Helping Native Adoptees Search


I was so surprised and happy to receive a gracious email from Karen over three years ago.   I know many adoptees who get stuck on doing genealogy when they open their adoptions and have a name or family story that says there is INDIAN BLOOD.

Once you have a name, you have to connect a parent or grandparent to a tribal roll.  This has been a real problem for many adoptees.
The following interview is with Karen Vigneault-MLIS.  She is an academic research librarian, genealogist and historical researcher. Karen is a member of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel in California.

She has offered to help adoptees do family genealogy to be enrolled with their tribal nations.  This offers hope for many of us!  But remember that adoptees must do all the necessary steps to get their adoption records.  She explains why this is so very important.

Karen, you have helped a few Native adoptees find their way back home.  Can you share an example?
Above is the link to a photo and a short article showing all that were involved in Patrick’s aka Quinton’s (his real name) story.  It was interesting because in his case his mom was adopted as well.. but she had passed.. so we had to get both cases opened.  By opening his mothers we found more info on grandmother’s last name.  They spelled it wrong, which meant I had to try and decipher what it possibly matched on Aleutian records. I also called Alaska and spoke to people from villages in the area asking if they ever heard the name I thought it was..  In the end we found the enrollment documents on the tribal website.. Patrick filled them out, sent out the adoption records as well.. and ultimately he was enrolled.. (We shared Patrick’s story and reunion in the anthology CALLED HOME (Book 2).)


Opening records seems to be the biggest roadblock for many adoptees.  How have you opened or accessed records?

I myself did not open the records.  I had connections along the way and the ADOPTEE did their part in requesting info and documents… It starts with going to family court and requesting to get the records opened.  Here in California we also have CILS (CA. Indian Legal Services)… which also has a form to petition to have your records opened.
You work with another person that trains judges on these types of cases.  You have opened records to get the adoptee enrolled.  How did you do this? 
(see above) It is important that adoptees cultivate relationships with people connected to the court system. 
Have you used the Indian Child Welfare Act to petition the courts?
Yes, definitely!

Do you recommend an adoptee use someone like you and could someone get in touch with you for your help?

Yes, I think working with someone who already has the experience navigating through websites/ documents and Indian country would make the task a little easier.  I can be reached at my email:


I wish to thank Karen for this amazing offer to help adoptees in their search.  She has successfully helped over 10 adoptees to my knowledge.


NOTE:  The Canadian provinces all have post adoption registries.  All work basically the same way.  When Alberta (for example because it’s the one I am most familiar with) open their registry it was advertised that the records were being opened.  In the advertising it was stated how an adoptee could access the records (there was a form), it also addressed the issue of a birth parent looking for a child and how one manages a non-release.  Although the system is a bit backed up (it takes a while for the information to be sent) it seems to be working quite well.

The following is from Shea’s Search Series: The Definitive Guide to Self-Empowered Adoptee Search.

Petitioning the Court to Open Your Adoption File (for adoptees adopted in the United States)

Why you should consider a petition:

Petitioning the court to open your records is something every adoptee should try.  Even the most restrictive states allow the sealed adoption file to be open via court order, and petitioning the court is usually not a difficult nor terribly expensive proposition, and your odds are slightly better than winning the lottery.

As is detailed in my search series article, “Documents”, the court file contains a variety of documents related to one’s adoption, often including the original birth certificate.  The most likely occurrence is that when petitioned, the judge will instruct that only non- or de-identified information be compiled from the file and given to you, but in a few instances, judges have been known to open the entire file.  A very few judges will open files to every adoptee who asks, regardless of the reason.  It pays to research how the particular judge you will be appearing in front of usually responds to petitions to open the file.  Local search groups often have this information, or you can post an inquiry on an email list or Usenet newsgroup, as discussed in previous parts of this Search Series.

The details of petitioning:

Petitioning the court does not require the services of a lawyer although it can help your chances of success to use one.  The first step will be determining what court has your file. You probably have already obtained this information if you followed the steps detailed in the other documents of this series.  The court that has your file will be the court that finalized the adoption.  In the States, this is usually a county Family court, located in the county where your adoptive parents resided at the time of your adoption.  Most courts will have the proper forms for petitioning available to you on request, and you do not need to be physically present at a hearing date in order for the judge to read and respond to your petition, although appearing in person can greatly enhance your chances of success.  Along with the petition, you should include the reason for your request.  You may simply believe the information belongs to you, and you can state this, but the sad truth is that you are more likely to be successful if there are extenuating circumstances.  If you have a medical condition that could be eased with the information or with finding your birthparents, proof and explanation of that condition should be included in your petition.  If there were unusual circumstances involved in your adoption, if you know your birthparents are deceased, if you already know the identity of your birthfamily, or if your adoptive parents are deceased, you should include a statement to that effect, along with proof of your claims.  However, even if you do not have any unusual circumstances, and simply want the information, you should still try a petition.  As stated above, some judges will release the file to adoptees just for the asking.

Using The Indian Child Welfare Act in a petition:

The Indian Child Welfare Act is little-used, but it can be the key to a successful petition to open a sealed file if you are adopted, and are some or all Native American.  The ICWA was passed in 1978 to address congressional findings that “an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies and that an alarmingly high percentage of such children are placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions; and….. that the States, exercising their recognized jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings through administrative and judicial bodies, have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families.”

One section of the ICWA is of particular interest to adoptees.  Section 1951b states “Upon the request of the adopted Indian child over the age of eighteen, the adoptive or foster parents of an Indian child, or an Indian tribe, the Secretary shall disclose such information as may be necessary for the enrollment of an Indian child in the tribe in which the child may be eligible for enrollment or for determining any rights or benefits associated with that membership. Where the documents relating to such child contain an affidavit from the biological parent or parents requesting anonymity, the Secretary shall certify to the Indian child’s tribe, where the information warrants, that the child’s parentage and other circumstances of birth entitle the child to enrollment under the criteria established by such tribe.”

Essentially this section directs the State to give adult adoptees of Native American heritage who request it, their birth information, so that they may enroll in their tribes.  The section does allow for birthparents to file a veto, but even then the adoptee is entitled to tribal notification so that they may process their tribal rights and privileges.  You can read the entire ICWA on the Web.

There are a few problem areas with using the ICWA.  Many adoptees are of enough Native American blood to qualify for enrollment in their tribes, but there is nothing documented that verifies that information.  Before a judge will open a file under ICWA s/he will often demand some sort of proof that the adoptee is NA at all, proof that most adoptees will simply not have.  But in other instances, the agency that handled the adoption, or the court file itself, will contain notations that you, the adoptee, do have NA ancestry.  If you have received non-ID from a source that states this, include a copy with your court petition.  You will also need to include a copy of the ICWA in order to make the judge’s work easier and predispose him/her to wanting to help you.  If you have any information at all that you are even the smallest bit Native American, you should use the ICWA in your petition.  Include affidavits from family members (adoptive and birth) who have told you that you have Native American blood, as well as any ‘official’ agency or other documents to support your claims.  Remember that most tribes have small blood quantum requirements, and you should not feel guilty about using the ICWA.  The intent of this law is to ensure that those of us who are entitled to tribal membership by birthright, have the *choice* to join our Native American communities.

What to Expect:

Your petition will have several possible outcomes.  It can be denied outright, and you will receive nothing. Or, you might be denied identifying information, but receive censored copies of documents, or merely a summary of non-ID compiled from the documents themselves.  The judge might also choose to appoint an intermediary.  The intermediary will be given the file, and will conduct a search for your birthparents, usually the birthmother if you have not already found her.  She will then be asked for permission to release identifying information to you.  The irony is that in many cases, you still will not be given the court file or the documents contained within it, even if your birthparent(s) agrees to exchange identifying information.  You will usually be required to pay for the intermediary service. In the case of the ICWA, sometimes the Court will appoint a tribal intermediary who will process your tribal enrollment in addition to seeking permission from your birthparent(s) to exchange identifying information.  This is in contravention of the mandates of the Federal Act, but that does not seem to have stopped judges from doing it.  Lastly, copies of parts of or your entire file might be turned over to you, unaltered.

Search Legal Notices

In most places, prospective adoptive parents are required by law to place a legal notice notifying the alleged birthfather of the impending adoption hearing.  It is common practice to place these legal notices, even when the birthfather is named and has consented to the adoption, in order to erase all potential for problems later on.  The attorney that represents the potential adoptors generally place these legal notices in obscure legal journals that are well known in local search circles, which is why it’s a good idea to have joined a search and support group, as detailed in the post ‘Initiating a Search’.  Legal Notices sometimes contain absolutely no identifying information, but they *usually* will refer to you using your birthname (Baby Girl/Boy_______) and they often identify the birthfather by name as well, although sometimes he will be referred to as John Doe.  The potential for payoff is enormous, however looking through the legal notices on microfilm can be an incredibly painful and time-consuming procedure.  Knowing the time period when the legal notice might have been placed is tricky, and it often requires that you look through thousands of notices for several months if you are unsure when your adoption hearings were held.  Knowing if the legal notice refers to you can also be tricky, unless your adoptive parents are referred to by name.  Usually the name of the attorney, or the attorney’s firm is named at the top of the notice, which is how you can begin narrowing down the notices.

Email me ..Trace Lara Hentz (


Stolen Generations Copyright © 2016 by Trace L. Hentz. All Rights Reserved.

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