The End of Secrecy in Adoption
Secrecy has been a major issue in adoption for the past 100 years. Confidentiality was the hallmark of most adoptions over that time, and continued until the recent past. More than any single event in the adoption field over the past century the introduction of the internet into the complex field of adoption relationships is a game changer. Previously closed domestic adoptions already completed may not remain closed in the future. I believe that it is now no longer possible to guarantee confidentiality in adoptions, no matter where in the world the child was born.
The introduction of DNA matching sites where adoptees can find their birth relatives allows them to bypass adopting parents or government secrecy and match their DNA on these sites (see DNA Adoption Networking). Not only will these sites facilitate adoption reunions for domestic adoptions, but intercountry adoptions will be affected as well. The adoption of baby girls from China is a good example of how DNA matching works, but the same is true for adoptions from every country in the world, including Canada. Chinese birth families can now find DNA test kits on line for under $100. On the other side of the equation we know that a majority of adopted children will be curious or even obsessed about finding their birth family. In fact adopted children may be able to find their birth families even if the birth parents never registered their DNA or have died since placement. This is because these websites will provide matches for relatives. All it will take is for a relative of either birth parent in China to register their DNA online and an adopted child from China will be able to track down her birth family.
The parties to an adoption will continue to use the internet creatively in order to find each other. For example, an adult adoptee in Tasmania recently used Google Maps to find his birth family in a small town in India. This extraordinary story is recounted in a recent Vanity Fair article (A Home at the End of Google Earth).
We did not have to wait long to see how Facebook would change adoptions. Adopted children and birth parents are searching Facebook and many other searchable databases on the internet. Even before birth and placement the adopting parents and birth parents are using Facebook to find each other. Some parties to an adoption are choosing to “friend” each other and use that as a way to get to know each other. After placement ongoing contact through Facebook is what can improve or sour the relationships between the parties to an adoption. It has greatly increased the ability of a birth mother to follow the progress of her child as he or she grows up in the adopted family. These can be tricky relationships to manage however, and anyone thinking of creating a web page to accomplish this should become educated on how to make it work.
Not everything works out well. The internet has many risks and the results are not always good. Incidents such as the following are bound to increase: a 13 year old adopted boy received frequent emails from a woman who claimed to be his birth mother and who sent photos of children whom she claimed were his siblings. Unfortunately he was not ready for this contact and felt devastated by it. As a result of such on-line contact some adopting parents are now asking their lawyers what can be done to prevent unwanted contact via social networking. There is a general feeling however that not much can really be done, and as one lawyer put it “you can’t un-ring the bell once contact has been made”.
A recent study about the effect of the Internet on adoption, Untangling the Web: The Internet’s Transformative Impact on Adoption (December 2012), included the following findings:
Finding birth relatives is becoming increasingly easy and commonplace, with significant institutional and personal implications, including the likely end of the era of “closed” adoption and a growth in relationships between adoptive families and families of origin.
An indeterminable but growing number of minor adopted children are contacting and forming relationships with biological siblings, parents and other relatives, sometimes without their adoptive parents’ knowledge and usually without guidance or preparation about the complex emotional and interpersonal repercussions for everyone involved
What can we learn from the events outlined above? I think the following points set it out:
1. In spite of any efforts by the parties to an adoption, their lawyers, their adoption agencies or government departments to maintain confidentiality, the internet now provides a method for parties to find each other directly.
2. Adopting parents should prepare themselves for future contact and be ready for it, so they are not surprised when it happens.
3. From today forward all birth parents, and adoptive parents who are thinking of adopting either domestically or internationally, must approach adoption facing the reality that there can no longer be any assurance of confidentiality in adoptions.
4. Birth parents all over the world who are yearning to find out what happened to the child they placed for adoption now have new tools to make that search. These tools will only get stronger and easier as we go into the future.
5. The parties to an adoption should learn how to make online relationships work. There is lots of information how to do this on the internet. See the resources listed below.
(i) Take the Adoption Learning Partners on-line webinar Is That My Birth Mom on Facebook? ($15;
(ii) Read Top Ten Parenting Tips for Adoption and Facebook. These come from an online article. The entire article is found at (and search Top Ten Tips.)
Doug Chalke is a Vancouver lawyer and is the former Executive Director of Sunrise Family Services Society, a British Columbia government licensed adoption agency.
January 4, 2013