Case of Ethics: Finding Birth Relatives
Grace Elting Castle, CLI
Editor, PI Magazine
if I were the person you're looking for, I would not want to
have contact with someone who said they were my child. That happened
a long time ago, and, hypothetically, I would probably have another
Now what? As an investigator
hired to find the birth mother of your client, how would you
respond? What would you tell the client? Does the client have
to pay you for your investigation if you find the birth mother
but don't turn over the contact information? Do you pretend that
you couldn't find her, or do you tell the client the truth? What
if your client is actually the attorney of the person
searching for the birth mother? Are you compelled to provide
the information to the attorney, so that the ultimate decision
regarding disclosure lies with him or her? What are the ethical
considerations when we agree to do a birth relative search?
The secret to successful birth
parent or child location investigations lies in the work that
is done prior to beginning the actual search. There are
ethical considerations here that do not necessarily exist in
other investigation work. There is a certain amount of "backbone"
required that you may not ever have to display in any other instance.
An investigator must think of the client first, the fee second.
All the important decisions must be made prior to accepting the
There are no easy answers to
ethical questions. While this article will encourage professional
investigators to abstain from providing information when the
located birth relative declines contact, at least one seasoned
investigator completely disagrees with that advice, noting that
he does not have any requirements for "right of refusal
of contact" for birth parents. He says he always provides
the locate information to any adoptee who desires it.1
Genealogists and family history
researchers have long struggled with restricted records access,
outdated laws, and the secrecy surrounding adoptions, foster
and "throwaway"children. Often there seemed to be no
starting point, and even when one was found, the access doors
in the nation's courthouses, and agencies, were firmly closed,
and securely locked. Gradually, through pressure brought by investigators
and researchers, as well as by the adoptees themselves, the rules
began to change.
a nationally-recognized missing persons investigator, writing
about her battle to get the access laws changed in her home state
of Tennessee, said, "Once I studied, researched, and documented
whatever I could find, I was convinced that I knew as much about
adoption as anyone in the legislature, so in 1989 I became a
registered lobbyist and visited 140 elected officials, one at
time. I wrote a new law to show them how I thought it should
be. Then I provided the medical studies and other information
which they could not argue with"
Norma's law passed, and Tennessee
later followed it with legislation that allows all persons involved
in a Tennessee adoption to ask the state for the identifying
information so vital to these searches.
Others were instituting their own legislative fights across the
nation. Today most states have begun to loosen their previously
stringent access restrictions, with some even offering assistance
to adoptees searching for their birth parents. Many states now
have specific programs for certifying searchers as "Confidential
Intermediaries." These intermediaries have strict confidentiality
rules, initial basic training requirements, and mandated continuing
This program, quickly spreading
across the nation as word of its success became known, raised
an important question of ethics for investigators: Should investigators,
whether calling ourselves "private investigators,"
"staff investigators," "legal investigators,"
or "professional investigators," be doing birth relative
searches in states where specific certification programs have
been established, if we do not hold that certification?
Like most questions about ethics,
this one seems to have no ready answer. Each investigator will
make the decision based on personal standards, as well as on
the licensing regulations of the state in which he or she is
Determining what to tell the
client about the availability of the intermediaries should also
enter into the decision-making process. Is it ethical to withhold
such information from a client? Is it legal to do so? Don't forget
to check whether your state's "Confidential Intermediary"
law prohibits you from doing these investigations without proper
Your license to investigate may not be enough.
The "How-To" of
Birth Relative Adoption Searches
This article is not designed to be a primer on conducting these
investigations, but rather it is meant to instill questions in
an investigator's mind about the legality of accepting a client
under the laws of the state(s) in which he or she is licensed,
to encourage research into the educational materials available,
especially on the Internet, and to encourage consideration of
the ethical questions surrounding these assignments. There are
Internet websites listed at the conclusion of the article that
will provide valuable information. Although written primarily
for the birth relative searcher, professional investigators can
learn from them, as well.
If you, as an investigator
learn nothing else from this article, please know that with these
assignments, you now have the awesome ability to change forever
the lives of not only the person whom you will initially locate,
but the lives of everyone to whom that person is related, or
with whom he or she is emotionally connected.
I had completed numerous birth
relative investigations before the significance of this became
clear to me. Ironically, it was not through my own investigation
work, but through that of an (at that time) unknown sister who
was doing her own birth relative search, looking for ME, and
for our mutual siblings! With one phone call to our youngest
brother, whom she had found by patiently calling people with
the birth name she had discovered, and his one phone call to
each of his other siblings, the lives of several hundred other
relatives were dramatically affected! We hadn't known she existed,
but we, did, indeed share the same father. Fortunately, it was
a positive experience, but had it occurred a few months earlier,
when our unsuspecting mother was still living, the possibility
of an entirely different impact was evident to each of us.
There seem to be an inordinately
large number of professional investigators who are adopted persons,
and many of them have sad tales to tell of the inadvertent way
they discovered this fact. If you are one of them, you will personally
recognize the importance of the way that birth relatives are
informed or questioned. If not, this short discussion should
prompt you to consider the impact of your demeanor and actions.
The following compilation of
advice from the writer's own experience, as well as comments
compiled from other investigators, will be useful in your work
with locating birth relatives:
- Keep in mind, always, that
the work that an investigator does on these cases can change
the lives of dozens of people in a single phone call, or rap
on a door! Be compassionate. Be careful.
- Spend enough time with your
client, the "searcher," to understand his or her reasons
for wanting this information. Is there an actual need or desire
for contact with the birth relative, or is medical information
critically needed? Have the needs and desires of the family members
of the searcher been considered? What will be their reaction
to the "news," and how will that affect your client?
Is your client prepared for rejection? Is someone else pushing
your client into searching? Be alert to the possibility of extortion
plans, or danger to the person you are being asked to locate.
- Consider whether or not the
searcher has the emotional and mental stability to handle devastating
news. If you suspect not, then you might want to consider declining
the assignment. (Keep in mind that "devastating news"
may include that the birth relative does not want to have any
contact). Perhaps you can give the searcher information about
a support group instead.
- Remember, this is an investigation
task for which YOU, the investigator, must make the rules of
acceptance of the assignment. Even if you have never told a client
(especially attorney-clients) what you will and will not do,
you must be able to do so for this type of case! For instance,
if your client is an attorney representing an adoptee searching
for his birth mother, and you have agreed to find her, you must
have a contract with the attorney and his client (get BOTH signatures)
specifying that if the person refuses contact, you will NOT provide
the contact information to the client(s).
- Be certain that your contract
specifies, and your client(s) understand, that you are being
paid to investigate. State specifically in the written contract
that they are not paying for results, nor is your pay contingent
on giving them location information, if the birth relative requests
anonymity. (Usually in these instances, it is more that the birth
relative demands anonymity. You won't want to be in the position
of violating someone's requested privacy).
- Make sure that your client,
whether the actual person seeking information, or an attorney
representing that person, signs a contract that clearly delineates
that you (your firm) will conduct the investigation, but that
you will not release the name and identifiers of any person who
does not wish to have contact.
- Determine in advance whether
or not the client expects a detailed, written report of the results
of your investigation, if the found person wants contact. Specify
your agreement in the contract!
- Know the adoption and search-related
laws of the states in which you will conduct the investigation.
Some states, such as Oregon, now allow an adopted adult to have
access to the original birth certificate, but that state also
has a law that allows birth parents to file a form stating they
do not wish contact!
- If the case you have accepted
involves someone of possible Native American heritage, be sure
you review and understand the Indian Child Welfare Act.5
Find out which tribe your adoptee is believed to be from, and
research the tribal policies on adoption-related issues, including
tribal membership definitions.
- Once you have found the birth
relative, spend enough time evaluating the your information to
determine the best approach. Again, keep in mind that you have
the awesome ability of changing forever the lives of not only
the person to whom you will initially speak, but also everyone
to whom that person is related, or with whom he or she is emotionally
- Making the contact: Rehearse
the approach you have decided upon. Be prepared for the response.
This is the most important part of your investigation. Make the
wrong move here and you can destroy lives! Rehearse several responses.
Cover the possibilities and feel comfortable with the response
you will have for whatever the person says, but know that you
may not have anticipated the actual response!
I had no idea that the birth
mother quoted in the beginning of this article would begin talking
in "hypotheticals" when I found her. I had to quickly
revert to asking her "hypothetical" questions. While
adamantly proclaiming that she would never want to have contact
because of her hypothetical new life and family, she never admitted
anything, but answered the questions in such a way that I had
no doubt of her identity. I could do nothing more than to provide
my phone number to her.
Some Helpful Resources
(Detailed information on conducting birth relative/adoption searches.
An interesting comment found on this site is that a PI is usually
less expensive to use than an Independent Search Consultant (ISC),
who may charge up to $3,000. The ISC is described here as "the
best searchers money can buy.")
(This group fights for adoptee rights, and is currently fighting
against the legalized baby dumping bills that are being passed
in most states.)
(Detailed information for each state, in addition to comprehensive
educational and informational pages)
(Registration and educational site)
(Educational information in a quick and easy format)
Heritage Quest magazine. Regular column by Darlene Wilson, registered
Confidential Intermediary in Washington (state). Published every
other month. Website: www.HeritageQuest.com
1 6/14/00 E-mail message.
2 Tillman, Norma "Adoption Searches: Lessons
Learned the Hard Way" PI Magazine, Summer, 1999
3 For updated information on state adoption laws,
4 For a listing of the "Confidential Intermediaries"
programs in all states, see http://www.http://www.calib.com.naic/laws/index/htm
(National Indian Child Welfare Association, Portland, OR. Information
(Published in the August 2002
issue of PI Magazine)
© 2002 Grace Elting Castle