It is not unusual to uncover indications of an adoption when compiling
a family history. It is just one of the surprises that are part of a family
tree. Adoption is commonly spoken about today, but on the topic our ancestors
were primarily silent. Evidence of historic adoptions is apt to be buried
in language and documents, so researching an adoption requires an understanding
of terminology and where to locate information. No matter what the time
period, finding birth parents is an emotional, time-consuming process
that does not come with a guarantee of success.
If you decide to research a contemporary adoption, then legal complications
will hinder your search. State laws governing adoption restrict the amount
of information that can be provided. Also, since an adoption consists
of three parties, the birth parents, the adoptive parents and the child,
there is a good chance that most if not all of these individuals will
be alive. Keep in mind that not every birth parent wants to be found and
not every adoptee wants to seek their birth parents In addition, the quest
for adoption information can be difficult for some adoptive parents to
understand. All the steps in adoption research need to be handled carefully
and with good judgment, bearing in mind the consequences for all the participants
of the adoption.
A certain amount of data is necessary to increase the prospects of locating
the adoption information. In particular you need to establish a time frame
for the event and locate the name of the birth mother The first is usually
easy to verify, but finding a name is a challenging task.
When Did the Adoption Occur?
For most of the history of this country, adoption was informal and material
can be difficult to locate. Evidence relating to adoption in the seventeenth
century through mid-nineteenth century is usually hidden in documents
such as apprenticeships and guardianships. While infertile couples may
have sought to adopt, children were also part of the economic process.
They were placed in families that needed the extra labor or taken in by
relatives. Individuals unable to care for themselves, children included,
were cared for by the town or city poor laws. Since these work or care
arrangements were informal, the only positive proof may occur in a probate
record where someone refers to "their adopted child." Unfortunately there
are no statistics relating to adoption until the mid-nineteenth century.
In the nineteenth century, states began to pass legislation formalizing
the adoption process. The establishment of charitable institutions that
took an interest in abandoned and abused children created a variety of
adoption options. Children became the responsibility of various state
and charitable groups when their parents either died or became unable
to care for them. These agency records usually contain data regarding
the adoption and are a good source of additional family information, such
as the names of siblings. When examining nineteenth century documents,
be careful not to equate "orphan" with an individual available for adoption.
It referred to someone whose mother or father had died. For instance,
many children at the end of the Civil War were considered orphans because
they had lost their father in the War, although their mother may still
have been living. The most well-known adoption cases in the United States
are the Orphan Trains that
moved thousands of children from social agencies and orphanages in cities
like New York from 1853 to 1929 and placed them with families in the Midwest.
Census records, guardianships, and probate dockets also provide clues
to adoption in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In the case of census
records, look for children that have a different surname than the rest
of the family or for lists of residents of orphanages and agencies. In
addition, try juvenile court documents, poor farm records and case files
of state charities and social service agencies. Abandoned or orphaned
children became the responsibility of the town or state. Abused or neglected
children were taken from the parents and placed in agency-run homes until
they were adopted or were able to care for themselves.
Informal adoptions also occurred within the family. When a single woman
had a child her married sister or brother could take responsibility for
the baby. These adoptions are almost impossible to trace unless someone
in the family is willing to discuss it.
In the twentieth century, courts defined the terms and conditions of
adoption. From the 1930s through the 1950s, adoption records became sealed
to protect all the parties involved in the process. This removed children
from the stigma of illegitimacy and distanced the birthmother from her
pregnancy. This secrecy also protected adoptive parents from scrutiny
over their decision to adopt. Each state has statutes regarding the confidentiality
of adoption materials.
Regardless of when the adoption occurred there are certain documents
that usually prove helpful. Just as certain sets of records pertain to
births, deaths and marriages, there is a group of materials that can contain
information relating to an adoption.
Types of Documents
Agency Records: Was the child originally placed with a state
agency, or a private organization? The placement records or case documents
usually contain helpful hints such as data on other siblings, names
of the birthparent's and descriptive information.
Birth Certificate or Amended Birth Certificate: The former
provides the names of the birth parents and the child's birth name
while an amended certificate contains the names of the adoptive parents
and the child's adoptive name.
Census Records: The relationship column can supply the verification
you need. "AD son" signifies an adopted son.
Guardianships: In cases where one or both parents have died,
leaving minor children, the court can appoint a guardian to care for
the children. In many instances, these guardians are family members.
In the nineteenth century this is a clue to an adoption.
Hospital Records: Hospitals maintain birth records for infants
and birthmothers. If you know the name of the hospital where the baby
was born this might provide additional information.
Name Changes: Petitions to change names can indicate an adoption.
Newspapers: Look in the legal section of the paper for notices
relating to an adoption hearing or an advertisement that tries to
Probate Records: Probate courts often handled guardianships
and adoptions. Wills help clarify relationships.
State Legislative Records: In some states the General Assembly
accepted adoption petitions from prospective adoptive parents. This
contains the child's birth name and the name of the adoptive parents.
Do You Know the Birth Mother's Full Name?
This is a difficult question to answer. If you are researching an historic
adoption, before the institution of laws, then you should be able to find
appropriate documentation as long as you know when and where the adoption
occurred and the names of the adoptive parents . In the case of living
persons, unless you were adopted in a state with an open records statute,
you may not be able to find the answer to this question. There are a few
ways to try to locate this missing piece of data.
Begin by reexamining all the documents in your possession that can
provide clues. Don't forget to scrutinize all the materials pertaining
to the adoption to see if you overlooked anything. One woman found
her birthmother's name on a slip of paper attached to another document.
Unusual? Yes, but you never know what you might find.
Look for documents that may contain the birthparent's names. Keep
in mind when the adoption occurred. Some records may not exist for
the timeframe and location of the adoption. In general, try to obtain
copies of the amended birth certificate and the original birth certificate.
Use your oral history skills to interview your adoptive parents about
your adoption. Make a list of questions regarding procedures and ask
them what they know about the birth mother. In many cases, they may
only know a first name. If your adoptive parents refuse to discuss
what they know, understand that your search is emotionally difficult
for them as well.
Contact the agency that handled the adoption. They may be able to
supply non-identifying information. This usually consists of first
names and a general medical history. However, some agencies decline
requests to share this material.
When You Know the Birth Parents' Names
Once you know the name of the birth mother or father, rely on your skills
as a researcher to uncover details in city directories, driver license
records, school documents, and voter registration lists. Refer to publications
that can lead you through how to use these materials to conduct adoption
Carangelo, Lori. The Ultimate Search Book: Worldwide Adoption
and Vital Records. Bountiful, UT: Heritage Quest, 1998.
Hinckley, Kathleen W. Locating Lost Family Members & Friends.
Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1999.
Tillman, Norma Mott. How to Find Almost Anyone, Anywhere.
Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994.
Special Considerations for Contemporary Adoption Research
- Are you prepared?
Searching for birth parents is mentally and physically exhausting and
the end result may not be what you expected. You will need the support
of other individuals involved in similar searches. You can find this
by joining a support group to meet adoptees that will offer encouragement
and advice. Someone in the group may even be tackling the same research
obstacles. If you find your birthmother, you will need some advice about
how to contact her.
- Professional Help
At some point you may decide to seek professional research help. Contact
groups that can put you in touch with experienced researchers. Be sure
to ask individuals you are considering hiring a series of questions
regarding their fees and expertise. Don't be afraid to ask for references.
You want to make sure that the person you hire handles the process in
a professional manner. Many national organizations can direct you to
qualified researchers such as the Association
of Professional Genealogists, the American
Adoption Congress and National
Adoption Information Clearinghouse.
- Have you registered with an Adoption Registry?
If you are unable to find the answers you are looking for, don't give
up. Submit your information to an online adoption registry. Their purpose
is to reunite adoptees with birth relatives. You can post your search
if you are a birthparent and adoptee older than 18 years of age. Younger
children need to have their adoptive parents submit on their behalf.
Adoption is a complicated process that involves birth parents, children,
adoptive parents and the legal system. It takes patience and help to overcome
the obstacles that are part of a formal adoption. Discovering an unknown
adoption while researching your genealogy while initially creating a roadblock
to further research is an opportunity to understand your ancestors as