Finding Roots

In this day when cultural sensitivity and competence are paramount, we are taught the importance of educating ourselves about other cultures and 
traditions. We are told to respect the ideals, history, and experiences of others.  We’re encouraged to appreciate the variety that is the human 

In fact, even in the melting pot that is the United States of America, a country populated by both natives and immigrants, most people probably have some 
idea of their family’s cultural history, even if it is a little of this and a little of that.  Americans are both united in our history and divided by our histories, and 
that’s one of the things that make this country so amazing.  

So, when children in American schools are asked to tell the story of their families and to learn about their family’s cultural backgrounds, families all over 
the country are excited to dig out old photos, call up Grandparents and ask questions, listen to long-time family stories passed down from generation to 
generation, learn to cook special foods, and so on.  The question “What is your cultural heritage?” is often times a source of pride and accomplishment, 
and one can see the person answering that question puff up a little when they begin to share their excitement over their roots.

For a kid from foster care, though, this conversation can go very differently.  The very question “Where does your family come from?” can cause the hairs 
on our arms to stand and a twinge of fear and trepidation to begin in our gut because we may not know the answer.  Think about it.  How exactly does one 
answer that question when he’s been placed with many different families, exposed to multiple kinds of cultural traditions, religions, food styles, and more 
over the course of his childhood?  What if the only answer we have to that question is the race that’s checked on all those forms we’ve seen people fill out 
over the years?  What if we don’t have the luxury of contacting our family members anymore to ask about our ancestors or to hear the family stories?  
What if those relationships are pain-filled and the stories shared are not the stories one wants to share?

Many times over the past several years, I’ve been curious and have wanted to learn more about my own family history.  I have so many questions and 
blanks to fill-in.  My children are curious and I want to be able to answer their questions.  Luckily, I entered foster care at an older age, which means I do 
have the luxury of having several memories, which are a good starting point.  I also do have contact with a few aunts and uncles, via social media, and 
feel comfortable reaching out with a few pointed questions here and there, but I know many of my foster care family do not.  

So, if you’re curious about where to go to find your roots…here’s a few tips.

*Order a copy of your own birth certificate from the state where you were born, or ask for one from the agency overseeing your foster care case.  These 
are often maintained at the state offices in the capital city.  States are required to have a copy of your birth certificate and social security number in their 
files and to give these things to you (or your permanent caregivers, if you’re younger than 18) as you transition out of care.  The birth certificate will list 
your parent’s names, in most cases, if both names were available at the time of your birth.  

*Write down everything you remember. If you really don’t remember much, submit a request to your foster care agency, or even to the courts, to review 
relevant information from your case file and take notes of names of relatives and any identifying information (birth dates, addresses, etc) that you many 
find.  Trigger warning…only pursue this step if you’re really ready to see everything in your file!!! You could be really triggered by some of the things you 
read, pieces of your story you don’t remember.  I recommend having a trusted therapist on stand-by, just in case you need to talk through some painful 

*Identify any safe family members you may be able to connect with, even at a distance, through email or phone call, or social media, if you’re ready for 
that.  This is often very helpful so that you have at least someone that you can ask questions of about who was who, where someone lived, when was 
someone married or born, etc.  You CAN do the research without this step, however, if it isn’t safe, emotionally or physically, to contact family members.

*Choose a side of your family and work backwards.  From your birth certificate, memories, and file review, ask yourself if you have more information about 
your paternal or maternal ancestry.  

*Do a quick internet search of names.  Be sure to look for information specific to states where you may know your family once lived.  Look for anything 
that may tell your family’s story – census records, birth, death, marriage licenses and divorce decrees.  There are also many online forums of people 
searching for information and, sometimes, you can find a great connection in a forum. I once located a 2nd cousin, once removed from two states away 
who had most of my family tree filled out already and emailed it to me!  I’ve also found names of great grandparents, great aunts & uncles, and beyond on 
census records.  

*Become a member of one or more reputable ancestral search websites.  They can really range in prices and membership styles, so look into them to see 
which one fits your budget and your needs.  A few great sites are,,, and I’ve 
had some good luck with each of these sites…even just using the free trials, but be aware, these are often pretty short (typically about 2 weeks).

*Pick up the phone and make some old-school style phone calls.  Start with county offices you’ve found on birth, death, marriage, divorce and other court 
documents.  Ask how you can request copies of documents and what tips or guidance they can give you for finding the previous generation.  Note: Using 
the postal service to submit written requests for information or document copies may be cheaper than requesting information online or by phone, so be 
sure to ask about fees for copies.  I do recommend getting copies of whatever you can find.

*Take notes and start a file!!!  You’ll want to keep everything you find, so you can put together the complete puzzle as you find answers.  I’ve been able to 
locate my 5x great grandparents…all the way back to their home country in Scandinavia and found the exact page in the parish records of my great great 
grandfather’s birth! Just think of the amazing life-book you’ll be creating for yourself and your future generations.

*Use Google Translate…the further back you go, the more you’ll find in another language, most likely, and you’ll need the help.

*Do your general research about the culture.  For example, if you learn that your ancestors immigrated to the United States from Spain, research that 
Spanish immigration. Learn about their experiences, ports of entry, most popular years of arrival, areas of settlement once they arrived, etc.  Begin to 
learn about the food, faith, music, and overall culture of your ancestors.  Find your pride in your roots!
*Remember the process is likely one that will take some time.  Most people spend years researching their family’s genealogy, so be patient. You’re not 
likely going to find all your answers in a week.  

*Finally, and this isn’t likely going to be required to find the information you seek, but consider travel.  Sometimes, a visit to a county library or state office 
will get you more access to information.  Newspapers, obituaries, etc. may not always be available online but are likely kept on microfiche film in library 
archives.  Of course, this could be more pricey as you consider the costs of travel (hotel, fuel, food, etc.), but you may find a special, deep-rooted 
connected to your roots in the experience.  

Good luck and have fun!  It can be really exciting to find the pieces of your story, to find your roots.  You’ll begin to recognize that your family’s story isn’t 
likely to be one completely grounded in pain.  You may even find points of triumph and accomplishment.  

Note to workers, foster & adoptive parents:  Try to do your own research, using these same tips, for the children and youth in your care because they will, 
someday, have questions.  The more information you can gather the better start he will have when he sets out on his own journey.  Ask questions of 
relatives, take notes, gather pictures, names, dates, documents, etc. Start and maintain a life book, and remember it isn’t necessary for the book to have 
some “official” format.  A simple photo album, scrapbook, binder, or notebook will do!  The point is to tell a child’s story.  Give them something tangible 
that will tell them who they are.