Adoption – tracing your birth family

If you’re adopted, and want to find out about your natural relatives, maybe even contact them … what next?
This article describes adoption in the UK, with particular emphasis on England and Wales, the author’s area of knowledge. If you are familiar with the procedures and controls in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and would like to help extend or amend this article, please contact the Editor (using the Contact Us link at the top of the page), and we’ll take it from there.

Dealing with the issues

Why do you want to know?

This may seem like a silly question, but it’s a very important one. If you’re hoping to get a rapturous reception, and find a whole new family to embrace you, stop now. Adoption leaves scars for the birth parents (BPs), too, and in ways you might not have considered. Even if they loved you, they may have been pressured by their own family to have you adopted, and there may well be whispers of scandals within that family. Even if your BPs want to see you again, they may have to hide it from everyone else around them. That’s going to leave you feeling like a “dirty little secret”. And, of course, they may want nothing to do with you at all.

Alternatively, it might be that one of your BPs forced the other to have you adopted. That’s going to cause problems unless the parent who wanted you adopted has died or left, and only the loving parent remained.

It’s possible that they do want to contact you, but for the wrong reasons. Someone needs a kidney. Someone needs a loan. Someone’s so desperately emotionally needy that you won’t be able to get away from them.

Contacting your BPs and their family is a minefield. Be very certain that you’re doing this for the right reasons, and you’re prepared emotionally for the consequences, whatever they are.

Do you want to tell your adoptive parents?

This is another very tricky question.

Your adoptive parents (APs) have cared for you since adoption, until the present day. On the one hand, they may be supportive of your efforts to find your BPs. On the other, they may feel rejected or betrayed. Bear in mind that even if they do say they’re happy to help, there may still be some hidden feelings of rejection or resentment: they will probably be afraid of “losing” the child they brought up, in some sense.

Be sensitive to their feelings and their needs.

  • Tracing your family
  • Gather what you can, first
  • Be prepared to deal with an information vacuum.

Most adoptees don’t know much if anything about their birth parents’ (BPs’) names at the outset of the process.

Your starting point depends upon whether you can discuss your search with your adoptive parents (APs), as we touched on above. If you can, then get as much information as you can from your APs first. They should know about your original (birth) name, and possibly those of your BPs. They may even have met your BPs, and be able to give you descriptions, locations and so forth. In any case, whatever you can find ahead of time , from the people you already know, will be golden for you.

Getting the birth records

If you were born before 12th November 1975 (18th December 1987 for Northern Ireland), you have to have an interview with an adoption counsellor. This is because birth parents prior to that date gave their children up for adoption on the good-faith promise that their offspring couldn’t trace them. The counsellor, assuming that the interview is satisfactory, will obtain what birth and adoption records are available, and provide you with the ones you need. Sometimes this will be the whole set of records; sometimes it will be filtered by the counsellor, out of respect for still-living parties other than you.

If you were born after that date, the interview is optional: you can obtain the full set of records without any intervention. Speaking personally, I don’t recommend this route. A counsellor can help prepare you for consequences you hadn’t expected, can help to interpret the information that is presented, and will act as a go-between to help to make contact with members of your birth family. They may also have a lot of knowledge about how to trace your family tree, and will have a great deal of experience of how to manage family reunions. It’s a free service, so do consider taking advantage of it. If you go it alone, and botch it, you may destroy any chance of meeting your birth family.

Whichever route you intend to follow, you start by contacting the General Records Office. The link to their adoptees’ site is here . To apply for records access, you need to fill in the appropriate forms for England and Wales , for Scotland , or for Northern Ireland. The procedures from then onwards depend upon the region, so please consult their web sites through those links for further details.

What will I get?

At the very least, you’ll get your birth name. You should also get, if they are known, the date and place of birth and parents’ names. Of course, if you were a foundling, you might only find out where and when you were found. You will, at the very least, have enough information to apply for your original (full) birth certificate and adoption certificate.

The information in your birth records about your BPs, assuming they are known, can vary from just names through to detailed correspondence between them and the adoption agency or local authority. You will quite probably also find information about your APs. Bear in mind that some of that may not be what you expected, as you will be privy to private papers written by social workers who never expected them to be read by you, or the APs they were describing! My APs, for instance, were described as “colourless” – rather untruthfully!

What’s next?

Once you have obtained your birth records, and your original birth certificate, you can start to research your family. The birth records may well give you enough information to obtain birth, marriage and (prepare yourself for this) death certfiicates for your BPs. This is the first stage to tracing your family back in time, and sideways to find siblings or half-siblings, and other living relatives. Look in the general FAQs on this site for pointers to what to do next.

The biggest question is – do you want to try to trace your birth family? If you do – beware that from here on in, there is no map. You are unlikely to know whether you will be well received, or what rumours existed about your birth or BPs amongst their families.

Let’s assume that you do have living birth relatives. Do please consider using your adoption counsellor or some other trusted intermediary to make the first contact. There are too many things that can go wrong if you do not.

If you do manage to make contact successfully – congratulations, you’ve hit a deep seam of information you can mine to discover your genetic inheritance and family history. There is nothing quite like real, family-provided, history to help you in your researches.