Shea's Search Series

These steps are specifically for those who are adopted and searching for their birthfamilies, although there is general information that should help everyone. If any of you would like to contribute specific information for birthparents searching for adoptees, please contact me, and we can arrange for that topic to be addressed in a separate post.

Throughout this post are some pointers to international search resources. Those of you with specific knowledge on searching outside of the U.S are encouraged to contact me so that I may include your information in future versions of this post. This is to be considered a work in progress, and comments and suggestions are welcome

SEARCHING : Initiating a Search (for adoptees):
The information gathering phase

So you've decided to search. Perhaps you decided overnight, or maybe it took years, but you've made the decision. New searchers are now faced with perhaps one of the most difficult stages in the search process; the beginning. Hopefully the information contained within this post will help you new searchers to organize and prepare, and to lay the foundation for a successful search.

STEP ONE: Buy a journal, a three-ring binder or dig up a clean notebook. Write down everything you know about yourself and your adoption. Where were you born? What hospital? What state were you adopted in? What county? What province? What country? Was your adoption handled privately, or was there an agency involved? Do you know anything about your birthparents? Rumors, perhaps, or stories overheard from family members? Do you have a copy of your birth certificate? Don't worry if you don't have the answers to even one of these questions. Write down what you know, even if it seems insignificant. Then, start asking questions. Your adoptive parents are the best place to start, whenever possible. A later post will cover telling friends and family about the decision to search, as well as making the decision itself, if you are having difficulty in that area. Ask your relatives, talk to the family lawyer, and the family doctor. Carry your notebook with you wherever you go. I am continually amazed at the number of searchers who contact me with vital bits of information written on the back of envelopes, stray scraps of paper, and napkins, all loosely falling out of a torn manila folder. Write down everything you find out in your notebook.

It is also important to learn not to be too forthcoming with the reasons for your questions. I advocate honesty with your family, but when speaking to lawyers, doctors, clerks, librarians, or adoption professionals, it is preferable to maintain that you are asking the questions out of general curiousity, if they know you're adopted; or because you're doing 'genealogical research' if they do not know, and do not need to know, that you are adopted. There is NOTHING illegal about searching. There is no state or country that, to my knowledge, has outlawed searching for your birthparents. Don't allow anyone to tell you otherwise. Nonetheless, there are still some people who will judge you for your actions. If these same people are individuals who have information that might assist you, it is to your advantage not to give them the information that will allow them to make their ill-informed and irrelvant presumptions.

At this point, you are trying to assemble a picture and to identify where the gaps are. Don't be surprised or discouraged if you come away from your inquiries with only a few bits of information. That may be enough. The goal is to thoroughly question everyone in your immediate family and whomever else may have been involved in your adoption. If an agency was involved, make note of it, as you will be contacting them in the future. When making your inquiries, especially with your family, it is usually best to start out gently, although each person will be best equipped to gauge their family's particular quirks and will know the best approach to take. If you feel uncomfortable asking directly and stating upfront your reasons for the questions, use an opportunity such as an evening conversation about medical problems or diseases to ask your parents if they know anything about your medical history. If you don't know at what age you came to your adoptive family, or if there was a foster family in between, use a discussion about the habits of your new baby to ask 'did I sleep through the night by this age?', etc. This approach works not only to lay a foundation instead of hitting your family all at once, but it can also help you to gather the most complete information possible. Your family may have information but not think of it as important or 'identifying'. Getting this information out of them will go more smoothly if you ask questions in a variety of ways, in a variety of different settings and circumstances.

It is extremely important to RESIST the temptation to follow up on 'leads' at this point. You are only gathering information. Attempting to follow through with any fragments you receive immediately will only result in a scattered and disorganized search.

STEP TWO: Read the adoption laws for the state, country, or region in which you were adopted. In some states and countries, an adoptee has access to certain documents and information about their adoption. Online, you can read the actual laws for some states at my Website , or you can read an up to date synopsis of all state laws here .

Also of use are the alt.adoption FAQs. Originally created by Jeff Hartung, these FAQs were maintained by Rosemarie Ventura and were then taken over by the administrators of the Usenet newsgroup, soc.adoption.adoptees, and should be read thoroughly. They are out of date in some places. If you have any reason to believe that you may have Native American blood, or even if you don't have any reason to believe it, read the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. This may come in useful to you if you decide to petition the court at a later date.

See Step Three for further pointers to international resources.

STEP THREE : Apply for a clean copy of your birth certificate. Even if you have one, it's a good idea to apply for a fresh copy solely for your 'search' file. The birth certificate you receive will in all likelihood be your 'amended' birth certificate. That means that certain information on the birth certificate will be altered from the original. Your adoptive parents names will appear as your mother and father, and other information may have been changed. Usually, but certainly not always, the place of birth is accurate. This copy of your certificate may also include the name of the doctor who delivered you, and other important clues that will be discussed later.

Online, if your search is in the U.S., you can check out where to write for vital records. Family Tree Maker also offers a listing of all US vital records address, policies, and prices, indexed by state. If your search is in another country, try this excellent page of genealogical resources, maintained by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Rochester. There, you can find where to write for records in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Austrailia, Poland, Germany, and the Russian republics. The Vital Records Information site also offers a page of links to foreign countries vital records information. Also, I have posted a document written by Harold Wilkins and Duke Henry for UK and Irish adoptees that discusses where to write for your records. Records in these locales are generally open to adult adoptees.

STEP FOUR: Register with International Soudex Reunion Registry. The largest reunion registry in the world is free, but donations are STRONGLY encouraged. This is a passive registry, which means that no one will use the information you give them to actively search for the other person(s), but if the other party has registered also, information about you will be given to them, and vice versa. ISRR uses a database to make computer matches based on similar or matching information.

International Soundex Reunion Registry
P.O. Box 2312
Carson City, NV 89701
(775) 882-7755
(Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a registration form)

Canadians should *also* register with Parent Finders.
Parent Finders of Canada, National HQ
Mrs. Joan Vanstone, National Director
3998 Bayridge Avenue
W. Vancouver, BC V7V 3J5
tel: (604) 926-1096
fax: (604) 926-2037

You might be asking at this point, What about ALMA? Whether you join ALMA or any other organization that charges money for search information and a registry is completely up to you. ALMA is fairly well-known, and thus, it's pssible that your birthrelatives are registered. However, it is my personal opinion that ALMA, and most other paid registries and search services are not worth the money that they charge.

STEP FIVE: Find a local search and support group and join. To find one, look through your local yellow pages, browse the bulletin boards at your library, post a note to alt.adoption, and read the list of local search and support groups contained within the alt.adoption FAQ's. A search and support group can be valuable for a number of reasons. First off, if you can attend a search and support group in the area of your search, you will be in contact with people who may have unique insight or knowledge of 'tricks' particular to your state or area of search, but even if you attend a group outside of your search area, you will be forming contacts with searchers in many different phases of search. You can learn from their mistakes, thus making your own search easier. In addition, sometimes it is helpful to connect with others who are going through this unique experience. At times, you might feel alone, even if your family is supportive, it is difficult for those who are not adopted, or who are not searching or interested in searching,to fully understand. Along these same lines, you might consider joining an online mailing list. The Adoptee's Internet mailing list is dedicated to search and reunion. You can find out more at the AIML Website.

STEP SIX: Go to the library!! There are a number of excellent search handbooks that can prepare you for the road ahead. Again, read through these books thoroughly, take notes, but resist the temptation to get ahead of yourself until you have finished the information gathering phase. In addition to search books, there are several books on being adopted, on reunions, and about and by birthmothers. A comprehensive book list has been compiled for the FAQ's for soc.adoption.adoptees. All of the FAQ's are kept at Kevin McCarty's Website. I strongly recommend three particular books dealing with being adopted and closed adoptions.

"Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self", Brodzinsky, Schechter, and Henig. 213p. 1992

"Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience", B J Lifton. 320p. 1988. Har-Row

"Adoption Triangle, The: Sealed or Opened Records: How They Affect Adoptees, Birthparents & Adoptive Parents", Sorosky, Pannor & Baran 2nd ed. 237p. 1989. Corona Pub.

With regard to search handbooks, I recommend the following:

"Adoption Searchbook, The: Techniques For Tracing People" 3rd Edition. Mary Jo Rillera. 224p. 1993. Triadoption

"Search - A Handbook for Adoptees and Birthparents", 3rd Edition. Jayne Askin. 1998. Oryx

"How to Find Almost Anyone Anywhere" by Norma Mott Tillman

Online, in addition to several pointers located throughout this post, there are a number of helpful places to further your education about search and reunion issues. Links to several of these resources can be found at my Website at, and within the soc.adoption.adoptees FAQs.

Now you're ready! You have started a journal and hopefully have a few pieces of information gleaned from your birth certificate, your family, and other parties. You are familiar with the adoption laws for the state, province, or country in which you were adopted, and you have joined a search and support group for continuing support and help when you get stuck. You have registered with ISRR, and are so well-read on the subject of search and reunion that you could write a book yourself. Well, maybe not quite, but you should feel confident about the steps ahead. Again, resist the temptation to get ahead of yourself. While reading this post or the books mentioned above, you may start asking yourself, but what about calling the agency? What about my hospital records? What about non-ID? You may feel the urge to contact the agency, contact the hospital, hire a searcher, or just open up the phone book and start calling everyone with the last name of your birthfamily, if you know it. DON'T DO IT. It's important to try and fully prepare and assemble a journal and gather some basic information before proceeding to the next step. This serves several purposes. One is that an organized search is a successful search. You reduce the risk of contacting the wrong people, or of being indiscreet in the course of your inquiries. Some of the information you receive in these first inquiries will be patently false, or partially incorrect. As you get further, you will be able to form a more accurate picture, and discard information that is obviously incorrect or doesn't seem to 'fit'. Secondly, a 'runaway' search can lead to 'runaway' emotions. Searching can be emotionally draining and a slow, realistic, focused approach to searching will translate into a more centered and focused 'you'. Lastly, if you do decide to complete your search through a paid searcher, volunteer, or intermediary, the more complete and accurate the information that you have been able to gather is, the easier and quicker it will be to find, and the cheaper the cost. Don't worry! We'll get to the nitty gritty soon enough.

So how long will this take? Well, each search is different. It may just take a few days for you to complete the steps I've outlined above, or it may take as long as a year. It will be difficult sometimes to remain patient, at other times you may go months without thinking or acting on your search. Go at your own pace and don't set timetables.

Further posts will cover contacting the agency or court through which you were adopted, obtaining non-identifying information, obtaining further documents related to your adoption, and following up on leads.

Special thanks to Apollonia Ajyset and Liam Quinn for their input on this post.

This post was authored by Shea Grimm,, except where otherwise indicated. It may be copied and distributed freely, in whole or in part, as long as it is not sold, and as long as this notice is kept intact.

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