Search and Reunion

Source: Jean M. Paton, The Adopted Break Silence (Philadelphia : Life History Study Center, 1954).

This sculpture by Jean Paton was titled “The Search.” It illustrated at once the rift that secrecy caused and the potential of search and reunion to heal that rift between generations and within persons.

Search and reunion have been prominent features of adoption reform and activism in recent decades, and they appear as central themes in many adoption narratives. The effort to locate birth parents and other natal relatives has a long history in adoption, however, since there was never a time when relatives separated by adoption did not seek to find them later in life. Throughout the era of the orphan trains in the nineteenth century, and during the heyday of placing-out, information about the backgrounds of children placed temporarily or permanently was no mystery. During the formative stages of modern adoption, social workers and other child-placers frequently served as agents of disclosure. When adoptees came to them with questions about their backgrounds, they assumed it was part of their job to provide answers. The difficulties adoptees encountered in searching were more likely to be caused by sloppy or non-existent records than by design.

This changed with confidentiality and sealed records, but only gradually. Beginning with the Minnesota Adoption Law of 1917, states began to treat adoption as a secret in hopes of reducing the stigma associated with illegitimacy and preventing natal relatives from interfering in adoptive families. Advocates believed that privacy in adoption would protect child welfare by shielding adoptees from public embarrassment while also reinforcing the integrity, autonomy, and “realness” of adoptive kinship. It was only after World War II that these new policies became so rigid that adoptees themselves were denied access to records, such as original birth certificates, that non-adopted citizens took for granted. It is curious that the enduring emphasis on telling children about their adoptions reached its height during the very same period when detailed information about natal origins became virtually impossible to obtain. To tell was considered only truthful, but it required a vague kind of truth-telling at odds with search and reunion. No practical details were conveyed, and certainly no identifying information.

For decades around midcentury, adoptees who expressed desires to learn more about their natal relatives, or find them, were considered maladjusted products of less than successful adoptive families. According to this way of thinking, children whose adoptive parents offered true love and belonging would have no reason to search. They already felt like members of complete and genuine families. The expectation that adoption could erase and should replace natal families completely, which gave rise to the practice of matching, turned any curiosity about origins into a sign of trouble.

Many adoptees, though, were plagued by questions about their pasts. They found it impossibly difficult to accept their adoptive status as a significant fact to be simultaneously accepted and permanently ignored. When their questions persisted, the typical solution was to offer therapy to adoptive parents (especially for unresolved feelings about infertility) rather than information to adoptees. Until at least 1970, clinical perspectives on emotional disturbance in adoptees emphasized that worries and fantasies about birth parents were the ingredients of psychopathology. So close was the connection between searching and poor adoption outcomes that even Jean Paton, founder in 1953 of the first adoptee search organization in the United States, Orphan Voyage, formulated a “search hypothesis” in which the impulse to seek out natal relatives corresponded directly to the security and happiness of the adoptive home.

Considering how widespread the belief was that only insecure, unhappy adoptees wondered about their genealogy or sought out their birth parents, it is all the more remarkable that so many adoptees did both. Jean Paton was among the first to propose that the need to search was both a psychological necessity for individuals and a social necessity that would bring about much-needed reform. Convinced that adoptees were capable of creating innovative new mechanisms for reunion, such as voluntary reunion registries, Paton argued “that the desire to know the natural parents can be the deepest and most compelling factor in an adopted child’s life. . . . Unless this desire resolves into reality it may be obscured in a long diversion, and in many cases this will be accompanied by years of unproductive behavior.”

The rise of new adoption reform movements in the 1960s and 1970s marked a turning point in the history of search and reunion. Civil rights movements had already increased public awareness of the heterogeneous origins of the American population, celebrated quests for “roots,” and elevated authenticity over convention and honesty over pretense. In such a climate, adoptees who set out to come to terms with their natal pasts were understandable and sympathetic figures. By the mid-1970s, influential statements on adoption and identity, such as The Adoption Triangle, announced what was already obvious to many adoptees: children who had more than two parents grew up aware of a generational rift in family life that non-adopted children never experienced. Search and reunion was the logical way to address this rift. Interpreted as a symbol of healing rather than disturbance, searching was perfectly normal.

Ironically, some advocates of search and reunion have been just as dogmatic as those who made the case against search and reunion in earlier generations. Open records activists have sometimes insisted, just as their opponents did, that the relationship between genealogical knowledge and healthy identity was stable and predictable across the entire adopted population. Where the proponents of confidentiality and sealed records considered blood ties so threatening to the security of adoptive kinship that permanent secrecy was required, proponents of openness considered them so essential that no child could hope to become emotionally whole without them. Arrogance characterized both sides of the argument. Everyone agreed that they knew what was right and true and best for everyone else.

The movement toward search and reunion has done much to promote greater honesty about differences in family life. It has offered concrete assistance to numerous adoptees and birth parents with an interest in reunion, not only helping long-lost relatives find one another, but assuring them that doing so can be a positive step in the adoption process rather than a sign of failure. If the movement has also underlined the blood-is-thicker-than-water bias that has been such a prominent feature of American family life, that is only one of many ironies in modern adoption history.


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