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Intermediary services for birth relatives – questions and answers

This section answers some of the most commonly asked questions by birth relatives who want to access an intermediary so that they may make contact with an adopted adult relative. You may have other questions that are more specific to you. Do write these down so that you can obtain the answers you need when you contact the agency you have chosen to provide an intermediary service.

Access to a service

What is an intermediary service?

An intermediary is an individual, a person or an organisation that acts as a go-between for two or more people. In relation to adoption, an intermediary service usually means the role played by an agency when a request is received from an adopted person or their birth relative to approach the other party. This can be with a view to passing on or requesting information, and may lead to indirect or direct contact. Adopted people can access identifying information from their original birth certificate and adoption records. When it is the birth relative of an adopted person who is requesting an intermediary service, the intermediary agency is not allowed to give the birth relative any information that will or might identify the adopted person, but the intermediary agency can use the information to locate the adopted person and make an approach to establish if the adopted person is willing to agree to the relative having any information or to be put in contact with the relative.

What does the law say?

Under Section 98 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (England and Wales), birth relatives of an adopted adult, and adopted people themselves, now have the legal right to ask an adoption agency or adoption support agency that has registered as an intermediary agency to provide a service to let the adopted relative or birth relative know of their wish for communication. This new law came into effect from 30th December 2005. Priority will be given to cases where the adoption order was made on or before 12 November 1975. There is no statutory requirement for local authorities and adoption agencies to provide an intermediary service, but there is a requirement on those who hold adoption records to provide information to intermediary agencies. In situations where the adoption agency you approach cannot provide a service, it will advise you of an agency that can.

Why did the law change?

A number of things have influenced the change in the legislation. A previous change in the law that happened in 1975 gave all adopted adults the right to apply for a copy of their original birth certificate and information about which agencies might have been involved in their adoption. This meant that they had the opportunity to receive information about their background and search for birth relatives if they so wished. Opening the adoption records for adopted people provided a greater understanding of the lifelong issues of adoption and how they affect adopted people and birth relatives. It was through the provision of intermediary services for adopted people that adoption workers learned so much more about the views and feelings of birth parents and other birth relatives. Many birth relatives, particularly birth mothers, have spoken out about their need to know what has happened to the child they placed for adoption. Since the early 1990s, certain adoption agencies have actively responded by extending their services to include enquiries from birth mothers and other birth relatives. Although birth relatives did not have a comparable right to information as the adopted person, agencies were willing to initiate enquiries on their behalf.  However, the availability of services was inconsistent throughout England and Wales so the law has changed to make sure that, no matter where a person lives or whatever agency arranged the adoption, they will be able to access an intermediary service. Even people involved in what were called ‘private’ or third party adoptions without any agency making the arrangement (e.g. where a doctor, vicar or nurse suggested the link between the child and the adoptive parents) will be able to be provided with an intermediary service.

A study first published by The Children’s Society (Howe and Feast, 2000, republished by BAAF in 2004) also provided information about how non-searching adopted people felt about being contacted by an adoption agency on behalf of a birth relative. The research showed that the majority of adopted people thought that it was right for them to be told about a birth relative’s enquiry, so they could make up their own minds about how they wanted to respond. Ninety per cent of the adopted people who were approached went on to have some form of contact with the birth relative. Eighty per cent said that the contact had helped to answer important questions and they were pleased to have had the opportunity to be in touch with a birth relative.

Who can provide a service?

Intermediary services may be provided by local authorities, adoption agencies and adoption support agencies. If the service you require is not available from the agency you approach, they should be able to advise you how to take your enquiries forward. It is important to ask the service you approach if it is an “intermediary agency”.  You may find that the agency you approach contracts out some or all of its services to another agency, for example, to an adoption support agency. This is more usual in the case of local authorities. Such arrangements should be explained to you when you make your initial enquiry.

How do I choose where to go to?
You are entitled to choose which intermediary agency you ask for a service. Some people prefer to contact the agency that arranged the adoption, particularly as they should still hold the records and often these are very helpful for getting in touch with the adopted person you are wanting to pass information to or meet. It is also possible that information from the adopted person to a birth relative may be held on file.

However, for some people, this is not always possible. For example:

  • the agency has closed (see below);
  • you cannot remember the agency’s name;
  • you would prefer not to be back in touch with the agency that arranged the adoption;
  • no agency was involved – these situations are referred to as private adoptions (see below);
  • you may live a long way from the agency.

If any of these situations apply to you or if you prefer to go to an agency that was not involved in the adoption, then there are a number of organisations that can advise and help you.  For example, you could contact the adoption support agency that is closest to where you live. The local authority in which you live will also be able to advise on the availability of services, even if they were not involved in the adoption and are unable to provide a service themselves.

What services might I be offered?

Broadly speaking, intermediary services are likely to include some or all of the following:

  • The opportunity to discuss your situation with a suitably qualified worker or someone who will understand the impact that adoption has had on your life. You will be able to explore what outcome renewed communication and/or contact will have for you and the other people involved, and to consider what the outcome may be for everyone.
  • Non-identifying information – the intermediary agency is allowed to provide information from the records which would not identify the adoptive family but would help to answer some of the questions a birth relative may have. It may also be possible to have some idea of what has happened to the adopted person in the intervening years if they have been in contact with the agency.
  • The opportunity to find out if the adopted person has registered a qualified or absolute veto with the adoption agency that arranged the adoption or the local authority where the adoption order was made if the adoption was a private arrangement.
  • The opportunity for you to provide information to be kept on the adoption file to be passed on if and when the adopted person contacts the agency.
  • The opportunity to ask for a search to be made for the adopted person. A charge is likely to be made for this part of the service, even if the intermediary does not charge for other parts of its service. The search may be done by another specialist agency and you will be advised on the costs involved when you ask for details of the service.
  • If the search is successful in locating the adopted person you will then be able to ask the intermediary agency to make an approach to the adopted adult to find out if she/he wishes to respond to the enquiry from the birth relative.
  • Support and advice following contact and reunion for all those involved.
  • Links with a support group – not every agency will provide this service but they will be able to tell you about local and national services.

Will the records still exist?

In most cases where an agency has arranged the adoption, records will exist. Since 1975, adoption agencies have by law been required to keep their records for at least 75 years. Under current legislation the requirement has increased to 100 years. But some records may have been wholly or partially destroyed or just be “missing”. Records, whether held electronically or on paper, are also vulnerable to various forms of deterioration. In situations where the adoption was arranged privately, it is less likely that background information exists. However, in some instances, documents that were necessary for the court to make an adoption order may have survived. The intermediary agency you are using will be able to advise you about this.

What other information may exist?

When an adoption order has been made it is recorded on the Adopted Children’s Register. The Registrar General also keeps a confidential register, not available to the public, that provides the link between the birth details and the adoption details for every adopted person. Only adoption agencies including local authorities and adoption support agencies that are registered to provide intermediary services can access this information. The intermediary agency will also be advised which court made the adoption order so an enquiry about where the adoption records are can be made there too.

Who/what is the Registrar General?

A Crown-appointed statutory officer who administers, through the General Register Office, the Registration services relating to all births (including adoptions), marriages, civil partnerships and deaths in England and Wales.

What if I am having difficulty finding the agency that placed my child?

This could be because the adoption agency has closed. Particularly during the 1970s, a lot of the voluntary agencies that previously played a major part in arranging adoptions ceased to exist, or changed direction and took on different types of work. However, if the agency closed, then by law they had to make arrangements for the safe keeping of their adoption records. Often they would be passed to the local authority in their area or on to another voluntary agency. When a voluntary adoption agency continues to exist but no longer actively provides an adoption service, it is more than likely that they would have retained responsibilities for their records and have kept them in their archive. Sometimes it is difficult to find the agency because they have changed their name. For example, in the case of local authorities, this may have happened when boundaries were redrawn and large counties or cities were split into smaller administrative areas. Voluntary adoption agencies may also have had different names over the years. On this website you will be able to access an invaluable resource ‘Where to Find Adoption Records’. This was first published by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering in 2001 as a book. It is being developed into a searchable database which will be available from this web from February 2006. When it is available, this searchable data base will provide a full listing of where adoption records are currently held and also information about mother and baby homes.

If you are unsure where to start your enquiries, asking advice from an adoption support agency or the adoption service of the local authority in which you live could be a useful first step.

What happens if the adoption was arranged privately?

Sometimes adoptions were made by private arrangement, for example by the local GP or vicar and in these situations, there will not be records held by the adoption agency. However, as explained above, there is always information to enable links to be made from the person’s birth name to their adoptive name. This information is kept at the General Register Office. Furthermore, there are a number of agencies which can assist you with your enquiries, in particular, adoption support agencies.

Do I have to produce evidence of who am I and my relationship?

Yes. The agency that is working with you will need to verify your identity and relationship to the adopted person you are seeking and to confirm that you are a birth relative. They will ask to see documentation such as a copy of the birth and marriage certificates. This can be particularly difficult for fathers who are not named on the adopted person’s birth certificate or even in the adoption agency records. If you do not know the agency that arranged the adoption of your son or daughter or if the adoption was arranged privately (see above), adoption support agencies should be able to offer advice.

What happens if I live abroad?

If you live abroad this should not deter you from making an enquiry. Agencies can liaise with each other, although it may be a more complex process, for instance, to establish your identity if you cannot meet in person with a worker in England or Wales. Again, if you know the agency that arranged the adoption then contact them and they will be able to suggest ways in which they can assist in providing you with the advice and information you need. Alternatively, an adoption support agency should be in a position to give general guidance. Although sometimes things are more complicated because of language or distance, it can also be because the legislation is different to England and Wales as it is Scotland and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

What if my child was brought to the UK for adoption?

Specialist agencies exist, such as the Intercountry Adoption Centre, can advise about how best you can be helped if your son or daughter was brought to England or Wales for adoption. Immigration and adoption law requirements will need to be complied with, so records will exist. 

Is it just birth parents who can ask for a service?

No, the new legislation makes it possible for any birth relative to request an intermediary service. This means that siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles can also request a service. However, if you are a birth relative requesting an intermediary service independently of the birth parents, it is important that you have the opportunity to discuss the implications this may have for them and the adopted person. This is particularly important if one or both of them have indicated that they have no wish to have contact with the adopted person.

Who is a birth relative?

In the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the definition of a birth relative is any person who is related to the adopted person by blood, including half blood or marriage. As already mentioned, you would need to have some proof of your relationship to the adopted person.

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Receiving a service

How long will I have to wait?

This is an important question to ask the agency where you request an intermediary service. The waiting time cannot be predicted as it will depend on demand and the resources available in the agency you have chosen. From a recent survey we know that the majority of agencies operate a waiting list, although most people do not have to wait longer than three months for the first consultation. But waiting lists may grow as more people learn that they can ask for intermediary services. Also, the agency may need to contact other agencies for information, before the search for the adopted person begins, which will add to the waiting time.  If the agency you first approach has a long waiting list you may wish to find another one that may be able to provide a service sooner.

Will I have to pay?

This is an important question to ask the agency when you first make your enquiry. There are heavy resource implications for some aspects of an intermediary service, particularly in relation to searching for the adopted person’s current whereabouts. This means that costs could be considerable. Once the legislation comes into force and the demand for this service increases, it is likely that agencies will have to make a charge even if they do not already do so. However, this should not stop you from making your enquiry and taking matters forward as special arrangements may be possible for those on low incomes. You may wish to compare both the charges and the waiting times of several intermediary agencies before you make a decision about which one to apply to for a service.

What if I have a disability? Is additional assistance available?

Yes, all agencies should have an Equal Opportunities Policy and the facilities and resources to provide a service which meets the needs of people with a disability. The term “disability” can be interpreted widely to include difficulties with reading, writing, mobility, problems with mental and physical health, welfare and learning difficulties. It is important that you ask about this when you contact the intermediary agency.

What about issues of language and culture?

Agencies should respond appropriately to all users of their services, for example, with regards to the need for translation and interpretation. Again this will be addressed within their Equal Opportunities Policy. If you need access to translation services then let the intermediary agency know who will be able to help you with this.

Will I see qualified and experienced staff?

Yes. Everyone providing intermediary services will have a good knowledge and understanding of adoption, search and reunion. Some agencies will have volunteers. These people may have personal experience of adoption or a professional qualification and should have received special training. Intermediary services can only be provided by adoption agencies and adoption support agencies that are inspected and registered. There are National Minimum Standards in place which include requirements relating to qualifications and/or experience. These include the National Adoption Standards for England (available at and the National Minimum Standards for Voluntary Adoption Agencies and Local Authority Adoption Services in England and Wales (available at

Is the service confidential?

The service is confidential but very exceptionally a situation may arise which gives cause for concern about someone’s health and safety. The agency you are in touch with can explain the policy and procedures they have in relation to confidentiality. If you want to keep private the fact that you are receiving a service (for example, you may not want correspondence sent to your home address), discuss this with the agency when you first approach them and ask for the necessary arrangements to be made.

Can the adopted person always be found?

Not always. Sometimes it may be impossible to find somebody, or an agency may not have the resources to pursue the search beyond a certain point. The agency will tell you if they cannot take the search any further and may in some cases suggest another agency with additional resources that might be able to make further enquiries. It is important to appreciate that whenever a search is made it may result in you learning that the adopted person has died or is very unwell. Your worker will discuss such possibilities with you.

What can I do if my son or daughter does not want to have contact with me?

It can be very distressing if this happens, particularly if you have been longing for contact for many years. However, it is important that the intermediary agency does not put the adopted person under pressure. They need to have the space and time to make their own decisions about whether or not they want to respond positively to your request. Hearing from you may have been very unsettling for them and they may not feel ready to have contact. If this does happen to you, perhaps you can take some comfort in knowing that unless there is an absolute veto in place they are now aware of your interest and your wish to have contact and therefore may take a different view in the future.

Does every agency give the same service?

The availability of resources and agency policies may differ, and this can affect the service you receive.  It is important that you discuss this when you make contact with the agency that you have chosen to help you.

Could I be refused an intermediary service?

Yes. There is no obligation on an intermediary agency to provide a service, although it must act in a way that is consistent with its Statement of Purpose. Under the National Minimum Standards for Adoption Support Agencies, local authorities have a duty to assess the need for adoption support services of, among others, adopted adults and their birth parents and former guardians living in the local authority’s area, but there is no obligation to provide a particular service to any individual. Some voluntary agencies may only be able to provide a service if the adoption was arranged through them. However, they will still be able to advise you of where to obtain a service if they are not able to help you themselves. Sometimes an agency that has taken up your application may decide not to continue if they learn that to do so may put the adopted person or their family at risk or if information is discovered that indicates it would be unwise to contact the adopted person.

What can I do if I am refused an intermediary service?

All registered adoption agencies, registered adoption support agencies and all local authorities are required to have a complaints procedure which they make available to users of their services. You could make use of this procedure, and you may also be able to complain to the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI) or National Assembly for Wales which has regulatory responsibility for inspecting against the National Minimum Standards. In the case of a local authority, you may be able to make an approach to your local councillor and if you consider the case to have been mismanaged, you may be able to make a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman who investigates allegations of maladministration.

Can I meet other people in the same situation?

There are many self-help and support groups which link people by phone, by email or in person. We have listed national organisations in the Further Help section of this website but it is always a good idea to ask the agency that is helping you about what exists locally.

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General information and guidance

Why go to a registered agency?

It is important to request a service from an agency that you know has been registered and inspected for this purpose. It indicates that the agency meets the Government’s standards and will provide good quality services. Unregistered agencies are not allowed to provide intermediary services after the 29th December 2005. These safeguards have been put in place to ensure that everyone involved in providing intermediary services has a detailed understanding of the competing needs and wishes of persons separated by adoption and knowledge of the unique issues raised by adoption, contact and reunion.

What if I feel I have not had a good service?

As mentioned previously, all registered agencies are required to have a complaints procedure and to work within carefully prescribed guidelines. Details of how to make a complaint should be made available when you first contact the agency.

What about using a private investigator?

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 will result in private investigators and agencies that have not been registered for this purpose not having access to crucial information needed to link a birth relative with an adopted person. If you decide to explore other routes and use an agency or private investigator that is not registered for any part of the work, then be aware of the cost you may incur, their working practices in respect of confidentiality and their level of experience of this complex area of work. The reason that this area of work has been made subject to registration is because of the complex emotional issues that it raises. Under the Care Standards Act 2000, it is unlawful for agencies or individuals to offer an intermediary service for adopted people and birth relatives unless they have been registered.

What is the Adoption Contact Register?

The Adoption Contact Register came into existence in 1991 and is located at the General Register Office. The Register was introduced to help adopted people and their birth relatives let each other know of their interest to have contact. However since the new legislation came into force it is also now possible for birth relatives to place a wish for no contact. In the past, the Adoption Contact Register was not widely known about so this has meant that the number of adopted people and their birth relatives who have been linked up with each other has been small.

Are there any other Contact Registers?

Yes, there are also contact registers in existence in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The addresses and contact details for these registers are listed in the Support and Help section of the website.

Until January 2013 NORCAP operated a non-statutory contact register, which held over 58,000 entries relating to adopted people and members of their birth families. However, NORCAP has now closed and their register is no longer active but is being held by BAAF until decisions about its future management can be made.

Is it a good idea to try and get in contact?

In every situation there can be benefits and drawbacks and it is important that you have had the opportunity to consider these with an experienced worker. Things that birth relatives have said it is important to consider include:

  • How your enquiries will affect other people in your family and the family of the adopted person
  • The expectations you have about contact
  • What your hopes and fears are for the future
  • What if it all goes wrong?
  • What if the person doesn’t want to know you?
  • Will they know they are adopted?
  • What do they know about you?
  • Have they made any enquires?

How do reunions work out?

There is no way of knowing about the outcome of all reunions, but we do have information from various research studies. A consistent theme is that people do not regret taking their enquiries forward even if things do not work out exactly as they had hoped. The majority of adopted people report how contact and reunion have helped them to answer important questions about their background and to have a greater sense of identity (Feast and Philpot, 2003). Many continue to develop strong friendships whilst others fade as time goes by. No two reunions are alike. People experience a range of emotions and face different issues along the way. It is therefore worth bearing in mind that you or other people affected by reunion may benefit from ongoing support from the agency or from others who have had this experience.

Are reunions different if the birth relative has made the approach?

They can be. Some adopted people are really taken aback by the news that a birth relative wants to have contact. It may be something they had not really thought about and are not ready for. In these situations it is important that the adopted person is given as much time as they need to think about if and how they want to take the enquiry forward.

Feast, J and Philpot, T (2003) Searching Questions: Identity, origins and adoption, London: BAAF
Howe, D and Feast, J (2004) Adoption, Search and Reunion: The long-term experience of adopted adults, London: BAAF
Stafford, G (2001) Where to find Adoption Records, London: BAAF

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Information for birth parents who do not want to be contacted by their adopted son or daughter

To find out what you can do if you are a birth parent who does not wish to be contacted, please visit the section called Contact not wanted.

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