DeAnn Link is searching for her daughter. She’d be 23 years old now.
Link said she gave birth in a Chicago hospital in 1996 at age 18, and the baby was placed with an adoptive family.
She has searched for her on LinkedIn, Google and through websites that allow birth parents and adoptees to register with contact information. But years of searching has led to nothing.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” she said. “I know she’s out there, and I know I’ll find her soon. The more I try, the more I put myself out there, the more she’ll be able to see it.”
Up next to try? A genealogy website. Link and other birth parents have been turning to DNA and genealogy websites as a way to potentially find and connect with adopted sons and daughters.
Recently, Link opened an account on Ancestry.com, and she is waiting on the next steps to submit her DNA, which could potentially match others who have submitted to the site. Maybe, she hopes, she will find her that way.
“I'm excited,” she said. “I was so young when everything went on, and it’s been a missing piece in my heart since then.”
Genetic testing sites like Ancestry, 23AndMe and MyHeritage are expanding the options for biological parents seeking to find adoptees.
Birth parents’ search options include going through an adoption agency or turning to online searching and scouring social media. Some also use private investigators. But now, for example, on Facebook pages that help people find family members, many first suggest a genealogy website.
The ability to seek matches instantly is an enormous shift, adoption experts said.
“That is a huge, huge sort of change in the way that nobody ever anticipated,” said Nina Friedman, director of post adoption support at The Cradle, an adoption agency based in Evanston, Ill.
At Adopted.com, a website that has 850,000 members and helps adoptees and biological parents connect, founder Katharine Wall said, “Technology can really change things overnight.”
Last fall, the website, which already helps connect searchers with investigators and genetic researchers, began letting users upload their own DNA profiles. Adopted.com is working on partnerships with some genealogy websites in hopes of eventually being able to offer users a way to check matches across several sites.
Kathryn Holcomb-Kirby said she has been trying to establish contact with her son, who would now be 27, for years. He was adopted in 1991, when Holcomb-Kirby was 17, she said. She gave birth to him in Skokie, and he was placed with an adoptive family in Wisconsin, she said.
She is working with an agency attempting to connect her, and she added her information to Adopted.com.
Even armed with some information — the parents’ first names and the state they lived in — about her son’s adopted family, she still has been unable to find him. “It’s more than a lot of people have, but it’s still limited,” she said. She recently requested a kit from Ancestry.com.
Often, it is the adoptee who seeks out more information or a connection with a birth mother or father. But with ever-expanding search options like genealogy sites, said Chuck Johnson, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Council For Adoption, “it doesn’t surprise me that with the technology today and the tools that are available, that more and more birth moms may be reaching out that way.”
In Illinois, searchers can use the Health Department’s Illinois Adoption Registry and Medical Information Exchange, where people can register to authorize or prohibit the release of identifying information to others involved in an adoption. The Confidential Intermediary Service of Illinois, a program of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, is another resource for seeking family members.
Beginning the search
Birth parents or adoptees begin a search for many reasons, from establishing a relationship to finding out health history. Others might not know that seeking a reunion or more information is a possibility.
“A lot of birth parents don’t feel like they’re entitled to actually seek out their child,” Friedman said. “And so it seems like it should be the child’s decision.”
She said that, in some cases, both parties — a biological parent and an adopted child — might be open to connecting, but each thinks the other person should make the decision. “If everyone thinks the other person should be doing it, nobody does it.”
Of course, in some cases the person might not want to be found or contacted.
That’s how Chicagoan Linze Rice felt when her biological father reached out in 2018. Years earlier, her mother had told her that although she was her birth mother, the man she’d always known as her father had actually adopted her. Rice said she felt no need to establish a reunion with her birth father — “It wasn’t really a huge void in my life,” she said — but did seek out information on him through contact with a cousin years ago. She knew that he was aware of her, and vice versa.
For that reason, she said, it surprised her even more when he sent a Facebook message to her parents.
“I’ve never reached out, I’ve never done anything to do that, and he knows that I could if I wanted to,” Rice said. “I had a surprisingly negative reaction to it.”
She decided not to respond and, a year later, still has not.
How to reach out
Before attempting to establish contact, experts advise thinking through a few things. Consider what might happen and how you will feel. The person may or may not want a relationship; the person may or may not have the life you might have hoped.
Wall counsels patience, and she reminds people that they might simply need to give a potential relationship time.
“It’s super important to have a very gentle approach and then to back off and be patient,” she said. “It’s so common that people say they’re not interested in a reunion, and then they change their mind.”
Friedman advises thinking through possible outcomes, expectations and motivations. “You could find out a number of things that may not be what you were expecting,” she said. “The other person may no longer be living, which can be devastating. The other person may not be open to contact.”
Experts caution against simply showing up on the person’s doorstep.
And Friedman cautions against bringing an attitude of, “You’re my child, and I’m so excited to find you, and let’s become best friends.” Instead, consider the approach, “This is who I am. I think we might be a match, and would you be open to exploring that?”
Reaching out, Friedman reminds people, is just the first step.
“Just because you find the other person and you connect and they’re open, it is a brand-new relationship,” Friedman said. “You’re strangers. You have to think about how you build a new relationship.”
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