Disconnect: Helping Adopted Children Find their Birth Parents

colorado-adoptionAs the Western idealization of a family unit continues to grow and change, more and more parents are either opting to place their child for adoption or adopt themselves rather than have a biological child. As such, adoptions are on the rise. The Adoption Network estimates the number of children in foster care at any given time in the United States is around 428,000. Of that staggering number, about 135,000 are adopted every year. Children are put up for adoption under a wide umbrella of circumstances in varying degrees of frequency, but what is not uncommon is a child’s adolescent or adult curiosity about the exact nature of where they came from. Because adoption agencies have their own privacy restrictions regarding birth parents, adopted children are often left with only a few meager details and options. Private investigators, however, are well-equipped to find a child’s birth parents; with a comprehensive tool chest and a wealth of experience in searching for persons who may or may not want to be found.

The rate at which information technology is developing has been denoted by some as Orwellian, but the ubiquity of public databases and fact-finding software available to the public is higher than ever. Hiring a private investigator may be costlier to the individual than conducting the search oneself, but without the proper tools and expertise, individuals can follow false leads and dead ends for years at the cost of their time and personal finances. Private investigators, especially ones who specialize in locating biological relatives, can cut down the time and expense individuals would ultimately incur during their search. The complexity of adoption laws and procedures (often varying state-to-state) is a knot of cable wires that is difficult for any private citizen to untangle.

Private investigators with a variety of specialties are suited for this work because there is no chain of command in their business. Most notably, private investigators are often their own bosses, with the freedom to pick and choose the cases they want to focus on. Unlike the underpaid, overworked civil servants who work in child services, or the overwhelmed agents at an adoption agency, private investigators only handle less than a half-dozen cases at one time, so an adoption case will not just become another folder in a tall, precariously leaning pile on someone’s desk. There are no jurisdictional boundaries preventing a private investigator from going across state lines, as long as they are licensed in the state or being contracted by a private investigator who is licensed in the state. While there are limitations to what information can be gathered from the state based on the birth-parents wishes, the autonomy of a private investigator is ideal for tracking down either birth parents, or children who have been placed for adoption.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway estimates, of all parents placing their biological children for adoption, nearly half of those parents will then seek out those children after they have reached adulthood. Parents in search of a biological child always have a search advantage as the legal adult at the time of the adoption. They play a pivotal role in establishing the boundaries that might preclude this child from ever contacting them again in the future. Depending on the terms of the adoption agreement, the adoption agency may not be able to release information about anonymous birth parents to their biological children.

The privacy laws surrounding adoption in the United States date back to the beginning of the 20th century, and were put in place to protect the privacy and identity of all parties involved in an adoption. It’s only in recent years that the Adoption Information Act has made it possible for both parents and children to request information about the other in situations where all of the aforementioned parties have waived their right to privacy. Adoption laws have also gone through a metamorphosis in recent decades where parents are required to fill out detailed medical histories for the benefit of the child’s physical and mental health growing up. In addition to information about their own birth (date, location, hospital), a birth parent’s medical background might be the only information an adopted child possesses.  

Locating a birth parent or child is a form of investigation known as a skip trace. “Skip” refers to the action of searching for a person, derived from an old colloquialism, “to skip town,” or leave with very little notice or instruction. Trace refers to the process and resources involved in finding the person, such as international online databases, surveillance, and location technology and services. Skip traces in adoption cases can go both ways: A child in search of their birth parents, or a birth parent in search of the child they placed. Private investigators who take adoption skip traces have a mountain of data to sift through, including adoption registries, religion-related services (such as options offered through the Catholic church) and a mountain of databases, including—but not limited to—welfare, child protective services, private adoption agency, foster care, police, court, hospital, and international records.

Depending on the level of information available to either a birth parent or biological child (and subsequently the investigator) adoption cases can have a mixed bag of possible results. In scenarios where a private investigator is unable to find a birth parent, it’s typically because there is not enough information on the record to begin with. Because of varying degrees of regulation across all adoption agencies (both state and private), the level of information and quality of record keeping is a crap-shoot, and investigators often hit dead ends in those types of investigations. In other circumstances, after many long hours of research and investigation, the private investigator is able to locate the birth child or parent, only to report back to the client the subject in question has no desire to reunite with them in any fashion. These are solutions often unsatisfactory to the client, but it is a difficult reality, and the client will have some semblance of closure regarding their questions about the subject. However, in the event private investigators locate the birth child or parent, and the subject is willing to re-initiate contact, private investigators can be ideal liaisons to bringing biological parents and children together in adulthood. They can alleviate some of the most common anxieties surrounding meeting strangers, and have experience with reconnecting displaced parties that will inform a gradual process of reestablishing contact.

Life has an infinite potential to get messy very quickly, and a child being placed for adoption is one of the consequences of the indeterminate. Fortunately, private investigators not only have the sleuth skills to find persons under all circumstances, but an acute ability to read people that benefits the precarious nature of the cases they take on. When a birth parent and child are open to meeting again under more pleasant circumstances, private investigators can build strong bridges across decades of separation, confusion, and curiosity.