Searching for Birth History--Tips and Tricks for Adoptees

looking for lost birth relatives

I still remember when I scratched out a letter to the probate judge in pencil on simple notebook paper. Bob and I were vacationing in northern Michigan. The rest of the family was out on the beach, but that flame for truth had been ignited within me so that even the beach I loved didn’t seem as inviting as taking my first concrete step toward gaining information about my past.

Some of you may have much more information to start with than others. Because of the wonderful efforts of The American Adoption Congress and similar groups, a few states now have open records. Some states also have registries through which birth parents and adoptees can register to let the other person know they are interested in reuniting.

Others of you may be experiencing an open adoption and have no need to search. You are in direct contact with your birth parents.

Let me warn you, however, that as great as open adoption is, it’s not the panacea. I have a friend who has experienced an open adoption and fell apart when she went off to college. The issue of grief remains the same for those of you who know your birth parents because you don’t know them in the way that you would have had they chose to keep and parent you. This is a great loss that needs to be grieved.

Realize that the suggestions I make for searching are from my own experience. Each state or country differs in adoption laws and regulations, so mycounsel is only a springboard to get you thinking and moving forward with some sense of direction. How sorry I am not to have known about the wonderful resource book on searching by Jayne Askin titled Search: A Handbook for Adoptees and Birth Parents. She goes into much more detail than I will here.

Concrete Steps for Searching

Based on my experience, here are steps to take in searching for your birth parents, starting in logical sequence.


Some states have adoption registries through which both birth parents and adoptees can file a document stating that they would like contact with the lost loved one. Contact your county courthouse forthis information.


Mine was a private adoption, so I didn’t have the resource of an adoption agency, but the majority of adoptees do. Were you adopted through an agency or were you a ward of the state? Whatever the case, request in writing that they provide names of birth parents for you . . .or any clues they may possess.

If you don’t have your birth mother’s name, ask the current social worker at the agency through which you were adopted. A friend of mine did this and every time they chatted, the social worker revealed another bit of information. In time, my friend had the name.

I am not implying that you manipulate the social worker, but “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” There is nothing wrong with consistentcontact. Remember, you have the moral right to know your history.


The next thing would be to contact the probate judge in the county where you were born (if you know it) and request the form for non-identifying information. Non-identifying information will not give names of birth parents but will give details such as occupations, ages of parents at your birth, and where you come in the order of childrenborn to your mother.

This can be a somewhat frustrating method for obtaining information, but at least it’s a start, and you will likely not have to pay for this information.


This is my original Birth Certificate. Most people don't know that the majority of adoptees in US are not allowed by law to have this information

This is my original Birth Certificate. Most people don’t know that the majority of adoptees in US are not allowed by law to have this information

The majority of US adoptees have “amended” birth certificates, with the names of our adoptive parents listed in the parent category. When you write to the state health department of your birth state requesting your original birth certificate, you may be denied outright, funneled to another office, or simply receive another amended certificate.

Does that make you as mad as it does me? Jayne Askin quotes an individual who echoes my sentiments, and possibly yours.

We are not separate or different than those born with a heritage they have always had knowledge of… and the freedom to investigate further if they so choose. Being denied information concerning myself that is not denied a non-adoptee is degrading and cruel… what an invasion of humanity!… (to) close up a human life as a vault somewhere and say, “you may not know about yourself —you have not the right to even ask…Your anxieties are neurotic, your curiosity unnatural.”1

I wrote to the state department of health and requested my birth certificate under the only name I had—the one my adoptive parents gave me (not “Baby X,” as the hospital nurses had “named” me). This was a different document than my dad had given me. His was an adoption certificate. What I was seeking was my original birth certificate. Why did I want it even though I already knew my parents’ names? Because I wanted proof that what was written on Dad’s certificate was the truth. In addition,I wanted with all my heart to break the secrecy. I hate secrecy!

In my letter I didn’t say that I was adopted. I didn’t lie in any way; I simply asked for what any other citizen has a legal right to obtain.

Within weeks I had my original birth certificate in my hands… and I didn’t break the law!

You may want to try this if your circumstances were similar.


Pros and Cons of searching

Pros and Cons of Searching

Next, make a stop at the hospital where you were born. If you can’t travel there, write a letter requesting your birth information. Again,don’t use the “A” word —“adoptee”!

When I contacted the hospital where I was born, I began a long battle with the superintendent of records for my birth records.

Some hospitals readily release records and some remain rigidly closed, like the one where I was born.


My next line of attack was to ask my current physician if he would writea letter requesting hospital records, which he did. He requested not only my birth records but also those of my birth mother.

Asking for these doesn’t require a medical emergency. An emotional hurt needs to be resolved, and if your physician won’t write a letter for you, maybe it’s time to find another physician.


Your next step may be to visit the state library in your birth state. The library contains city directories from the past, which can be amazing resources. For example, in the 1940s when I was born, they contained not only the name and address of the person, but also his or her occupation and other details. These are even more pieces you can put in your puzzle.

There librarians at such a facility who specialize in genealogy and are more than eager to help you find information. You can even say you’re an adoptee without discrimination! Don’t be afraid to ask these professionals for assistance.


Sometimes it’s difficult to find someone who won’t charge an arm and a leg to do a birth parent search. But I was lucky. I learned of a professional in a town near my place of birth and I was able to hire her for $100. I don’t suppose you’ll find anyone that inexpensive nowadays, but it’s an option well worth considering if you’re running into roadblocks in your search, or simply want an experienced guide throughout this process.

If you are having difficulty finding a professional, contact adoption support groups in your birth locale and ask who they would recommend. They usually know the possibilities better than anyone.


 The professional I worked with believed that we would be able to narrow down our search further by seeing which of the people I found in the library’s city directories were already deceased. We went to the local branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has the most extensive death records in the United States. We went through the microfiche and found several possibilities whom my guide believed could be my grandfather and grandmother.


 The last stop for me was to the state health department, where we obtained death certificates of the people that may have been my grandparents. Within an hour we had identified my grandfather’s certificate which contained valuable information, such as the funeral home that took care of the arrangements for his burial.

You will have to pay a fee and fill out a form for each death certificate you order. We ordered more than needed, but it narrowed down the search to the final clue.


Will my birth mother want to meet me?

The name of the funeral home where arrangements were made listed all survivors by name and address. This is a part of my story I’m not proud of, but I have to declare complete ignorance about the approachmy adoption worker took with the funeral director. When we found the information about the funeral home, she just told me to go home and wait for her call. Never did it enter my mind whether or not what she was doing was ethical. I think she introduced herself as a family friend. In other words, she lied. But the funeral director was very cooperative and had no problem in giving names and phone numbers of family members who were still living at the time of my grandfather’s death—including his daughter, my birth mother.

While I wouldn’t recommend the “little white lie” approach my adoption worker took, the funeral director might still be an excellent resource. Who knows, if you or your adoption worker approaches himin complete honesty and he gives the information, great! At least you will have a clean conscience about it all and you will obtain facts that other citizen has every right to know!

Whether we are taking our first step toward uncovering our pre-adoption history or our tenth, we need courage. Courage to face our past history, whether the details are pleasant or painful. Courage to standup for our rights, even if we have to haul someone to court. Courage to fight for the unsealing of records. Courage to keep on keeping onwhen treated like an errant child. And courage to believe that this is allgoing to be worth it in the end.

I was terrified seventeen years ago when I began my feeble attempts at searching. But looking back I can say confidently from my experience that courage comes when we need it.

The late Corrie ten Boom, once a Nazi prisoner of war, asked herfather when she was young how she would ever have the courage to face death. Her father’s answer was simple. He said something like this:“Corrie, when do I give you your ticket to get on the train?”

“Well, just before I get on, Pappa,” she said.

“That’s the way it is when you die,” her pappa told her. “You will have the courage when you need it.”2

That’s the way it will be for us as we take one concrete step after another.


To take our first or next step toward obtaining our birth certificates, medical records, and/or other information about our birth families.

adoption book

I wish you the best as you begin your search! Remember that you will grow no matter what the outcome. So step forward with confidence.

This book is the story of my personal search plus that of 70 other adoptees!

Copyright 2015. This is Chapter 16 from 20 Life-Transforming Choices Adoptees Need to Make (JKP).

You may order here: Http://




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