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United States Adoption Research Strategies, 1900s-2000s

Early Adoption Records, Before 1900s

For historical adoption records, see the Wiki article, Early Adoption Records, Before 1900s.

Assembling Information and Documents

  • Adoptive parents knowledge: Discuss the details of the adoption with the adoptive parents or other close relatives.
    • Adoption agency: Determine the name and contact information of any adoption agency the adoptive parents used. You may request the non-identifying information from the agency.
    • Hospital: See if family members know the hospital where the child was born. They may have received the child at the hospital.
    • Attorney: If the adoption was arranged by an attorney, ask for his name and get his contact information.
  • Documents: Gather any documents the family has about the birth.
    • Amended birth certificate
An amended birth certificate, created after an adoption is finished, lists the names of the adoptive parents just as if the child had been born to them originally.
Many people will have an amended birth certificate, with no access to the original. About half of the states allow adults to have access to their original birth certificates. See Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates
In other states, an original birth certificate may be obtained through a court petition.
  • Hospital records: Hospitals often retain birth registers and occasionally have medical information on children born there. Medical records regarding the person you are searching for may sometimes be obtained.

Researching Relevant State Laws

Understand the difference between identifying and nonidentifying information.

You will want to research and understand state statutes about the release of these two different levels of information.

Nonidentifying information: Nonidentifying information includes the health, behavioral health, developmental, educational, and social histories of the child and the child's parents and other birth relatives. Nearly all states allow an adult adoptee to access nonidentifying information about birth relatives, generally upon written request. Usually, the adoptee must be at least age 18 before he or she may access this information. Information may include:

  • Date and place of the adoptee's birth
  • Age of the birth parents and general physical description, such as eye and hair color
  • Race, ethnicity, religion, and medical history of the birth parents
  • Educational level of the birth parents and their occupations at the time of the adoption
  • Reason for placing the child for adoption
  • Existence of other children born to each birth parent

Identifying information: Identifying information is information from the disclosure of adoption records or elsewhere that may lead to the positive identification of birth parents, the adult adoptee, or other birth relatives. Identifying information may include current or past names of the person, addresses, employment, or other similar records or information.

  • Statutes in nearly all states permit the release of identifying information when the person whose information is sought has consented to the release.
  • If consent is not on file with the appropriate entity, the information may not be released without a court order documenting good cause to release the information. A person seeking a court order must be able to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that there is a compelling reason for disclosure that outweighs maintaining the confidentiality of a party to an adoption.
  • Access to information is not always restricted to birth parents and adoptees. Approximately 37 states allow birth siblings of the adoptee to seek and release identifying information upon mutual consent.[1]

Study the laws specific to the state where the adoption took place.

Use these links to learn about the statutes governing the adoption, based on the state where it occurred.

Select a state from the drop-down menu.
Then check the box for "Access to Adoption Records" under the "Adoption" list.
Click "Go!".

Filing Court Petitions

  • If you were adopted, you may petition the court to open sealed adoption records. Whether this is successful may depend on the state, the judge, the reason given for the request, and other factors. Medical necessity will be the most successful reason used. If the birth parents are deceased, petitions are usually successful.
  • Petitioning the court does not require an attorney’s services, although attorneys may be helpful.
  • Depending on state laws, the judge may
    • agree to release only nonidentifying information (which should be available by asking any agency),
    • agree to release a summary of information,
    • deny the petition completely,
    • appoint an intermediary, such as the original adoption agency or a professional searcher, to locate the birth parents and determine whether they want to release information or be reunited (in some states).[2]

How to File

Contact the county clerk where the adoption took place and ask for a petition form. File the completed form with the county court. A judge will review the petition and may require an interview. Attorney services are not required.

Getting Help

This is a service available in all states. It consists of individuals who have experience conducting searches for birth relatives and will conduct adoption searches free of charge. Search angels are not private detectives or paid professional searchers. They can also be found on adoption search blogs, social networking sites, search support groups, and other online forums.
  • Adoptee Search Support Groups: There are nonprofit organizations that help teach methods for searching.
Click on National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Search.
Select the state where the adoption took place.
Check the box "Birth Family and Adoptee Search Support Groups" under "Support Groups".
Click: "GO".
  • Hiring a Professional Researcher:
    • Professional searchers include certified independent search consultants, licensed private investigators who may or may not have adoption experience, nonprofit organizations that train in adoption searching, and experts in a field who may or may not have a certification (e.g., confidential intermediaries).
    • If you choose to hire a professional searcher, you should research the reputation of the searcher or company before obtaining their services.
    • Reputable professional searchers will always respect your pacing and boundaries. These professionals will not move beyond search into reunion unless you request this step.
    • Support groups and online forums can be a ready source of information about professional searchers.[3]

Making Contact With Relatives

Mutual Consent Registries

A mutual consent registry is a means for individuals directly involved in adoptions to indicate their willingness or unwillingness to have their identifying information disclosed.

  • Approximately 30 states and Puerto Rico have established some form of a mutual consent registry: Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia (as of 11 September 2020)
  • Most registries require consent of at least one birth parent and an adoptee over the age of 18 or 21, or of adoptive parents if the adoptee is a minor, in order to release identifying information.
  • Most states that have registries require the parties seeking to exchange information to file affidavits consenting to the release of their personal information.
  • Registries for these states will release identifying information unless a non-consent form has been filed (as of 11 September 2020):
Indiana (for adoptions finalized after 12/31/1993)
Maryland (for adoptions finalized after 1/1/2000)
Michigan (for adoptions finalized before 5/28/1948 or after 9/12/1980)
Minnesota (for adoptions finalized after 8/1/1982)
Nebraska (for adoptions finalized after 9/1/1998)
Ohio (for adoptions finalized after 1996)
Vermont (for adoptions finalized after 7/1/1986)

Finding a Mutual Consent Registry

To find contact information for a state agency or department that assists in accessing adoption records, go to Child Welfare Information Gateway's National Foster Care and Adoption Directory and search under State Reunion Registries/ConfidentialIntermediary Services:

Select a state from the drop-down menu.
Scroll down to "Adoption Search" and click the box for "State Reunion Registries/Confidential Intermediary Services".
Click on "GO".

International Soundex Reunion Registry

Confidential Intermediary System

  • Some states have a search and consent procedure called a confidential intermediary system. With this system, an individual called a confidential intermediary is certified by the court to have access to sealed adoption records for the purpose of conducting a search for birth family members to obtain their consent for contact.
  • States using confidential intermediaries include (as of 11 September 2020):
Alabama (when consent is not on file)
Florida (to contact family members who have
not registered with the adoption registry)
Illinois (to obtain updated medical information)
Michigan (when consent is not on file)
North Carolina
North Dakota

Finding Confidential Intermediary Services

To find contact information for a state agency or department that assists in accessing adoption records, go to Child Welfare Information Gateway's National Foster Care and Adoption Directory and search under state Reunion Registries/ConfidentialIntermediary Services:

Select a state from the drop-down menu.
Scroll down to "Adoption Search" and click the box for "State Reunion Registries/Confidential Intermediary Services".
Click on "GO".

Affidavit System

These states (as of 11 September 2020) use an affidavit system through which birth family members can either file their consent to release identifying information or to register their refusal to be contacted or to release identifying information. The written permission may be referred to as a consent, waiver, or authorization form.

New Hampshire
New Mexico

To find the contact information to inquire about using this system, go to:

Select a state from the drop-down menu.
Scroll down to "Adoption Search" and click the box for "State Reunion Registries/Confidential Intermediary Services".
Click on "GO".

For Further Reading

For a more detailed understanding or answers to other questions you may hove, consult these excellent articles:


  1. "Access to Adoption Records", Child Welfare Information Gateway,, accessed 11 September 2020.
  2. "Searching for Birth Relatives", Child Welfare Information Gateway,, accessed 11 September 2020.
  3. "Searching for Birth Relatives: Hiring a Professional Researcher", Child Welfare Information Gateway,, accessed 11 September 2020.