Search and reunion have been prominent
features of adoption reform and activism in recent decades, and
they appear as central themes in many adoption
narratives. The effort to locate birth
parents and other natal relatives has a long history in adoption,
however, since there was never a time when relatives separated by
adoption did not seek to find them later in life. Throughout the
era of the orphan trains in the nineteenth
century, and during the heyday of placing-out,
information about the backgrounds of children placed temporarily
or permanently was no mystery. During the formative stages of modern
adoption, social workers and other
child-placers frequently served as agents of disclosure. When adoptees
came to them with questions about their backgrounds, they assumed
it was part of their job to provide answers. The difficulties adoptees
encountered in searching were more likely to be caused by sloppy
or non-existent records than by design.
This changed with confidentiality and sealed records, but only
gradually. Beginning with the Minnesota
Adoption Law of 1917, states began to treat adoption as a secret
in hopes of reducing the stigma associated with illegitimacy
and preventing natal relatives from interfering in adoptive families.
Advocates believed that privacy in adoption would protect child
welfare by shielding adoptees from public embarrassment while
also reinforcing the integrity, autonomy, and “realness”
of adoptive kinship. It was only after World War II that these new
policies became so rigid that adoptees themselves were denied access
to records, such as original birth certificates, that non-adopted
citizens took for granted. It is curious that the enduring emphasis
on telling children about their adoptions
reached its height during the very same period when detailed information
about natal origins became virtually impossible to obtain. To tell
was considered only truthful, but it required a vague kind of truth-telling
at odds with search and reunion. No practical details were conveyed,
and certainly no identifying information.
For decades around midcentury, adoptees who expressed desires to
learn more about their natal relatives, or find them, were considered
maladjusted products of less than successful adoptive families.
According to this way of thinking, children whose adoptive parents
offered true love and belonging would have no reason to search.
They already felt like members of complete and genuine families.
The expectation that adoption could erase and should replace natal
families completely, which gave rise to the practice of matching,
turned any curiosity about origins into a sign of trouble.
Many adoptees, though, were plagued by questions about their pasts.
They found it impossibly difficult to accept their adoptive status
as a significant fact to be simultaneously accepted and permanently
ignored. When their questions persisted, the typical solution was
to offer therapy to adoptive parents (especially for unresolved
feelings about infertility) rather
than information to adoptees. Until at least 1970, clinical perspectives
on emotional disturbance in adoptees emphasized that worries and
fantasies about birth parents were the ingredients of psychopathology.
So close was the connection between searching and poor adoption
outcomes that even Jean Paton, founder in 1953 of the first adoptee
search organization in the United States, Orphan Voyage, formulated
a “search hypothesis” in which the impulse to seek out
natal relatives corresponded directly to the security and happiness
of the adoptive home.
Considering how widespread the belief was that only insecure, unhappy
adoptees wondered about their genealogy or sought out their birth
parents, it is all the more remarkable that so many adoptees did
both. Jean Paton was among the first to propose that the need to
search was both a psychological necessity for individuals and a
social necessity that would bring about much-needed reform. Convinced
that adoptees were capable of creating innovative new mechanisms
for reunion, such as voluntary reunion registries, Paton argued
“that the desire to know the natural parents can be the deepest
and most compelling factor in an adopted child’s life. . . .
Unless this desire resolves into reality it may be obscured in a
long diversion, and in many cases this will be accompanied by years
of unproductive behavior.”
The rise of new adoption reform movements in the 1960s and 1970s
marked a turning point in the history of search and reunion. Civil
rights movements had already increased public awareness of the heterogeneous
origins of the American population, celebrated quests for “roots,”
and elevated authenticity over convention and honesty over pretense.
In such a climate, adoptees who set out to come to terms with their
natal pasts were understandable and sympathetic figures. By the
mid-1970s, influential statements on adoption and identity, such
as The Adoption Triangle, announced what was already obvious
to many adoptees: children who had more than two parents grew up
aware of a generational rift in family life that non-adopted children
never experienced. Search and reunion was the logical way to address
this rift. Interpreted as a symbol of healing rather than disturbance,
searching was perfectly normal.
Ironically, some advocates of search and reunion have been just
as dogmatic as those who made the case against search and reunion
in earlier generations. Open records activists have sometimes insisted,
just as their opponents did, that the relationship between genealogical
knowledge and healthy identity was stable and predictable across
the entire adopted population. Where the proponents of confidentiality
and sealed records considered blood ties so threatening to the
security of adoptive kinship that permanent secrecy was required,
proponents of openness considered them so essential that no child
could hope to become emotionally whole without them. Arrogance characterized
both sides of the argument. Everyone agreed that they knew what
was right and true and best for everyone else.
The movement toward search and reunion has done much to promote
greater honesty about differences in family life. It has offered
concrete assistance to numerous adoptees and birth
parents with an interest in reunion, not only helping long-lost
relatives find one another, but assuring them that doing so can
be a positive step in the adoption process rather than a sign of
failure. If the movement has also underlined the blood-is-thicker-than-water
bias that has been such a prominent feature of American family life,
that is only one of many ironies in modern adoption history.