Last year, over 120,000 adoptions occurred in this country, and according to statistics, approximately five million of all U.S. residents are adopted. Of course, this number does not include tens of thousands of other children who have been living without the benefit of adoption in foster care or with close relatives or family friends. Contemporary adoptions, often in concept, seem to be an accepted part of today’s culture. They are celebrated by families and friends with the same fervor and happiness that surrounds the birth of any new baby.
But this fairly new attitude towards adoption in general was not a societal norm in years past. As those of us who are older can attest, adoptions occurring during our generation, as well as those before, were more likely to be cloaked in mystery, surrounded with silence, whispered about in secret, and sometimes hidden from others, even from the adopted child. Speaking from the standpoint of a family history researcher, this practice, along with few or no available records documenting so-called adoptions, an otherwise uneventful family research event can come to a screeching halt.
How to proceed successfully with genealogy research depends on any number of factors, such as the existence of oral history that discusses the adoption, handwritten information, including entries made in a family Bible, personal diaries, or names and details found in wills. But the unavailability of many of these records often causes the researcher to hit what is known in genealogy circles as the proverbial brick wall. More often than not, guardianships and adoptions during the last two centuries resulted when one or both parents died, often from disease, illness, accident, or sometimes war. And in countless situations, other family members may have assumed care of an orphaned child, even changing the child’s surname, with or without the benefit of a legal document. Other adoptions occurred as a result of various societal issues, such as unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, child abandonment, addiction, or incarceration. In these situations, child welfare or other public agencies may have been involved, and laws in place at the time dictated that discretion be used to ensure confidentiality and to protect the identity of the people involved.
The resulting information, or lack thereof, has created major problems for adoptees, their descendants, and family researchers alike in answering questions about ancestry. If a child was adopted from a children’s home or orphanage, depending on the type of facility, the year, and the state, some records may be available to the researcher. But depending on when, where, and how the adoption actually occurred, particularly if the process was a "closed" adoption, legal assistance may be needed to determine the existence of records and to help obtain copies, if they are indeed releasable. If the surname of the adopted child at birth was the same as that of the adoptive parents, the fact that an actual adoption occurred may be less obvious to the researcher. In this particular situation, oral history and the possible comparison of census records that list names of family members in several households, may be the only available sources of information.
Without a doubt, connection to family is a vital part of our lives. And the search for our ancestors most often results from our need to be part of a the larger universe, to know more about who we are and from whence we came, and to understand how we fit into a bigger picture. With the concept of open adoptions, maybe it will be easier in the future for those who have been adopted and family researchers alike to obtain parents’ names and relevant family information.
According to Judith and Martin Land in Adoption Detective: The Adopted Child," secrecy and lack of disclosure in adoptions can result in what has been referred to as "genealogical bewilderment." In their book, published in 2011, the authors point out that discovery of genealogical roots can be a pathway to understanding an individual’s true inner being and the potential source of psychological grounding. Although the reference is specifically directed to adoptees who are searching for birth parents, the same premise is true for those of us who are not adopted and who search for ancestors from generations past about whom we may know nothing at all.