Monday, May 6, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Adoption

This is the second in an occasional series of posts.  The series discusses subjects which are often covered up in family discussions.  The first post discussed divorce.

I have relatives on both sides of my family who were adopted, both into and out of the family.  Most of them I have known about pretty much all my life, because the subject was not taboo.  In fact, it was usually treated in a positive manner, and those relatives were not considered any differently.  It was kind of like saying that someone had brown hair -- just a trait that person had.  My mother's favorite cousin was adopted.

Some family members, however, were not as open about the subject.  One cousin requested I not indicate in the family history that her children were adopted.  Another relative had never told her husband about the son she had given up for adoption, which caused an interesting situation when the son showed up at the house one day.

Adoption has a profound effect on millions of people and on society.  Laura Callen, who is an adopted person, noted the lack of a museum that explores adoption's history and story and decided to change that.  She began and now directs the Adoption Museum Project, which plans to create the first museum about adoption.  The museum will look at the experiences of adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, and their families, along with the social phenomenon of adoption.  It will also relate adoption to contemporary social issues.  Following two years of concept development, the project is now working on creating a sustainable organization and advancing its mission.

To help publicize the project, two free events are being held on Saturday, May 11:
• "Our Place at the Table:  Honoring Birthmother Stories", an exhibit at Red Poppy Art House, 2698 Folsom Street, San Francisco, California, from 1:00-4:00 p.m.  Children are welcome.
• "Birthmothers Speak", a solo performance and presentation of material written by birth mothers, at Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th Street, San Francisco, California, from 5:00-7:00 p.m.  This event is intended for an adult audience.

The Adoption Museum Project has a Facebook page with quite a bit of activity, including serious disagreements about terminology, showing how this subject stirs up emotions on both sides.  There is also a WordPress site with some bare-bones information.

From a family history perspective, adoption can be very difficult to research.  Most states in the U.S. have closed adoption records (and some people claim that the real reason for that is to protect the adoption industry, not the rights of the adoptee or either set of parents), and gaining access usually requires a court order.  Often adoptees have had success because they needed to know about their birth parents so they could find information about their families' health histories.  You should always check on what the laws are and were in the area you are researching.  Illinois recently opened adoption records to adoptees; some states had open records into the early and mid-20th century, such as New Jersey, which didn't close its records until 1941.  There are also organizations which help coordinate contact between birth parents and children who were given up for adoption.  Cyndi's List has many helpful links for adoption research.

Adoption is a very sensitive subject.  Be diplomatic when speaking with family members and respectful of their privacy, but also be loving and nonjudgmental.


  1. This is a really interesting subject. On the one hand, how do you even begin to find out if there are any adopted people in my family tree. On the other hand, does it matter that much to me if they are? (I was going to say, "does it matter to a genealogist?" but I know that it does matter to some). I guess it's something to ponder, but it's something that probably won't come up for me too often.

    I'll pass this blog post on to others I know who have adopted children. Unfortunately, most of them are out here in the Midwest, so they won't be able to attend your local events, but information about the museum will probably interest them quite a bit.

    Thanks as always - your blog is fun and informative.

    1. Carol,

      Sometimes the knowledge about an adoption is already known in the family. Sometimes it's whispered about. Other times, you might run into a dead end very quickly in your research or find conflicting information about names.

      Whether it "matters" is very much an individual decision. Many adoptees research both their birth and adoptive families; others research one side or the other. If you go by the literal meaning of "genealogy" (from the same root that gives us genes and genetics), only the birth side should be included, and that's the side that is critical for health histories. The broader field of "family history", however, has plenty of room to encompass both sides.

      And thank you for reading my blog!


  2. Jan,
    My mother was adopted and she is deceased and her adoptive parents are adopted. To open the court papers it will cost $150.00 and I feel since she was an only child these records should not cost that amount.

    Do you have any knowledge if the people involved are deceased it might be open records now.

    Thank you,


    1. Carol,

      This differs a lot from state to state. You did not say where you live or where the adoptions took place, so I don't know if the records could be open. In some states it is easier to gain access to the files if the people involved are deceased; in others it makes no difference. And some states have been revising statutes to allow the records to be open. You will need to investigate what the laws are in your state(s).

      The fees are a separate question. Generally speaking, government offices are supposed to run on a break-even basis and are only supposed to charge fees that equal the cost of the service. I don't know if it actually costs $150 to open the court papers. On the positive side, however, if you can gain access to the complete files for "only" $150, many people who lives in states where there is no access to adoption records would consider that a small price to pay.

      I wish you success in your search.



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