Thursday, December 19, 2013

Uncover Adoption Secrets with Genealogy Research Methods

Could genealogy help adult adoptees search for their birth parents? Genealogists who usually begin their search with grandparents or great grandparents and adult adoptees who usually don’t have knowledge of their birth parents, generally employ the same set of strategies to uncover their heritage.
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How many adoptees are there in the US? According to the website, 
 “In the last decade (since the year 2000), the U.S. Census has attempted to collect national demographics on the adoption community. The data have helped the government estimate that there are over 7 million adult adoptees in America and 1.5 child adoptees.” 

Of the approximately 7 million adult adoptees alive today in America, many are searching for their birth parents:

“Between two and four percent of all adoptees searched in the year 1990.” (American Adoption Congress, 1996)  

But there is another interesting statistic:
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“The psychological literature has established that the desire of 60 to 90 percent of adoptees wanting to obtain identifying information regarding their biological parents is a normative aspect of being adopted.” (American AdoptionCongress, 1996) 

If 60 to 90 percent have the desire to learn about their birth roots, why are only 2 to 4 percent actively searching? What holds adoptees back from searching for their birth parents? Many people may consider a search for many years without taking a step because of many obstacles, such as fear of failure, not knowing where to start, or any number of other reasons. But once a person decides to start a search, some help from genealogical research methods might come in handy.

Richard Hill, an adult adoptee who didn’t find out that he was adopted until he graduated from high school, shared his story of how he conducted his successful search for his birth parents in a book, Finding Family.
Used by permission of author
His experience can be enjoyed on one level as a riveting detective story with ups and downs, twists and turns, lucky breaks and disappointing dead ends. 

On another level, Finding Family is a road map of how to use many different kinds of sources that genealogists regularly employ to find ancestors. Richard started with the step that many genealogist gurus suggest that you begin with – interviewing family members and family friends. Ann Fleming Carter  explains more about how to approach the person you wish to interview, how to build rapport, and what questions to ask in Chapter 1 “Where Do I Start?” of her book The Organized Family Historian

While Richard digested and analyzed the information he collected from his interviews, he also began checking vital records, an often difficult and frustrating experience for adoptees. A search for vital records brings a researcher into contact with the keepers of such records, and these are often courts and health departments (Fleming provides a website, http://www.vitalrec.com/ in her book, which lists where to find vital records by state.) Richard wrote to the Ingram County, Michigan Probate Court to
Photograph by Tim Hollosy,Ingham County Courthouse in
 Mason, Michigan, USA. December, 2006,Wikimedia.
request his non-identifying information. In Michigan, the probate court in each county holds the sealed adoption records for that county. This initiated a long relationship with the Probate Court that you will see described in the book.

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He also wrote to the state health department to see if there might be some kind of birth record on file. As his search progressed and he found out more details, Richard was to repeat this request several times with different results! While many genealogists find challenges in searching for birth records from more than 75 years ago, adoptees can have trouble getting their own birth record!
And it’s not that the courthouse burned or that birth records weren’t required by the state at the time they are searching.

After finding out where his mother went to high school from one of her friends whom Richard had tracked down, he consulted old high school yearbooks for possible photos of his mother.
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When he found out some places where she had worked, he searched for former co-workers to interview and newspaper articles about the target businesses. He employed a tactic that was new to me; he wrote to the Social Security Administration
US Social Security Blding: AgnosticPreachersKid,15 September 2008,
 Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, 330 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. A.K.A. the Social Security Administration Building, Wikimedia.
to request an earnings report for his mother for his target year and received a list of places where she had worked during a critical year of his search!

Richard talked about his search and mentioned some of the problems that plague many genealogists – the difficulty of staying motivated, the way day-to-day life gets in the way, and how some person will come along or some event will happen that gets you right back in the game! A critical step in Richard’s search was making contact with affinity groups in the area he was researching.
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It was through these groups that he found experts in this field. Just as genealogists sometimes find that networking with like-minded people or working with a professional can move their search forward, so did Richard.

First, someone recommended the Adoption Identity Movement (AIM) where adoptees who were searching could get together and share stories, strategies, and contacts. A person he met in an AIM meeting led him to Adoptees Search for Knowledge (ASK), a search group in Lansing, MI where Richard was born. It was at an ASK meeting that Richard found a person who would be key in helping him reach his goal.

Another record source, very familiar to genealogists, that Richard used was the newspaper. But he went beyond searching for obituaries in the library. He put an ad in some small, local newspapers
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that served communities near where his birth mother had lived and worked. Since Richard had found out, first in a general way from his father and then the specific details from his other family member and his mother’s friends, that his birth mother had died in an accident, he used this information to create the newspaper ad. And he received responses!

As a retired scientist, Richard knew the value of keeping copious notes of his search process.
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This helped him immensely when life put his search on the back burner several times over the decades of his journey to identify his birth parents:

“…I kept careful notes of my research, phone calls and meetings, plus copies of all correspondence.” (p. 70)

Each time Richard re-started his search after a long hiatus, he would review his notes, which brought him up-to-date. Also, when he uncovered people with new information, he could use his notes to see how these new pieces would fit with his existing knowledge.

Although Richard demonstrated persistence, patience and putting-in-the time in his search, he might have never discovered the identity of his father without the help of DNA testing.
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Richard’s story clearly demonstrates how DNA testing works hand-in-glove with traditional research methods to help untangle ancestry questions. That said, Richard’s experience also tells us that we can’t rely on DNA testing alone. It was through a combination of traditional research, the yDNA test and the autosomal DNA test that Richard successfully identified his father.

Adult adoptees searching for their birth parents use many of the same strategies that genealogists do in their search for ancestors. In fact, this type of search could be a gateway for adoptees to turn thinking about searching to taking the first steps.
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 Both adoptees and non-adoptees begin exploring family history because they want to know the people who came before them. Whether you are searching for parents or ancestors further back, you will be using many of the same research methods to find official records of many kinds, living people who might be able to provide information, books, and other types of source material. Kimberly Powell  in her online article, “Adoption Search: How to Find Your Birth Family”, presents a good introduction to searching.

Bibliography

  1. Richard Hill, Finding Family (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Privately printed, 2012).
  2. Ann Carter Fleming, The Organized Family Historian (Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 2004). 

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