How to Find Adoption Records for Genealogy Research

Can you use adoption records to help you find your genealogy? In this article we will explore the different types of adoption records, how you can find them, and how to use them to help you find your genealogy.

Understanding who you are based on your family history is a fascinating thing, but what if you were adopted? You know and love those wonderful people who adopted you and they will forever be your parents in your heart. Still, you may have that tug to want to know who your biological parents are or were.

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This is an emotionally difficult decision to make and sometimes it takes real courage to even start the search for answers. I would love to say that there is an easy way to go about finding your adoption records online. Sadly though this is not the case. Adoption records are most often very private documents and as such require a certain amount of red tape cutting to gain access to.

The laws governing adoption records do vary from country to country. For instance, in the UK it may be possible to get some basic information if your adoption record is on file with the General Register Office. If you can locate the record in their files you can order a copy of the adoption certificate. This will contain details about when and where the adoption took place, basic info about the parents, but sadly the names will have been redacted.

It will not be an easy search to find your biological parents but it certainly isn’t impossible. The records won't just pop up in an online database but let me give you some tips to try and make your search easier and hopefully more productive.

Start at Home

The decision to want to find your adoptive parents is a difficult one and it is often made more difficult by concerns that you may upset your adoptive parents. If this is important to you, however, you should make the choice to talk to them about what your intentions are with regard to this search.

All too often people may wait until their adoptive parents have passed on before looking for answers but this may be a mistake. These wonderful people who made you part of their family likely know some details that can help you get started. They may have documents that you can look at and they may know some basic information about where you were born or the orphanage you were in.

This is a difficult step but if you can talk to your family, tell them how important this is to you. They will likely understand and give you any information they have that can help you get started on this difficult road.

Once you know where you were born and adopted, research the laws and rules regarding closed and open adoptions in that area. This information may be vital in making sure you get any records that you have a legal right to possess.

Other Starting Steps

Hopefully armed with some new information from your adoptive parents you can start mining for information.

  • Contact the adoption agency and request any non-identifying information they may have regarding your case.
  • If you were born in an orphanage or a maternity home contact them and ask for any records regarding you that they can legally share.
  • If you were at a Roman Catholic institution you can request your baptismal or sacramental records which may hold some clues.

Difference Between Open and Closed Adoptions

Open adoptions are often the easiest to track and find information on. This is because there is usually direct contact between the birth and adoptive parents. There are agreed-upon terms with these adoptions that often allow the birth parents to request contact with their child at a later date.

In the case of open adoptions, your adoptive parents will likely know names and locations pertaining to your birth and these can be hugely beneficial. It is also sometimes possible to make a request through the agency that handled your adoption to see if your birth parents might want to initiate contact with you.

Closed adoptions were the most common type in the past and would see a child given to an adoption agency or orphanage who then would try to find a new family for the child. There was no direct contact between biological and adoptive parents and very little information regarding the child’s origins was given to their new family.

This type of adoption is the most complicated because those records tend to be sealed requiring more research and creativity to crack. In this case, there are no legal options for agreed-upon contact following the adoption and essentially no recourse for the birth parents to change their minds later.

Thankfully over the past few decades, more and more adoptions have been open ones but, for those who are a little older, there is a risk that it was a closed adoption.

Where to Seek Records

The key point in time to focus on in order to find records that may answer the question of who your birth parents are, is when you were born. Depending on where you were actually born there may be records that record your parents' names.

If you were born in a hospital, maternity home or some other institution for young unmarried mothers there should hopefully be records about you. Depending on the laws where you were born you may be able to request these records.

Home studies began in some states of America as early as 1910. These were essentially pre-adoption household checks to assess the suitability for adoption. These documents sometimes included information pertaining to the birth mother. Ethnicity, religion, health, siblings, and the occupations of her parents.

After adoption, your birth certificate was likely altered but, at some point, there may have been an original certificate that named at least your mother. Depending on the location that original birth certificate may be sealed permanently or until you reach a certain age.

Court documents may contain important information that can be of use. Adoptive parents often had to file a petition notifying the court of the adoption. These records may contain the original birth name, parents' or guardians' names.

Important Things to Remember

It is important to enter into the search for your birth parents with realistic expectations. This will not be an easy search and it may be full of heartache and potential disappointment.

There is a chance that your parents abandoned you without giving anyone any information about themselves or you. It is not unrealistic that there may be no records that can help you with this mystery.

That is not to say it’s hopeless to keep searching, we live in a world with DNA tests that can assist you with researching your ancestors. You might discover half-siblings from your mother or father who may be able to help you fill in the gaps.

If you do have to take the DNA path you must remember that as emotional as this is for you, any family you may locate in this way also has feelings. Make your approach gently and understand if they choose not to engage.

This is a minefield of emotion and at its best can lead to reconciliation and a deeper understanding of where you come from. At its worst, you may encounter failure or rejection. Just be prepared for what is coming and know that you will always be loved by your adoptive parents and family.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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  • "How to Find Adoption Records for Genealogy Research". Accessed on May 19, 2024.

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