Shea’s Search Series
Documents: What they are, where they are, what they mean, and how to get them
This post is designed to follow-up on the steps taken as outlined in the first post of this series, entitled Initiating a Search. While additional documents in this series will cover specifically what to do once you have obtained the name of of your birthfamily,these steps are intended to assist the searcher in obtaining documents and further information related to his/her adoption that will fill in the gaps in the information you have accumulated from your first initial efforts. Even if your initial questions happened to provide you with a name, it is a good idea to try and obtain some of the documents listed below in order to help you narrow down your search and to confirm the name that you have been given.
Hopefully, you will have started reading some of the search books that I referred you to in ‘Initiating a Search’. You will have likely discovered that in the vast majority of instances, your adoption file, which resides in the court that finalized your adoption, is sealed. What this means is that the file can only be opened by court order. A court order can be obtained by petitioning the court. What the court will require in order to agree to open your file varies widely. Many states have a ‘good cause’ clause written into their adoption laws and it is up to the individual judge to determine if you have good cause. A few judges around the country are happy with your sense of curiousity, others have been known to deny petitions even in cases of extreme medical distress. The use of the Indian Child Welfare Act in your petition is also a possibility.
In most cases, a direct petition to the court to open the entire file, will fail, but it is worth pursuing as one can never be certain. Another way to have your file opened in some states is to have the file opened to a third party approved by the court, often called a Confidential Intermediary. It is my recommendation that one not utilize the services of a CI until they have exhausted all other options. Even if your petition to have your file opened is denied, nearly everything contained within the adoption file can be obtained from other parties, which will be the focus of this post.
The following documents are usually part of your court file, depending on the circumstances of your adoption:
- Original birth certificate
- Petition to adopt
- Final decree of adoption
- Your adoptive parents homestudy
- various reports from the agency or lawyer such as intial interview with birthparent(s), their medical history, biographical information
- signed relinquishment (sometimes called consent form)
These documents and the information contained within them, along with your hospital records and ‘non-identifying’ information available to most adoptees, will form the cornerstone of your search. If you do not know from your initial inquiries what court your adoption was finalized in, the best place to start is in the county where your adoptive parents were residing during your adoption. Contact the Family Court in that county and ask them if they can verify for you if your adoption file resides in their court. Sometimes, in small, helpful counties, you’ll be given the information over the phone, at other times, they will require you to submit a written request.
1) Private or Agency?
Hopefully your initial inquiries will have established whether you were the product of a private adoption, or whether you were adopted through an agency. In the cases of a private adoption, usually your adoptive parents will have arranged to adopt you through a family doctor, family friend, minister, or family member. They will have hired an attorney and the adoption will have been handled through the attorney and finalized in a court of law. In an agency adoption, your parents will likely have contacted an agency with their decision to adopt, sometimes they will have been placed on a waiting list, and are matched with a birthmother and/or child who also had contacted or was brought to the agency. In the States, some adoptions, which are sometimes referred to as ‘welfare’ adoptions, were arranged through the State’s Department of Social Services, or Department of Children and Family Services. Even in the case of an agency adoption or DSS adoption, your parents will have utilized an attorney for the finalization procedure. Usually your adoptive parents will have chosen and utilized their own attorney, although it has been my experience that sometimes the adoptive parents were referred to specific attorneys by the agency. Some countries only arrange private adoptions, others only public adoptions. You should research the adoption laws and regulations of your state, province, or country as detailed in ‘Initiating a Search’, if you are unable to find out what agency to contact with regard to your adoption records.
2) Non-identifying information
“Non-identifying information” in this instance refers to a specific set of information given to an adoptee about their adoption and birthfamily. A very few states define within their statutes what constitutes non-identifying information, and makes provisions for its release through agencies and courts. In states or provinces or regions where non-ID is not defined, it is up to the court or agency responsible for compiling and releasing the information to determine what to give you, if anything. Generally ‘non-ID’ will include some or all of the following about one’s birthparents:
- level of education
- race and/or ethnicity
- physical description
- marital status
- medical history
- circumstances surrounding the adoption
Other things that a lucky few may receive include the first names of the birthparents, medical history, ages, and physical description of the extended birthfamily.
Where you get ‘non-ID’ will depend on several things. For private adoptions handled in the States, you must apply to the court that finalized the adoption. For ‘public’ or ‘agency’ adoptions, you should contact the agency directly AND also apply to the court, as sometimes you’ll get more information from one than the other. To find out if your state defines non-ID or makes provisions for it at all, you may read the entire text of most states and many countries adoption statutes HERE.
Canadian adoptees should consult the Canadian Search FAQ for specific information about non-ID and its distribution by province.
There is nearly always a fee and a wait involved for non-identifying information. In the States, for agency non-ID you can expect fees to start around $50 and go up to $250 depending on the agency. Court fees for non-ID are usually less, around $40-60. The wait will vary from 1 week (unusual) to years, but is usually somewhere around 3-6 months. How ever you apply for non-ID, whether it is a court petition or a written request to an agency, I highly recommend that you specifically state what information it is that you expect, even if your state defines non-ID. In Washington State, for example, even thought the law entitles you to the first names of your birthparents, you will usually not receive them unless you specifically ask and often then you will only receive them over the phone. Ask for first AND last names, ask for residence, last known address, ask for the name of the school or college your birthparents attended and what they majored in, ask for the moon, but don’t expect to get it. The more you ask for, however, the more you’re likely to get.
Do not inform the person or agency compiling your non-ID that you intend to search for your birthparents. It is best to maintain that the non-ID is meant to answer some questions that you have and you expect it to end there. If you have written for non-ID in the past and received it, it is a good idea to write again if several years have passed, or if adoption laws have changed. Each year in many places, social workers and judges provide more and more in the way of ‘non-ID’. My most recent non-ID, obtained 5 years ago, was three pages long, and included detailed information about my birthmother’s jobs that would have been crucial for me had I not found so fortuitously shortly after having received it. Lesli LaRocco(firstname.lastname@example.org), on the other hand, recounts her experiences in obtaining non-ID:
“I wrote to Cook County Social Services; they had no record of me, but suggested that I write to the Cook County Circuit Court for non-id. I did so, and within a month, had my non-id. The judge had ordered by original birth certificate and gave me what was allowed:
- My date and time of birth
- My place of birth (listed as Maywood; note that the Final Decree says Chicago, my amended certificate says Maywood, and this says Melrose Park; Melrose Park is correct)
- Single birth
- No previous births listed
- Birthmother was 24 years old
- Birthmother was born in Grundy, VA
- Her race was Caucasian
The judge goes on to say that my birthfather’s name was “omitted,” but his age is listed as 34, but there is no other information about him.”
3) Birth certificates
When a person is adopted, their original birth certificate in most cases will be sealed in the court file and a new certificate, with all reference to the birthparent(s) names, and the adoptee’s original name removed, is issued. This new certificate, referred to as the ‘amended’ birth certificate, usually will list your adoptive name and your adoptive parents as your mother and father. The remaining information, such as addresses, age, occupation, previous births,and race of parents, is usually the information as it applies to your adoptive parents, although mistakes have been known to be made. The hospital of birth is usually accurate, although that information, too, can be altered and was sometimes done so if the hospital was a maternity home for unwed mothers. The filing date, depending on the practice of the office issuing the certificate, sometimes remains the filing date of your original, or is sometimes the filing date of the amended, resulting in what several offical agencies such as the U.S Passport Agency, refer to as a ‘delayed’ birth certificate, which can cause great difficult in receiving certain official documents such as passports and visas. The name of the doctor is worth a special look, as you will be attempting to contact him or her later in your search.
The original birth certificate of a person adopted at birth or shortly thereafter, often will list the person’s name as Baby Girl or Baby Boy, plus the last name of mother at the time of birth. This does not mean that your birthparent(s) did not name you. If an adoption plan had been made, often the individual taking the information for the birth certificate did not bother to ask, or to respect, the wishes of the birthparent(s). In general, even if your birthfather was named by your birthmother, his name will not appear on your birth certificate if your birthparents were not married at the time, although there have been exceptions. If your birthmother was married to someone other than your birthfather, usually her name and your last name on the certificate will be her married name, and sometimes her husband will be listed as the father. Again, there are no hard and fast rules, and you should look closely at the information on both the amended and original birth certificates and be willing to dismiss some of it as false or misleading. The file numbers and/or registry numbers located on the original and amended birth certificates are, frankly, a mystery to me. In many cases, I have seen that the file numbers on both the original and amended birth certificates are the same, which could be helpful. In my case, the file numbers located in the upper righthand corner of both of my certificates, are completely different from each other. In this area, a local search and support group can be helpful so that you can compare experiences and documents with other triadians searching in the same area of the country or province.
If you were not lucky enough to have been adopted in one of the few states, Provinces, or countries, that provides the original birth certificate to adoptees upon request, aside from petitioning the court, there are a few other ways in which you can attempt to obtain a copy of your original birth certificate. First off, as with all documents that are listed in this post, you should ask your adoptive parents. Sometimes they received a copy when the adoption was finalized. Secondly, if you do have your birthname or your birthparent(s) name, or you suspect it, it never hurts to write for to Vital Statistics requesting your original birth certificate. Don’t mention you were adopted, do not include any information related and if all you have is a last name, scribble your first and middle names so they’re illegible, and only fill in what you know of the remaining information. In all likelihood, you will be contacted for further information, or flat out denied, but again, it never hurts to try. If you need to know where a local Vital Records office or Department of Health is located, and what you might find there, Family TreeMaker has an excellent Webpage at that will tell you who has what records, for what years, and gives addresses and phone numbers. If you are searching in the UK or Ireland, check here.
4) Birth announcements
In most cases, a baby born to an unmarried woman or who was scheduled to be adopted after birth, will not have a birth announcement in the papers. Mistakes have been known to happen, however, so it pays to make copies of the birth announcements for babies born on your birthdate at the hospital or in the city or town of your birth. In addition, further inquiries and information, particularly from the hospital of your birth, might require you to rule out certain names of babies who share your birthdate, so the announcements can come in handy regardless of whether you are listed. As with any other piece of information that requires you to search in the area of your birth and/or adoption, if you do not live in the area or cannot get to the library or institution of research, call the library that houses the information and ask about hiring a research librarian to do the research for you. Usually they will do so at a nominal fee, such as the cost of copying the documents, or a small hourly charge. Another option is to find a volunteer who will do ‘legwork’ for you in the area you were adopted. You can find a search buddy on a mailing list, post a note on alt.adoption, or check out theVolunteer Search Network
5) Legal Notices
In most places, prospective adoptive parents are required by law to place a legal notice notifying the alleged birthfather of the impending adoption hearing. It is common practice to place these legal notices, even when the birthfather is named and has consented to the adoption, in order to erase all potential for problems later on. The attorney that represents the potential adoptors generally place these legal notices in obscure legal journals that are well known in local search circles, which is why it’s a good idea to have joined a search and support group, as detailed in the post ‘Initiating a Search’. Legal Notices sometimes contain absolutely no identifying information, but they *usually* will refer to you using your birthname (Baby Girl/Boy_______) and they often identify the birthfather by name as well, although sometimes he will be referred to as John Doe. The potential for payoff is enormous, however looking through the legal notices on microfilm can be an incredibly painful and time-consuming procedure. Knowing the time period when the legal notice might have been placed is tricky, and it often requires that you look through thousands of notices for several months if you are unsure when your adoption hearings were held. Knowing if the legal notice refers to you can also be tricky, unless your adoptive parents are referred to by name. Usually the name of the attorney, or the attorney’s firm is named at the top of the notice, which is how you can begin narrowing down the notices.
6) Adoption Decree or Order of Adoption
The Adoption Decree or Order of Adoption (your adoption might have come with one or both), is generally the final order of adoption. The Adoption Decree can contain some potentially upsetting and draconian language for adoptees adopted several decades ago, or even more recently. Often, the decree announces that you, the adoptee, have been ‘abandoned’ or ‘rejected’ by your natural mother. You, the adoptee, might be referred to as illegitimate or in other derogatory terms, until the end of the document when you are judged to have, by virtue of your adoption, obtained “all rights, privileges and immunities of children born in lawful wedlock.” take all of this in stride, if you can, and write it off to sheer ignorance. Adoption Decrees usually include your birthname, your adoptive parents names, your adoptive name, and sometimes one or both of your birthparents names.
The best place to find the adoption decree is with your adoptive parents, with their important papers. Barring that, you can contact the attorney that handled the adoption, or his firm if he is no longer practicing or has passed on, and try to obtain a copy. I optained the copy of my adoption decree through the attorney that handled my adoption for my adoptive parents. It contained my birthname, and within two days I had found my birthmother, after several years of searching. My problem was with locating the attorney, as my adoptive parents did not have a family attorney that they used regularly, and so did not remember who they had retained. If you are in a similar situation, if there was an agency involved, they sometimes have the name of the attorney and will give it to you as part of the non-ID(if you ask), as will the court to whom you petition for non-ID or to have your file opened. If you contact the attorney and s/he will not give you a copy of your adoption decree, it is often worth it to have your adoptive parents request it, as well as all other documents related to your adoption, in order to help in the preparation of their wills, for instance. If you obtain a copy of your adoption decree or order of adoption through the court, agency, or even through an attorney, sometimes identifying names will be ‘whited’ out or otherwise deleted, however you can often still tell how many characters in length a name is, or find other clues. Similarly, when requesting the adoption decree, it can be useful to also attempt to obtain the consent to relinquish, termination order, or other consent that your birthparent(s) will have signed.
7) Waiver of Confidentiality
You should contact the agency, court, adoption services department, or other agencies or bureaus that were involved in your adoption or house records relating to your adoption, and ask about filing a waiver of confidentiality. In some states, provinces and regions,if you file a waiver of confidentiality, then if and when a member of your birthfamily contacts that agency or court seeking information about you, identifying information will be released to them so that they may contact you directly. Do not file these waivers or ask about them until after you have received all of the information you plan to request from that particular agency, so as not to tip off Vital Statistics, for instance, that you are adopted if you’re trying to get an original birth certificate, or so as not to seem as if you are planning on using any information obtained in order to search.
8) Baptismal certificates and other religious records
If in the course of your inquiries, you are able to determine if you were baptised shortly after birth, or if you were placed by a private agency with a religious bent, particularly a Catholic agency, you might be able to obtain a baptismal certificate that could contain information about your birthname and birthfamily. Churches in general keep excellent records and if there’s any indication that your birthparents were active in a church or specific organized religion, it pays to look into it further.
9) Hospital Records of Birth
The records of your birth can be a goldmine of information and in some cases can be relatively easy to get, as in many hospitals, after a certain period of time the records are moved to an archiving company and stored in warehouses staffed by people who know little about adoption and have had little contact with medical requests. The place to start, however, is with the hospital itself. If you do not have your birthname, you have a few options. You can request the records under your adoptive name and that of your adoptive parent(s), hoping that, especially in the case of a private adoption, they might be listed as responsible parties and therefore the records will be crossreferenced and the clerk will just send them all to you,(do not mention adoption) or you can engage in a number of deceptive practices such as attempting to come up with a story as to why you don’t have your birthname,(that doesn’t involve adoption) or why you want to see the records of all the babies born on a given day. I am not recommending any of these methods nor vouching for their legality in your particular region under your particular circumstances, and if you are concerned about the legality of any of them, you should consult an attorney. In addition to the records of your birth, most Obstetrics units keep an ‘OB’ log that lists the babies born each day that could be of use. How long both the log and your particular birth records are kept varies from hospital to hospital but most hospitals do have the records in some form, kept somewhere, it may just take some persistence on your part. Do not mention that you were adopted. You will not receive your records even though it is not illegal for you to request them, nor in most places is it illegal for them to be provided to you. In fact, one can make a pretty good argument that you are entitled to them, but that is another matter. One thing to keep in mind is something that happened to me. I attempted to obtain my hospital records without my birthname, thus tipping off the hospital that I was adopted. My files were promptly flagged, and once I had a name and attempted to get my records again, I was unable to. Lesli Larocco(email@example.com), however, had a differrent experience with an archiving company:
“At this point, I had a name, an age, a place of birth, and my hospital of birth. I wrote to the hospital again, and learned that they wanted by birth certificate before they would send me the documents. I ignored them.I waited nearly a year before writing the hospital again; this time, the records had been moved to an archiving company in Marietta, GA, and that company sent me my records. “
In most cases, your birth records will not indicate by any special flag that you are adopted, and so if you do have your birthname, you can usually obtain them without trouble if the hospital has not destroyed them. On the other hand, usually one of the attractions of obtaining the records is for a name, so it’s a classic double-edged sword, and you should use your best judgement.
10) City directories
City directories will likely be something that you become very familiar with in the course of your search. At this point, you will likely need to use them to find out more about the doctor that delivered you, the attorney that your parents used, the agency that handled the adoption, or the hospital where you were born. City Directories are a lot like phone books. They contain listings of businesses and individuals, their addresses, and their phone numbers, and are bound by city, or groups of towns, or regions. These books are usually hardbound and can be found in university and public libraries for surrounding areas, usually from about 1930 forward, but often much earlier. City dirctory listings contain more than phone books do, however, such as occupations, places of employment, and the names of others living in the same household, such as spouse or adult children. They can be used to trace a listing for a doctor to find out when s/he retired if s/he has, or where they are now located or now practicing. Likewise with an attorney. Also, if your adoptive parents are not able to come up with the name of the agency they used, city directories will list all the agencies in a given area at the time of your birth, which you can then contact. Usually there were just a handful. Finally, city directories can be used to find out if the hopsital where you were born is still around or if another hospital is now located at the same address. Again, utilize your friendly research librarian or volunteer search buddy if you do not live in the area of your search.
You are now at the point where you might be in need of specific tricks of the trade that only insiders will be able to supply you with unless you happen to stumble onto some of your own. There are certain search techniques and documents that I have left out of this post and are in general kept quiet by members of the searching community, as we have had the painful experience of having these resources shut down once they have become known. I have included other sources here, reluctantly, balancing the importance of having searchers know about them with the risks that are always involved when a search resource becomes public. Please utilize your judgement in making certain search tricks and resources known to others, particularly on the Internet. A homepage detailing your search and including the news that there’s a big leather book sitting on the desk of a particular courthouse where they forgot to delete all the adoption entries, for instance, or finding an Family History Center that has a copy of birth index that can’t be found anywhere else, is usually not a good idea. If you have follwed the advice in this post and the previous one,delved further into the resources listed, and made use of the mailing lists, local search groups, and publications, you should be well equipped to complete this phase of your search. Further posts will cover what to do once you have a name to work with, telling your adoptive family about the search, hiring a searcher and/or intermediary, and preparation for contact. Comments, additions, criticism, and corrections to this post are welcome.
This post was authored by Shea Grimm, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
Back to Shea’s Search Series: The Definitive Guide to Self-Empowered Adoptee Search