For Better or Worse, the Internet Is Making Adoptions Less Secret

Does the Internet and social media pose special issues for the world of adoption? It's undecided.

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Jul 16 2013, 5:15pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons

The collision between adoption and the Internet is complex. While adoption as an institution has been historically shrouded in secrecy, the Internet is all about openness and accessibility, whether we like it or not. So what happens as the two collide, and how does it affect those who are searching for identity, for information, for family?

I was adopted in 1987 via a closed adoption. Shortly after the proceedings were finalized, my birth father requested a letter from my parents detailing my new life. Other than that, I have not heard from my birth family since. In fact, the only details I know about them fit on the back and front of a sheet of printer paper. I know he liked contact sports and she had blue eyes. I know that there is a history of heart disease and cancer written into my genes. But beyond that, my birth parents are ghosts. And I’m totally okay with that.

But plenty of adoptees are not. Many across the globe want to know where they came from and want to meet the people whose genetic material they share. Fortunately for them, the Internet in its infinite capacities can facilitate that search, and do so much quicker than traditional routes. Unfortunately, little is known about how easier methods of tracing ancestry and tracking down long-lost birth parents affect the institution of adoption as a whole.

In late 2012, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute released what may be the first research report on the effects of the Internet on adoption. The report, called “Untangling the Web,” argues that closed adoption, like the one I had, is a thing of the past. Many laws that restrict access to information, including original birth certificates, have been obviated by the searching capabilities of the Internet. Traditionally, an adoption agency or an adoptive family could be a gatekeeper between a child and the biological family, but now those powers have been stripped. Anyone with a Facebook account and some basic Google skills can find anyone else if they are determined enough.

The question then is whether or not the convergence of the Internet and adoption requires its own approach towards privacy. Is this situation unique enough from all other concerns to require its own toolbox?

Adam Pertman thinks so. As the executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute and the author of the book Adoption Nation, Pertman believes that more needs to be done to regulate the intersection of adoption and the Internet. To be clear, he believes that the move towards openness is a positive one. “People are entitled to know one another,” he said.

But he’s wary of the immediacy the Internet offers and the lack of preparation of those who embark on finding information and finding family. He notes that search before the Internet took time and time “forced people to think about what comes next.” Now, “you can press a button and, suddenly, you’re reunited with every birth family member in your life! And you’ve never thought about it for a second, other than to look up a name because you knew how.”

In one pretty high-profile case, Redditors helped an adopted child in Denver track down his birth parents.

There is tons of anecdotal evidence of people finding their biological families or their adopted children via social media, forums, or search engines. One man posted a picture of his biological family on Reddit, along with a small amount of relatively superficial information. The site’s users found his family the very same day. A birth mother found her sixteen-year-old biological son on Facebook and was able to reconnect after, well, a lifetime apart. We are fascinated by these stories because they epitomize the power of our virtual world: we can break down barriers and find people who were supposed to be securely hidden behind legal frameworks.

Like most things on the Internet and in life, this new capability is a mixed bag. On one hand, it has helped pushed the entire world of adoption towards more openness, which is seen as a boon for all those involved. Birth families, who are usually the most vulnerable in the process, are now being seen in a positive light as extended families, instead of not being seen at all. Free lines of communication between biological and adoptive families allow for questions to be asked and information to be shared. It can give an adoptee a more complete sense of who they are, normalizing the topic of adoption and decreasing the likelihood that their identity will become a source of friction.

On the other hand, search and potential reconnection has become such a speedy process that there may be little time for reflection. Lines may be crossed and respect may be violated. Birth parents who have moved on may not have told newer people in their lives about the child they gave up. Adoptees may not have room in their lives to accept a new nexus of relatives. While these issues have always been present, the haste with which Internet sleuthing operates means that toes can be stepped on much quicker.

In Pertman's mind, now that these issues have been raised, it is the duty of adoption agencies, legislative agencies, service providers, even Google and Microsoft to step in and regulate. “It’s sort of obvious once you hear it, that there’s reason for concern and reason to do something,” he said. Specific recommendations from his Institute’s report include instructing policy and law enforcement officials to monitor online adoption activity, encouraging social media and other Internet companies to re-examine relevant services, and repealing laws that restrict access to information since the Internet has circumvented their purpose.

Search and potential reconnection has become such a speedy process that there may be little time for reflection.

But not everyone agrees with the notion that adoption requires its own special rules. Rita Taddonio, director of the Adoption Resource Center at Spence-Chapin Adoption Services, the agency that facilitated my adoption, thinks that regulation is the wrong way to go. It's a truism for sure, but the Internet is kind of unstoppable.

“I don’t think it’s realistic frankly to say that you’re going to be able to regulate social media and the Internet,” she said. “If people are intent on finding somebody, they’re going to be able to find them. I tend to think that when we try and regulate something, people find ways around it—in history, throughout time, no matter what we’re talking about.”

Certainly, she agrees with the suggestion that laws need to be changed to allow for better accessibility to information, but ultimately, Taddonio believes that the best way to deal with these issues is by discussing the idea of adoption from the very beginning Then everything else, including the proper approach to utilizing the Internet for search purposes, will fall into place.

“Adoption is just another way of forming a family,” Taddonio said. “I just think the key thing for a relationship with a parent and a child is communication so that if they find somebody or if they’re found, they’re going to be talking to you about it.” For her, the Internet doesn’t pose any extraordinary issues, but is rather just one more factor that can be made a little less stressful through conversation and normalization.

So it seems that whether this confluence is its own beast is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is that adoption has changed profoundly over the last twenty years, at least partially in response to the Internet behemoth. Where we go from here is dependent on the individuals involved—biological families, adoptees, adoptive families, agencies, and so on—but it’s clear that honesty, accessibility, and general openness are here to stay.