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Seeking Birth Parents After an Adoption

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

While some adopted children never develop an interest in finding their birth parents, others become curious as they get older. They may choose, at some point, to seek out their birth parents in order to get answers to their questions. Children's motivations for wanting to find their biological parents are diverse. They may be curious to know who gave birth to them and why they chose adoption. They may want to know if they have any siblings. They may want some sort of emotional intimacy with their biological parents. They may merely have health questions that only birth parents can answer. This latter reason becomes prominent for some adopted children as they reach adulthood and contemplate having children of their own.

The child’s decision to seek out their biological parents can easily frighten adoptive parents who may fear their child will reject them. Adoptive parents should recognize, however, that their child's decision to search doesn't in any way imply that he or she does not love them or consider them their real family. Rather, the decision to search frequently means only that the child needs answers that the adoptive family is unable to provide. Adoptive parents can help such children by providing them with any records that they were given at the time adoption took place, but even this information may not be enough to satisfy the child's curiosity.

The process for locating birth parents differs based on the type of adoption and the state in which the adoption occurred. Locating birth parents is generally very easy when the adoption was open or semi-open, as birth parent contact information has been shared. It may simply be a matter of the child or adoptive parents calling the birth parents and initiating a discussion.

The process of locating birth parents is more difficult with closed adoptions. In such cases, adoption records were sealed by the court, and only a court order can make them public again. Luckily, the advent of the Internet has made the process of finding birth parents a great deal easier, at least when both parties want to be found. Online adoption registries that both adopted children and birth parents can participate in are designed to reunite willing children and birth parents. Birth parents and children can each provide necessary contact information and give their consent for their information to be shared should a match be made.

When birth parents do not want to be found, there are still mechanisms for helping adoptive children to learn the answers to some of their questions. In rare instances (e.g., the onset of a chronic illness with uncertain future), an adopted child may petition the court that granted their adoption to open their adoption file so as to make its contents visible to that child. Other states, such as California, now have processes in place that help adopted children request medical information in their sealed records by sending the state notarized letters, and by providing their date of birth, adoptive parents’ names, and location of their adoption. The state will then provide basic medical information that is on file, but not release contact information or any information that would lead the child to be able to locate the birth parents.

Some states (Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, and Oregon are examples) are open record states. In such states, adopted children can fill out a form and receive a copy of identifying information about the birth parents. When this is not an option, adopted children can also choose to hire an adoption agency or researcher who can conduct a private search on their behalf. There are also special registries that international adoptees can use to try to locate their birth parents.

Once the search is completed and birth parents have been located, the adopted child (and family, if the child is younger) will then need to work through issues including how to make contact with the birth parents, what sort of contact to set up, and how much contact to have. Children who contact their birth parents through means other than mutual consent registries should be prepared for the possibility that their birth parents may not want contact with them and may refuse or otherwise reject a request for contact. Should this occur, it would be a statement about the psychological needs of the birth parent, and not at all a commentary on the desirability of the adopted child. Even though this much would be true and obvious to outside observers, the rejection will still be felt in a very personal way, and it is likely to hurt the child should it occur. The family can help the child to deal with such a possibility by continuing to love and support the child as they have in the past, and by listening to the child’s feelings and helping him or her to process and make sense of them.