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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 31:  Adoption and Orphans Research


Family historians who are adoptees themselves or encounter an adopted or an orphaned ancestor often require additional and special research skills in order to solve the puzzle. This research can be complicated by such factors as whether this event took place recently or several generations back, whether there was a legal, black-market, or an informal adoption, whether an ancestor was reared by foster parents (and whether the foster parents were related or unrelated to the birth parents), was placed in an institution or was part of various groups, such as Orphan Train Riders (American), Ragged Schools (British) or some other child emigration movements (Canada)

Whether medical, genetic, genealogical or personal, the need to know one's family history can be especially strong for adoptees. However, sometimes we must hurdle formidable barriers of sealed records, falsified birth certificates and uncooperative relatives in order to compile an accurate family tree. Additionally, great emotional issues must be dealt with such as finding unpleasant facts that shatter preconceived ideas about birth parents and blood relatives. If you are an adoptee in most instances you need to be at least 18 years of age in order to conduct a search to find living birth relatives and obtain access to certain records.

In the United States many states' adoption laws creating so-called modern sealed records date back to 1920-40, and were patterned after the Minnesota Act of 1917. This act was not intended to maintain anonymity between the participants in an adoption, but rather to protect adopted children from the stigma of illegitimacy by removing such information from open court records.

Social workers, agencies and lawmakers were not alone in believing that secrecy was for the best. Society itself endorsed it. At the time there was a social stigma about illegitimacy and being an unwed mother. Sealed records guaranteed privacy for unwed pregnant girls and women. They were secreted away, had their babies in seclusion and returned home (supposedly) as if nothing had happened.

Sealed records sounded good on paper, but the system had flaws. Most birth mothers did not forget about the babies they gave away. Adoptive parents, placed under tremendous scrutiny by agencies, lived under the constant pressure of trying to be perfect parents, and many adoptees grew up always feeling somehow incomplete, but afraid to ask questions about their biological roots. Many chose not to begin a genealogical search of the bloodline until the adoptee parents were deceased.

While modern-day adoption has worked to some measure by providing many children with homes, and childless couples with families, many involved believe its greatest failings have been in its foundation built on secrecy and falsified vital records. Regardless of your personal feelings on this matter, in order to find information you need to be aware of what records exist and how to access them.

Genealogical research and the search of adoptees to find living birth parents and relatives are similar research quests, but not exactly the same. If your goal is to find living persons (for reunion purposes) your path will be different than if you are seeking to identify your ancestors. 


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