26    Sep 20114 comments

Adoption: Redefining Family History

Many of us take it for granted. The ability to trace back your family heritage at one’s own will is now almost a divine right, an activity in which many partake and many avoid - perhaps because they assume that records will always be available.

For those who are adopted or a direct descendant of an adoptee, the most basic of genealogical research can present seemingly impenetrable barriers. Chief of all these barriers - in the UK - is the lack of adequate adoption records prior to 1927. For many years, the process of adoption was an informal, rudimentary affair reflected in the quality of the records. The 1926 Adoption of Children Act recorded every granted adoption in England and Wales; however, the names of the natural parents are only released to the verified adoptee, and then only following a meeting with an advisor.

As you can imagine, this presents significant barriers for the researcher or individual and can present  gaping holes in one’s family history. This is a reality for many people across the world, but dealing with an unknown past needn’t be upsetting.

In a recent Guardian article, Lynn Knight talks of her experiences after she was told her mother was adopted - the third adoption in her family. Lynn’s maternal grandmother, Annie, also had an adopted father and sister. Annie eventually adopted Lynn’s mother. However, for much of Lynn’s childhood, she knew only of her great-grandfather’s adoption, whose fairground-operating parents immigrated (read "disappeared") to America in 1865.

Annie’s  mother was the only formal adoption in the family through the National Children Adoption Association (NCAA) and, in fact, was the first legal adoption in Chesterfield, UK since the 1926 act. After her mother told her of the adoption, Lynn searched for the hidden details in her family history.

Her family had kept a few items including an adoption agreement signed by her grandparents and a brochure of the NCAA’s luxurious adoption home from where her mother had come. Through the details in the brochure, Lynn learned about the adoption procedure and details about the association. Photos - including one taken on the day she was picked up from the NCAA and another of the association's founder - are understandably close to her heart.

Lynn is a biographer and she tells of past archive sessions where plea letters from adoptees had her "holding back the tears," a desperate search for details of relatives that resonated all too well with her own experiences.

Remarkably, Lynn’s attitude is one of redefining the traditional notion of familial inheritance:

"I don’t have a bloodline connection to my grandparents, but I do have a sense of shared history- and of their everyday lessons in love. The family I know exists because the people within it dismissed anxieties about heredity and were willing to bring outsiders into their lives."

Admittedly, I’m in no position to relate to Lynn’s story in the slightest. That said, I believe her attitude could bring comfort to many around the world.


There are wide-ranging views concerning adoption and genealogy. Do you think researchers should make a distinction between natural-born children and adopted children in a family? I believe that there isn't a distinction. However, some readers may think otherwise.

How do you handle adoption cases in your own records? Have you had difficulty in locating details about the natural parents of adoptees in your family? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I was born in Ontario, Canada, and also adopted. My biological brother was not adopted. I was 4 years old at adoption time, and had memories of a family, including my brother. I re-met my brother in the mid-1970's, and from there, met my biological mother. She wasn't much on giving me any information, so after my dear adoptive mother died in 1996, I went onto Ancestry.com and entered what I knew. I have found my 3 half sisters in England, however, I was too late - they had all passed away. But I have their children, and now I find myself in the position of matriarch of this very large and loving family. I have also done the complete Ancestry of my adoptive parents, and my cousins from that family have taken my biological cousins into their hearts. So for me, being adopted did not hinder me from finding blood relatives.
  2. this has been a bit of an issue with my tree (online) on MyHeritage. because there are NO options to show adoptions or adoption information on the tree. :-/ and I have MANY family members (including myself) that are adopted. whether it be a stepparent adoption, as it was for myself, or totally given up for adoption to an entirely different set of parents. I have both in my tree (and my husband's side as well) and no way to show that, other than just writing both names in the name section ie, Jane Smith (birth) Jones (adoptive). :-/ and then I put the tree information for their bio family. which totally leaves out their adoptive family. which may have been much more important to them. :-/ but, in the end, I am a GENEalogist. emphasis on "genes". I put the adoptive family info in "notes" or "comments". but honestly... I would LOVE a way to show BOTH families!
  3. I am in total agreement with Donella. My mother was given to adoption as an infant, years later when she married my father they searched and found her birth mother. So, I have put her birth mother in the family tree, but there is no way for me to connect and acknowledge her adopted family to her. Why can't you simply add another "parent" in the add relative selection and then add "adoptive" in the drop down menu that follows the selection? Is that too simplified?
  4. My father was adopted, through genetics the stories seem not to be true. I always believed his biological father was from Sweden and his adopted father was also from Sweden. We have documentation of his biological mother and her second husband who is on his birth certificate and may really be his biological father. My father wanted to know the true story. It would be helpful to at least to list dubious situations like this like we are able to with a second spouse, as Sharon suggested. It would be interesting to include both adoptive and biological parents in the tree when possible.

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