Dana Lowrey has known she was adopted for as long as she can remember. And for almost as long about 30 years she had been looking for what she calls her "first family." She combed through county records, searched the online adoption registries and enlisted the help of reunion experts. On Jan. 10, she set up a Facebook page and asked the friends she had made in the adoption community to help her search. Within 24 hours, she was in touch with her birth mother, Mary Stark. And by Jan. 15, she had made contact with her biological dad, Kenny Morse.
In retrospect, Lowrey, a 41-year-old nurse who is raising two kids of her own in Roseville, Calif., is not sure why it took her so long to use social-networking sites to trace her birth parents. In 2008 she used MySpace to connect with the son, Tim Daugherty, she'd given up for adoption 19 years earlier.
Of all the relationships that are being changed by Facebook and other sites that trade on bringing people together, the thorny, delicate bonds that connect what's known in adoption circles as the triad the biological family, the child and the adoptive parents may be the most profoundly altered.
For older adoptees like Lowrey, who were raised in an era when talking about birth parents was generally verboten, social networks are a boon, another way to put together the puzzle of their backgrounds. But the methods Lowrey used could just as easily be employed by a curious adopted teenager or a birth mother who regrets giving up her child. This is raising concern among some adoptive parents and agencies. "We have not yet begun to wrap our mind around what the implications are," says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and policy organization in New York City.
Most kids and adult adoptees have been told or can find out the names of their birth parents and that's the starting point for their Facebook searches. Contact can be made, often suddenly, without the guidance of parents or adoption professionals. And since teenagers' Web savviness is often light-years ahead of their emotional maturity, it can all head south pretty fast. "Even in the best of cases, you want a little knowledge first," Pertman says of reuniting with birth parents. "You want to do this thoughtfully and methodically. With Facebook, you don't have any of that."
In some ways, Lowrey was lucky. "I promised I wouldn't contact my son until he was 18," she says. "When I first thought of trying to find him, it would have been a bad time, because his mom had significant health issues." She held off for a couple of years and then sent a message through MySpace. He replied within a week. Two months later, they met face to face.
Some people are not ready for this kind of contact and never will be. "Biological parents have called me in tears and in fear" about being discovered, says Chuck Johnson, acting CEO of the National Council for Adoption in Alexandria, Va. "They don't know what to do." Social networking's implications for children whose birth parents' rights have been terminated are even more serious. In the U.K., where adoptions are more often contested, birth mothers were reported to be using Facebook to contact kids who had been taken away from them by child-protection officials.