption precisely to ensure a “confidential” adoption; many countries have laws outlawing or limiting access to original adoption records. Even with adoptees whose documents have been lost, however, it is sometimes possible to obtain copies of their original adoption documents; it just may be very costly and challenging.
When families bring their internationally adopted children home to the U.S., they complete immigration procedures on behalf of their child. At that time, they must submit copies of their original adoption documents to USCIS. Families can apply to have their documents returned to them by completing USCIS Form 884.
It also is recommended that adoptees contact the placement and home study agencies to see what information may be available in their records. The agency might be able to put the individual in contact with their in-country personnel, who in turn might be able to go to the court and apply for the original adoption records (for a fee). Other searchers are also sometimes available and can be found by searching online.
For both international and domestic adoptees, the internet can be the best tool when attempting to track down information. If they have the names of biological family members, they may try to find them on Facebook or other social media.
Source: National Council For Adoption: www.adoptioncouncil.org/