Adoption records can be one of the most frustrating aspects of genealogical research. Still somewhat taboo in nature, the information they contain can be invaluable. These types of records are usually preceded by thick brick walls both factual and emotional. The process of looking for these records may also lead the researcher to confront many statutes reflecting closed door policies.
In the spring of 1915, my grandmother was placed for adoption by the Kansas Children’s Home. When my grandmother became of age, she located her biological mother and was able to build a brief bond.[i] By 1939, this bond had expired. My grandmother lived out her life with many questions about her natural parents, and never knew the name of her biological father. After my grandmother passed away, it became my quest to understand and learn everything I could about her adoption – before and after.
There are twenty-eight states that allow for some form of access to adoption records.[ii] The laws that govern the release of these records can be difficult to navigate. Many states are taking proactive steps to allow selected vital records to be available on-line for free or at a reduced cost. It is possible that the action of these forward-thinking state offices may also one day carry over into archival adoption records and make them more generally available to the public.
The State of Kansas is largely progressive with regard to adoption records. I was armed with my grandmother’s “Adoption Orders” from 1915. I learned that a “pre-adoption birth certificate” might have been issued. I decided that I wanted to obtain a copy of this record and perhaps learn the name of my biological great-grandfather.
Since Kansas allows access to adoption records, my grandmother, if she were living, would have immediate access to her “pre-adoption birth certificate.” However, my grandmother died in 1993, and Kansas law is very specific that these records are not available to her heirs or descendants except “by court order.”[iii] Undaunted, I decided that if the State of Kansas wanted a court order that I would get them one.
Knowing that my grandmother was born in Harvey County, Kansas, I contacted the district courts and explained what I needed. I asked them if it was possible for a “court order” to be issued to help complete my request for the vital record. The judge in Harvey County was great – a court order was issued immediately.[iv] Surely I had to be on the road to finally accessing this genealogical treasure.
This was not to be the case. Kansas Vital Records denied the request, and refused the court’s order. In disbelief, I went back to the district court judge. It was no use. Even after telephone calls from his office to Topeka, the court order would not be allowed. Finally, the district court judge of Harvey County, Kansas – where the birth event had taken place 100-plus years before – simply ‘folded’ : they could no longer help me. Essentially, if I wanted it that badly, I was going to have to sue the State of Kansas to have this archival record released to me. The door was closed.
So I took a chance. I bundled up copies of everything I had about the adoption. I placed these with the court order and mailed it all to the Secretary of Health and Environment [Services] for the State of Kansas.[v] I explained that I wasn’t trying to circumvent Kansas adoption laws; rather, I had already complied with those laws. I asked for a considerate release of the pre-adoption birth record. I asked them to understand that the document in their safe-keeping had no value except a genealogical one. And without telling the State of Kansas that they were drowning in red tape, I politely asked them, “What’s up with your system here?”
Less than a week later, with no fanfare, and no explanation, my grandmother’s pre-adoption birth certificate arrived in the mail. It had quietly been released by the Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment. My victory was bittersweet – there was no name for the baby’s father.
Sometimes even when doors are closed in our genealogical pursuits we should not just accept no as the final answer. We simply have to knock a little louder – or try a bigger door.
[i] Birth mother located through the correspondence (1915–29) of D.F. Shirk, “Superintendant of Investments” at the Kansas Children’s Home and Service League, with Mr. and Mrs. D. S. Ogle and their daughter Katheryn E. Ogle.
[ii] www.americanadoptioncongress.org: for a list of states that allow some form of access to adoption records.
[iii] www.kdheks.gov/vital/adoption: for basic rules regarding adoptees and their heirs with regard to the State of Kansas Vital Records and access to pre-adoption birth records.
[iv] Court Order issued 9 February 2016 by Harvey County Kansas District Court.
[v] Correspondence to the Secretary, State of Kansas Health and Environment, March 2016.
24 thoughts on “Closed doors”
Great stuff Jeff. As I’m sure I’ve told you Newton is where my mother and her younger three siblings were born. Her older three siblings were adopted, although only one sibling ever made contact with their birth family.
I recently found out that my “grandfather ” had been adopted. Since he wasn’t a biological grandfather I had to prove the relationship with BC, DC and even a marriage certificate. Since all relevant people have passed do I want to pursue it further just to find the circumstances or leave it be? I have hit a brick wall trying to find his father and anything further. This is crazy.
My mother was adopted from the Childrens Home Society in Kentucky in 1926. I have all of her adoption papers but have not been able to gain access to her original birth certificate through my many phone calls.
As you said, after almost 100 years, these records have no value except for genealogical purposes.
It is amazing that some states are still so “backward in their thinking”.
Per you article, I am inspired to knock on a few more doors. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Jeff, I was also adopted shortly after my 1960 birth through Catholic Charities in NH. They were less than helpful when I asked them for information on my birth mother, citing the contract they had with her.
I petitioned Probate Court in the county I was adopted in and was denied. A few years later I hired an attorney who petitioned Probate Court for me, this time with success. I was given my birth mother’s name, date of birth and where she was living at the time of the adoption and went about my way to find her.
A few years after that, NH law changed and I was able to contact the State’s Vital Records department (with proof of identity of course) and got my pre-adoption birth certificate–also with no birth father’s name. I think the laws should change to make this information accessible to anyone who has a family tie. How dare the states and adoption agencies make promises to the birth parents without any consideration for the adopted child once they are an adult. We have rights as well. I also know that if I could not afford an attorney and the fee to order the birth cert, I would still not know who my birth parents are.
I have been able to find both birth parents, and am grateful that some family genealogist 100 years from now will not have to go through the pains you did.
Yes, I, too, thought about hiring an attorney. But, considering how “backward” Kentucky’s philosophy is about pre-adoption birth records, the attorney I chose might just be another “pea in the pod’. I have not lived there in 50 years but was born in Kentucky so I can say that.
Kathleen, perhaps the agencies and birth parents had their agreements because the parents asked for it. What if your birth parents didn’t want to be found? I personally know of some of the older generation who do not want to go back into their youth and remember something so tragic. Some are not as curious as to what happened to their birth child and feel it’s better left alone. I feel sad for them if that is their wish only to be confronted by the knowledge that their wishes were not followed. I also feel bad for the child who finds out all the information only to be told their birth parents do not want contact with them. As I said, it is a double edged sword and needs to be handled delicately. BTW I am adopted but am one that doesn’t not care to “find” my birth father for any reason.
SHerry, that is the case–my birth mother did not want to be found, but it was also Catholic Charities’ policy at the time. I did handle it delicately, contacting her older sister first (in case her current husband and children did not know). But I was going to contact her. It is my right as a human being to know who and where I come from.
She gave me up at age 17, and 42 years later I went into the situation with an open heart knowing she may not want her life to change (which is also the case–apparently I ruined her life, but I am still glad I know the truth). I was hurt but respected her wishes and thanked her for the sacrifice she made. I asked about medical history. Her sister told me of some hereditary medical conditions of which my mother refused to tell me. I don’t care what your wishes are, that is just hateful.
I did ask one thing of her–to tell me the name of my birth father. She refused, but ultimately sent me the information and I have left her alone.
I do feel for the older generation who expected never to be contacted, but the truth is the truth. Please do not blame the children who were unwittingly born. I feel worse for the birth parents and children who would love to connect but never get the opportunity.
That was painful to read. You are probably better off that you never grew up with her. What a corroded heart she has. So sad…….
Indeed Kathleen, so well said – “do not blame the children….”
Never give up Caith!
DNA allows us to narrow down possibilities. I have done [read paid for] a great many DNA tests of family members and one match appeared repeatedly along my father’s maternal line. I was fortunate in having a couple over-80 cousins willing to test, which allowed me to determine that my 2nd great grandfather had strayed in 1899-1900 and the resulting little girl was adopted by a couple on the far side of the State. Her granddaughter was the 2nd cousin match to one of my Dad’s maternal 1C1R cousins. No one in my family is shocked and another family has 1/2 the answer to a 100+ year question. Go science!
There is also the question of whether or not records exist. “Formal adoptions didn’t generally begin in the United States until the 1850s, when Massachusetts adopted the first modern adoption law. Informal adoption by relatives continued to be common until the 20th century.” (Judy Russell, https://www.legalgenealogist.com/2016/11/22/chasing-adoption-records/)
I have two adoptions for the paternal grandfathers of both my paternal and maternal grandfathers circa 1850-1860, but no reason to believe that formal records exist to be found. One I have two contradictory family tradition hints and no real clue, the other I think I’ve solved but only have limited indirect evidence.
My heart goes out to all adopted children who, as adults want their birth information. But my heart also goes out to the birth mother who had to give up her child, especially in days where she had few-and all difficult–choices. In cases where the birth father is known, perhaps his descendants would not care to be traced.
Truly wish it was not this difficult to get information but glad you persisted and were successful. The only other thing one can hope for – beyond states releasing information – is that DNA tests may reconnect adoptees to their biological family. This has actually happened in my family – a cousin was connected with a daughter he knew nothing about because she and I took DNA tests.
I had a similar experience with Kansas trying to get my great grandmother’s medical and hospital admission records from 1890-1900 for genealogical purposes. Although I did everything according “to the book”, I was either refused or ignored. If you can’t go over, under, or through a wall, go around. So instead I went to the state where she died (Maine), and, following stated procedures, requested the records from the hospital there. Three weeks later I had what Kansas had refused.
Hi Jan, I like your thinking here about going around the walls and doors. If nothing else I hope our efforts will shine a light on any state’s practice of keeping out dated records so proprietary. I have to wonder just who it is they are protecting by holding these old records hostage. Themselves? It sounds like the State of Kansas should call their peers in Maine and learn a thing or two. Jan, many thanks for weighing in on a topic dear to my heart.
In going through some online English church records, I discovered something blocked out from entries made in the 1500s. It was intriguing to imagine just what someone was trying to hide from more than 400 years ago!
Pamela, I found the same sort of thing in some Irish parish records from the1830’s. However, the pencil or pen that had been used to scratch out the entry had faded badly and now the entry is decipherable. It was an illegitimate birth, with both parents named. Seems so silly now.
Welcome to Kansas and the wonderful “state systems”. Amazing, the NSA can tap all of our phones but Kansas can’t follow their own laws. Great job…..Jeff, you should have been a Private Investigator.
Larry, isn’t that what we all are, really?
I find this an interesting topic. As an adopted child I knew nothing about my birth father and I have not been interested in finding him although for health purposes it might have been a wise decision. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that some people have been able to connect however what about those who, for one reason or another, put their child up for adoption? Perhaps they do not want to be “found.” I think this is a double edged sword that needs to be carefully handled.
Jeff, I am so sorry you got such a ridiculous runaround from Kansas. Hopefully you will find DNA match cousins to point you in the right direction.
One of my cousins was born through an affair between my aunt and a cousin of hers. My cousin always knew who his father was, but the father’s other children were never told until after their father died. The half-siblings were happy and excited to learn about the relationship and wished they had been told earlier.