Search and Reunion

One of the effects of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s was the emergence of an adoption-reform movement led by adult adoptees. Its rallying cry was that the civil rights of the adopted had been violated when their original birth records were sealed, denying them access to information available to nonadopted people. Adoption support groups have been established across the United States to provide emotional support, lobby for open records, and facilitate the search for birth parents.

Some states, rather than open their previously sealed adoption records, have established "reunion registries" that will connect adoptees with their birth parents if both register and indicate their mutual desire. In other jurisdictions, there is an intermediary system, in which the court, or an adoption agency is empowered to search for the birth mother if an adoptee requests a reunion. The birth mother retains the right of refusal of contact. Adopted activists believe that both registries and intermediaries violate their right to information and the ability to make direct contact with birth relatives.

More adopted women search for their birth parents than adopted men. The quest to find the birth mother is usually stronger than the need to locate the birth father. Adoptees tend to begin their search when they become aware of formerly repressed feelings that often surface at times of life transitions, such as impending marriage, parenthood, or death of adoptive parents (Sorosky et al.; Lifton, 1988).

The secrets inherent in the closed-adoption system make reunion difficult for both birth mother and adoptee. To return to each other is to return to their earlier traumas. The adoptee experiences grief, anger, and divided loyalties; the birth mother relives the unresolved sadness, guilt, and humiliation she felt at the time of pregnancy, birth, and relinquishment (Lifton, 1994).

No matter whom adoptees find—a loving, a withholding, or even a deceased parent—the opportunity to heal arises when they can integrate the past with the present. Adoptees' relationship to their adoptive parents is usually strengthened once they have resolved their identity issues. Reality replaces their fantasies, and they are able to recognize the important role of their adoptive parents (Gonyo and Watson; Sorosky et al.; Lifton, 1994). Birth parents also enter a healing process after reunion because they have the opportunity to explain to their child why they relinquished him or her and to forgive themselves and be forgiven (Gediman and Brown).

Some adoptees and birth parents develop close, ongoing kinship ties. Others maintain a more distant relationship that may involve little more than exchanging holiday cards. A few, after one or two meetings, close off contact. Whatever follows the reunion, however, the individuals involved have been able to take control of this important aspect of their lives.

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