Shea’s Search Series
I have a name! Uh, now what?
Eventually, the forces of luck, hard work, and patience will have combined in your search efforts to bring you to the point where you have a name to work with. You might have just a first name, a first initial and a last name, your birth name, or one of your birthparents last names or full names. Or you might have a name and have no idea how it ties in to your birth and adoption at all. At this point, your search will take a very different turn. Heretofore, you have been engaged in a search like no other. Scrounging around for clues hidden within sealed records is a difficult procedure, made harder by the emotions and taboos that surround the whole exercise. Tracing names, however, is something that groups and individuals from genealogists to bill collectors engage in, resulting in ‘how to’ books, archives, and assorted other resources that far outnumber the few items available to adoption searchers to this point. Further, when you are researching a name, ‘genealogy’ is a good cover story, one that is, technically, even accurate. On the down side, many searchers often find themselves, up to the discovery of a name, coasting merrily along. It has been relatively easy to forget temporarily about a search, or to put a hold on search efforts in the midst of a work or family crisis. Once you have found a name, however, you may find yourself feeling like you’re out of a control on a speeding train. It becomes very difficult to think about anything else, and many searchers find themselves obsessed. At this point, it sometimes becomes more affordable and more practical to turn the search over to a private investigator. On the other hand, once you are armed with a name, many searches become much more simple, and the end looms ahead, but many searchers find that ‘just around the corner’ is a phrase they’ll use many times over several more months or even years. Each search and each situation is different As difficult as it is, try to treat the discovery of a name as you have every other bit of information, a piece of the puzzle (albeit a very large one) to be looked at along with all the other pieces.
City directories were discussed in an earlier post, and they will likely be something that you have become very familiar with in the course of your search. At this point, they can be your best friend. 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 directory 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. The first thing you should do with your newly acquired name, assuming that you have a last name to work with, is go to the library and check out city directories for the period of time shortly before when you were born and/or adopted. You might not know exactly, or even vaguely, where your birthparent(s) were from, but the city directories can help you. Start with the city or town where your adoption agency was located or the city or town where the court finalized your adoption. If you only have a last name, make copies of the pages that contain all entries with that last name. Next, move to the city directories for suburbs or small towns nearby. Buy a map and draw a red cricle with about a 150 mile radius around the city or town where your adoption was handled. Check the city directories or old phone books for every community in that area. Then, sit down with all of the copied pages, (abbrieviations in the city directories for occupations are usually explained at the beginning of each volume, so make sure you have made a copy of that page as well, for reference) and your search journal, and try to match up some information. For example, if your birthmother was a teen and likely living at home, then try to see if any of the listings match what you know about your grandparents, such as retired miltary or that your grandmother was a seamstress. .If you might have your birthfathers or birthmothers name, and they were college students, look for all male and femals listed with that name who were students. Remember, if you have a first name, that it could be a nickname, or a middle name. Eliminate the listings that you can, but keep them somewhere in the back of your search journal just in case. 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 are 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 the 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 and soc.adoption.adoptees, or check out the Volunteer Search Network.
Medical Records, Birth certificates, and other documents
Now is the time to try and obtain your hospital records and other documents that you haven’t been able to get. Again, just because you have a name, don’t assume that the clerk will be any more receptive to your adoption story. DON’T MENTION ADOPTION. Write for your hospital records, including the full fee, as ‘Baby Girl’ or ‘Baby Boy’ (last name) if you do not have your given first name, and include all the other information you have, such as mother’s first name. If you are male, you will need to sign your request with your birthname. Women can use the fact that many will assume their names changed upon marriage. Also, it’s worth a shot to try and write for your original birth certificate. Scribble illegibly all of the information you don’t know, (such as first names).
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. Again, utilize city directories to find what churches were in the area of your birth and/or adoption at the time of the adoption.
While in most cases, an adoptee 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, so it pays to make check announcements for the date of your birth in the papers for the city or town of your birth.
Marriage and divorce records can be incredibly useful. In most states, these records are open to the public, and some progressive counties have even computerized them. You will probably not be able to send a written request unless you know with some certainty the date of the marriage or divorce, so you will need to go to the courthouse in the county of your search yourself, find a volunteer to do it for you, or utilize a Family History Center, which will be discussed in more detail below. In most counties, marriage records are organized by decade and are available on microfilm. Sometimes they will be sitting out in a common area for anyone to use, along with several microfilm readers. In other counties, you will have to go to the counter and request to look at certain decades. Given that you, in all likelihood, will have no idea when, where or who your birthparent(s ) married, the search is usually suprisingly easy. The records are usually organized alphabetically or by soundex rather than chronilogically, and they are indexed first by the groom’s name, with the bride’s name listed beside it, and then at the end of those entries, they reverse them and list them first by brides name, so you can search for either your birthfather or birthmother using marriage records. The point of a marriage search is twofold. First off, if you only have a last name, you are trying to find someone with that last name who matches the age and other information of your birthparent, in order to obtain their first name. Also, in the case of a birthmother, she will likely not have retained her maiden name, and you will need her married name in order to locate her. The marriage entries will have file numbers next to them, and you should copy down all of the ones that are relevant, then you will return to the counter and ask for hard copies of the marriage licenses with the file numbers that you notated. Marriage licenses usually contain helpful information such as birthdates or ages, places of birth, current residence, and the name of witnesses to the marriage.
Remember that there is a decent chance that your birthparent(s)did not get married in the county of your birth, but there’s also a good chance that they did. If your search proves fruitless, however, pursue the same strategy that you did with the city directories, by widening your search. If you need to narrow the dates, try locating your birthmother in a city directory listing, then searcing marriage records for the year when her entry falls out of the city directory. That could just indicate a move, but it could also indicate a marriage.
Divorce records will often yield more information than marriage licenses, but they can be harder to gain access to, and harder to search.
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 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 . You might also want to check out RMI services online. Some of their services, such as SSDI lookup, can be done for free by you and a lot of other people online, but they also offer very reasonable prices on marriage record searches, DMV records, SSN traces, and tons of other stuff.
Hopefully your birthparent(s) are not deceased, however it is possible that one or both of your grandparents will be. You can find the deaths of everyone with the last name that you are working with by looking in the state death index (available at most libraries) or Social Security Death Index , then look up the obituary in the appropriate newspaper or obituary index. Many obituaries will give details on the name and location of the surviving children of the deceased, which in this case will be your birthparent(s). SOme newspapers have archived their obituaries online. Genealogy Resources on the Internet has a link to some of these on their obituary page.
Military and military personnel records
If you have a name, and an indication from your non-ID or other sources that members of your birthfamily served in the military, there are sources on and offline that can provide you with other crucial bits of information. The Freedom of Information Act allows individuals to request certain records on both living and decased military personnel regardless of their relationship to the individual, or reason for the request. Information obtainable under the FOIA includes Name, Service Number,Rank,Dates of Service,Awards and decorations and City/town and state of last known address including date of the address. If the veteran is deceased you are entitled to Place of birth, Geographical location of death, and Place of burial. To find out where to write for records, visit theNational Archives and Records Administration site dealing with military personnel records.
For those searching in Canada, The National Archives of Canada has personnel files of over 5,500,000 former military and civilian employees of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Federal Public Service. Documents in these records contain information about the individual’s employment history with Federal Departments, the military units with which he or she served, pension details, and more.
Military City offers a searchable database of active duty, reserves, and some deceased military men and women, and the United States Combat Casualty Digest offers a searchable database for Vietnam War and other military casualties.
Family History Centers
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon church, keep the best genealogical records in the United States, and quite possibly in the entire world. Their main genealogical library, or Family History Center, is located in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is a goldmine of information for searchers, including, but not limited to, county histories, newspapers/periodicals containing obituaries, vital record announcements, etc. in microfilm collections, the Old Parochial Register of Scotland (lists extracted entries from the Church of Scotland baptism and marriage registers), the Australia, New South Wales Pioneer and Federation Index (lists birth, marriages, and deaths available from the Australian Civil Registration office), Obituary Index, Patriarchal Blessing Index, LDS Ward Records, Church Census, Utah Immigration Index, military records in book and microfilm, birth indices, the Social Security Death indices and further Military records on CD-Rom, with computer workstations set up for viewing. The best part of this wonderful resource is that you can order pretty much any of the FHC holdings through a local FHC and have it sent their so you can use it. There is a list of all the Family History centers in the U.S and Canada here.
Now, there are several things you need to know before you set foot in a Family History Center. First off, the Mormon Church is one of the few that have a formal position on closed adoption records, and they support them. Blabbing about your adoption search will put a quick end to your progress in most cases. The second thing is that even if you do not mention that your search is adoption-related, when you ask for a certain resource, particularly a birth index, their suspicions will be raised. You might be told that a given resource does not exist, or that all adoption entries have been purged, or you might be told to leave. FHC helpers and attendants in general, have been trained to vehemently maintain that their resources do not contain any information that will help you to find a living person. It’s all a bunch of hooey. You need to learn what the holdings of the main FHC in Salt Lake are, how to order them, and how to use the CD-Roms to your advantage. If you must ask the attendants for assistance, try to keep it basic, and if it appears that they are not going to be helpful, as politely as possible terminate the conversation and give it another shot on your own. If you encounter severe resistance, go to another local FHC. Some are much better than others.
There are guides available that cover how to use Family History Centers. Check at your library, contact your local genelaogical society and the FHC’s themselves for versions of these guides. Also, many groups schedule yearly genealogical trips to the main library in Salt Lake. Again, contact your local genealogical society, and check your library for postings and bulletins about such trips, as well as workshops. Also, I recommend that you visit here for various FHC related information.
Yearbooks can be very useful, especially if you have just a partial name, or just a first name. Many libraries contain the complete collection of both highschool and college yearbooks for the cities in the area, often going several decades back. If not, you can contact the Public School District. Most school districts have archives where their yearbooks are stored. Here is an instance where your non-identifying information will come in handy. Use the ages of your birthparent(s) to determine the dates of their school enrollment, use the physical descriptions to narrow down your choices, and use the ‘interests, sports, and hobbies’ to clue you in to clubs or teams they might belong to, or the information given about what they might be majoring in in college.
If you have a particularly unusual name, or you arrive at the full name of a birthfamily member, or you’re just curious as to how many person with the name live in Arizona, or any other state, online there is a national telephone directory called Switchboard. Canada also has one that covers all provinces except Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada411. There’s a good index of international phone directories that currently covers over 40 countries, and has links to additional international resources for locating individuals overseas.
General Genealogical Resources
As we have already discussed, once you have a name, an adoption search will become much like any other genealogical search. There are thousands of genealogical resources available to the intrepid. Yes, many resources will focus on tracing ancestors several times removed, resources hundreds of years old. But many other resources will contain information that applies to the way records are kept today, or the way they were kept when you were born. By simply using an Internet search engine, such as Alta Vista, and plugging in the word ‘genealogy’, nearly a quarter of a *million* entries pop up, and yes, you can make great strides in your search if you have a name to work with. Many large cities have separate sections in their public libraries devoted to genealogy. Many cities and towns have genealogical societies that meet monthly. Read the Usenet newsgroup, soc.genealogy.*, and the FAQ’s associated with it.
Re-read the books that I have recommended in previous posts, as you will likely have skipped over the information that centers on searching with a name, particularly;
“Adoption Searchbook, The: Techniques For Tracing People” 3rd Edition. Mary Jo Rillera. 224p. 1993. Triadoption
“Search – A Handbook for Adoptees and Birthparents”, 3rd Edition. Jayne Askin. 1998. Oryx
“How to Find Almost Anyone Anywhere” by Norma Mott Tillman
Connecting the Dots
Now that your search journal is stuffed full of copies of city directory pages, obituaries, yearbook entries, international genealogical index listings, and heaven knows what else, you might be feeling overwhelmed. It’s important to remain organized. Use all of the information at your disposal to eliminate as many of the entries as possible, and to highlight certain names. Pay attention to entries or names that keep resurfacing, then make a list in order of priority, starting with the persons that you think are most likely, and ending with the least likely. If you have developed any kind of rapport with your adoption agency, contact them with the name(s) that you have and see if they are willing to confirm or eliminate some pieces of information (although take everything they say with a grain of salt). If you have documents that you received from the agency or court or attorney that are whited out or otherwise censored, see if you can determine the length or number of spaces of the names that are whited out, and compare them with the information that you have. If you are unable to determine who the name that you have belongs to (birthfather or mother), keep in mind the ethnicity notated on your non-ID (although, again, take it with a grain of salt) and see if anything there gives you a clue.
Future posts will cover making contact with your birthparents, but even if you call up individuals with the intention of just gaining some genealogical information to further your search, you may inadvertantly end up with your birthmother or father on the other line. I know, it happened to me. So be prepared and discreet with every phone call that you make. If it becomes clear that you are speaking to a relative, you might want to wrap up your conversation and get off the phone to compose yourself and ponder your next step.
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