Birth Parent Search in International Adoption

Considering an international birth parent search? Here, seven questions to ask yourself before you start.

A birth parent search can take you to different places than you thought

It’s the same old story, told time and time again. Parents often choose to adopt internationally because of a desire for distance between the birth family and their own. And then the child comes home, and they find themselves desperately seeking the people of whom they were once afraid.

Having an open adoption is one thing. But trying to open one that was originally closed is another. Add in differences in languages and customs across international borders, and the situation becomes extraordinarily complex. And yet, growing numbers of U.S. families are making contact with their children’s birth families. In some countries, such as Guatemala and Russia, it can be a simple matter of verifying a name and address on the adoption paperwork. In China, a meeting can happen almost by chance.

In a recent AF survey, 50 percent of our readers who adopted internationally say they currently have no plans or desires to embark on a birth parent search. But the other 50 percent are, at least, thinking about it. The decision to search should be left to the adoptee, insist many of them. Others answer back, Yes, but if we don’t search now, the trail may run cold. We asked families from all sides of the debate — those who are considering a search, those who are firmly against it, and those who have searched with varying degrees of success — to share their stories. And we heard some powerful tales. With their help, we’ve compiled seven questions to ask yourself before you embark on a search.

1. Why are we searching?

Sometimes, this is a no-brainer. Your teenager has asked for your help in initiating a search. Or your child is sick, and you have medical questions that only her first family can answer.

Increasingly, however, families choose to search simply because they’re afraid of letting the trail go cold. And that’s where it gets complicated. Are you considering a search out of curiosity? If so, many within the adult adoptee community would urge parents to let it rest, insisting that this should be the adoptee’s choice.

2. How can we preserve the birth mother’s privacy?

When my husband and I adopted from Guatemala, we received the name and address of our child’s first mother. But we know we can’t hop in a taxi and knock on her door. What if she hasn’t told relatives, or a new husband, about the child? We assume she would want to know that her child is safe and loved. But what if privacy is what she wants most of all?

“If open adoption is a good thing, opening a closed adoption must be good, too, right?” says Margie Perscheid, a mother of two teens adopted from Korea. “But what’s missing in the latter case is consent.”

The consequences of being “found” can, in some cases, be severe. “In the country where my child was born, birth mothers go to great lengths to maintain confidentiality,” says Leena Batra, a mom from Texas. “My daughter’s birth mother has already made a tremendous sacrifice. I don’t intend to impose another one on her.”

Such concern for privacy supports the decision to hire a professional “searcher,” if you choose to search at all. Professionals know whom to talk to and where to look. They know the customs and speak the language, and can make contact in a sensitive and discreet way.

3. What if the birth mother refuses contact?

An adoptive mother from Nashville says, “My daughter is not yet old enough to consider searching, and I’m not going to search on her behalf. I have reason to doubt that her birth mother wants to be contacted, and I won’t set up my child for almost certain disappointment.”

A mother from Maine, who adopted two children from South Korea, assisted both of her kids with searches. “We managed to locate our son’s birth mother. At first, she told us (through the agency in Korea) that she would send a photo or letter. Our son sent several photos, and eagerly waited to hear back. We finally learned, again through the agency, that she’d changed her mind. She said she was not ready for contact.

“Even though we understand the social and emotional difficulties she may be having, it’s been hard. My son views it as a broken promise. He’s not one to share his feelings, but I can read him pretty well. I know that having something, anything, he could hang on to from his biological past, would have helped him.”

4. What information will we exchange?

Are you going to ask for medical information? Photos? Some parents want to maintain ongoing contact with the birth family, while others just want to gather facts.

Many parents wonder what they should disclose. After the initial letter, they feel torn between the urge to talk about their children and to maintain their privacy. Think about how your contact might evolve. How often will you write? Will you speak on the phone? If travel is manageable, will you meet in person?

“Visits have helped ground my daughter, and have given her an understanding that she is loved by her extended family in Guatemala,” says Cathy Lipe, an adoptive mother in California. “My sense is that it’s healthier for her to know real people than to spin fantasies. We talk about her birth family quite often at home, between our visits.”

Deciding what information you will exchange is important. So is sticking to your plan. “We’ve seen searchers get upset when families did not maintain contact,” says Mary Kirkpatrick, an adoptive mom, who founded “One asked me why the adoptive family bothered to find the birth family, if they didn’t intend to stay in touch.”

5. Can we handle the truth?

Many adoptive parents are surprised by the information they learn. If you decide to search, you must be prepared to find very troubling details about your child’s early life, such as the death of a birth parent, or evidence of abuse or neglect in the family. Think about how you’ll handle it, and what you will tell your child.

The mother from Maine (Question 3) says, “The story of how our daughter came to be placed for adoption was very different from what we were originally told. It is a heart-wrenching saga, involving the need to produce a boy after having two girls. After exchanging letters and photos, we had a very emotional reunion.”

And in many cases, coming face-to-face with the stark poverty so many birth families endure is hard to take. Adoptive families often find themselves grappling with the decision to offer financial support. Yes, you may be in a position to help your child’s birth family, but what will be the consequences? Will helping them put an emotional strain on your relationship?

Kirkpatrick raises another potential complication. “We often find siblings who were left behind in the orphanages. Families are then faced with the unexpected question of whether to try to adopt these children.”

6. Is my child ready for all this?

Much depends on your child’s age. A preschooler may be too young to be involved in the decision, but “it is important to start the conversation early,” says Jae Ran Kim, a Minnesota-based social worker, who was adopted from Korea at age three. “Don’t wait until you know something about the birth parents to begin talking.”

Grade-schoolers, says Kim, should be told about a search. At this age, kids can “handle discussions about birth parents, and are interested in their history,” but you’ll have to carefully consider how to reveal any difficult details you learn, and what you might withhold until your child is older. Make sure your child knows that finding birth parents does not mean that he will have to leave your family. Says Kim, “Children often feel split loyalty, and may claim they don’t want to know their birth family.

“If your child is a teen, I strongly believe that searching should be his sole prerogative. For an adopted teen, searching for and meeting birth family can be part of a general search for identity. Offer support and assistance, but leave the decision up to him.”

7. Do I know what I’m doing?

The answer is, probably, no. And yes. In the end, no one knows your child better than you do. How will he feel about your deciding to search? What will this mean to her now and in the future? Know why you are searching, and what you hope to gain from the search.

“Our searching has produced a roller-coaster of emotions — as did the adoption process itself — with frustrations due to delays; periods of hope; and some disappointments,” explains a parent in New York. “Once you start the process, it’s hard to stop. We found some negative information about our child’s biological family, but it hasn’t dissuaded us from pressing on.”

We can all come up with reasons why we shouldn’t search and one big reason why we should: our kids. As decades of domestic, open adoptions have taught us, kids thrive on knowing the truth about their lives. Clearing away the mysteries can give them peace. Tristan, who was adopted from Colombia, has benefited from a long-term relationship with his birth family. “I really like knowing who I look like. I think I would worry about my birth family all the time if I did not know them. Instead, I know that they are good people, and that they love me.”


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