The Journey of Search and Reunion in American Adoption

The Journey of Search and Reunion in American Adoption

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Written by Carol J. Bishop, LMFT
Published on: Jun 27, 2024
Category Adoption

In a world of instant access to information through technology, it can be hard to remember a time when secrecy ruled the world of some adoptions. Throughout history, informal adoptions have taken place within families and communities, and secrecy has not been an issue. It is important, however, to revisit the history of sealed records in agency adoptions, to appreciate how far we have come today. As with other movements resulting in expanded rights, the persistence of many advocates has resulted in the movement toward opening adoptions and facilitating searches. The Internet moved the needle exponentially as information access exploded, and the search for birth connections became much easier.

Let’s look back at where we started and how we got to where we are today.

Orphan Train Movement

Orphan Train Movement, 1854-1929

The Institutionalization of American Foster Care & Adoption

Historically, homeless, orphaned and abandoned children were cared for primarily in orphan institutions in the United States until the late 1930’s, with some exceptions for those children who were assisted by a scattering of private organizations that sought to place them in childless homes. For instance, from 1854 to 1929, the “Orphan Train” movement relocated some of these children from crowded Eastern cities to rural farm communities along the East Coast and the Midwest. Three charitable organizations were formed in New York City to assist these children, funded by wealthy donors. Information about the children’s birth families was not hidden, but records were not kept in any orderly way, so information was often lost or unknown. This was the forerunner of the foster care and adoption system, and social workers saw disclosure of information as part of their job, so there was no formal law governing secrecy off information.

Minnesota was the first state to enact laws protecting information in adoptions in 1917, in an attempt to reduce the stigma of illegitimacy, and an effort to prevent birth families from interfering with adoptive families. By the end of World War II, these secrecy laws were widespread and rigid in most states, and adopted adults seeking information about their origins were not only rebuffed, but considered to be maladjusted, with seeking information seen as a result of a failed adoption experience. This perception was widespread, despite the growing number of adoptees who expressed curiosity about their origins.


The Reformation Search and Reunion in American Adoption

In 1953, Jean Paton, an adopted person and trained social worker, founded the first adoptees search organization in the United States, Orphan Voyage. Jean proposed that the need to search was both a normal psychological necessity for adoptees and had nothing to do with their sense of belonging in their adoptive family. Jean was also a proponent of mutual consent search registries, and a tireless advocate for reform in adoption practice.

The American Adoption Congress (AAC) was founded in the late 1970’s as a search and support and adoption reform organization, initiated by Jean Paton of Orphan Voyage.

Jean Paton Struggle to Reform American Adoption Book Cover

By the 1960’s and 1970’s the search and reunion movement gained public awareness but remained a controversial subject. Searching for one’s roots was becoming a symbol of healing in parts of the adoption community, rather than a symptom of psychological disturbance, but opposition remained strong in some quarters, and in most states adoption records remained closed by law. The 1970’s saw publication of several seminal publications and one important TV series.

In 1973, Florence Fisher wrote The Search for Anna Fisher, recounting her search for her birth parents after finding her original birth name on documents in her mother’s dresser drawer, revealing that she was adopted. Her book was widely read and raised awareness of the issues of search and reunion as never before. Florence appeared on TV and spoke publicly about the issue, advocating for access to information for adoptees.

Prior to publication of her book, in 1971, Florence took out a classified advertisement in several newspapers: “Adult who was an adopted child desires contact with other adoptees to exchange views on adoptive situation and for mutual assistance in search for natural parents.”

She received hundreds of responses, many of which recounted deeply personal stories. Inspired by the response, Florence founded the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, known as ALMA, which promoted open records and assisted members with their search for biological connections. Within a few years, ALMA had 50,000 members, 50 chapters and a database of 340,000 names and other information. ALMA was the first of the search and support groups proliferating all across the United States.

Concerned United Birth Parents (CUB) formed in 1976, with the mission “to provide support for birthparents who have relinquished a child to adoption; to provide resources to help prevent unnecessary family separations; to educate the public about the life-long impact on all who are touched by adoption; and to advocate for fair and ethical adoption laws, policies, and practices.”


Roots TV Series 1977 LeVar Burton

Raising Awareness of Search and Reunion

Several books were written in the 1970’s raising awareness of the search and reunion movement. For example, Betty Jean Lifton published  two books in the 1970’s, recounting her adoption journey: Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter, in 1975, and Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience in 1979. She was a pioneer in advocacy for open adoption.

Rod McKuen, a popular singer, songwriter, and poet, wrote Finding My Father: One Man’s Search for Identity, in 1976, recounting his search for his biological father. He was the first celebrity to write about this subject so openly, and the book was widely read, engendering sympathy for the issue.

In 1976, Annette Baran, MSW, Reuben Pannor, MSW, and Arthur Sorosky, MD, published Adoption Triangle: The Effects of Sealed Records on Adoptees, Birth Parents and Adoptive Parents, based on their research, advocating  for opening of sealed records and an end to child welfare practices of secrecy in adoption.

In 1977, the TV series, Roots, raised the general consciousness about heritage and origins even more acutely, and contributed to the general conversation about learning about one’s biological connections. This helped the search and reunion cause as well, as public discourse emphasized the positive aspects of knowing ones roots.

Advocating for Search and Reunion & Open Adoptions

At the same time, the push for open adoption was taking hold, and attitudes about secrecy were changing. In the 1980’s and 1990’s search support groups were growing in numbers across the country. Search consultants, individuals who were adept at the detective work of searching records and finding lost relatives, offered their services to birth parents and adoptees, helping to facilitate reunions. More books were written, TV programs and movies with adoption themes, and talk shows on the subject helped to create awareness and open minds.

In some states, open adoptions were becoming more accepted, and the whole issue of secrecy was slowly becoming less relevant. More often adoptive parents and birth parents met and established a range of openness in their adoption agreements, ranging from periodic letters and photos to fully open relationships, sharing special occasions and blending families.

In the early 2000’s, as home computers became more available and the Internet grew, information exploded and searches became easier. While adoption registries already existed, the advent of Ancestry’s genealogy site and DNA testing sites like 23 and Me, founded in 2006, made finding relatives easier and more precise. Online forums such as My Space and Facebook facilitated searches, once the searcher had a name.

Today, searching for biological relatives is much easier than it used to be, but it does still take patience and time. Most states still restrict access to original birth certificates for adopted persons. The exceptions are Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon and Rhode Island. Hawaii and South Dakota allow access to adoption court records. There are movements in process in other states to open birth records and court records, and some states like California allow contact between adult adopted persons and birth parents by mutual consent. In reality, the success of searches and resulting reunions have continued to be far ahead of the laws governing access to sealed records, and in the age of technology, secrecy cannot be guaranteed.


One final note. In 1985, as a service of my organization, Kinship Center, in California, I started a facilitated support group for birth parents. I advertised in local newspapers and community information boards that a group meeting would be held for birth parents whose children were adopted. Some of the women who responded said they had never talked to anyone about their experience. For some, the idea of searching for their child had seemed impossible, but for all of them the pain of not knowing if their child was okay or even alive was devastating and haunting. This group soon opened up to adoptees as well, and the mutual support between birth parents and adoptees was extremely beneficial as some members searched for their adopted children and others for their biological families. Their conversations helped them to prepare for what they might encounter in their search, supported them after they reunited, and consoled them if their search did not yield the happy ending they hoped for. The group continued to meet for 35 years, and it was my privilege to witness firsthand the healing power of truth and reconciliation over secrecy and pain.

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