Things to consider before starting your search

It is now widely recognised that adult adopted persons and birth parents have a right to information about each other. Research indicates that disclosure of information does not disrupt otherwise happy adoptive families – rather, it may promote greater understanding between the parties involved.

The following is a summary of the most common perceptions, feelings and outcomes experienced by each party to an adoption during the information gathering and search process.

To be clear for all involved with the adoption, the terms birth parent(s), adoptive parent(s) and adopted person(s) will be used in this guide.

Adopted persons

Not all adopted persons feel the need to seek information or make contact. However, many people who were adopted want information about their origins to gain a better understanding of who they are.

Often adopted persons decide to search for their birth parents at times in their lives which intensify their curiosity and interest in their family history. These occasions include:

  • late adolescence, when an adopted person’s feelings about identity become more intense and questions increase
  • engagement or marriage, which often creates a desire for knowledge of the biological link which connects an unknown past to an unpredictable future
  • pregnancy or birth, which raises concerns about possible hereditary illnesses and birth complications. Doctors often ask patients about their mother’s pregnancy. The child may be an adopted person’s first contact with a blood relation and the desire to establish a child’s genealogy may be felt acutely
  • the onset of a medical condition, when doctors often ask for a family medical history which can assist in a diagnosis or method of treatment
  • the death of one or both adoptive parents, which results in sorrow and bereavement which may trigger grief for the loss of the birth parents and a yearning to find what was lost
  • middle age, when an adopted person may feel it could be the last opportunity to find their birth parents before they pass away. It is also a time of concern about the birth parents’ need for comfort and support.

The decision to seek information may create feelings of disloyalty toward the adoptive parents. Fear of hurting the adoptive parents is extensively documented and fear of rejection by the adoptive family can also be a concern. Many people face the dilemma of searching now and perhaps hurting the adoptive parents, or waiting until later – when it may be too late. Some search and have contact without telling their adoptive family.

Sadly, many adopted persons who are keen to learn about their backgrounds leave their search until after their adoptive parents pass away. They may then find that significant members of their birth family have also died, closing the door on a valuable means of obtaining information.

Some adopted persons in their late teens and twenties have little or no desire to seek information or search for birth parent(s). It is typical for people of this age to be more interested and involved in establishing their own adult lives and identities. Often they are furthering their education, establishing a career and enjoying a growing independence from their adoptive families. They may be scared or feel that the addition of a second family is an unwanted complication at this time in their lives.

Unfortunately a small number of people do not know that they are adopted. Discovering this in later life can be a tremendous shock and give rise to complex and intense emotions. Some of the ways people find out are:

  • being told after the death of an adoptive parent
  • when applying for a birth certificate or passport
  • from a relative or friend
  • by coming across the adoption papers
  • when an approach is made by a member of the birth family.

Birth mothers

In the past, society tended to believe that birth mothers wished to remain anonymous and would not want their identity revealed after embarking on their “new lives. Studies and experience have shown this assumption to be untrue for most birth mothers.

It has also been established that birth mothers do not forget their child. Most go on thinking about their child for the rest of their lives, while many continue to have intense feelings of loss, pain and mourning, intensified by not knowing what has happened to their child.

Although birth mothers crave information, their anxieties and fears often mean they are reluctant to initiate a search. Birth mothers are concerned that their child will not understand the reasons for the adoption and may have grown up feeling rejected and abandoned, or that their child will think poorly of them, or perhaps be angry and resentful at having been given up for adoption.

Many birth mothers were told to ‘go home and forget about the child’, and were led to believe that they had ‘no right’ to know about their child. Some birth mothers never told anyone about their child. For these reasons it is important for adopted people searching for their birth mother to remember that their birth and adoption may still be a secret from members of the birth family, even 30, 40 or 50 years after the event. A birth mother’s husband, her other children, and many of her relatives and friends may not know of the adopted person’s existence and she may fear the consequences of her secret being exposed.

Like some adopted people, a small number of birth mothers choose not to use community services to obtain information about their child. Some may choose to receive only non-identifying information which lets them know that their child is well. Others leave a message for the adopted person on the Reunion and Information Register (RIR), which will be passed on if the adopted person also registers.

Most birth mothers do not want to hurt the adoptive parents and feel that they have no right to intrude into the relationships of the adoptive family. However, birth mothers usually respond positively if an adopted person requests contact.

Birth fathers

Many birth fathers feel the loss of their child in a similar way to mothers. Many birth fathers also wish to find out about their children placed for adoption. As birth fathers who were not married to the birth mother were usually not named on the birth certificate, adopted persons are dependent on their birth mother for information about the identity of their birth father and this may be difficult to obtain if the birth mother felt hurt or betrayed by the birth father.

Birth fathers do not always know that a child was conceived or born as a result of their relationship with the birth mother, or that a child was placed for adoption. Nevertheless, experience indicates that many birth father respond positively to contact from adopted persons. Although some adopted persons are initially interested in finding their birth mother, once this is achieved and their relationship is established, it is common for adopted persons to become interested in finding their birth father. Some adopted persons start their search with equal interest in both their birth parents.

Birth relatives

Adoption involves separation from not just birth parents, but also from the two extended birth families. There are grandparents, aunts and uncles who can have deep-seated needs for information about the adopted person and many adopted persons find great satisfaction in contact with birth relatives.

There are also brothers and sisters, some of whom may have grown up with the birth parent(s) or been adopted into different families. Some may have always known of the existence of the adopted person and hoped for contact.

Many of the feelings and issues for birth parents are also relevant to birth relatives. They may feel reluctant to interfere, yet wish to know about the welfare of the adopted person. Some prefer not to get involved.

During their search, adopted people may find that they have brothers and sisters. If the adopted person grew up as an only child, finding a sibling can be especially meaningful. Finding a brother or sister can be as significant as finding a parent, especially in cases where the birth mother or father is deceased, or does not want contact. What starts as a search for one person can result in the discovery of a whole new family.

Adoptive parents

Adoptive parents naturally experience a range of emotions when their son or daughter begins to search for information or is reunited with birth relatives. Adoptive parents often feel threatened and neglected in the reunion process. It can be a stressful time for them.

Their anxieties centre on the fear of losing the child to the birth parents. Adoptive parents may question whether their relationship with their son or daughter will be impacted by the introduction of their birth mother and / or birth father. There may also be worry and panic at the thought of the many unknown possibilities. Will my child be hurt? Will the birth parents refuse contact? Even adoptive parents who have supported and assisted the search for the birth family may become apprehensive or distressed when a reunion occurs or is imminent.

In most cases, access to information or a reunion does not have a negative impact on the relationship between the adopted person and their adoptive family.

In fact, the experience of reunion usually strengthens the adopted person’s deep and permanent ties to their adoptive family.

Similarly, adoptive parents’ fears about being replaced by the birth parents are generally unfounded. Birth parents are likely to be sensitive to the adoptive parents’ feelings and do not want the relationship between the adopted person and the adoptive parents to be damaged in any way.

Telling upsetting information

Some people become very excited about the prospect of finding a relative and forget that sometimes they will be bearers of distressing information to the other party. For instance, a birth sibling may find their brother or sister who was adopted and have to tell them that their mother is deceased. Or a birth parent may learn that the adopted person has died or is suffering from a serious illness or disability. Sometimes, the way a person died is cause for distress as well. In situations like this, the information will often need to be told during the first contact.

Before telling someone upsetting or potentially distressing information, time needs to be taken to think about how this information may impact that person and how it can be given in a sensitive way.

In these situations, it is helpful to talk to an adoption caseworker in the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) Adoption Information Unit or an Adoption Agency before contact is made. It is often advisable to use the services of an experienced adoption intermediary who can provide the information and support to all parties involved.

To report suspected child abuse or neglect, call the Child Protection Helpline on 132 111 (24 hours/7 days)