by Melisha Mitchell
As you may have noticed, the number crunchers have taken over the world. Statistics not only have an impact on the movies we watch and the purchases we make, but also the politicians we elect and the laws those politicians enact. Legislators prefer digits over dialogue, and polls over prose. In adoption reform circles, where statistics are as scarce as accurate non-identifying information, quests for greater openness can often be thwarted by a lack of statistical data.
In an effort to bridge this numerical gap, I began compiling statistics on searching Illinois triad members in 1998. Anyone who contacted me for search assistance or guidance was asked to participate in this two-year study, and ultimately a third of those who were approached (just under 400 triad members) agreed to update me as their search progressed. Each person initiating a search was asked (via e-mail or phone) a series of questions about the adoption and their adoption experience and, if and when the search was successfully completed, another series of questions was then submitted to the person who had been located. Those searching were fairly equally divided between adoptees (50.3% of those searching; 77% of whom were female adoptees) and adoptive parents (5.5%, all adoptive mothers) and birth family members (44.2% of the overall total, 59% of whom were birth mothers, 2.5% were birth fathers, 7.5% were birth parent couples, 26% were birth siblings and 5% were birth aunts, uncles and grandchildren). Not surprisingly, the results of this study call into question a number of commonly-held beliefs regarding search and reunion.
First and foremost, the numbers directly contradict the "birth mother confidentiality" myth that has long plagued reform efforts across the country. Indeed, one of the most unexpected findings was the relatively high percentage of searching adoptees and birth parents who possessed sufficient information to resolve their search without court or agency assistance. Overall, 83% of the searching adoptees (born between 1920 and 1980) who participated in the study reported that their birth mother's surname or full name appeared on their adoption decree or some other document provided to their adoptive parents at the time of their adoption, and a whopping 96% of the adoptees who were located were able to confirm their birth mother's name via their adoption decree. All (100%) of the adoptive parents who were searching for their children's biological parents had been given the birth mother's name at the time of the adoption. Over eighty percent (82.5%) of the birth relatives who had initiated a search were able to access enough information about the adoptee to locate him or her using one of the hundreds of databases which can be accessed through the Internet (many of which are based on a person's date of birth-the one piece of identifying information most birth parents possess). In all but two cases, the adoptees who had no access to identifying information (12% of participants) were the same adoptees who could not access a copy of their adoption decree (either because this document had been reportedly "lost," "destroyed" or "never received," or because they did not feel comfortable involving their adoptive parents in their search). In both cases where no identifying information was ever provided to the adoptive parents, a married (to someone other than the birth mother) and influential birth father was ultimately found to be at the source of the omission of the birth mother's identity-not the birth mother herself. Five percent (5%) of searching adoptees ultimately confirmed that the name shown on their adoption papers could not have been their birth mother's actual name. Obviously, since these were the most elusive birth mothers, there is no way of knowing who (the attorney, the agency or the birth mother herself) was behind the name falsification.
The majority of those who participated in this survey were able to complete their search. In 62% of the cases examined, the person being sought was successfully located using information available to the searching party combined with publicly-available databases and resources. One fourth (25%) of the participants abandoned their search before it was completed (for reasons ranging from frustration to cold feet). In 5% of the cases, the birth relative (birth parent, in all cases) was found to be deceased; all but two of these adoptees found birth families who'd been waiting for them to show up for decades. The two families that had been unaware of the adoptee's existence both welcomed their long lost relative with open arms. The birth aunt of one of these 'long lost relatives' relayed the sentiments of many when she wrote, "I can't express my gratitude to you and (my niece) for having brought my sister back to life."
Once the object of the search was located, each participant had the option of either making contact on their own or participating in a free intermediary program. Eight percent (8%) of those whose birth relative was located ultimately decided not to take their search to the next step and did not initiate contact. Of those who continued their search, 29% chose to make initial contact by phone, 11% sent a letter, and 2% corresponded by e-mail. The majority (58%) of those who had asked for assistance with their search opted to use the voluntary intermediary program and sent a certified mail package containing a cover letter outlining the various options available to the person who had been located, a short note and picture from the searching party, a reply form and a stamped envelope for returning the reply form.
The method of contact chosen had little or no effect on the outcome of the searches. All (100%) of those who made initial contact via phone or e-mail and 90% of those who initially corresponded by letter were reunited. Overall, 86% of those whose birth relative was located (82% of the searching birth family members and 91% of searching adoptees) eventually reconnected with their birth parent, sibling or child, 7% of the searching adoptees and adoptive parents were interested only in exchanging social and medical background information; a combined total of 10% either declined all contact (9% of adoptees located and only 4% of birth parents) or did not respond to the initial request for contact but were confirmed as being a match for the search (1% of adoptees located and 4% of birth parents). But, most importantly, despite the absence of any legal ramifications for doing so, in all cases where an adoptee or birth parent indicated that they were not interested in pursuing contact-or merely failed to respond to the outreach package-the searching party respected those wishes.
While it is often assumed that birth mothers would not share their relinquishment experience with relatives and other family members and friends, only 9% of the birth mothers surveyed had kept their adoption experience a secret from their families and friends, and another 2% had shared the relinquishment with at least some of their family members. Eighty-nine percent of the birth mothers who were questioned (59% of whom were birth mothers who had been "found") had informed their families, husbands and often their children (both previous and subsequent) of the adoptee's existence. Ninety-eight percent of the 129 birth mothers who were questioned reported that they had never specifically requested anonymity. Neither of the two birth mothers who recalled specifically requesting anonymity from their surrendered child received the "anonymity" she had desired: both found their full names on their children's adoption decrees, and, not surprisingly, both had changed their mind about their need for "privacy" since their child's birth.
And, too, although it is commonly believed that adoptive parents are rarely supportive of their adopted children's desires to reconnect with their birth families, this assumption was not confirmed by this study. In fact, there was a greater number of adoptive parents (37%) whose adopted children reported that they had been extremely supportive of their desires to seek out their biological roots than there were adoptive parents who were perceived by their adopted children as being opposed to their search efforts (30%). One third (33%) of the adoptive parents of the adoptees surveyed had reportedly opted for a neutral position or never expressed any particularly negative or positive feelings about their son or daughter's intention to search. Predictably, there was a direct correlation between the adoptees' perception of their adoptive parents' attitudes towards search and reunion and the outcome of birth family searches for these adoptees; all but one of the adoptees who declined contact indicated that fears of "upsetting" their adoptive parents had played a primary role in their decision not to reconnect with their birth family.
Atlhough there is no way of predicting what all these statistics will say to number-hungry legislators, it's likely they will speak volumes to those within the legislative reform movement. The alleged "privacy" of adoption records has long been the weapon of choice of sealed records proponents, yet, these statistics indicate that that privacy was very randomly distributed in Illinois, if at all. Registries, mandatory intermediary programs, and complicated veto systems, some enforced with fines or other penalties, have been enacted across the country, yet the results of this voluntary program indicate that all this red tape is unnecessary. And, too, when a high percentage of Illinois adoptees are able to access the identifying information stored away on their original birth certificates through other documents, unsealing their birth records starts to look less like a search and reunion technique and more like what it has been all along: a quest for the restoration of adoptees' civil and human rights.