Spurred on by curiosity about her birth family’s health and genetic history, Stephanie Hayhurst-Hall was a college sophomore when she went looking for her birth mother.
“Growing up adopted, you naturally have a lot of questions,” said Hayhurst-Hall, who was adopted as a baby in 1977.
She’s one of many adoptees who have tried to find their birth parents years after their adoptions. Sometimes these searches end in happy reunions, but others are difficult or unsuccessful.
For those who are ready to start their search, here’s what you need to know.
Common challenges to finding birth parents
Nearly 60,000 children were adopted through U.S. public agencies alone in 2017. There is no centralized database that documents how many children wind up reuniting with birth relatives, but a portion of adopted individuals will go searching for their biological families. This process is full of challenges, and it’s important to be emotionally prepared for both the potential excitement and possible disappointment.
The first thing to know is that your value and worth don’t depend on the outcome of your search, said Sara King-Flitton, a social service worker and caseworker at Utah Adoption Specialists in the Salt Lake City area. It’s possible that the experience will be negative or fail to meet your expectations. Plus, some birth parents simply don’t want to be found.
Reunions (or even initial contact) may unearth a lot of emotions for both the adoptee and the birth family, said Hayhurst-Hall, who is now an insurance agent in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and a board member for the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia—the same organization that handled her adoption.
For example, adopted children may grow up dreaming of meeting their birth relatives only to discover a difficult story behind why they were adopted. On the flip side, birth parents may have traumatic memories of their child’s birth or adoption, and a meeting could trigger those emotions.
“It’s not an easy thing,” Hayhurst-Hall said. “It digs up a lot of emotions … [the adoptees] have to be prepared to hear that story, which might be sad.”
Hayhurst-Hall recommends adoptees find a support system, talk to their adoptive parents about their search and keep an open mind about meeting their birth relatives.
Beyond the emotions involved, there are also logistical challenges to finding birth parents—especially if the adoption was closed and your records are sealed. It may be difficult to gather enough information to even begin your search, but there are some resources available to help.
Can you look up birth certificates online?
You may be able to find your original birth certificate online—with your birth parents' names—though laws for accessing these records vary by state. While some states allow anyone to look up any birth record, others restrict birth certificate access to relatives of the individual listed or require intervention from the state adoption agency. And in approximately 25 U.S. states, you’ll need a court order to unseal your original birth certificate.
The Administration for Children and Families, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has a comprehensive list of what type of information from adoption records can be released, when it can be released and who can access it. You can also start your search online via FamilySearch, a records resource compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Click on the state where you were born for information about where to find birth records.
Other good resources to track down birth parents
There are a number of resources and registries to help adopted individuals find their birth relatives. Here are a few places to look:
- Start with the Administration for Children and Families. The Child Welfare Information Gateway publishes resources on topics such as accessing adoption records and how to search for birth relatives. There’s also a directory of state adoption agencies and support groups.
- Check with your adoption agency or adoption attorney. Individuals and organizations involved in your adoption may have some basic information to get you started. This may be limited to nonidentifying information, such as your birth parents' race, medical history and age, but the agency or attorney may attempt to contact the birth relatives to see if they would like to share their contact information, said King-Flitton.
- Try a genealogy or genetic search. Registries like FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com can help you track down historical records. You can also take DNA tests through AncestryDNA, FamilyTree DNA, or 23andMe—these may help you narrow your quest alongside other information you already have about your birth relatives. SearchAngels.org is a nonprofit that helps adoptees collect and interpret genealogical and genetic information in the search process.
- Join a reunion registry. There are state and private reunion registries that reunite birth relatives and adoptees. Some are passive, meaning you and your relatives must register independently before the registry will match and connect you. Others are active, which may require you to pay a fee to have registry officials search for your birth parents.
- Search public records (and social media). If you have basic information about your birth relatives—their legal names, for instance—you can use an online people search to see what turns up. You may find addresses, contact information such as phone numbers and email addresses, social media profiles, and possibly other family relatives.
- Hire a private investigator or professional searcher. There’s a wide variety of independent consultants who help bring adopted individuals together with their birth relatives. In addition to private investigators and detectives, you may seek help from adoption reunion specialists, confidential intermediaries or even investigative genealogists. Just make sure you vet “professional” searchers before you pay them.
Hayhurst-Hall did find and meet her birth mother. They still keep in touch but aren’t close.
For others who are eager to start their own search, King-Flitton recommends starting slow. If you do locate your birth relatives and plan to meet, do so in a public, neutral place and consider bringing a mediator, such as a social worker, family member or friend.
“Try not to expect ‘reconnection’ and connection to be instant,” she said. “Sometimes that happens, but for most relationships, time, consistency, healthy communication, appropriate boundaries and shared experiences build healthy connections.”