Guidelines for Triad Members in Search

by Barbara Free

     Search and reunion are no longer secret, taboo issues for members of the adoption triad. We see reunions take place on television programs; there is even a cable channel with times devoted to reunions. Watching some of these makes search seem relatively easy and reunions appear to be ecstatic. There is rarely a follow-up on the process of reunion several months or years down the road, and details of the search are not often given, for several reasons. A person newly considering a search can get some distorted expectations from watching these programs.
     Some reunions are taking place as a result of Internet exploration, without a trained or licensed search intermediary, or even a live search-and-support group. As a result, quite a few support groups have gone out of existence, or are struggling to attract attendees and members.
     Operation Identity has maintained a healthy attendance and a good mix of new people and long-time members and supporters. Out of these years of experience, we’ve come up with some helpful guidelines for persons considering or already involved in a search, which might help avoid some pitfalls and disappointment.
     First, there are some real advantages to attending a support group, no matter how many on-line bulletin boards, chat-rooms, etc., you may find. Live people, with “skin on them” are in support groups, to listen to your story and share theirs; to look you in the eye; to encourage and comfort you (computers do not offer tissues, hugs, or laughter); and to celebrate with you when appropriate.
     For birth parents, being in a room with other birth parents, maybe for the first time, is a wonderful experience. For adoptees, finding others in search can really help in realizing that searching is a normal, healthy pursuit. For adoptive parents, meeting and getting to know people from all parts of the triad helps them know they are valued, and that for their adoptees to search is not a negative reflection on their job as parents. For new adoptive parents, hearing stories of the difficulty of search and closed adoptions can help them in choosing open adoption if that is possible in their situation.
     A support group is a great place to make friends, and people usually find out they have more in common than just their adoption triad role. Each meeting brings news of progress in search or reunion, like unfolding mystery stories.
     Search and support groups can also help a person find resources for their search, starting with learning laws and procedures that apply to them in the state where they need to search, and in locating a search intermediary if that is appropriate. Some persons will be able to pretty much conduct their own search, while others may have complicated searches requiring professional help. A support group can he helpful in determining that, and in making connections. A support group which is part of a national organization, such as the American Adoption Congress, of which O.I. is a member, has access to a network in this way, as well as informal contacts.
     At one time, searches were not legal or were of questionable legality, in most states. That is rapidly changing with more states opening their records, at least to adult adoptees, although it may still be very difficult for birth parents to gain any access to records. And obtaining an original birth certificate does not automatically locate the person being searched for.
     In some states, including New Mexico, neither adoptee nor birth parent has to give any particular reason for searching (in some states, one must have “good cause,” such as need for medical history, in order to search), which makes a search entirely within the state relatively easy, particularly if the searcher and the one sought have remained in the state. However, that is often not the case, and so one must go beyond the state-sanctioned intermediary in their search. The trained and licensed searcher, however, can be the key to that, with their own network of connections. They are also aware of what is legal and ethical in a search, and what is not.
     There are lots of 800 numbers advertised, in magazines, on TV, and on the Internet, who may offer to take your money and promise you results they never produce, or may string you along, wanting more and more money. Beware of these ads. Some offer no more than an on-line telephone directory. Some searchers have been known to tap into sources to which they did not have legal access in order to obtain records and identities. Make it clear, no matter how desperate you feel, that you want your search conducted in a legal and ethical manner.
     What is legal in one state may not be in another. For instance, in some states, it may be easy to obtain Motor Vehicle Department information, while in other states, that information is very restricted. Certain Social Security records are easily and legally obtainable, while others are held in strict confidentiality. There are books available which will list each state’s laws and regulations. Because these facts change frequently, look for the most recent printing you can find. Again, a support group and a local, professional searcher can help you with these details.
     Some searchers ask for a certain amount of money, a flat fee, no matter how easy or difficult the search may be. For many, the fee is quite nominal considering the time and effort that may be involved. Other searchers may charge according to the time and difficulty of the search. Some, such as certain advertised 800 numbers, may charge quite a large amount, either up front, or as the search progresses, or before releasing to you the information you are seeking. Ask others in your group what their experiences have been, what fees are reasonable, and what you can expect. Persons who are searching for their family members are so vulnerable, and easily taken advantage of, and there are people who prey on them. Ask questions, be assertive, and don’t be hesitant to insist on a written contract with anyone to whom you are paying money. In this way, you are in charge of your search, no matter how many channels you have to go through in order to obtain your desired result.
     You do have a human right to search, to find out who you are, who your family is, where your offspring are. State laws differ greatly in these matters, however. In some states, only a sibling is allowed to search. The proposed Uniform Adoption Act would negate all the open records laws and seal all records for 99 years, and make it a felony to obtain, give out, or possess any information. It is important to become informed about this. You probably do not wish to become a felon, and you probably do not think your fellow support group members are felons (at least not because they’ve searched)!
     While you’re searching, and even after, read all you can about search and reunion, about what it’s like for people who have various roles in the adoption triad, and other aspects of adoption. Many support groups, such as O.I., have lending libraries. Other members may have personal favorite books they recommend, or will even lend you themselves. New releases may be publicized through support groups and newsletters. This is very important, because chain bookstores rarely have much of a selection of adoption books, and most of what they do have is geared toward prospective adoptive parents, not toward adult adoptees, birth parents, or persons in search or in reunion.
     Keep a journal while you’re searching, and keep copies of all correspondence and documents connected with your search. No one else need see your journal; it is for your use. We talk of search and reunion as being a journey, and journal is from the same root word, which we associate with a day, a trip, an account. If at some point, you wish to write an article for your newsletter, it will no doubt be welcomed, and will help others in their own journey. Your thoughts, your experiences, and your feelings are valid and valuable. Sharing with others is also a helpful reality test, to find out if your hopes and expectations are realistic and appropriate.
     The more expectations you have, the more likely you are to be disappointed or upset when they are not met, and the more vulnerable you make yourself. We do not have cultural rules or guidelines for search and reunion, nor for relationships with new-found family members after reunion. A support group can be enormously helpful by sharing their own experiences.
     Searching for your family can be perilous, exciting, and rewarding, and a deeply spiritual experience. Let your support system, including your adoption support group, and your searcher, help you, and remember that this is your search and your journey.

Excerpted from the April 2000 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2000 Operation Identity