At his half-sister’s wedding in Holliston, a few weekends ago, Gavin Kennedy was surrounded by new relatives. There were uncles, cousins, aunts, all who shared his genetic code. Strangers knew his name — they could tell who he was, they told him, because he looked so much like his birth father.
For Kennedy, a 42-year-old in Boston, the experience was unprecedented. This was a family he’d found with a swab of spit and a few clicks of a mouse. He’d known from childhood that he was adopted, but it had never occurred to him to look for his birth parents. Back in November, he submitted his DNA to 23andMe to be analyzed because he wanted medical information; the company also tests to see if the sample bears markers for genetic disease.
A month later, when Kennedy received his results, he noticed a tab saying “familial relations.” He clicked it.
“It said, ‘You have one close relative, and it’s your father,’” Kennedy recalled. And there it was onscreen — his birth father’s name.
For most of the last century in the United States, adoption was shrouded in secrecy and anonymity. For adoptees to find birth relatives took considerable effort, if it was possible at all. As more and more Americans send their DNA samples to be sequenced and archived by companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, it’s becoming easier and easier for adoptees to find their birth relatives — sometimes without even meaning to.
Even if no one in an adoptee’s immediate biological family has entered their profile in a DNA database, the size of the databases has reached critical mass: Almost everyone can count on matching with at least a fifth cousin — and that’s often enough to find everyone else, said Leah Larkin, a DNA genealogist who helps adoptees searching for birth families. “I like to equate this to doing a giant jigsaw puzzle,” she said: it’s just a matter of finding the right pieces.
A case such as Kennedy’s doesn’t just reveal the power of technology; it also underscores the rapid erosion of what had been a social norm. In short, the era of the “closed” or anonymous adoption is coming to an end.
“It’s an inevitability. It’s happening before our eyes, and much faster than most people realize,” said Adam Pertman, who heads the nonprofit National Center on Adoption and Permanency. For decades, he said, adoptees and adoption activists have advocated for open adoptions — adoptions in which birth families and adoptive families are known to each other, and may have contact — but now technology is deciding the question. “It’s where the field was going anyway, open adoptions were becoming the norm [even] before the two big seismic changes: the Internet — and in particular social media — and then the last nail in the coffin, which is DNA testing.”
It’s a significant cultural shift in how adoption is practiced in the United States. Until recently, University of Oregon history professor Ellen Herman noted, modern American adoption has been distinguished by “the idea that adoption substituted one family for another so carefully, systematically, and completely that natal kinship was rendered invisible and irrelevant,” as well as “practices that aimed to hide” anything that made adoption different from other kinds of family building.
Many older American adults remember when adopted children were the subject of gossip or secrecy; by the mid-20th century, the presumption that adoptive children and birth parents should never know each other had become commonplace. As recently as the 1970s, almost all American adoptions were confidential; today, only 5 percent are. In hindsight, the surprise isn’t that technology raced forward, retrospectively opening adoptions one DNA sample at a time. It’s that the norm of secrecy held as long as it did.
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To be clear, birth parents who gave up children under that norm, and adoptive families who took children in were operating within the only system available to them. And while it was often fully voluntary and in the best interests of all involved, closed adoption also has a darker history in the United States than most realize: one shaped by eugenic prejudices, exploitation of poor families, and outright trafficking.
“We’re still picking up the pieces,” said Gabrielle Glaser, a journalist who covered adoption for The Oregonian and is working on a book on the subject. “There are millions of people who are hurting because of [closed adoption]. There are millions of people who are still looking for their birth families.”
In 2014, there were 110,373 adoptions in the United States, according to a report on the latest numbers from the National Council For Adoption. Adoptions have been in decline since their modern peak in 1970 when the totals topped 175,000. In 2014, 41,023 of adoptions were to relatives (stepparents adopting stepchildren, for instance), and 69,350 were unrelated adoptions. Of those, only 18,329 were adoptions of infants too young to know their parentage.
Before the 1900s, Glaser said, few children were adopted at birth; instead, shotgun marriages were the norm for out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Older children whose parents were dead, or could not care for them, might be adopted by relatives or a family friend. “In rural America, if your parents died on the farm of tuberculosis, you’d just go live with a neighbor,” Glaser said.
Back then, adoption was usually transparent and informal. In fact, Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law making adoption a legal process, in 1851. Still, in urban areas, orphaned or abandoned minors were less likely to be adopted than to live in an orphanage — or to be left to fend for themselves. Society viewed such children with suspicion, said author Barbara Bisantz Raymond. “They believed in the science of eugenics; these children were tainted goods.”
In the 1920s, however, one woman in Memphis set out to change that. Georgia Tann preached that adopted children could be molded by the parents who raised them. “She said children were not born children of sin; they were not genetically flawed; they were blank slates,” Raymond said. “And if you surrounded them with beauty and culture they would become anything you wished them to be.”
But in reality, Tann was an enterprising child trafficker. Deeply ensconced in and abetted by the local political machine, she and her agents preyed on poor parents, coercing them into giving up their children — especially those with blond hair and blue eyes. Her social workers sometimes outright kidnapped children, or told parents their children were being taken for a check-up, and never brought them back.
Children who turned out to be sickly or otherwise unsellable did not fare well with Tann. It’s estimated that 500 children died in her care. But her business boomed. “She created a market,” said Raymond, who wrote a book about Tann. “She made adoption popular and commercialized.”
In three decades, Tann’s organization “placed” roughly 5,000 children with wealthy adoptive parents who were happy to pay her placement fees, and had no idea that the child they were now raising had been taken by force or coercion from their birth parents. Nor were they likely to find out. Tann was insistent that it was best for everyone involved if birth records were sealed — even from the adoptees themselves.
In 1928, she started having the Tennessee Department of Vital Statistics issue falsified birth certificates for her children, listing their adoptive parents as their birth parents.
“She had to make it secretive,” Raymond said, “because she did not want these birth parents to find their children or the children to find their birth parents.”
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Tann’s reach was broad. She placed children (for a fee) with Hollywood celebrities such as Joan Crawford, and powerful policy makers such as New York Governor Herbert Lehman. And she was an influential voice in the burgeoning field of adoption agencies — one magazine referred to her as “the foremost leading light in adoption laws.” As late as 1947 she was advising California legislators on adoption law.
Always, she advocated that adoption records be sealed. “She started talking about it at conferences, the fact that this was so much better for kids now that they wouldn’t have to even know they were adopted,” Raymond said. Tann was not the only voice in favor of this — legitimate adoption experts favored secrecy too, to protect the reputations of unwed mothers and their children, as well as the privacy of infertile couples who adopted them. There was also the argument that sealing records would keep remorseful birth parents from trying to regain their children.
In 1935, Governor Lehman signed a law sealing adoption records to adoptees in New York State. Other states followed. By 1948, most states issued amended birth certificates for adoptees, listing only the names of their adoptive parents. And in the postwar decades, many states moved to further obscure the origins of adopted children — sealing these records even to the children themselves.
“They did everything they could to make adoption invisible,” said Pertman.
“Sealed records along with revised birth certificates helped enforce the clean break with the birth family some felt necessary . . . in the creation of a new family,” wrote Janine M. Baer in “Growing in the Dark: Adoption Secrecy and Its Consequences.” They believed this would prevent adopted children from feeling torn between two families, protect the privacy of birth parents, and shield the adoptive parents from unwanted intrusions from their child’s biological family.
“It simplified a complex situation,” Baer wrote.
But for many families the experience of adoption remained complex, engendering a host of conflicting emotions.
“The belief was you could plop these kids down in a new family and they would be grafted on, with no difficulty whatsoever,” Glaser said. “And sometimes children who would not otherwise grow up with a home are raised by people and are loved by them [through adoption]. But there is loss. There is loss on every single side — the loss of a biological parent, the loss of a biological child, the loss of a couple struggling with infertility.”
Raymond, whose daughter was adopted, recalls watching an otherwise happy, popular child struggle with not knowing her origins. “She’d spend Saturday mornings sitting on the edge of bathtub and crying, and saying, ‘Why did she give me up, how do you know she loved me?’”
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Even as adoption records were being sealed during the middle of the 20th century, a counter-movement was growing. Jean Paton was an adoptee and social worker who was able to access her birth certificate and find her birth mother in the 1940s; in 1949, she proposed a “Mutual Registration” that would allow adoptees and birth parents to match and find each other.
She was flatly opposed to sealing or changing adoption records. (When a local newspaper proposed that a community “adopt” a bridge, she wrote wryly to the editor that since “any adoption is required by [state] statutes to wipe out the history of the adoptee . . . it would therefore be necessary for your office to remove from your files and place under lock and key any reference to this bridge, all photographs.”)
In 1953 she founded the first adoptee search organization, Orphan Voyage, and the next year published “The Adopted Break Silence,” a book of interviews of adult adoptees. Adoption historian E. Wayne Carp noted that the book was “notable for its complexity; the community of adoptees was revealed as a diverse one that did not speak with a single voice.”
Paton was before her time, but by the 1970s, adult adoptees — inspired by the identity movements of the 1960s — were forming organizations such as the Adoption Liberation Movement of America, which implemented Paton’s registry idea. Others adopted Paton’s slogan — “Bastards are Beautiful” — and pressed for open records. In the 1990s, a “second wave” of adoptee groups such as Bastard Nation took up the cause.
But they made little progress. “It didn’t go anywhere in 20 years,” said Pertman. In some cases, states refused to open birth records even when petitioned by adoptees who were searching for relatives because they needed organ donors. Only recently have states begun to reverse course; Massachusetts still doesn’t give all adoptees access to birth records.
But by now, it almost doesn’t matter.
Larkin, who started off as a genealogical hobbyist and now assists adoptees full-time, has her clients start by sending a sample of their DNA in to one of the commercial databases.
These databases act much like Paton’s registry: they show if anyone else in the database has DNA that matches the adoptee’s. When there’s a match, Larkin guides her clients through the genealogical detective work necessary to trace a family tree from, say, a fifth cousin to a parent or sibling.
But she proceeds with caution. “Don’t just contact them and say, ‘Hey, guess what, I’m your daughter,’” she advises her clients. “The approach I use is to lay out all of the evidence but not take that last step. I have a template letter where I block out what they can say: ‘Here’s my story, I was adopted,’ then kind of lay out what lead us to that person. But I always stop short of that final logical step.”
It allows a birth parent who doesn’t want contact to politely save face. “Sorry I can’t help you, good luck,” a birth parent wrote to one of Larkin’s clients.
“We suspended the search when that happened,” she said.
The search, and reunification, can be emotionally arduous. “It’s not all glorious,” said Pertman. “It’s complicated, because it’s human interactions.”
But he said that as DNA technology forces adoption to change, he hopes that what emerges will be more realistic, more honest and humane. There’s no reason, he said, why birth and adoptive families can’t interact the way in-laws or stepfamilies do.
“What we’re going to have is the growth of what we call the extended family of adoption,” he said. “If you marry someone, they don’t drop out of the sky — they come with a family. That’s the reality, and we all accept it.”
Gavin Kennedy, the Boston man who stumbled across his birth father on 23andMe, has had just such an experience. Kennedy was stunned, but when he made contact, his birth father told him he’d been searching for him. “He was just a cool understanding guy and he seemed so happy about this happening.”
“So there’s this whole family now, and everyone had been really great about it,” Kennedy said. “It’s not like this shameful thing; they were like, ‘Do you know how long we’ve been waiting to meet you?’
At his half-sister’s wedding, he said, they asked him to arrive early.
They wanted him to be part of the family photos.
Correction: A previous version of this article misrepresented the views of journalist Gabrielle Glaser. Glaser believes that despite advances in DNA genealogy, access to adoption records remain vital to adoptees searching for birth families.