Missing Pieces
Missing Pieces by Lisa Ritter Starr

Search Basics

by Lisa Ritter Starr

The Search Institute found in a study of American adopted adolescents that 72% wanted to know why they were placed in adoption, 65% wanted to meet their birth parents, and 94% wanted to know who they look like (American Adoption Congress 1996).

Such unanswered questions and curiosities probably don't just fizzle away as time goes by. In fact, many adopted adults report that their need to know more increases with age. Whatever age you are, and whatever your reasons for starting to search, you will need a lot of patience, courage, and information to begin.

The sheer volume of options can be daunting, but the way to accomplish almost any task is to remember to take it one step at a time. Unless you are planning to hire a private investigator or confidential intermediary right away, try to start with the simplest things you can do: check into reunion registries, call your state's vital statistics office and/or your adoption agency, and peruse online forums for more information and advice.

Finally, hiring a professional can be just the ticket you need, if you are able to get one, or if none of your efforts alone have produced the results you desire.

Start Locally

This may be a "duh," so to speak, but make sure yours is not one of the handful of states that will give you your original birth certificate. If it is not, find out if your state (the state in which the adoption took place) has its own mutual consent registry, which is what many states have opted for instead of opening original birth records. These registries are like docking bays at which two people can check in and perhaps find each other at some point on their life travels. If the person you are seeking has registered, you can rest assured that they want to be found.

Also, register with Soundex Reunion Registry, the largest in the world. They accept snailmail only, but you can download their forms online and send them in for free. There are other national and international reunion registries besides Soundex - at least 400 - so you may want to register with as many as you can. At most, it increases your chances of locating your birth relatives, and at least, it gives you the sense that you have done everything that you can to find your missing pieces.

Another thing you can do is call the Bureau of Vital Statistics of the state in which you were born. This should be located in the state capital. Addresses and numbers for this governmental department can be found online. They will give you a copy of your amended birth certificate and your court adoption decree. What they have for you will vary, depending on the state and the organization through which your adoption took place.

Some people have used their available birth and adoption records to find their "sealed" ones. In New York, for example, the amended birth certificate can be used to find the original. Though an adopted person's birth certificate is amended to erase all trace of the birth family, the number of the certificate does not change. That number can be used to find the original.

If you are an adopted person, make sure you request a report from your adoption file. Your adoption agency or the Bureau of Vital Statistics will have it. Generally, you will receive non-identifying information about your birth parents. This information can vary widely, depending on the year and location of birth, the type of organization through which the adoption took place, and even what details your social worker found significant enough to write down at the time. You may get a first name, age, state of birth parent's birth, some medical info, or even a physical description.

Online Forums

The most prevalent is AdoptionForums.com. There are several sections or topics, and over 30,000 messages in the birth family search topic alone. The site's "Guru" often posts suggestions, including the proper way to post messages for maximum efficiency. There are so many messages on this forum that it is exhausting, if not nearly impossible, to check out every one of the posts. The guru suggests that putting as much detail in the subject line as you can will save oodles of time and make it easier for all (ex. "Male DOB 5/16/70 Lansing MI).


Confidential intermediaries, or "CIs," are usually provided by certain state systems upon request of the birth mother/father or the adopted person. Some people like this system because CIs, like private detectives, have increased access to official documents like DMV records and even birth certificates. They are also objective and may have insights and follow hunches that you didn't have or weren't able to recognize.

Problems, however, might be that the intermediary becomes locked into a position between you and the person you seek, if the person you seek does not wish to be found. This will actually ensure that you have a much harder time searching, and you may resent that this third party has such power in your personal life. Also, CIs cost you money, and may be so in demand that your state's CIs are backlogged, perhaps for years.

Some have had great success with the CI system. One adopted woman searched for ten years before hiring an intermediary for $400, who then found the woman's birth mother in two weeks. This is not to say that everyone would be so fortunate, but it is possible.


Your reunion may come sooner or later, begin rocky and smooth out later, or begin smoothly and only later encounter rough patches. In searching for you birth relatives, you may not find the type of person you expected or hoped to meet. You may not find anyone at all. But consider this: in a post from "Larry" on adoptionforums.com, who found his birth mother but did not have a happy reunion or remain in contact, he stated that it was "the journey itself that was the success, not the result."

You may, however, find more than you'd dreamed possible. Siblings, aunts, uncles, grandmas, cousins - your biological family may be quite extended and open-armed, as nervous and excited to meet you as you are to meet them. Beside the obvious benefit of a happy reunion with birth family, you may also get some, if not all, of your questions answered.

As a birth mother in an open adoption and a non-adopted adult, I will never know what it is like to search for birth relatives lost through adoption, or what it is like to find them. If you would like more information from all perspectives in the triad, especially of adopted adults, ask around. Join a support group. Or, visit some of the sites I have listed below. I wish you the best of luck.

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