Advice for an adoptee
February 6, 2014 10:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I find my birth parents?

Over the years I've grown more curious about my birth parents. I'm 33 years old, and I know that there's a chance they might not even be alive anymore. I'm at a loss as to where to start, or what to do.

I've talked to my parents and asked them what they remember. Apparently my birth mother was a family friend of the doctor who delivered me, and my parents would get occasional updates on what happened to her. That doctor is now deceased. His name was Karl Kennedy and I was delivered at Frankford Hospital in Philadelphia. It was a private adoption.

I've considered looking up his wife or family to see if they know anything, but I'm not even sure how to go about doing that.

I've signed up for Pennsylvania's adoption registries, and the International Soundex Reunion Registry.

I'm not sure what my next step should be. I'm thinking about hiring a private investigator, but I don't want to do that unless absolutely necessary, as I can't really afford that.

Does anybody have any experience with this? What should I do next?
posted by mokin to Human Relations (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is the current adoptee rights page from the PA adoptee rights organization. According to that page, you may be access some information about your adoption through the county court in the county where your adoption was finalized. Do your parents still have any of the adoption paperwork?

Apparently you can currently only access a summary of your original birth certificate based on the info on that page, but there is a bill in the PA legislature to try to allow adult adoptees access to their original birth records. Perhaps you could contact your representative to urge them to support the bill.
posted by bedhead at 10:16 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Question is logistical, not "should I do this?" please answer the question being asked.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:57 AM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are you sure it is Pennsylvania and not New Jersey where you should be looking? Also Delaware should be considered too. I have friends who live in NJ and work in Philly and family that lives in Delaware that commutes to Philly.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:01 AM on February 6, 2014

What details did your parents get? If they involved cities or professions, that's data.

If you do find people who appear to be your parents, I would advise you to think long and hard about contacting them. A friend of my was harshly rejected by someone she thought was her biological mother. (PI match with a lot of convincing evidence) Still suffering .

The registries are probably your best bet. I know people on both sides who had great results. As time goes on, people will be more and more aware that they exist. Additionally, women often wait until their children are grown before looking for any children they could not raise. If you are 33 and your biological mother started a family a few years after you were born , she would still have kids at home and may be waiting before she puts herself out there.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:03 AM on February 6, 2014

It's possible you might find some genetic relatives with 23andme.

See if you can track down your original birth certificate. You might have to contact a court involved in the adoption, or the hospital.

Try requesting your own medical records from the hospital you were born at. They may have more information than is supposed to be in them.

If you know what cities to look in, you could try classified ads.
posted by yohko at 11:24 AM on February 6, 2014

(I tried requesting medical records from a hospital a couple of years ago. I was told that by law they are not required to keep them more than 10 years. This was in California though, so ymmv in another state, but don't be surprised if the records are no longer available).

Do you have a copy of your actual birth certificate? If not, start with the county recorder's office.

The adoption was private through whom - a lawyer, an agency? Give them a call.

I also think 23andme is a good suggestion.
posted by vignettist at 11:46 AM on February 6, 2014

This sounds like an even more difficult quest than a typical agency adoption. If it was private, there will be far fewer records and adoption was subject to far less oversight. I facilitated a private adoption between the daughter of a friend's housekeeper, a lawyer friend, and a couple I knew who were looking to adopt, and it went through practically overnight on my recommendation of the couple. This was also in Philadelphia, in 1984, so not too distant from your adoption. It isn't you, though -- I still know the couple and their son, and the timing isn't quite right, anyway. I wonder if knowing which attorney was involved in your adoption might help?

I think you've got a great nugget in the friendship of the obstetrician and the fact that he kept in touch with your birth mother and adoptive parents. I'd explore that further, and I think with all the information you have that it might not take a skilled private investigator a whole lot of effort, depending on whether the doctor shared this information with anyone else.

Not an adoptee myself, but I've heard several difficult recountings over the years from acquaintences who gave up infants for adoption who were later contacted by these adult children. It rarely seems to work out the way either party expects, but you are ultimately the person who has to decide how much knowing the truth means to you, and whether you are willing to take the chance on serious disappointment if you do finally locate your birth mother and father. Best of luck with your decision and your quest.
posted by citygirl at 12:08 PM on February 6, 2014

I'm an adoptee who found my birth family last summer in Virginia. The processes and laws vary WILDLY by state.

Questions to get answers to & first things first:

1.Do your parents still have the adoption papers? They should have papers from either the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or the county you were adopted in. Those papers would say things like your parents are now your legal parents, you were surrendered legally, etc. There may be a name change recorded on them; even in states where this is highly secret, sometimes they mess up and your original birth name is still on the name change papers your parents would have. If you find your birth name, the search will be significantly easier.

2. Pennsylvania has a biological parent consent registry. Do not hang all your hopes on this, because most biological parents do not even know they have the right to do this in states where they exist. Many, many women and girls who gave up babies in the secrecy era of adoption were told they would never have a chance, to forget their children forever and go on with their lives, so they still think that, even in states that have become more open or even completely open since then.

3. Register with 23andMe immediately. It takes about 4 weeks to get genealogical info. Chances are good you'll only get as close as about 4th or 5th cousin, but you never know. There are hardcore genealogists on there who have done years of research on their own family trees, and genealogists are wont (in my experience) to fill in all blanks, no matter if adoption is involved.

4. You need to talk to people who know how it's done in Pennsylvania. Google "Pennsylvania adoptee support" and you'll find a wealth of groups, some local and regional. Because Pennsylvania is a mostly closed state, you will not find all the search help you need in public forums. Talking in person or via email is going to be the most fruitful, but you have to find the right search & support network.

I have many other things to say about this, including about a PI, but I'm done posting what I feel comfortable sharing in a public forum. Please, please memail me.

You are not wrong for being curious, for wanting to know who you are. It is wrong for our original identities to be state secrets. In addition, I found my entire birth family (except my birth father, who died 34 years before I found his family), and they are all THRILLED that I did. Even the ones who were instrumental in my being surrendered. Times change, values change, and I'm a real person, not some theoretical baby. You're a real person with needs too. You deserve to know your original identity. The reunion and the identity issues are separate. Even if you find out identifying information, you don't ever have to use it if you don't want to.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:23 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Child of an adoptee here, successfully helped my parent find at least one birth parent.

This was not an easy job, and I'm a professional records searcher. I joined in the search in the early 1980s (although parent had initiated a failed search in the mid 1970s, the attorney involved declined /ignored request) and the first true breakthrough in the search was 16 years later. It took a thorough reading of the adoption laws on the book of the Midwestern state where the birth and adoption took place in order to find the "in" - there are provision for folks, like my parent, who has a severe genetic disorder that resulted in the death of a sibling and later my parent. I accompanied my parent to court where a Judge asked routine questions, looked at the medical documentation, and granted the request to unseal the original birth certificate and adoption record. From there, it was easy for me to find at least one of the birth parents, the other has proven untraceable (and even just yesterday, I worked on the current angles of research which are private records and DNA testing).

Have you ever seen your birth certificate? My parent actually never had a legal one, the original was impounded at the time of adoption. Likely that your parents filed an amended certificate so their names, not your birth parents' names, are on it. Do you know your name at birth? You might try asking under your birth name for your birth certificate. They may accidentally send you a copy even it it has been sealed. Skip this if you already have a copy showing your adoptive parents or if you don't know your name at birth.

Even in a private adoption, there must be a legal paper trail, likely a Decree at a County Court level where you were adopted. This is something your parents might have better luck obtaining "for their records" - typically all adoption proceedings, especially involving minors, would be sealed. Whichever parent had custody of you prior to the adoption will have to be on the legal record as surrendering their rights to you. Hopefully your adoptive parents will remember the courthouse they went to.

You've been given a most tantalizing clue regarding Dr. Kennedy, but do remember that often the story of how things transpired may have been muddled over the years, fact may turn out fiction (you should hear the whoppers that have been bandied around my family! Nearly every last one of them was wrong). I would suggest searching for his obituary (maybe the hospital knows when he died?) and from there using public records to determine if he has any living family. They are perhaps your best bet for getting direct information if your birth mother was, indeed, a friend of his. Don't be surprised, however, to find out if the story you've been told isn't quite accurate.

To initiate searches of this nature, you'll have to sometimes remain vague or hold back details. People fall on either side of a divide on the issue of adoption. Some are glad to help, others are the old school "it's none of your business, this is a private matter" folks will be of little use and perhaps make you question why you're doing this in the first place (and as an aside, *have* you answered that question for yourself, right? do you just want to know in general who your birth parents are, do you seek a reunion, will you be satisfied with perhaps never knowing?). Be prepared for uncovering a difficult scenario regarding your birth parents. My parent was unable to comprehend that their birth family was a proverbial 'problem family' and the birth illegitimate. My parent, who was near death when I revealed the family background, looked up at me from the bed and cried "Buy why did they give me up?" never understanding the birth family they did the best for this child in a time of medical need. A painful, sad moment I can't shake or ever forget.

The closer you get to asking people in-the-know, the more you'll have to be prepared with *why* you are searching. In the situation my family is in, we've found that people are entirely willing to help us when they know that this is a serious medical condition we are dealing with and many folks bend over backwards to help. It is also easier for us because we know for certain that everyone involved in the adoption is long dead and I often start my inquiries by making people aware of the fact that the parties are dead. You are likely dealing with people who are still alive, and you'll need to be very vigilant to be discreet and not spill people's secrets.

Moving on to DNA testing. Bear with me, I'm just learning all about this myself and will paint broad strokes here. I would suggest focusing on the three major tests currently available, Y-DNA, mtDNA, and autosomnal DNA.

You can test for your paternal line, or Y-DNA. This will tell you about each father (your father's father's father's father etc.) and give you a general heritage group based mainly on geography. Don't bother with a basic test (typically 12 markers, it is too broad to give meaningful results and you'll get hundreds of matches that are meaningless in terms of recent ancestry), go for 37, 67 or 111. Each marker level higher you go, the better you'll be able to establish how you are related to other people in the test company's database (you'll have to sign up with more than one database to maximize matches - will have more information on how to maximize your match potential as well as explain in better detail what these tests actually can tell you).

Next you can test your mtDNA to learn about your maternal line. This would be your mother's mother's mother's mother etc. Again, the more markers you test, the better. Because I haven't taken the test yet, I don't know the levels available, but strive for full testing given what you want to know.

But how, as an adoptee, can you find out your mother's father's heritage or your father's mother's heritage? Until very recently, tests of this nature were not commecially available at reasonable prices. Now, however, you can look at autosomnal DNA testing. This is the portion of DNA that comes from all your lines, but gets recombined at each generation making it hard, but not impossible, to tell where this genetic information comes from. Your matches will be predicated on whether anyone else descended from the same people you are descended from has done the DNA test. You may strike out, you may get some 'hits' that show a far distant (hundreds to thousands of years ago, meaning there is no paper trail to ever connect you to the matches), or you might find cousins, siblings or other family members if you're lucky.

I have yet to try the DNA tests to discover more about my Grandparent X (as I've been calling the birth parent we can't find) and am just finishing up researching how this all will work (I've been testing through Family Tree DNA but through my non-adopted parent's line, just so I can grasp how this works. The only significant 'hit' I've received after I increased the resolution to 37 markers is a person who had ancestors in the same general area but this person is nowhere on my family tree as I currently know it.

One last thought - when talking with your parents, instead of having them tell you verbally what they know, ask them each separately to *write down* all the details they can think of. It's a trick I learned when I was a young documents researcher helping patrons of a genealogical library begin their family history searches. Writing things down, as opposed to just speaking them, activates different parts of memory storage and you might find more clues are waiting to pop out once someone is in the groove of writing down all the details.

Good luck in your search!
posted by kuppajava at 1:27 PM on February 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm an adoptee and I did this in a country where the only information available was my original birth certificate (i.e. my birthmother's maiden surname and the name of the hospital I was born in).

If you can get that much information, you can probably do this. So the first thing to find out is whether you can get access to your original birth certificate. You should be able to do this. Even if it was a private adoption, I would be surprised if a social worker couldn't at least tell you whether you have the right to the certificate information, and how to go about requesting it. I would start by trying to contact a social worker associated with the hospital where you were born.

Once you have a surname (and the assumption that she lived in the region served by that hospital when you were born), you can start going through relevant records from that time. Phone books and electoral rolls are best. Hopefully it is not a common surname (mine was Smith. Yes, seriously! But I still found them.)

I got lucky in that her parents were still alive and still in the same region. So they were on the electoral roll from the year I was born, and then I was able to track down a current phone number and address for them from the current phone book for that city. Then they were able to give me her married surname and contact details.

But yeah, what others have said about making sure your expectations aren't too high. I got lucky and my birthmother and I have an awesome friendship (and she gets on really well with my adoptive parents too). My birthfather on the other hand (who I was only able to find because my birthmother still knew how to get in touch with his parents - he wasn't on the birth certificate) freaked out when I got in touch, met me once in order to basically caution me to never let his wife or children know about me, and ignored my two or three subsequent attempts at contact.
posted by lollusc at 3:11 PM on February 6, 2014

When I searched 20 years ago, Indiana was a tightly closed state. They had a registry, but no information could be shared unless both parties had registered.

I went so far as to hire a private investigator to find my birthmom. He managed to find enough information for me to eventually contact her. It was definitely worth it.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:35 PM on February 6, 2014

We tracked down our kids' family in an illegal adoption. The practical advice I can give is to start scanning in every scrap of paper and writing down all the information you have, even rumours and half-remembered names. A big single notebook is helpful for this. Construct a master timeline if you can. A scribbled list of names on the back of an envelope that I'd jotted down absently ended up being crucial much later, and it was a friend of a friend's friend who suggested the actual place we were looking for. Luck and persistence play equal roles. We went back and forth over the search, because it was too difficult emotionally for the kids (and for us) to do in one go.

Be prepared for backlash. I had friends with adoption in their families drop contact with us once we said we were going to search for our kids' family, because they had different opinions about open adoptions and trafficking. And weirdest of all to me, is that to many many people, family through adoption is distant or negligible. Be prepared for people who genuinely love you to have absolutely no interest in your relatives by birth, because they are sort of imaginary or invisible to them. This important chunk of your life just won't exist for most people in your life.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:41 PM on February 6, 2014

lollusc, if the OP was adopted in Pennsylvania, original birth certificates are not available to him/her except by court order. (Indeed, that's the law in most US states for people adopted from about the 40s through the 90s or even later.) The link I gave in my first post tells the OP how to proceed to ask for information from PA.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:39 AM on February 7, 2014

I just realized I repeatedly made a spelling error in my post and can't figure out how to edit it. The correct term is "autosomal" not "autosomnal." My apologies.
posted by kuppajava at 12:56 PM on February 7, 2014

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