Pediatric Annals

Adopted Adolescents and the Birth Parent Quest

Adele D Hofmann, MD; Annie Gardiner, BA

Abstract

There are an estimated 2. 5 to 5 million adoptees in the United States. Of those who are adult, approximately 2% to 3% are known to be actively searching for more information about their genealogical roots; some are also seeking reunion with their birth parents. l In a 1976 report by the Child Welfare League2 on the experience of 163 adoption agencies, more than 3,000 adult adoptees had made inquiries of these agencies in the previous year; 60% had made limited requests for information about themselves without birth parent identification, but 40% requested this information as well. An even larger number of individuals would like to make such inquiries but have not yet publicly declared their interest.3

There is substantial evidence that many adoptees feel significantly deprived of information about their biological and genealogical origins and that they view this information as important. It should be noted that adoptees are the only individuals in this country who are denied the right to know of their genetic past as a matter of social policy.

This article will examine the legal and ethical issues raised by searching adoptees, whether for information only or birth parent reunion, and the obstacles they encounter. We will define the traditional rationale behind widely prevailing sealed birth record laws, discuss recent challenges and change, and offer specific guidelines for assisting searching adolescents and young adults.

Our model for this discussion is the triad of adoptive parents, biological birth parents, and an adolescent or young adult who was adopted in early life. Although the adoptee was probably told of his or her adoptive status during childhood, this typically was in generalized terms conveying little substantive information.3 Moreover, whatever information adoptive parents were initially given about their child's background has long since become outdated. With the rise of critical identity issues during the teenage years, the adopted adolescent inevitably experiences renewed and heightened curiosity about birth parents and genealogical origins. But due to traditional perspectives, neither adoptive parents, birth parents, or the law are prepared to respond. Rathet, a conspiracy of silence prevails.

TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF ADOPTION

The traditional view of adoption is one of resolving a triadic dilemma through a new beginning and a complete break with the past. The adoptive parents receive a child they would not otherwise have. The birth parent, usually an unmarried young woman, is relieved of the stigma and economic burdens of raising an out of wedlock child. The adoptee is also relieved of the stigma of illegitimacy and enters a secure, stable, and loving home.

Traditionally, once the necessary legal processes are complete, the dilemma is considered to be resolved and there is an end to any further involvement of the birth parent with the child. There is no concept of adoption as an ongoing dynamic process in which genealogical and biological information is periodically updated by birth parents and in which adoptees, with their adoptive parents' assistance, periodically review this information in terms that are consistent with their developmental stage.

It is important to note that the assumptions on which the traditional perspective is based are just that - assumptions. They derive from a paternalistic view of what social policy makers thought was in the best interests of each member of the triad with little validation through psychosocial research. It was assumed that the adopted child would be best served by having an attachment to a single family and would only be confused by concepts of a dual parentage. The child needed to know little more than the simple fact of being adopted plus other idealized information intended to minimize feelings…

There are an estimated 2. 5 to 5 million adoptees in the United States. Of those who are adult, approximately 2% to 3% are known to be actively searching for more information about their genealogical roots; some are also seeking reunion with their birth parents. l In a 1976 report by the Child Welfare League2 on the experience of 163 adoption agencies, more than 3,000 adult adoptees had made inquiries of these agencies in the previous year; 60% had made limited requests for information about themselves without birth parent identification, but 40% requested this information as well. An even larger number of individuals would like to make such inquiries but have not yet publicly declared their interest.3

There is substantial evidence that many adoptees feel significantly deprived of information about their biological and genealogical origins and that they view this information as important. It should be noted that adoptees are the only individuals in this country who are denied the right to know of their genetic past as a matter of social policy.

This article will examine the legal and ethical issues raised by searching adoptees, whether for information only or birth parent reunion, and the obstacles they encounter. We will define the traditional rationale behind widely prevailing sealed birth record laws, discuss recent challenges and change, and offer specific guidelines for assisting searching adolescents and young adults.

Our model for this discussion is the triad of adoptive parents, biological birth parents, and an adolescent or young adult who was adopted in early life. Although the adoptee was probably told of his or her adoptive status during childhood, this typically was in generalized terms conveying little substantive information.3 Moreover, whatever information adoptive parents were initially given about their child's background has long since become outdated. With the rise of critical identity issues during the teenage years, the adopted adolescent inevitably experiences renewed and heightened curiosity about birth parents and genealogical origins. But due to traditional perspectives, neither adoptive parents, birth parents, or the law are prepared to respond. Rathet, a conspiracy of silence prevails.

TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF ADOPTION

The traditional view of adoption is one of resolving a triadic dilemma through a new beginning and a complete break with the past. The adoptive parents receive a child they would not otherwise have. The birth parent, usually an unmarried young woman, is relieved of the stigma and economic burdens of raising an out of wedlock child. The adoptee is also relieved of the stigma of illegitimacy and enters a secure, stable, and loving home.

Traditionally, once the necessary legal processes are complete, the dilemma is considered to be resolved and there is an end to any further involvement of the birth parent with the child. There is no concept of adoption as an ongoing dynamic process in which genealogical and biological information is periodically updated by birth parents and in which adoptees, with their adoptive parents' assistance, periodically review this information in terms that are consistent with their developmental stage.

It is important to note that the assumptions on which the traditional perspective is based are just that - assumptions. They derive from a paternalistic view of what social policy makers thought was in the best interests of each member of the triad with little validation through psychosocial research. It was assumed that the adopted child would be best served by having an attachment to a single family and would only be confused by concepts of a dual parentage. The child needed to know little more than the simple fact of being adopted plus other idealized information intended to minimize feelings of rejection and provide assurances of love. The importance of genealogical and biological information for identity formation, particularly by adolescents and young adults, was given very short shrift.

It also was assumed that adoptive parents would best bond and make a unreserved commitment to the child if assured that there would be no further intrusion by the birth parent into their lives. In turn, this was quite compatible with the belief that the birth mother herself would wish to begin life anew and for the child to never know of her in the future.1,4&,5 Accordingly, permanent anonymity and privacy protection was deemed of cardinal importance to all concerned. This could only be achieved by closing the adoptee's birth records forever.

Although sealed birth record laws and their conceptual derivation are increasingly viewed as archaic for contemporary times, there are clear historical precedents that tend to keep them well entrenched. First, traditional adoption law saw its primary task as resolving the question of an infant's custody, beginning with the birth parent's surrender and ending with the legal transfer of custody to adoptive parents. There was no justifiable reason for further intrusion into the adoptive family without compelling cause.

Second, most states enacted adoption laws in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century, a time when the degree of prejudice against out of wedlock pregnancy and illegitimacy was infinitely greater than it is today.

Third, the possibility that adoptees might have a constitutional right to view their birth records was simply not entertained until recently. The ethical and legal evolution of the concept that individuals are entitled to know any information about them contained in records held by others simply as a matter of course dates only to the last decade, as conceptualized in the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 USC 552a).

Last, and also until recently, child development experts considered the adopted child to be served best by affiliation with a single set of parents, uncomplicated by divided loyalties. It was believed that adopted children did not need a great deal of information about their biological origins to be emotionally healthy, and those who insisted on searching did so out of maladjustment. Much of the data on which these conclusions were based came from studies of adoptees attending mental health facilities - a rather biased population.6 More recent investigations of adoptees in the general population fail to support this contention.7-9

With several notable exceptions, these laws have changed little to date. It often takes considerable time for legislatures to catch up with changing social views, . particularly in matters such as intrusion into the family unit and a child's "best interests. " Most states continue to prohibit opening an adoptee's birth record without a court order. The court decides on the merits of the claim, and approval tends to be limited to situations where there is a clear need for medical or, in some instances, mental health data. Released information is restricted to relevant facts only with the exclusion of any possible birth parent identifiers.

REVIEW OF RECENT LITERATURE

As already noted, a significant number of adolescent and young adult adoptees have keen interest in obtaining access to their birth records without further reason than the desire to know. For some this is important in consolidating their sense of identity and integrity; others see it simply as their constitutional right. Our understanding of the implications of such inquiries for the adoptee and the effect on both biological and adoptive parents has altered considerably as a result of recent research.

Adoptees Who Search

The first to study the question of reunion was Triseliotis,10 who in 1973 interviewed 70 adult Scottish adoptees who had identified their birth parents by using the open birth record system of Scotland. Shortly thereafter, in 1975, Sorosky, Baran, and Pannor9 interviewed 50 reunited adult adoptees and their biological parents in the United States. Both Triseliotis and Sorosky et al found that searching adoptees tended to be female, have experienced a late or traumatic revelation of their adoption, and have been given little early information on their biological backgrounds. Common précipitants of an adoptee's search were marriage, pregnancy, the birth of a child, or the death of an adoptive parent. Similar, although not identical, findings have been reported by others."

Regarding childhood adjustment factors, Triseliotis10 found that searching adoptees tended to have had unsatisfactory adoptive family relationships and negative self-images. These observations, however, have not been borne out by subsequent investigators. Sorosky et al9 found no relationship between the quality of adoptive family relationships and searching. Day,12 on interviewing 500 inquiring adult adoptees in England following enactment of open birth record legislation, determined that the majority were stable, well adjusted persons who simply felt they had a right to know of their origins.

Aumend7 compared 71 searching adult adoptees with 49 nonsearchers. Both groups were well adjusted and had scores in the normal range on measures of selfesteem. Attitudes toward parents also were generally positive in both groups and most stated they were happy growing up. But within this overall normalcy there were differences. Searchers had lower self-concept scores than nonsearchers, were less positive in their attitudes toward adoptive parents, and tended to learn of their adoption later. They also expressed less positive feelings than nonsearchers about this revelation and being adopted, expressed more concern about their backgrounds, and had already discovered more about their birth parents.

In exploring the reasons adult adoptees seek more information, three fifths of all searchers in Day's study felt this was the only way they could establish their true identities.12 Kowal's subjects searched to fill a void, understand themselves better in existential terms, obtain their medical history, or secure a sense of belonging.11 In a study of 12 reunited adults, Depp concluded that being reunited with birth parents is an important part of an adoptee's efforts to establish a complete sense of identity.13

In summary, the majority of current literature finds searching adoptees to be well adjusted and functional when they are adults. However, many have deep rooted interests in reuniting with their birth parents and see this as a critical component to completing their identities. It is also clear that, even if not specifically searching, a substantial majority of both adolescent and adult adoptees want more information about their cultural and biological heritage than they currently possess. It appears that all adoptees are uniquely vulnerable to identity conflicts and that those who gain the information they seek or actually experience reunion find this greatly assists in filling an identity void and in answering biological and genetic concerns.

Birth Parents Revisited

Relatively little information is available about birth parents long term experiences and attitudes. In Triseliotis' report on English adoptees,10 it was noted that a majority of birth mothers would not object to a reunion if it was necessary for the adoptees' welfare or mental health.

Most of our knowledge comes from Pannor, Baran, and Sorosky14 who investigated the feelings of 38 birth parents several years after the surrendering of their child. Although it was a biased study because all of the subjects were self-selected, it still demonstrates that the views of at least one group of birth parents do not support traditional assumptions. The vast majority of these birth parents were functioning well. Most were married, had other children of their own and had told their husbands about the adoptee. However, half of these mothers continued to experience loss, pain, and mourning and wanted the adoptees to know they had always cared. Nearly two out of three continued to be ambivalent about the adoption decision. Only two individuals wanted to forget the past.

Four out of five of these birth parents wondered how their child was growing up but did not want to upset or hurt the adoptive parents by any intrusion. Four out of five also were interested in a reunion ii the adoptee wanted it and had reached adulthood. Only three individuals stated they did not want a reunion because they did not feel they could handle it. Those who favored a reunion saw the possibility of friendship but not a parental relationship.

Nearly all birth parents (95%) definitely would like to update information about themselves in agency records and were interested in updated information about the adoptee. Half favored opening sealed records and giving full background data to adult adoptees, but still exclusive of identifying data; 80% favored mediating boards to establish the merits of a reunion and to assist with this if deemed appropriate.

Adoptive Parents

Even less information is available about how adoptive parents experience their adoptee's search and how reunion affects intrafamily relationships. Again, Sorosky is the primary investigator.9 Although some of the adoptive parents in this study were initially hurt and upset, intrafamily relationships were not permanently harmed. To the contrary, in most instances they were even strengthened. The adoptees themselves reported a deeper sense of love and appreciation for their adoptive parents and viewed the latter as their true "psychological" parents.

RECOMMENDATIONS

As a result of their extensive studies, Pannor, Baran, and Sorosky14 strongly recommend that adoptive parents should be provided with ongoing reports conthe birth parents to answet the children's questions. They also deem it beneficial for mature adoptees to have open access to all available unideninformation and to have deliberate opportunity to explore the possibility of birth parent contact. The then raise, but do not answer, the question of whether adult adoptees have a constitutional right to full disclosure of all birth information, including birth parent identification, simply on request and further research into the impact on all concerned.

Kowal11 concurs with the need of adopted children more information than is usually given and argues adoption is a lifelong process that does not termiat the time of custody transfer. She specifically increased agency attention to providing postservices to adoptees and their adoptive particularly during the former's adolescence again at pregnancy, both particularly vulnerable times.

Sokoloff15 specifically looked at the question of release as it applies to pediatricians caring adolescent adoptees. He deems it important for these young people to be given as much unidentifiable as they want on request. Actual attempts at searching for birth parents, however, should be discouraged until adulthood because teenagers cannot put the experience into proper perspective and need to complete their developmental tasks without this added complication.

A position paper of the American Academy of Pediatrics16 notes that although most adoptees have warm, loving, and bonded relationships with adoptive parents, they also may have a compelling desire to learn more about their birth parents- The paper continues by observing, first, that many adult adoptees and contemporary adoption specialists see this search as essential to the establishment of a healthy identity; and, second, that there is a growing body of law speaking to constitutional privacy rights and individual access to any record containing personal information. The Academy recommends that adoptive parents should be provided full nonidentifying information, with periodic updates if possible, to answer questions as their adopted child grows. The more open the communication, the less likely are serious identity problems to occur. The Academy also supports the right of mature adoptees to have full and open access to their birth records.

LEGAL TRENDS

In 1985, the American Bar Association proposed a model adoption law that recommended adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees over the age of 18 should be furnished selected nonidentifying information on request.'7 This should include the health and medical history of the adoptee's biological parents; the health and medical history of the adoptee; the adoptee's general birth family background including ancestral information, but without names or geographical designations; and physical descriptions. This recommendation has seen only limited implementation to date.

Although most countries continue to have sealed birth record policies, Great Britain, Finland, and Israel have open birth records.1-16 In the United States, adult adoptees may obtain copies of court records or original birth certificates in Alabama, South Dakota, and Virginia.' In Minnesota, adoptees over the age of 21 may open their sealed records if the birth parent agrees.18

California enacted a unique law in 1983 19: adoptees over age 18 may receive reports on their medical background on request, but without birth parent identifiers; this information may be obtained at a younger age at the adoptive parents' request. Birth parents are encouraged to inform the agency of their current address and any new health problems that could affect the child. At age 21, adoptees also may request and receive their birth parents' names and addresses if the latter have given permission. Reciprocally, birth parents may obtain the identity of the adoptee, when age 21, if the adoptee agrees.

The statute further provides a mechanism whereby birth parents may deposit letters, photographs, or other items of personal property with the State Department of Social Service. These may be released to adoptees at age 18 on request or to adoptive parents for younger children. Similar materials may be reposited by the adoptee or adoptive parents for the birth parent. In either case, all identifiers must be removed before releasing.

GUIDELINES FOR SEARCHING

As noted, a given adoptee's search may vary from simply unidentifiable genealogical information to birth parent identification without contact to actual reunion. It is generally recommended that all known nonidentifying information be made available to either the adoptee or adoptive parents at any time, but actual birth parent identification should be reserved for mature adoptees who have completed their adolescent developmental tasks, or around ages 18 to 21.15-16

Access to birth records and the ease with which identifying information may be obtained depends considerably on the law in the state in which the adoptee was born. Adoption agencies have considerable background information in their files and are a major source of unidentifiable data. Increasingly, these agencies are willing to release substantial amounts of information to mature adoptees or adoptive parents of younger children. This may be sufficient for those who seek background information only.

Although adoptees are the primary concern, adoptive parents should not be overlooked. Regardless of other factors, including the age of the adoptee, it also is important to involve these parents and help them to understand their offspring's identity concerns with minimal threat and to resolve their inevitable feelings of rejection.

Once majority is reached, the adoptee has a number of additional options through adoptees' search organizations for both obtaining further information and attempting reunion (Table). Most prominent among these is the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) with branches in many cities. ALMA provides specific information on searching and adoptees' rights. A number of other organizations also provide workshops, support groups, registries, and related assistance.

Table

TABLEAdoptees' Search Organizations

TABLE

Adoptees' Search Organizations

CONCLUSION

The law does not yet appear to be prepared to offer the adult adoptee unrestricted access to birth records if this also means disclosing birth parent identifiers, unless specifically agreed to by the latter. But the law clearly is moving toward providing access to all information short of identification simply on the adoptee s request and without any need to make a justifiable claim.

There is, however, a clear argument for an ethical dimension that birth parent identification may be an adoptee's constitutional right as well as personal need. As compassionately stated by Dukette:

Many adoptees, although told of their adoption and about their biological families, state they never failed to be aware that they had other parents to dream, worry, wonder about, and to yearn for. They felt differenr from other children and had a need to hide their difference. Now many are seeking to find and rebind ties that agencies carefully, and with the best will in the world, worked to terminate permanently. In the adoptee search movement there is a view that birth information is an "entitlement." The drive to re-establish biological family ties is just one more effort to overcome a sense of dislocation in a world whose future seems extremely uncertain. The importance of genetic ties is increasingly recognized and children deprived of genetic ties are increasingly viewed as children at risk. If these ideas are valid, then the institution needs to provide some structural way for adopted individuals to learn as much about themselves as they want.4

Adoption is not a static issue that no longet needs attention and updating once the transfer of the child from birth to adoptive parents is made. Rather, it is a dynamic issue with new and evolving dimensions for all parties in the triad. This has particular developmental significance for adopted adolescents and young adults who experience identity issues not encountered in natural born children. There also is cogent ethical argument that mature adoptees have a right to know everything about themselves including the identity of those who gave them birth.

Birth parents, too, will benefit from easier access to birth records: they do not forget about their offspring, often have unresolved feelings about the surrender, and want to know how their child is growing.

Open birth records pose a particularly difficult challenge to adoptive parents in understanding and supporting their adoptee's information needs without feeling threatened. They may no longer ignore or deny their child's genealogical roots and must modify their perspectives accordingly. However, there is clear indication that such openness serves to strengthen intraramily ties and adoptive parents can be winners, too.

There can be little question today about the needs and rights of adoptees for full and open access to all available information about their genealogical past. It only remains to define how this can best be accomplished in the future while preserving the goals of adoptive family integrity of the traditional past.

REFERENCES

1. The Juvenile Rights Protect oí the American Civil Liberties Union: Sealed adoption records vs. the adoptee's right to know the identity of hi* birth parents. Children's Rights Refaire I979; K 5): 1-12.

2. The Sealed AdiiptUm RecordOimtriavrsv: RepmlofaSunvyof Agency RiItKy, Practice and Opium. New York. Child Welfare League ut America Research Center. 1976.

3. Ravnor L: The Adopted Child Comes of Age- National Instaure Social Services Library No. 16, LonJon. Ocorge Allen Ot Unwin. 1980.

4. Dukette R: Value issues in present-day adoption. CIuId Welfare 1984; 5801:211-241.

5. Hubbard O: Who am I! The Child 1947: 11:130-111.

6. NickmanSL: Losses in adoption: The need ti>r diali >gue. PswhtundtSludv Child 1985: 40:165-198.

7. AumenJ SA. Barrett M(J: Self-concept and attitudes toward adoption: A comparison of searching and non-searching adoptees. Child Welfare 1984: 6101:251-259.

8. Li trvt N; A Oimpamm Study of Personality Factors ttnJ Social Histories of Three Gnnips of Adopted Adults, dissertation. California School of Professional Psychology. Los Anudes. Calif. 1976.

9. Soroskv AO. Baran A. Pannor R: The Adoptum Triiou>te. Carden City NY. Anchor Press/l\«ibleday. 1979.

10. Triseliotis): In Search of Origins: The Experience of Adapted li-rsons. London. Rourlcdge & Kegan Paul. 1971.

11. Kuwal KA. Schilling KM: Adoption through the eves of ;tdulr adoptees. AmJ OrehKpsvchttUrv 1985: 55:154-162.

12. Day C: Access to birth records: Cenerai Regisrer Office study. Adoption and Fostering 1979; 98.

13. Deph CH: Atter reunion: rVrceptions of .klult adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents. Child WeI(HTe 1982: 1412).

14. Panrtor R. Baran A. Son>skv AD: Birth parents whu ehnquished babies for adoptior revisited. Fam Pfoc 1978: 17:129-117.

15. Sokoloff B: Should the adopted adolescent haw ace. s u> his birth records and to hi: birth parents; Clinicul ftrduunci 1977: 16:975-977.

16. American Academv ot Pediatrics' Committee on Adoption and IVpendent Care: The role ot the pediatrician in adoption with reference to "the nght to know." Riiiumis 1981:67:105-106.

17. American Bar Association: Draft ABA rondel state adoption acr. Famih Lau Quarterly 1985; 19121:101-110.

18. Weidell RC: Unsealing sealed birth certificates in Minnesota. Child Welfare 1980: 59I21.111-119.

19. Adoptum lnf<»rmation Act of 1981 (as amended 19841: Caliliimia Civil Gide; Chapter 724. Section 1798.24; Chapter 1049. Section 210.6, 2)0.7. 210.S: Chapter 288. Sections 224t. 224u.

TABLE

Adoptees' Search Organizations

10.3928/0090-4481-19890401-06

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