by Beth Hall
At Pact, we get many calls from families asking about the possibility of connecting with their children’s birth parents. When adoptive parents consider opening their child’s adoption with one or more birth family members while that child is still a minor, there are several critical factors that should be taken into account.
Whose story is it?
When considering the possibility of connecting or reconnecting with an adopted minor’s birth parents and/or family, adoptive parents (and birth parents) must behave the same way any responsible adults with children behave. Be prepared to act out the necessary roles of guidance counselor, emotion coach, executive assistant, detective, decision-maker, and—always—chief cheerleader and fan of your child. Ultimately, this is your child’s experience and narrative, and any action your take as a parent must place your child’s needs and feelings at the center of the experience. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean you won’t have feelings, including fears and doubts, yourself.
Connection to birth family is an important part of an adoptee’s narrative, and regardless the outcome of a search, parents must remember it is eventually the adoptee’s right to know everything you have found (and not found). You will therefore need to determine the best time to tell your child everything you know about their first family.
Whose decision is it?
We know from research and testimony of adult adopted people that closed adoptions create a void of knowledge and a severance from their origins that are painful for most adoptees. It is not unreasonable to believe that learning more about their birth families helps adoptees feel more connected to their fullest identity.
There are people (some adopted adults included) who believe that adoptees should make their own search decisions, and adoptive parents should hold back. But in my view, when children are young—under 11, certainly, and even to some extent when they are older but still minors—it is the adoptive parents’ job to make, guide, and safeguard all big decisions for them; there is no reason the search for and connection to birth family should be excluded. A caring parent should handle their own fears and emotions, and make a plan in order to prepare themselves and their child for expected (and unexpected) outcomes.
Be careful if you find you’re tempted to think something might be too hard to share. Many adoptive parents struggle with having to tell their children painful truths, hoping that somehow not telling will actually be easier for adopted children (people) in the long run. The idea that the truth is somehow exempt from being part of someone’s story because it is deemed too painful or too difficult misses the point of what it means to be honest. If we don’t teach children that they can handle challenges—including their own painful histories—they will not grow their own confidence muscles, which will ultimately help them handle any and all painful truths as they grow older.
Should we do it?
Keep in mind that adoption is confusing for adults and, perhaps most especially, for those who were adopted; adoption was a choice made for them rather than by them. Internationally recognized adoption expert and child welfare advocate Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao refers to this as the “normative crisis” of adoption.
It is not unusual for an adopted child to be bewildered about who is their “real” parent, and perplexed regarding the hows and whys of an experience as huge as being moved from one family to another. Adoptive families and adoption as an institution are often misunderstood, and there are almost always aspects of placement that are not clear. It is because of this that children benefit from having parents help them process feelings and questions by supporting potentially complicated birth family relationships, rather than leaving them to handle their feelings or relationships on their own when they become adults.
Children cannot be loved by too many people. Embracing the fullness of who adopted and/or fostered children are, and who they are becoming, necessitates recognition that it all began with their birth parents—literally. Setting up an either/or equation between birth and adoptive families creates a loyalty test, one that ultimately leads to reduced closeness between children and parents because of the impossible bind that being in the middle places on the child.
Like you, it is highly probable that your child’s first family is going to have fears and uncertainty about a relationship with your family and their child. And unlike you, they may not have had the benefit of as much education about adoption or open relationships as you have. Most often, birth parents are terrified that you and their child will hate them for their choices. A large majority are respectful of their child’s adoptive parents, because they can see how well their child is doing under their care, something they wish they had been able to do themselves. They are often enormously grateful, even if they also harbor feelings of regret or shame about their own choices. Additionally, they understand that access to their child is something you control, which makes them likely to be cautious and careful about your feelings and desires.
Sometimes adoptive parents whose children have been harmed (physically or otherwise) by their birth parents or other family members, do not feel particularly grateful or kindly towards the people who hurt the child they now love. Research demonstrates that self-esteem in adopted people is directly linked to the respect and acknowledgement given to their birth parents and birth heritage by the caring adults in their lives.  In addition, a significant number of adopted and fostered people seek to reunite with their first families, including members who harmed them when they were younger. Adoptive parents need to help their children prepare for those relationships so they will be able to stay safe, especially if their birth parents/family members engage in unsafe behaviors. And remember, even people with the worst problems have redeeming qualities that can be valued, at the same time that their problematic behaviors are acknowledged.
Explore possibilities for search that include your child’s birth parents, as well as other siblings and/or extended family members. Be creative in your search, recognizing that you may find new information or surprising outcomes different than what you previously knew. It’s important that parents have a chance to digest information and figure out the best way to share it with their kids, which is a further reason for parents of younger children to begin the search themselves.
Using an intermediary who has experience working with birth families is often critical. Pact offers search and reunion consultations. Birth parents or family members are sometimes reluctant to consider a relationship because of their own fears. Being found can feel like a surprise that for some is frightening, particularly if a birth parent hasn’t fully processed his or her own feelings about the placement. Other times, birth family members will be told about a child they didn’t know about, which can feel like a betrayal or raise questions about the relationship they thought they had with your child’s birth mother or father. An intermediary gives the birth family a trusted confidant to whom they can address questions and also express their own fears, without burdening you or their child with their first reactions, and it allows them time for a more considered and possibly more generous secondary reaction. Human beings often do better when we have time to process our feelings.
If you know that there are likely to be cultural, class, or familial differences between adoptive and birth families, you can prepare your child by encouraging opportunities for her to interact with others who share her birth family’s culture, class, or family structure. This will allow the child to see that the way her birth family acts is not unique to them, and is not uncommon among people who share their culture or class. Similarly, if you know your child’s birth parents or family members have particular challenges, you can frontload your child’s experiences so that they are familiar with and will recognize some of the behaviors and attitudes they are likely to observe among their first family members.
Completing the search itself
Families must often reconstruct information to find their child’s birth family members. If you have a full name, Social Security number, and birth date, you are almost certain to be able to find a person (presuming they are a US citizen). If you have less information, involving a professional searcher or private investigator will help.
Good record-keeping cannot be over-emphasized. Keep detailed records of everything you have done to prepare and find your child’s first family. Whether or not you are successful, eventually you will share everything with your child and they will appreciate each detail as evidence of your support in their own journey of identity. If you do find their birth parents or other family members, speak to the adults first and get help if you need it to clarify your expectations. Then work together to plan how and when to tell your child the news, and begin to explore a relationship between them.
I suggest creating a series of pictures and an introduction to your family that includes your motivation for searching, a brief description of their child, including reassurance about their personality and life, and a suggested next step for communication. If there are particular pieces of information, desired facts, or pictures that the birth family might have, and that you know are important to your child, ask for those in this first communication. If you are using an intermediary or advisor, they can deliver this first communication on your behalf, and help you determine your next steps, while helping you feel safe and positive about your ongoing plans together.
Remember, it is normal for children and adults to approach new relationships—especially those of great importance—with both enthusiasm and fear. Give your child control and information in a supportive way, but always keep in mind that part of what you are showing them is that they can handle having two families and that you will support them, stay connected, and be their parent—no matter what.
Beth Hall is the white adoptive mother of a Latinx daughter and an African American son (both now adults). She co-founded Pact, An Adoption Alliance in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. She is the co-author, with Gail Steinberg, of the book Inside Transracial Adoption (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), as well as numerous articles on adoption and race. She is a nationally known advocate for adopted children of color who regularly lectures and leads workshops on ethical, anti-racist adoption practices.
 Pavao, Joyce Maguire, The Family of Adoption (Beacon, 1998, 2005)
 Brodzinsky, David et al, Being Adopted, The Lifelong Search for Self (Anchor, 1992)