From the Family Tree Forum Reference Library

History of The Act of Formal Adoption and The Law

Before 1976

Adoption was put on a formal footing in 1926, following the publication of the Adoption of Children Act.

Prior to this, adoptions were arranged by adoption societies and between private individuals. Some societies, one being the Church of England Children's Society, maintain records of adoptions that they arranged. Boards of Guardians also prepared reports but very few remain.

When the act was drafted it was assumed that the adopted person’s break with the birth family would be total and it was believed that the adopted person would never be able to trace their birth roots.

From 1927 adoptions had to be approved by magistrates meeting in a Petty Sessions Court and each court maintained a register. These registers are closed to public inspection for 75 years.

The registers contain:

  • The date, name of the child to be adopted, & the date of birth.
  • The name and address of the birth mother (and sometimes the father).
  • The name and address of the adoptive parents, and sometimes the name of the person acting as Guardian ad Litem, and the decision of the court.

The clerk to the Petty Sessions Court kept a file on each adoption and many have been destroyed. Some may be deposited at the NRO, but are not open to public inspection.

Later, local authorities were given authority to supervise adoptions and children's officers were appointed. These were sometimes attached to the Education Department (before the creation of Social Services departments in 1971), who again kept a register of all the cases with which they were involved. The registers are dated 1927-1945 and are a useful indication as to whether there are papers relating to the adoption in the Children's Officer's files. If the register indicates that the County Council acted as Guardian ad Litem, there should be relevant papers.

Children's Officer's files can be disappointing but should contain forms signed by the birth mother relinquishing her rights to the child. Sometimes there is correspondence from the local clergy as to the suitability of the prospective parents. Sometimes there will be a note about the birth mother and her circumstances and in some cases notes about the father too.

Registers of all adoptions are kept at the General Register Office and indexes to them can be accessed BUT only the adoptee is allowed access to the information that links the birth name with the adopted one.

Adoption Act 1976

The Adoption Act which came into being in 1976, changed things slightly. This made provision for people adopted after 11th November 1975 to have the right to access their birth records once they reached 18 years of age ( 16 in Scotland). It gave people adopted before that date the same right, but with the proviso that they must seek counselling first. The NRO will NOT release records to anyone without the appropriate official paperwork to say that this has been done.

Adoption and Children Act 2002

The Adoption and Children Act 2002, which came into force on 30 December 2005, brings the law on adoption up to date and puts the needs of the child above everything else. The changes in the law should improve the adoption service and help more people consider adoption.

What is Adoption?

Adoption is a way of providing a new family for a child when living with their own family is not possible. It is the means of giving a child an opportunity to start again.

An adoption order may not be made in relation to a person who has attained the age of 19 years. Should the child be married or has been married they cannot be adopted.

An Adoption Order severs all legal ties with the birth family and confers parental rights and responsibilities on the new adoptive family. The birth parents no longer have any legal rights over the child and they are not entitled to claim them back. The child becomes a full member of the family; they take the adoptive parents’ surname and assume the same rights and privileges as if they had been born to them, including the right of inheritance.

All adoption orders must be granted by the High Courts, County Courts or Juvenile Courts. They issue a directive to the Registrar General to make an entry in the adopted children’s register, according to the particulars of the adopted child and adoptive parents.

How Do You Know if You Are Adopted?

In recent times, given the changes in adoption law and current thinking, it is thought better that a child know they are adopted, than for them to 'find out' by some other means. Many, although not all, of today's adoptees maintain contact with their birth parents, although this is relatively new thinking.

Many people will no doubt go through life never even knowing they were adopted, No one has ever told them and they have never had a situation arise in which they have queried their parentage- it is a small minority though.

Most will know because their parents have told them, maybe just once and never spoke of it again, but nevertheless have told them.

Other parents will be open and honest and explain to the child what being adopted means, maybe starting at an early age, before the child even understands the complex meaning of what they are being told.

There is no rule. No-one has to tell their child they are adopted (although the child may not thank them should they ever discover!) and there is nothing to say that a child shouldn't be told, for whatever reason. A parent's ability to talk about their child's adoption in no way reflects on their love for the child - some can talk openly and honestly about adoption like many other things, others are just not as confident.

Maybe a good thing to note... When telling a child about their pre-adoption situation, many parents may not tell the whole truth. That is not to say they set out to lie or deceive, but simply that as parents, it is their job to protect and care for you and your feelings. No parent wants their child to be hurt, so maybe will not tell of things that they think will hurt or cause them distress. Don’t think any the less of them for this – it is because they love you.

Whose Search Is It?

It is the adoptee’s search, no one else’s and should be carried out at their pace.

Any adoptee that chooses to search needs to do so for themselves and with very good reason.

All sorts of things may be uncovered along the way that will raise emotional issues and thoughts. As each occurs they need to be thought through, and their implications on everyone, not just the adoptee, need close examination. What a well meaning friend thinks about something maybe completely different as to what you think. Gather opinion by all means, but ultimately regardless of what anyone else thinks, it is the adoptee’s feelings that matter most.

Two possible Scenarios (of hundreds!): You have your birth name, and your birth parents’ names on your original birth certificate and have started basic factual research. You find evidence to suggest that your birth mother went on and married.

  • Scenario One:

She married a man two years after you were born, and had children who consequently are your half siblings

  • Scenario Two:

She went on to marry your birth father two years after you were born and had children that are consequently your full siblings.

How does that make you feel? Scenario One evokes different feelings to Scenario Two. This needs to be thought through and will have implications on what you may or may not choose to do next, or even ever.

Where to start?

First Step

In order to start your search it is necessary to obtain a copy of your full original birth certificate.

  • If you know your birth name. Sending for an original birth cert is no more difficult than sending for any other certificate from the GRO. The cost is £11.00, and should be applied for using a GRO Reference Number. Should you be unable to look it up for yourself, be assured that there is nothing in the GRO index that indicates the person is adopted.

  • If you don’t know your birth name You will need to apply to the Registrar General for the information. If you were adopted before 12.11.1975 you are required to meet with an adoption counsellor prior to being given this information.

Counselling is arranged through the Office for National Statistics, or through local social services post adoption service. You should write to that office and they will send you an application form and information leaflets which should be carefully read and followed.

Counselling will be arranged at a time convenient to you, and at a location of your choosing, and will not happen overnight. Adoption records take time to source and post-adoption counselling is only a small part of what today’s adoption teams do.

If you know your birth name, it is still highly beneficial to have a session or even two with a post adoption counsellor. They don’t bite and have a wealth of knowledge and experience and will not be shocked by anything they hear, nor judge how you feel. They are there to hold your hand, let them hold it.

Could a friend do the job as well as a counsellor?

You may think so, but no, a friend can listen, and up to a point understand, but what they cannot do is feel impartial. You can pretty much say anything to a counsellor and they will understand, and have probably heard it before anyway. That counsellor will always be there for you, and far better, if you get to the point of contacting a birth parent, that they make that approach, than a well meaning friend.

Second Step

Write down everything you have been told about your birth and circumstances surrounding it.

If you have accessed your file through a counselling session, then you will have information that you can note down. If you haven't, maybe it is time to get that counselling arranged. An adoption file can contain a wealth of information or very little but it is all facts with which you can work. Ask for copies of documents to take away with you. You can re-read at your leisure, and take in facts that may have passed you by at the session.

It must be noted that not all files contain the absolute truth. What is recorded is what the agency or social worker involved was told at the time by the parties involved.

In the case of privately arranged adoptions, information maybe hard to find, although the local authority that covers the area of the court that made the adoption order should have records, if only brief. At the very least they will have overseen your welfare supervision, and may still have the records.

Third Step

Actively register your interest in the places that birth families may have registered their desire to establish contact - if this is what you seek to achieve.

Whatever form of trying to trace your birth family you choose to use, it is a good idea to register your 'desire to know' in the appropriate place i.e. places where birth families might also look for you.

1. There are various places that can help you by registering your interest, the GRO Adoption Contact Register possibly being the best.

Before 1991, the Registrar General operated a non-statutory system of record tagging, a kind of unofficial swap system, so that counsellors could be advised of enquiries made by birth family members about an adopted person, which can then be passed on at a counselling session.

Created in 1991, the Adopted Children Register exists to put adopted people and their birth relatives in touch with each other if that is what they both wish and a relative may have registered.

The Contact Register cannot help an adopted person to learn of the whereabouts of a birth relative or to know their birth relative’s wishes unless the relative has also chosen to be entered on the Contact Register. From 30 December 2005 applicants can record a wish for specific or no contact with a named individual.

The Adoption Contact Register is in two parts and there is a one-off registration fee per entry of £15 for Part 1 and £30 for Part 2.

Part 1 of the Contact Register is for adopted adults to record their wishes for contact or no contact with birth relatives.

Part 2 of the Contact Register is for birth relatives to record their wishes for contact or no contact with the adopted person. To apply, birth relatives must satisfy the General Register Office of their relationship to the adopted person.

2. NORCAP: offers adults affected by adoption practical help and support to locate and make contact with relatives lost through adoption. Membership is available through their website.The first year’s subscription includes a registration fee of £50. NORCAP: Supporting Adults Affected by Adoption

And also:

3. The society that arranged your adoption.

4. The Local Authority Adoption Section that arranged your adoption

Sarah's Story

A fictionalised account of an adoptee's search for her birth family.

Sarah's Story

Coping With The Hard Facts

Once you start searching you must prepare yourself for finding things that you may find unpleasant and well as positive things. Do try and prepare yourself for the worst care scenarios, then it can only be better. Its is possible, despite what you have been led to believe, that you may have been born as a result of rape, incest or that you were in fact a foundling. Maybe you were conceived as result of an extra marital affair or your birth mother was nothing more than a child herself. All these scenarios cause different emotions which should be thought through before proceeding and again, consideration given as to the likely outcome of a reunion with a mother who gave her child for adoption in one of those 'worst case ' scenarios.

Put yourself in that birth mother’s shoes and consider again how she might have felt both then and will feel now if you re-enter her world. Maybe it will make your ability to approach her easier or harder, but either way, at least you'll know.

Coping with finding a death of a birth parent, if your aim was to meet them, can be desperately hard, and of course, can be discussed with your counsellor. After a long slog, the finding of a death can close a journey so abruptly, so again examine how you'll feel if you happen across this.

Although It's My Search, Who Else Does It Affect?

As has been said, it is the adoptee's search and no one else's, although other people are involved to various degrees. Their thoughts and feelings may play a part in this search; in the way you go about things and to whom you can feel comfortable talking to about it.

  • Yourself. Explore what you really feel before you embark upon the search. Are you ready? If not, don't start! Don’t ever feel pressured by anyone else that it is something you have to do, you don’t have to if you don’t want to!

  • Your Husband/wife/partner. It is a good idea to have a spouse/partner with you in spirit. Whilst undergoing your search there will be days, weeks even, when you feel elation or despair which will be hard to disguise or your feelings may manifest themselves as anger or jubilation, and it is far better to be in a position to share with those that love you, than to have to try to cover it up. A partner may not understand why you need to know, they don’t have to, and although it might make things more difficult emotionally, it is still considered better when they are aware that you are doing it.

  • Your children. Are your children of an age to understand the concept that you are exploring? Will it confuse them as to who you are, or indeed who they are? Will it confuse them as to their loyalties if and when your search comes to fruition, as to who is who, and where they stand with whom? If you have any doubts that they will not understand the concept, keep it until they do.

  • Your Adoptive parents. This is always a difficult one, and depends on how open you feel your parents were with you about your adoption. People that have had a chance to talk with their adoptive parents freely and openly over the years about the fact that they were adopted may find it easier than those for whom it was a closed subject, or indeed kept a complete secret and the adoptee has discovered rather than having been told.

If you feel you can tell your adoptive parents, it is probably better that they know. They love you and maybe able to fill in some more blanks that will help you on your way. They after all may know facts that they haven’t told you, quite simply because you haven't felt the need to ask up until now.

Adoptive parents are not a naive as we are given to believe. There are few that do not realise that this search is something their adopted child may one day want to embark upon. They may have reservations, or feel a little put out, and if so then the quieter and calmer you are about it, the better.

  • Your birth family. Of course your search may have implications for them. The circumstances surrounding your birth maybe be completely in the open and common knowledge amongst subsequent husbands, partners or siblings, but of course it may not. It cannot be stressed enough, that a birth mother’s 'here and now' must be given consideration irrespective of an adoptee's needs and wants however hard that is for the adoptee. The adoptee that tries to breezes back into a birth mother’s life is likely to get a less favourable reception than one who has tactfully and quietly made an advance and respected the birth mother’s feelings and has proved by their actions that they can be discreet and diplomatic.

Sources To Aid in The Search For a Birth Parent

  • The Register of Electors will soon become familiar to you, and will no doubt be searched on countless occasions. These are available only in the locality to which they are relevant. They can only be searched by address - the address at which a birth parent lived when you were born is a good start point.
  • Births, Deaths and Marriages indexes. Hours spent closely examining birth death and marriage registers will soon become a time consuming interest. Record your findings and note where and when you have looked. Make notes and record every possibility just in case.
  • Telephone directories/on line directories. Make a list of all the occurrences of the right name, and cross reference them with the electoral roll. Probably the last thing you would ever do is to actually telephone someone you thought to be a birth parent, but using a telephone directory to gather name occurrences is a good idea.
  • My Folks Website A site to search and place messages to find family and friends in the UK. They'll not only help and advise you in your search, they'll laugh and cry with you too. They do make a charge for their services (although not just for talking and advising), which can be quite costly - this can amount to around £200.

What Are The Costs Involved in Searching?

In working out what costs will be incurred, one needs to think further than simply financial costs. Other things to consider are time, energy and emotional cost as well as monetary.

Time will have to be put aside for counselling session(s) as well as for travel to register offices and maybe even to the GRO. Research can be very time consuming, and when a critical point it reached can be 'life encompassing' and needs to be strictly disciplined so that it does not become your whole life. Never forget that your family needs you now! Do you have that time without making too many sacrifices?

Searching through Birth, Death and Marriage records costs little, if anything. What needs to be thought out is how to pay for the inevitable certificates that will be required and expenses such as travel. A telephone is a useful asset, and a very draining resource - if every last penny you can muster goes into research, something or someone is bound to suffer. Set yourself a budget and try and stick to it.

Some Useful Addresses

Office of National Statistics (ONS)

Adopted Children Register (and/or) Adoption Contact Register
Smedley Hydro
Trafalgar Road
Tel: (0151) 471 4313

Adoption UK

46 The Green
South Bar Street
OX16 9AB
Tel: (01295) 752240 (9am – 5pm)
Fax: (01295) 752241
Helpline: 0844 848 7900 (10am – 4pm)
Website: Adoption UK

The General Register Office (Northern Ireland)

Oxford House
49-55 Chichester Street

The General Register Office (Republic of Ireland)

8 - 11 Lombard Street
Dublin 2

The General Register Office (Scotland)

Adoption Unit
New Register House

National Organisation for the Counselling of Adoptees and Parents (Norcap)

112 Church Road
OX33 1LU
Tel: (01865) 875 000
Website Norcap

After Adoption

12-14 Chapel Street
M3 7NN
Tel: (0161) 839 4930
Website: After Adoption

Post Adoption Centre

8 Torriano Mews
Torriano Avenue
Tel: (020) 7284 0555
Website: Post Adoption Centre

Public Search Rooms - Family Record Office

1 Myddleton Street
Tel: (01704) 569 824


Tanners Lane
Tel: (020) 8550 8822
Fax: (020) 8551 6870
Website Thomas Barnardo's Orphanges and Homes - A Directory


21 Castle Street
United Kingdom
Tel: (0131) 225 6441
Website: Birthlink

Additional Links

  • Every Child Matters Information on Adoption for Practitioners Working with Children and Families.
  • Birthlink A Charity Offering a Range of Services to People Separated by Adoption with a Scottish Connection.

A-Z of County/Local Council Contacts

Adoption County/Local Council Contacts - A to M

Adoption County/Local Council Contacts - N to Z

Adoption from Abroad

Naturally, each country has its own rules and regulations concerning adoption, a mine field far too big to be covered here.

An overview of some of the rules, regulations and requirements can be understood by referring to Wikipedia Adoption From Abroad

Searching For An Adoptee

Different Rules and acts of parliament apply, depending on when an adoption took place, and which agency was involved. The rights and procedures for a birth relative to follow are best explained here Birth Parents Rights

Further reading

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