Managing Treatments

Knowing Your Family Medical History: Adoptees in Virginia Have Options

About 5 - 10% of cancers are caused by hereditary errors in your DNA so knowing your family medical history is important. If you're adopted, it's still possible for you to find out information about your genes.

Many traits are inherited, from your dimples to whether you can roll your tongue. If you’re adopted, you’ve probably wondered which qualities you share with your birth parents. When it comes to your medical history, however, the puzzle of your heredity can be less about curiosity than about need.

The Importance of Family History

Knowing about medical conditions that run in your family helps you and your doctor make informed decisions about your health care. If you have an increased, hereditary risk of certain cancers, for example, you can consider more frequent screenings and preventive treatments.

About 5 – 10 % of cancers are the result of genetic mutations inherited from a biological parent, according to the American Cancer Society. Among the most well-known mutations are BRCA1 and BRCA2 which increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Other gene mutations are associated with colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, melanoma, and some rare childhood cancers.

Most people, adopted or not, don’t know if they have these mutations. Doctors may suspect heredity is at play when certain patterns appear such as multiple family members developing the same cancer. In many cases, genetic counseling is recommended to explore your risks. These options are limited, however, if you don’t have details about your birth family’s medical history. Being adopted poses a unique set of challenges for this.

Accessing Your Family Medical History

Many states are struggling to find a legal, ethical balance between older adoption laws which stressed confidentiality and today’s evolving standards which increasingly recognize the benefits of transparency. Virginia is no exception.

In the mid-1990s, the state updated its policies to allow adults access to information from their Virginia adoption records. Even with these new laws, however, the particulars available from one record to the next can vary considerably depending on how many details your birth family provided at the time of your adoption. The Virginia Department of Social Services permanently maintains your adoption record but the information within that record isn’t updated regularly. So, while the department’s adoption disclosure specialists can ensure access to non-identifying information from your adoption record, that may not be the information you need.

You can start by requesting access to your adoption record. What happens next depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Your adoption was finalized on or after July 1, 1994. Virginia law protects your right to view your complete adoption record. You can request it from the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS).
  • Your adoption was finalized before July 1, 1994. You can request information from your record from the VDSS.
  • Your record has meaningful medical history. Even a complete adoption record often doesn’t contain details about family health history. Your birth parents may not have had this information. If you wish to have additional or identifiable information, you can submit an Adoptee Application for Disclosure to request a search for your birth family. The agency involved in your adoption will be asked to conduct the search. Some agencies require a fee for this service.
  • Your birth parents are findable. When an agency has your adoption record and your birth parents used their legal names, it’s fairly straightforward. If your birth parents used nicknames, finding them can be more difficult, though the advent of social media helps.
  • Your birth parents provided consent. If your birth parents are located, the agency representative conducting your search will confirm that they’re willing to be contacted by you directly or to share family medical information through the representative.

If you’re adopted and want information about your birth family, contact social services in your state to start the process.

If you're adopted and interested in finding out more about your family medical history, you can look into genetic counseling.

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Nancy Burtis Boudreau