8 Things to Know Before Starting a Birth Family Search

Adoptees and families share with us a wide variety of connections they hope to make when preparing for a heritage journey. Wish lists include visiting a hotel that was “home” years ago, reconnecting with a foster mother or other caregivers, connecting with a driver, and, for some, meeting members of their birth family.

Initiating a birth family search is an extremely individual decision and should be considered within the unique needs and experiences of each adoptee and their family. 

A birth search is not an event as much as it is a journey – and one that isn’t clearly mapped. While you might have an idea of where you want to go (learning more about a birth family) the actual destination is unknown (information may or may not be found; it may or may not be what one thought it was going to be). If the journey’s path results in meeting birth family, the journey does not end there. Rather a door is opened as a reunion marks a change in the relationship. 

Thinking through these challenges before you begin the search journey helps in deciding if the adoptee is ready to continue or if more time is needed.

#1: The Role of Adoptive Parents: Adoptive parents overwhelmingly recognize the desire to search and its importance to adoptees. There are, however, differing opinions within the adoption community, and especially amongst adoptees, on whether or not parents should play a role in their children’s searches, and if so, what that role should be. It is important that adoptees are in the lead in choosing to search. If an adoptee says they aren’t ready or don’t want to search, adoptive parents should respect this desire.

#2: Prepare for the Journey: In choosing to search, one needs to prepare for all possible outcomes, both positive and negative. If a search is unsuccessful, managing the disappointments in the search experience is often significantly emotionally challenging for adoptees and their families.

There are several non threatening ways to prepare for the many variables involved in search and reunion like reading, watching reunion videos on YouTube, and even watching movies (like Netflix’s Found).

It is important to have ongoing, open discussions as you embark into the unknown. These frequent and sometimes painful conversations are an integral part of this journey. If an adoptee is unable or unwilling to have these kinds of discussions, they may not be ready to search. On the other hand, sometimes a need or desire for more information is misinterpreted as the desire for a reunion. 

If you pursue a birth family search, make sure adoptees in particular, but also parents/family have a safe space to talk through their thoughts about the process and any results. This might be an adoption-competent therapist (who will likely have experience in birth family connections and the complex emotions resulting), a school counselor, or a good group of friends. A new life chapter is being opened and the lack of control over the process and outcome can be frustrating and confusing at times. Having the insights and objectivity of an additional support person can be a great way to handle the stress.

#3: Intercountry Adoptions in Context: We would like to assume that in the history of intercountry adoptions everyone was always acting in good faith and with the highest of morals. That being said, there is evidence in almost every country that some trafficking, fraud, negligent, and bad faith adoptions occurred. It can be hard to distinguish what an unethical adoption looks like and; what the motivations were involved in placing a child. There are many places in an adoption process where one person (a birth mother, a lawyer, a judge, a paper work shuffler at a government office, an adoption agency rep, etc.) can make one small decision (or a typo!) that can turn an adoption done in good faith to something that is more challenging to process. It takes a careful eye and understanding of not only an individual’s paperwork, adoption story, and wider country’s history of adoption to say with any certainty that a particular adoptee’s story includes any of those circumstances. Given all of this, it’s important for families to consider that both a deadend and discovery of a fraudulent adoption are possible outcomes when searching. It can be challenging, deeply painful, and bewildering if one learns, or suspects, their adoption is fraudulent. We strongly encourage adoptees and their loved ones seek emotional support if they have concerns about their adoption process. 

#4: The search process is different in every country: The process of searching is as varied as the countries adoptees are from and their stories. In some countries, searches are conducted by government bodies (like a child welfare department), others government entities will assist on a part of the process (like DNA testing at a police station). Still in other countries searchers are conducted by specialized independent contractors who work for themselves. How searches are conducted in a country changes over time, so it’s important to make sure you have the most accurate and up-to-date information.

#5: Considering the Birth Family’s Perspective: Birth mothers come from a range of backgrounds. The vast majority of birth mother’s do not make the decision to place a child for adoption lightly. Some have hidden their pregnancy and subsequent adoption from people who are important to them. This may include both family members and friends who were in their lives during the time of the pregnancy and adoption, as well as those that have come into their lives since (like a new husband and additional children). Sometimes it’s a hidden secret she keeps close to her heart – wondering and worrying about her child every day alone. For these reasons, searchers are cautious and careful when connecting with birth mothers. Upon being found, birth mothers share a range of emotions – surprise, fear, joy, shame, and guilt are just a few of them. Birth mothers have many considerations when deciding if they are ready to meet. Some of these are emotional – is she prepared to face her emotions directly? Is she going to be able to say goodbye again? Should she reveal to loved ones her long held secret? How will they react? Others are logistical – Can she take the time away from work and her household duties for the reconnection visit? Some birth mothers, and, sometimes, other family members, are ready and excited to meet. Others take more time. It’s important to remember that it is also her choice to meet with you. Just like adoptees, birth mothers have wondered and worried about the children they’ve placed for adoption AND have lived their lives day-in and day-out since the placement. All this being said, the vast majority of birth family and adoptee reconnections we’ve witnessed have been a positive experience for all involved. A reminder, it’s important to not make assumptions about the circumstances of a birth mother/family and any resulting emotions they may have. The circumstances in your birth mother/family might look very different than above. The above are simply the themes and situations we’ve encountered over the last 30 years.

#6: Searching and Heritage Journeys: Searching at any point in an adoptee’s life can be an important step for that adoptee. However, we’ve found that searching in the year or so prior to a heritage journey is often the most beneficial. Doing so provides space for an adoptee and their birth family to reconnect while in-country (if a search is successful) and, if  a search is not successful, it provides other ways for an adoptee to reconnect with their land, culture, and heritage of birth outside of the search process. When traveling with a group on a heritage journey, adoptees naturally share and discuss their experiences in search and reunion, both successful and unsuccessful. This normalizes their experience and provides a supportive environment for adoptees to share in a community of their peers. 

#7: The Reunion Itself—What’s It Like?: Meeting people and visiting places related to your adoption varies greatly. We generally recommend that first reconnection visits occur in a “neutral” place, rather than the birth family’s home or community, as it protects the birth family, the adoptee, and the adoptive family. Having a reconnection visit in the first days of a trip allows for the natural anxiety prior to the meeting to dissipate, helps adoptees have a richer experience in their country and culture of birth, and allow for additional reconnection visits (if it’s agreed upon by all parties and there is time in the schedule).  Here are some things to consider, visualize, and talk about as a family.

  • Most discussion is done via a translator, which has pros and cons:
    • The pros: translation slows conversation, giving you a chance to think. Having a translator typically helps with cultural differences and logistical issues.
    • The cons: the translator may not translate everything, or may not translate the intended emotion.
  • Some people you meet can be very emotional, and may want to stroke an adoptee’s hair or hold their hand, can be tearful, or tearfully joyous.
  • Some people you meet are the exact opposite—and not always because they are not feeling emotion, but because they believe strong emotions would be too difficult for the adoptee. Or, they may feel they need to be emotionally strong for their other children or family members meeting with your family.
  • Some adoptees feel very connected, almost on a surreal level. Others feel very disconnected, and this disconnect is conflicting or confusing for them.
  • Sometimes planned meetings do not happen—someone gets sick, or is unavailable at the last minute. It is important to stress there are times when plans do not come to fruition, but we’re all making the best effort possible.
  • Most times, reunions are planned in advance, but sometimes, once you are in-country, opportunities arise, creating a mix of complicated emotions.

#8: Remember it’s a Journey: After a reconnection sometimes some members (adoptees, birth family, adoptive family) may want to continue communication while others do not. And when that desire is not fulfilled, it can be devastating to individuals in the reconnection. Preparing yourself for a relationship to expand past a reconnection visit, go quiet for a period of time, and/or, potentially end with one visit is essential, even if it is hard to contemplate.

Initiating a birth family search is a profound and sometimes fraught experience and not one that should be made lightly. No matter the choices adoptees make about searching, our team of experts in the field are there to walk alongside adoptees who travel with us during their heritage journey.

If you have any questions, we’re happy to help! You can contact us at info@adoptivefamilytravel.com

Happy 2024!

It’s been six months since my husband and I took the helm of Adoptive Family Travel by the Ties Program, and what an amazing journey thus far. Everyday my work enables me to help families and friends touched by adoption. And in the process, I continue to learn.

Returning to Korea:


In 1999, I returned to Korea for the first time. The numbers of adoptees returning to Korea were starting to increase and organizations to help adoptees were budding. I was one of the early members of GOA’L (Global Overseas Adoptee Link) and celebrated when GOA’L became a recognized non-profit organization in South Korea. I also was there for the beginning days of InKAS (International Korean Adoptee Service). While I had membership to these organizations, I didn’t understand the importance of utilizing them while living abroad. Thus, even though I knew a handful of adoptees, most of my days were filled with teaching English at Hong-Ik University and hanging out with friends who grew up in Korea.

Living abroad on my own in a country where I looked like everyone but didn’t speak the language was emotionally confusing. I was finally in a place where I “looked” like I belonged. Like many intercountry transracial adoptees, I grew up surrounded by whiteness. Family, school, community, and the media reminded me of how different I was from my family, community, and country. But at least I could communicate and understand the culture of my small Northeastern town in Connecticut.

And so, a breath of fresh air, I finally looked like everyone. Yet because of the language and cultural barrier, I was still “othered.” In Korea, being adopted came with an attached social stigma. I dreamed of finally fitting in and naively told myself that would happen once I arrived (alone) in Korea. Looking back, I grieved at the realization that I hadn’t fit in, and moreover, hadn’t understood the power of interacting with other adoptees while in Korea. 

When I returned to Korea in 2006 and 2009, I spent more time with other adoptees either conducting research or socializing. Unlike my time living there in 1999, I understood first hand how being in a group of other intercountry adoptees freed me from the confines of being “othered.” Yes, we adoptees may have had different socio-economic childhoods, religious backgrounds, and experienced different family dynamics. But we all maintained a qualitatively similar experience, where the initial origins of our adoptee membership were based on loss and immigration on one side and love and choice on the other. 

What’s to Come:
Each month, I and our team look forward to sharing our thoughts on intercountry adoption, homeland trips, identity formation, adoptee loyalty, and race. We also will provide free workshops throughout the year. Finally, for those that would like more research-based knowledge, I’ll sprinkle in academic information along the way.

Thanks for joining me in this new chapter of my journey. Here’s to 2024!

Warmly,
Tanya

Adoptive Family Travel is now Adoptee Owned!

Exciting things are happening at The Ties Program. For 30 years, we have strived to take international adoptees and their families on extraordinary birth country experiences. We have loved every minute of it. The families we have served, our in-house and adjunct travel staff, and the in-country partners we have worked with have brought us joy beyond measure.

After a 3 year shutdown due to Covid, we are thrilled to have reopened Korean Ties and Guatemalan Ties in 2023. In 2024 programs in Kazakhstan, Paraguay, China, Vietnam, India, and maybe Cambodia will reopen!  

As 2024 approaches, LOTS has changed in the world of international adoption. One of the most exciting changes is that in big numbers, international adoptees are heading into and living their adult lives. MANY of them have achieved extraordinary goals.

Some of them have developed skill sets that make them ideal to be part of our Adoptive Family Travel Adjunct Travel Staff (and many of those are “Ties kids” who traveled with Ties when they were younger and are now back staffing with us.) At this point, about 70 percent of our adjunct travel staff are international adoptees! Wow, we love the sound of that!

And then there’s this

THE TIES PROGRAM IS NOW ADOPTEE-OWNED AND OPERATED!!!

One truly exceptional Korean adoptee who has been part of the Ties adjunct travel staff for several years is Dr. Tanya Kaanta. Her program management skill set is top notch and she approaches life from her heart. She has an exceptional understanding of and compassion for the Ties mission, which she is excited to carry forward.

We are beyond blessed and proud to announce that Tanya will take the reins of The Ties Program effective August 2, 2023. Her husband Ben will be enthusiastically by her side. Becca and Bea will continue to be on the team as the Kaanta’s transition into their new roles. Our fabulous program managers Sarah Kurtzahn and Rebecca Blessing will continue on with Tanya and Ben making the transition especially smooth. 

A bit more about Tanya and Ben

Tanya is not new to our adoption world. Chances are many of you know her. She is an adult adoptee from South Korea, adopted in 1975. She has spoken at several adoption camps where her depth of knowledge and vibrant nature connect her easily with people. She has a PhD in Sociology with a focus on Intercountry Adoption, Identity, Emotion Work, and Advocacy.

An engineer by degree, Ben has been in several chief-level leadership positions throughout his 20+ year business career. He has certifications in project management and coaching. Tanya and Ben are avid travelers and the parents to two teenage children, Bode and Suvi. Adoption has been a very core element of their relationship and their family.

These are dedicated, knowledgeable, fun, down-to-earth people. We know you will love them and will be well served. 

As we collectively transition our roles, Tanya and Ben are committed to nourishing the culture and upholding the values and mission we have been so blessed to create, experience, and share with you throughout these past 30 years. Moreover, we are excited to work with Tanya and Ben in a creative role as we begin integrating new ideas to meet the changing demographic of our adoptive families.

Tanya has added a “Welcome Note” on our website. Check it out.

Our Summer 2024 programs will begin launching soon. Please watch your email, our website, and our social media for registration openings. 

Thank you for all the trust and support you have shown us over the years. We are excited about this transition and look forward to writing this next chapter of The Ties Program with Tanya and Ben and all of you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions

With gratitude,

Becca Piper and Bea Evans
Founder and Immediate Past Co-Directors

Contact Information:       

Tanya@AdoptiveFamilyTravel.com

Ben@AdoptiveFamilyTravel.com 

Becca@AdoptiveFamilyTravel.com

Bea@AdoptiveFamilyTravel.com 

How to Talk with Adoptees about the Crisis in Ukraine

By Terry Mandeville

The following is information complied by Terry Mandeville, group admin for the FRUA Facebook Group.  (Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption Incl Neighboring Countries).

How do we talk with our kids about the crisis in Ukraine? You may not want to wait until the child asks a question, because some children worry, without being able to ask or talk about it. Depending upon the behavior you observe, you might be the one to raise the topic.

Your questions of them, and your answers, should be age appropriate. A six-year-old doesn’t need a long explanation about sovereign borders; they might only need to be reassured that America will not be invaded, or that organizations are trying to keep their birth family safe.

First, be aware and acknowledge your own emotions on the subject. Children of all ages pick up on this and may be responding accordingly. Whenever possible it seems to work best to listen to your child before talking to him/her. An open-ended question allows the child to take the lead and address the areas that worry her/him the most, such as “What do you think about what has been going on in Ukraine?”

There are also many children’s books that may be a good way to start off a conversation. Boris Gindis, Ph.D. suggests that our responses should depend upon the child’s age, his/her association with a country (Russia or Ukraine), and the degree of personal significance of this issue.

For younger children (up to the age of 7) Dr. Gindis suggests that “it could be explained as a ‘quarrel between two countries as it happens in a family sometimes’”. For pre-adolescents, he believes, “it depends on their degree of involvement; it could be a brief formal remark that it is all politics, and because of turmoil in Ukraine the Russian government took away some land from Ukraine. Try to convey that this was government, not people, who did this”.

And with the older children – adolescent and young adults, “You have to share your own views on this situation and sincerely express your feelings and ask them about theirs”.

Deborah D. Gray, MSW, Nurturing Attachments Therapist, and author of Attaching Through Love, Hugs and Play; Simple Strategies to Help Build Connections with Your Child, Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents and Nurturing Adoptions: Creating Resilience After Neglect and Trauma, suggests a guided discussion with kids along these lines: “What do you do if you have two friends, from two different soccer teams, who are arguing? Suppose they are arguing over one of the fields. One of the teams is signed up, but the other team gets on the field and will not leave. Do you have to take sides? Suppose you and the rest of your friends used to play on one team or the other but are on a new team now. Should you split your team up, taking sides, depending on the team you used to play on? Or, would it be better to keep your team strong?

This is a little bit like the current problem between Russia and the Ukraine. Some of the kids from FRUA are from Ukraine, some from Russia. Do you have to take sides? Or, would it be better to enjoy being of the US/FRUA team and keep a good relationship with everybody?

There are many points of view over the Crimea Region. Maybe you would like to study the situation, forming an opinion. But no matter what opinion you form, you can still respect the culture of both countries and enjoy your friends in FRUA”

Depending upon the age of your child, many questions may enter her mind, which she/he may become anxious about, but may not voice. These unasked questions may relate to identity, to safety for her/himself and others he/she vaguely remembers or include the broad question of why people or countries fight.

Even though this conflict is very scary to hear about, reassure your child that they are safe. Start with the barebones basics. That may be all they need or want, or they may ask follow-up questions. Normalize and validate fears and emotion. Giving kids permission to feel a certain way is the first step to them expressing what’s going on.

Share information about the war. Some examples of things one might choose to say to our children about the crisis in Ukraine. Showing your child a world map and teaching them facts about Ukraine and Russia and their cultures can demystify the event. You can talk about the history of each country and a summary of the conflict. You might start by asking “Tell me what you know about ‘war’?” … and go from there. If they ask questions that you do not know the answers to, you can look up it up together.

“There are some soldiers who are going into Ukraine without permission and a lot of people around the world are upset about it. This is happening far away, so we are safe here, but that doesn’t stop us from worrying.” “The representatives of many countries are talking with one another and trying to find a peaceful way to settle these issues. We do not yet know what will happen.” “We do not always have the answers. I understand that not knowing what might happen can be scary. Whatever happens, I am always here for you. You can always come to me and ask questions, which I will do my best to answer honestly. You can always tell me if you are sad or scared and we will talk about it.”

“Feelings of confusion, anger and sadness are emotions that we all experience from time to time. It might be helpful for you to share these feelings with me.” “This may be a good time to learn more about geography. Ask to see an Atlas. This is where you can learn about maps & about why the borders of countries change. See if you can see why some countries are invaded, which have natural protections, which countries have started wars, which have been conquered time after time, & why this might be so.

Geography is closely related to the world’s history.” Ukraine shares a long and complicated history with Russia. Explaining this can be convoluted and confusing. Facts to cover might include:

  • The Crimea & Eastern Ukraine have a long history that is intertwined with Russia’s.
  • Western Ukraine’s culture & history is more aligned with the other countries of Eastern Europe.
  • The territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia remains very complicated. Which portions of Ukraine may become part of Russia is unknown.

Adoptees may wonder if they will ever be able to visit their homelands. Although the present time might not be a good time to go to the area, we can reassure our children that we hope this will change soon. If in the USA, your family should check the U.S. State Department websites for alerts related to adoption and travel, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Children’s Issues and the Department of Immigration, as they are in the best position to determine these answers.

Children who were adopted from neighboring countries may wonder if this affects their homelands and/or birth family. At this time there is no indication of any difficulties with other countries related to this problem between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. Again, your family should always check the State Department website for alerts related to adoption and travel.

Children who were adopted from Ukraine or Russia may wonder if they will be drafted into the military to fight. A young man or woman having citizenship and residing permanently in one country cannot be drafted into the military by another country, even if they have dual citizenship The latest information that we have gathered is that young men who were adopted from Ukraine or Russia and live in another country cannot serve in the Ukrainian army because they became permanent residents of another country as minors.

The rule in Russia has heretofore been that Russian citizens who are residents of another country are not “entitled” to serve in the Russian military either. However, it is important to keep abreast of the news; during times of war the rules can change suddenly.

Examples of statements to help our children who were adopted from Russia deal with being teased about being Russian?

  • “Your ethnic heritage, and your birth country, are a part of you, but it does not make you who you are.
  • People of any specific heritage are never “bad” because of their ancestry or heritage.
  • The decisions that any country’s government makes, good or bad, do not in any way reflect the character of the people who claim heritage from that country.”
  • “You are an American citizen who happens to have been born in Russia. Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, who were born somewhere else, what you make of yourself is up to you.”
  • “The people who call themselves United States citizens, and you are one, have come from every country of the world over the course of over 230 years of existence, and before that as well. Every American’s family history came from somewhere else too, even the Native Americans. You are just a more recent immigrant.”
  • “You may wish to ask your parents or your teacher for help.” “You could turn the question around and ask your classmates if they know from what countries their families originally came. In fact, this could be a good class assignment, to help students understand the diversity that has made our country what it is.”
  • “Your ethnic heritage, and your birth country are a part of you, but it does not account for all of who you are. History tells us that the names and the borders of countries change greatly over decades, or centuries, or over hundreds of years. Our current era is no exception, and the fact that you are an American citizen is a direct result of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
  • “Many adoptees have questions and confusion related to their own identity, especially as it relates to their birth heritage. This situation between Russia and Ukraine can stir up these feelings. It may be helpful to discuss these issues with your family therapist, spiritual advisor, or school counselor. Being able to talk freely about how you feel can help you to work through the issues, see things clearly and grow. It is important for you to feel understood and supported,”

Examples of statements to help our children deal with fears and concern for birth family in Ukraine and/or Russia.

Whether or not your child ever knew her birth family, and depending upon the age of your child, he/she may worry for the safety of people he/she has only heard about as a part of her life story.

  • “Not knowing can be very scary. This is a difficult time for the people in Ukraine and Russia. War is not good for children, or for anyone else for that matter. Many families are moving to areas far away from the conflict to stay safe. For the people who cannot leave there are several organizations and charities that are in the area helping to keep them safe.”
  •  

Examples of statements to help our children deal with fears and concern for the “orphanages” in Ukraine.

  • “It has been difficult to get specific information about what is happening in each “orphanage” but several organizations are involved in keeping the children safe. They are finding spaces for the children away from the conflict.”
  • Find ways to take action Parents can find ways for kids to be helpers during a crisis by donating to humanitarian or child-serving causes that help those who are impacted. This can give kids a sense of control and contribution and can lessen anxiety.
  • Manage news and media Kids are sponges. Many times they cannot differentiate between fact and opinion as they are blasted from all sides by social media, TV, radio. Turn off the devices, or limit time. When your children are exposed the news, listen with them – encourage questions and talk about their feelings.

What signs should I look for that this is bothering my child?

  • Look for behavior that is outside of your child’s normal range. A child may exhibit greater than normal signs of anxiety, an inability to settle down to sleep, or to lessons, or suddenly not be able to play calmly with friends.
  • The child’s eating habits might change, she/he might become more withdrawn, or a normally calm child may suddenly become more agitated, pick fights with others, or exhibit self-harming behavior.
  • Be on the look-out for signs that a child might be being teased or bullied by other students about their ethnicity or being either Russian or Ukrainian. These can come up even if your child is from another country, like Bulgaria! A child might not even realize that he/she should tell someone about this.
  • Older children are going to be exposed to information about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia on the Internet or television. Developmental specialists suggest that adults sit down and watch the news with these children so that they can then discuss what is happening and what it means.

RESOURCES

How to Talk to Kids and Teens About the Crisis in Ukraine

Student Discussion Guide: Crisis in Ukraine

How to Talk to Your Kids About the Crisis Unfolding in Ukraine

How you can talk to your kids about the crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine conflict: How to help yourself, your kids, and others