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All About Adoption Research

by Maureen Taylor
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Finding Hidden Family Ties
Adoption is often one of those "brick walls" one finds in genealogy, especially the farther back one goes. Here are some tips and techniques for ferreting out the details of an adoption when they aren't readily available.

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 establish paternity.

  • 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 research:

  • 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

  1. Are you prepared?
  2. 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.

  3. Professional Help
  4. 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.

  5. Have you registered with an Adoption Registry?
  6. 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 living individuals.

About the Author
Maureen A. Taylor, Owner and Principal of Ancestral Connections, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000) and a guide to family history for kids, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Her columns on genealogy appear in The Computer Genealogist and in New England Ancestors. She is the project manager for, a site that lets visitors plan a genealogical research trip to the Boston area.

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• Discuss this topic with other researchers
• Have a question about researching your family history? Ask an expert
How-To Article: Researching in Federal and State Records
Step-by-Step Guide: Finding Adoption Information
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