Caveat Emptor On Confidential Intermediary Programs

If you’re thinking about hiring a confidential intermediary (CI) program to help with your adoption search, you may want to think again.

Like registries, some states use mandatory intermediary services as an idealized solution to the question of opening adoption records. Proponents tout such programs, saying “small steps” for adoptee rights are better than none at all.

I used to believe that, too, until I tried the confidential intermediary experience for myself.

CI programs are little more than a panacea to placate open records advocates while paying lip service to helping adoptees. There are things about the process that aren’t in the brochure. First of all, you may not be eligible to apply. Once within the program, you may have little knowledge or control over what is done on your behalf. And if concerns arise, you may have little recourse.

Never mind the insult implied by the assumption that adoptees need governmental hand-holding to conduct their personal matters. And never mind that not everyone can afford them. CI programs, like voicemail hell, seem deliberately obtuse. How many times have you hung up on voicemail? How many people are rejected before they can even begin? And how many give up from sheer frustration at the process?

When I began searching nearly a decade ago, my state of birth, Illinois, had just introduced a CI program. I was eager to apply, because the interstate nature of my adoption had already proven to be the Achilles’ heel of my search. Although I have an Illinois birth certificate, my adoption was finalized in Ohio, so my sealed records are there. And without an in-state birth certificate, Ohio had dismissed me outright.

You see, if you were adopted between states or nations, or even if you just have a quirk in your paperwork, you may well be lost in the cracks. There’s no such thing as a “standard” adoption, but post-adoption programs have been known to deny those who do not fit their assumptions. When I initially applied in 2000, the Illinois CI program rejected my application, saying they “did not have a procedure” if the adoption occurred out of state. Yet this is a 1999 quote regarding IARMIE, the Illinois adoption registry:

“According to proponent Melisha Mitchell… the new registry “expands access….to over 500,000 people previously excluded from the Illinois Registry…. Interstate and international adoptees who were born, surrendered or adopted in IL, plus their birthparents, as well as adoptive parents and legal guardians of minors, and under some conditions, non-adopted siblings.”

Clearly the proponents of these halfway measures were aware that the Illinois registry was not always accessible to interstate adoptees, and yet it took until 2006 for my case to become the first in which an Illinois-born, out-of-state adoptee was admitted to the Illinois CI program.

Mine is just one example of how post-adoption programs like registries and intermediaries are, by their nature, ineffective. You can’t legislate provisions for each and every case. Is it any wonder that a broad coalition opposes Illinois HB 4623, a bill that proposes to strengthen this same flawed system? The only solution that covers all circumstances is restoration of adult adoptee access to original birth certificates.

As I progressed within the CI program, I began to wonder if I’d done the right thing. The idea of leaving contact with my birth family up to a stranger left a bad taste in my mouth, but given the difficulty of my search, I felt like it was the only way to gain information about my adoption. I should have listened to my instincts.

Ultimately, CIs are no better at searching than anyone else. Granted, my intermediary was kind. She likely did her best, hamstrung by a system so half-assed it’s a wonder anyone can sit down.

Because you can learn more about adoption search in a half-hour’s reading of Internet mailing lists than intermediaries may receive in their training. The only advantage they have is access to the original birth certificate. But CIs can’t cross state lines, which limits their effectiveness. Mine had no access to my adoption file in Ohio, not even non-identifying info until I provided it (and this proved to be the difference as to whether or not the program could search for my birth father). Even if you hire a CI, you will have to be the manager of your own search.

As a participant, your options within (and outside of) the program may be unclear and subject to change. For example, participants in the Illinois program are told they and their contacted relative are permitted three letters each. But did you know if you ask, you can receive up to five letters? If you’re a current participant, be sure to request it.

Just about everything is “confidential,” but what exactly constitutes “confidential” is equally unclear. Officially, it’s what’s in the Illinois Adoption Act, 750 ILCS 50, Section 18. But in reality it’s whatever the program decides it is.

For example, details were redacted from my birth mother’s letters, such as my maternal grandfather’s age of death, which are listed nowhere in the Illinois Adoption Act as being “identifying.” Similarly, I received mixed signals as to whether or not I was permitted to receive copies of the correspondence sent to my birth mother (redacted for identifying information). When contact was first made, I asked for and received the first letter sent to her. But later, when I asked for copies of additional correspondence (again, redacted for identifying info), it suddenly became “confidential.” Perhaps it’s only “confidential” when you begin to question the process.

Interestingly, program policies and procedures are also “confidential” – to the public as well as to participants. If you’re not allowed to know what steps have been taken in your search, how are you supposed to know if you’re getting what you paid for?

As for whether an intermediary can facilitate contact, remember the tin-can telephone? Any message passed through a third party is going to get garbled. Reunions are delicate enough without adding miscommunication to the measure. Do mandatory intermediaries really facilitate reunion, or is the very presence of a third party detrimental?

There is also the implication, in the very concept of confidential intermediaries, that adoptees are abnormal and those who search particularly so. Therapeutcracy at its finest! When I contacted the administrative director of the Illinois CI program to ask after those policies and procedures, it was her co-director, the therapist, who called me back. In addition to telling me the policies are “confidential,” she mentioned that counseling is, of course, available…

But the worst was yet to come. One warm August day, my intermediary called with a bombshell. My identifying information had been accidentally disclosed.

Say what?

My name, address, phone number and email address were mistakenly left on a letter sent to my birth mother. Apparently the program is more concerned about the privacy of their procedures than the privacy of their participants.

I was promised written notification of the disclosure. I waited… one month, two months, six… and occasionally asked my CI, who told me “someone at DCFS” was supposed to provide the official written notification. I asked who. Can you say it with me, kids? “Confidential!”

She did offer to put a mention of the notification in writing as part of her status report, and as I was writing this article I finally received it, eight months after the initial disclosure. But it’s still not the official notification, and I’m still not allowed to know who is supposed to provide that.

I’ve been reminded the disclosure was an accident, human error. But I’m a computer professional, and I know about information security. When a corporation loses track of customer information, it’s a data breach that can lead to identity theft. This is yet another example of how intermediary programs and other post-adoption services fail to meet the mark. There would be no such scenarios with the restoration of adult adoptee access to original birth certificates.

I brought the lack of official notification to the attention of the program’s directors, but received no answers. My attorney was similarly rebuffed by DCFS’s legal counsel. I contacted Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, creator of the Illinois intermediary system. She was excited to talk to me about how HB 4623 will be shiny-bright for Illinois adoptees, but when I voiced concern about my experience, she dropped me like a rock. Web searches reveal plenty of other unhappy campers when it comes to states’ CI services.

Instead of a CI, I advise you to try searching on your own. Use the guidance of those who have gone before you (many of whom volunteer their knowledge as online “search angels”). You’ll save yourself time, money, and endless headache.

My birth mother has since denied further contact. Although she might have done that regardless, I will never know if the shortcomings of the CI process contributed to her decision. And I am no closer to accessing my information.

If you’re considering a confidential intermediary, caveat emptor.

For More Information:
The New York Times: “Adoptees Debate Intermediary’s Role”
Reunite, Spring 2008: “Confidential Intermediaries, Yay: Let’s Get Them Out Of The Adoption Search Game” (pdf)
Coleman Moms And Babes: Confidential Intermediaries
Conditional Access Legislation And Other Legislative Compromises


  1. Excellent. This needs distributed far and wide through AdoptionLand. I just posted a link to it with a small commentary on The Daily Bastardette. The CI system is insidius and needs to go away. Adoptees can control their own information.

  2. I agree 100% with your descriptions of the Illinois CI System – a monstrosity that really has to go.

    I too was a participant. I was told that the CI’s could do things I could never do because I did not have the “power of the court” behind me. I was told that the CI’s could walk in ANYWHERE with a court order for info.

    My search involved information from Indiana. No such thing as a court order to force a judge in another state. The Indiana Court said NO WAY.

    Several years after my search was dismissed, I wrote a letter requesting a copy of “my file.” I based my request on the fact that I had now been to the IL court myself and had successfully petitioned for my obc as well as all my documents. I wanted the file to see if I could find any search clues that may have eludede me and could possibly help me. Got a letter back from their atty. NO WAY. They don’t care if the court released all of my records to me. The CI law forbids CI’s from releasing ANYTHING – EVER!!!

    So they can do whatever they want and they have no accountability to the people who pay for their services.

  3. Thank you for speaking out on this, its SO needed! I’m a california adoptee myself, but its the same in every CI state. Crap crap and more… crap.

  4. I was reunited with my adult children without the help of a CI or any kind of intermediary. That was 14 years ago and we are doing well. Gee, what a concept…adults taking care of their own situations. I am so against the entire concept of the CI. Adoptees and mothers of adoption loss have had enough interference in their lives from agencies, SW’s and the states. We don’t need anymore. Just open the records, for Pete’s sake, and let the people involved take care of things, themselves. Quite frankly, what relationship we may or may not choose to have is NOBODY’S BUSINESS BUT THOSE INVOLVED.

  5. I am so glad that you have exposed the Illinois CI program. No adoptee should have to experience what you did. I am very thankful that I did not go through the IL CI program. My search was so difficult that I don’t feel that a CI would have been of any help. Some searches like my own require alot of “digging” and I can’t believe a CI would have the know how or take the time for that. The Illinois Adoption Registry and CI program must go and any bill not doing away with both is not acceptable.

  6. http://Margaret%20Kuni says

    From the years I have been a Search Angel and wife of an adoptee, I have seen most of the CI programs FAIL to achieve anything but frustration. In some states, the CI, IF they find bmom, are only allowed to make ONE contact. This sudden, unexpected call or letter from an “agency” can wreak havoc on a bmom’s life and even if she changes her mind after she has time to think and work things out — she has lost her chance to make contact through that system. CI’s and social workers were never trained to search nor trained to make contact in a sensitive way. This “system” needs to be abolished.

  7. Confidential intermediary programs are nothing more than employment security programs for adoption workers who have fewer children to place now that many single mothers are opting to keep their babies.

    Sometimes I am amazed that, as an adoptee, I’m allowed to drive, sign legal contracts, etc., you know, adult things.

  8. I agree totally.

    It’s just more $cam.

  9. Actually the CIs are usually placed in these positions because they have previously violated confidential information about adoptive parents. Information that was false which resulted in a reprimand on a social wrecker’s license. They get sued so their agency sets them up as CIs. Sorry I am really trying not snicker too much.

    I hate them as badly as you do. In the state of Indiana, agency CIs do not have to follow the same rules as both state agencies or adoption attorney CIs.

  10. That is such a pitiful hell Illinois put you through! Have you found your family? Illinois probably scared your natural mom half to death. Isn’t it terrible that Illinois even robs adopted people of that one initial phone call to their natural relatives.

    At least allow adoptees that one call in case it doesn’t go well at first. Most natural moms are so damaged by the coercion and loss of their children, it could take them years to get themselves together!

    Have you tried the “Adoption Network Cleveland” to search for your family? You can find their site online. It’s in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.

  11. Hey Triona!

    In my previous comment a couple of minutes ago, I forgot to leave the LINK to the organization which has helped alot of adopted people find lost relatives. The founder is an adopted woman.

    I’ll put the link under my name for your convenience. It’s in Cleveland, Ohio, like I stated in my previous comment. Good luck! If I’m not mistaken, they charge nothing but membership. They’ll help you every step of the way.

  12. Thank you, Caleigh. I appreciate the thought. I’ve tried ANC as well as many other groups and resources, and I’m continuing to try, but for the most part I’m stuck. I have not been able to communicate with my first mother except for the correspondence through the CI. Unless we change laws in Ohio, Illinois and elsewhere, people like me have very few options.