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By definition, adoption is a legal process that creates a new, permanent parent-child relationship where one did not exist before. Adoption proceedings take place in court before a Judge. Children may be placed or made available for adoption through agencies, orphanages, or privately. Many children are formally adopted by family members. In the past, adoptions were largely closed, meaning they were held in the strictest confidence and even the child when grown could not access his or her adoption records. Although not entirely so, adoptions today are more open; children have greater access to their records and birth parents often have a more say in the selection of adoptive parents.

Historically, the privacy surrounding adoption has created significant issues for those seeking information on their biological families and for family historians, in general. While there is considerable information available on the Internet suggesting resources and strategies, there are also many professional genealogists who specialize in adoption research. Family historians may encounter adoption and sensitive situations in the course of their research, to be approached with great regard to those involved, even into the next generations.

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