ALL THAT SHE really knew about her mother was that she was "very young and liked to read." That was in 1943.

Now she stood in the vital records room of the county courthouse with her adoptive mother hoping to find something -- anything -- that might bridge that gap of thirty-four years and help her to find her birth mother. The clerk had stepped out of the room, so while her adoptive mother leafed through the marriage records, she decided to take a look around. Turning the corner of one bookshelf she came face to face with one lined with thick, bound volumes marked "adoption records." She quickly pulled one down, but her hopes faded when she saw the chain and padlock. "They are literally sealed," she says angrily. "It's no joke."

Sealed adoption and birth records are no joke to the thousands of adult adoptees who are searching for the one person (or persons) who can answer the questions and fill in the blanks about their heritage. Currently only five states (Virginia, Kansas, Connecticut, Alabama and Arizona) provide for either complete or limited access to adoption records and original birth certificates. For those not so lucky to have been born or adopted in these states, the search is usually a difficult and frustrating journey.

The current interest in the rights of adult adoptees comes at a time when a climate of distrust and suspicion has led many individuals and groups to seek access to any secret information that may have been collected on them. Adoptees feel that they have the same right to freedom of information as anyone else.

Now many adoptees who previously felt powerless or guilty about searching for their birth parents are finding strength and support in numbers. Adult adoptees have banded together throughout the country to form search groups, a phenomenon which has become increasingly popular over the past four or five years. Today there are more than fifty such organizations like Yesterday's Children in Evanston, Illinois, LINK in Montana and the Adoptees' Liberation Movement Association (ALMA) in New York City. At the other end of the controversy, a group called Concerned United Birthparents is advocating disclosure of their identities to their natural children at age 18.

In the Washington area, adoptees can turn to Adoptees in Search (AIS), a non-profit, volunteer organization, for search assistance and moral support. Established four years ago by Roberta Ross, an adoptee who recently completed her own search, AIS is now active in efforts to change current laws regarding sealed records. The group boasts a membership of more than 150 adoptees, adoptive and birth parents.

At the heart of this movement is the adoptee's profound, some say innate, curiosity about his or her genealogical forebears. Jean Paton, a pioneer of the adoptee awareness crusade who founded the group Orphan Voyage in the early 1950s, says in her book The Adopted Break Silence, "In the soul of every orphan is the eternal flame of hope for reunion and reconciliation with those he has lost through private or public disaster."

But the need to search for natural parents goes beyond just the accumulation of names and facts about one's predecessors. It is a need to complete the picture one has of oneself -- to answer the fundamental question "Who am I?" What characteristics has the adoptee inherited and which are acquired through his adoptive family? A letter from one AIS member, Thomas J. Bianetta, gives eloquent testimony to the adoptee's craving for identity: "I don't know my correct age, nationality or where I was born.Don't know my mother or father. I have been looking for my sister for sixty-five years. I am now 76 years old, but I shall go on as long as I have strength."

According to Sigmund Freud, many children go through a period where they fantasize that their natural parents are not their real parents -- that somewhere there are two good and kind people who are the true mother and father. This fantasy of the "family romance," a child's escape when he feels threatened or frustrated by his real parents, usually runs its course in a short time. But to the adoptee it is a very real fantasy, one that is constantly with him. Some decide that they will not or should not try to find their biological parents. Others take the step.

Who are these searchers? They are men and women, usually in their late 20s or early 30s, who, for a variety of reasons, will use resourceful, sometimes desperate, means to find out who they are and where they came from. David's Search

"What do you look like? I've never seen anyone who looks like me." That was one of the first questions David asked his brother over the phone. He discovered that his brother Daniel, like him, was tall and thin and had red hair.

That conversation took place on October 1st and the following afternoon David spoke with his natural mother for the very first time.

David was aided in his search by extraordinary luck in the form of a slip-up made at the time of his adoption. Because of that error, it took David only two weeks to locate and contact his brother, an aunt and his biological parents. "The legal people at the [adoption] proceeding had bungled everything," David explains, "so that my mother found out my birth mother's name and my birth name." His birth name was changed after being adopted at age six months through the Jewish Social Service Agency.

So when David asked his adoptive mother for information one day, she gave him the names and also told him that his mother had moved to the Midwest after the adoption. Why hadn't she told him any of this before? David wondered. "The social worker always told me that it would be detrimental to tell you anything" was his mother's answer.

David was born and adopted in Washington, so he began his search here by getting a copy of his altered birth certificate, which had the name of the doctor who delivered him twenty-six years ago. He talked with the doctor's nurse and told her that he was getting married soon and needed the medical background of his birth parents. "That wasn't true," he confesses, "but I thought I'd use it as an excuse."

The information that he got from his birth mother's obstetrics record led David to a small town in Michigan where his parents were living at the time he was born. (His mother had come to Washington to have the baby.) That record contained another surprise for David -- he had an older brother somewhere.

He then did some genealogical detective work at the Library of Congress and came up with the name of the company in Michigan where his father had died, they told him, but he had a sister who was still alive.

David used a different ploy this time. "I told her I was a legal assistant. . . and that it was very important that I get in touch with anyone in the immediate family." She was hesitant, revealing only that his father died in 1962 and that his mother had since moved to California. Then he told her: "Well, it's in relation to an inheritance and I understand that they had a son. . ."

"Oh yes. An inheritance?" she asked. He had said the magic word. "Well, they had a son and his name is Daniel and he lives in Milwaukee and he has a wife and a daughter. . ." "She was very cooperative," David says triumphantly.

Next, he called his brother. Unsure that Daniel even knew he existed, David was worried that he might give the wrong impression "I didn't want it to sound like "This Is Your Life," you know: 'Haven't seen him in twenty-five years and here he is!'" But his brother was just as happy and curious as David. He had known about David since he was 16 (he is 31 now) and even tried to find him once but came up empty.

Although Daniel hadn't kept in close touch with his mother over the years, he knew her address and phone number in California. He also knew that she wanted to hear from the son she had given up. David called her the next day. "It was sort of like an interview with someone I never met and who I really don't have much emotional attachment to," he recalls.

What he found was a "mellow old lady" who had given birth to him as a result of an affair she had while her husband was in Korea. David also found and talked to his mother's sister in Texas who related the family history. She told him that his mother "was born fifty years ahead of her time and was the world's first hippie." Later, he found that his biological father was living on an island in the Mississippi River. Since he is very ill, David does not want to upset his father by appearing out of nowhere, announcing that he is his illegitimate son. "I don't want to hurt him," he says, "I don't want to cause him to get sicker than he already is by complicating things."

David explains his purpose to his adoptive parents by telling them, "You're the people whose family I belong to and these are just two people who participated in my conception and birth and I'm just interested in knowing my origins."

eventually David plans to visit his brother and mother, but for right now he's happy just knowing he has found them. "Now that I know where my origins are, I just have a much fuller idea of who I am and where I came from and that feels really good," he says with obvious pride, adding, "It's very satisfying to know that and to know that I did most of it myself."

The survival of the institution of adoption in ancient societies was, to a large extent, dependent on the acceptance of the idea that law could imitate nature -- that through the process of adoption, a child could be reborn into a new life. Later, more sophisticated cultures embraced and reinforced this notion. The adoption laws of the Assyrians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans and the Hindu Law of Manu (1000 B.C.) were all predicated on the belief that adoption could create legitimate family heirs by completely obliterating the past life of an adopted child and making him a blood relation of his adoptive family. Thus, an adoptee returning to his natural parents was not tolerated, as it refuted the very concept of rebirth through adoption. Under the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (2285 B.C.) any child who disavowed his adoptive parents had his tonque removed. And, similarly, an adoptee who "searched out, looked upon his natural father's house, hating his adoptive father" was blinded.

Times have changed, but the adoptee who tries to search for his past is still being punished by being denied access to his own birth and adoption records. He may petition the court to see his records but for his request to be granted would require either a sympathetic judge or a medical emergency or both.

Some countries have more liberal disclosure laws. In 1976, the British Parliament passed the Children Act under which any adopted person in England or Wales over 18 may apply for his original birth certificate and be given the address of his natural parents. Finland has had open adoption records since 1929, and in Scotland any adoptee over the age of 18 may go to the Register House in Edinburgh and examine his birth records.

The practice of sealing court and agency adoption records in the United States is a relatively recent one. Adoption was introduced in the U.S. in 1851 and in 1917 Minnesota passed an adoption law which included sealed records and amended birth certificates. By 1929 every state had some form of statutory adoption but the records were open in most states to all parties of the adoptive triangle -- the adoptee and both sets of parents -- until the late 1940s. The reasons are vague, but the fact is that court and agency records were sealed, state by state, shortly after World War II. One social worker offers this explanation: "A lot of young men went in the service and needed to get their birth certificates. The birth certificates would come back with a big, red 'A' for 'adopted' and it came as a huge shock very often, so they began closing the records after that."

The secrecy laws were intended to protect the adoptee from the "stigma" of illegitimacy and to insure that his or her loyalties were not divided between two separate sets of parents. A set of minimum safeguards for adoption issued in 1938 by the Child Welfare League included the provisions that birth records be revised "to shield an adopted child from unnecessary embarrassment in the case of illegitimacy and that the identity of the adopting parents be kept from the natural parents." But most adoptees who have committed themselves to a search naturally assume that they are illegitimate.

"They're surprised if they're not," says Rosemary Doud, publicity director for AIS. "It's stupid to have a whole segment of society being stigmatized with something that's not a stigma anymore. . . it's like we have to pay because we were illegitimate, we have to pay by never knowing, running medical risks and all other kinds of risks because of a 'sin' that our mothers committed."

Adoptees who look for their birth parents are not necessarily looking for an emotional relationship with them either. "By the time most of us search," says Doud, "we've pretty much established who we are and we're looking mainly to fill in gaps . . . there's really not a question of 'Who will be my mother now?'" John's Search

Every once in a while the world would suddenly go out of focus for John. He would get tremendous headaches and sometimes he blacked out. And the doctors couldn't tell him why, only that it was probably hereditary.

He decided the only way to find out what was wrong was to find his biological parents and ask them if there was any history of vision problems in the family.

That search began eight years ago with a letter requesting information from the agency which handled his adoption. "They wrote back telling me that I was half Scandinavian and half Czechoslovakian and my father was over six feet tall and my mother was under six feet tall," says John.

So he went to the agency himself and after waiting two weeks for an appointment was asked by a social worker why he was doing this and didn't he realize how much he'd be hurting his adoptive parents?

"That's happened to everybody," says John with a trace of bitterness. "In the majority of cases that I've found, you don't get the harassment from your parents or your family. . . you get it from overly judicious outside people, whoever -- the clerk in the court, the nurse at the hospital, all those who are trying to protect somebody else's rights."

Frustrated and not knowing where to go next, John gave up the search. Years later, a talk given by AIS president Roberta Ross convinced him that he could succeed and he renewed the search.

This time he went through the courts. "It took eight months," John recounts, "and I ended up passing $100 under the counter to the clerk to get hold of the records of my birth mother, not knowing, after I'd done that, that she'd withheld the records of my birth father and also not knowing that she had taken out some pieces of information."

John then spent another $50 at the hospital where he was born but got no more additional information.

Now armed with his birth mother's name and the city where she was last known to have lived twenty-nine years earlier, John persued open court records of births, deaths and marriages in that city dating back to 1895. He couldn't even find the name.

John has since had his eye problems corrected through surgery, but his search continues. He has even more reason to be frustrated than most because his adoptive uncle, a lawyer who was involved in his adoption and probably knows many of the circumstances surrounding it, is silent. "He may know the whole story," he says. "My parents have spoken to him and have asked him to tell me and he refuses to do so.

AIS was started because Roberta Ross "saw that things aren't easy for the adoptee who wants to search. . . she also saw a need for a kind of supportive fellowship," according to Rosemary Doud. AIS operates on a shoestring budget with the dues from members paying for an answering machine and not much else. A staff of ten to fifteen people runs things, including the search workshops.

Search workshops are individual strategy sessions which are held every six weeks (six weeks was found to be the time needed to complete one step of a search). The adoptee brings to the workshop all pertinent documents and scraps of information and together they sift through it all and come up with the next logical move.

"The adoptees do the work themselves," Doud explains. "We don't search for them. They are also assigned a person, a number to call, almost like Alcoholics Anonymous."

The average length of a search is four and a half months. When the adoptee is nearing the end of his search, he is given specific advice on how to best approach the person he has found, "mostly because the adoptee is still afraid of hurting her [the mother] or upsetting her family." One common method is to use what Doud calls the "genealogical approach," where the adoptee says he's working on a family history and gets all the information he needs without identifying himself.

Even without adoption records there are myriad other sources available that can provide pieces to the puzzle. Marriage and divorce records, land deeds, hospital records -- all contain clues. Also, most adoptive parents are given a copy of the adoption decree, which may hold some valuable information, and AIS members are usually urged to ask for it.

Although many birth parents engage in searches for the child they gave up, the ones who are members of AIS are there to lend support to the cause of adoptees' rights. "Most birth mothers seem to want to be found," Doud believes."Just because you have an agreement doesn't mean you're going to forget your baby and that you're not going to wonder 'Did I do the right thing? Is my baby okay?"

The presence of adoptive parents serves a similar purpose: to demonstrate that their son's or daughter's search hasn't destroyed their relationship and in many cases has strengthened it. Ann's Search

"It's very exciting, but it's also a little bit scary," says Ann, who's been looking for her natural mother for more than a year. "I don't know what I'm likely to find."

She began her search to find answers to specific medical questions but it soon became a much more personal and important quest. Her search is in a state of limbo now, defined partly by her fantasies and fears. "One of the worst things for me," she says, "would be to find out that this person I'm looking for is dead."

By talking with her adoptive mother and reading her late father's diary, Ann was able to fit together fragments of information about her past. But she could only go back as far as the day her new parents picked her up from the hospital when she was three months old.

Her adoptive parents couldn't help her because they didn't know anything about her birth parents. "They were very curious about my background, but they were given the idea (by the adoption agency people) that they shouldn't ask too many questions or they wouldn't get the baby."

Ann found out from the director of that adoption agency, which would only divulge "non-identifying" information [a standard agency rule] that her mother was 16 and unmarried when Ann was born, and that no social or medical record existed.

"He was also the first one to tell me what I weighed when I was born and what hour I was actually born," she says proudly. When you know next to nothing about your origins, getting ostensibly trivial information like this is a major step.

He could have told her more, but didn't. "It's very frustrating to sit across the desk from somebody reading your birth records and reading you only the parts that they think won't give anything away."

Ann has now collected, on her own, most of the facts contained in those secret documents, including the most important fact -- a name, both hers and her mother's. "My first name on the adoption decree was Jaqueline," Ann recalls with some amusement. "I've never thought of myself as a Jaqueline. My guess is that it was a name given by the social worker."

She has spent most of her time "looking for records and going back to the little place where she was born and just kind of skulking around to see what I could find." She found that her family is a big one. "Everybody in that area of the country is named that. I opened the phone book in the city and there were 160 listings by that last name."

Thirty-four years of time and space separate Ann from her natural mother. Although she has traced her mother's family back several generations, "what I'm interested in is what happened to her between 1943 and now."

But Ann has still not resolved the question of what her obligation is to her mother once she finds her. "At the moment, I believe that my obligation to them is information, just as theirs is to me, because I feel as though I can answer some of their questions, too."

Thanks largely to the efforts of AIS and its legislative committee, legislation is now in the works in Maryland and in the District to change the current laws regarding sealed records.

Maryland Senate Bill 585, sponsored by Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III (D-Baltimore City) and Thomas P. O'Reilly (D-Prince George's), calling for revelation of all adoption records to any adoptee over the age of 21, is currently being studied by the Judicial Proceedings Committee of the Maryland State Senate. In the Maryland House of Delegates, identical legislation is being sponsored by Montgomery's Delegate David L. Scull, himself an adoptive parent. AIS decided that 21 would be a more conservative figure and would help to garner support.

Some opponents of the Maryland bill see it as a Pandora's box filled with potential social ills. Nelson Kerr, a private attorney and chairman of the Governor's Advisory Committee on Adoption, foresees two major problems stemming from any move toward full disclosure: more black market adoptions and an increase in the abortion rate. "If we must now tell her [the natural mother], 'You may be approached in twenty years and you may have to tell this child that it was sired by your brother as the result of an incestuous relationship,' which is true in a number of cases, she will either abort the child or she's going to find somebody and get money for it. You can get $20,000 in Bexar County, Texas, today for a healthy child."

Robert B. Watts, an associate judge on the Supreme Bench of Baltimore, who handles many adoption cases, is on the side of the adoptees. "It comes down to the least detrimental alternative," he says, "and the least detrimental alternative is to let the birth mother be revealed. My experience has been that the birth mother was very pleased to make contact."

Another bill was recently introduced to the D. C. City council by Councilwoman-at-large Hilda Mason. The bill, the "Inspection of Adoption Records Act of 1977," would allow adoption records to be opened to "any adopted person . . . after reaching the age of majority." Included in the provisions of the bill would be the original birth certificate, the original adoption decree, court records and the records of any adoption agency in the District.

Mason raises a number of legal, medical and psychological reasons why the laws should be changed. She also proposes potential constitutional grounds for disclosure. In a memorandum attached to the bill, Mason writes: "It would seem that the sealing of the records against such inspection denies the adult adopted citizen the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment by not allowing that individual direct access to information pertaining to his or her genetic roots."

In Virginia, records are technically open for inspection, but it seems to be an arbitrary process. "We've had people who've gotten to see their original birth certificate," Doud says. "We've had people who've been told, 'No, that's sealed information' . . . Virginia is a very schizophrenic state." The CWLA report says that "court records [in Virginia] are open to adult adoptees, but they rarely contain identifying information."

This is relatively new and legally uncharted territory. The media has helped to bring the entire issue of adoptees' rights out into the open where it is just beginning to be examined and tested in the courts. The outcome is still pending on a class action suit filed last May in U.S. District Court in Manhattan by ALMA seeking to overturn New York State's sealed adoption records laws. One thing that has become increasingly clear as more and more adoptees assert their legal and constitutional rights is that there are practically no standards governing adoption records and their use. A recent report by the Child Welfare League of America found a great deal of ignorance on the part of agency officials as to whether agency records are, in fact, open and, if they are, who may see them and what information may be shared. "The effect of a law is felt less in its actual wording than in its interpretation and administration which vary not only from state to state but within a state and over time," the report states.

There is just as much, if not more, confusion and ambiguity surrounding sealed court records. The adoption laws are often vague in a number of vital areas -- what records are actually sealed and who is entitled to see them; what information is contained in those records and what part of it (identifying or non-identifying) is "open." Two agencies in the same state, one in favor of opening records and one against, quoted the same statute to support their different positions.

If a court order is needed to examine the records (and many agency people could not say for sure), then an adoptee must first establish "good cause," which in most cases means a question of inheritance or health, but, the report states, "court orders to open records are sufficiently rare that specific grounds for such action have not been well established." So, due to the absence of legal precedents and guidelines, what may constitute "good or reasonable cause" in one court may be totally invalid in another.

Although most of the 163 private and public agencies surveyed in the CWLA report sympathize with the adoptee's need to know, they maintain that they are still bound by the original pledge of anonymity to the birth parents. "Most agencies report that they believe 'the search' to be part of a natural quest for identity . . . Still they do not believe that the laws should be changed to permit the adult adoptee access to the information in court or agency records on request, either now or in the future." Rosemary's Search

"Trying to outsmart the system --that's half the fun," Rosemary Doud exclaims with a sneaky grin, "especially since it's forbidden." Rosemary should know. She beat the system (with a little help from the system) and found her other family.

Rosemary is an outspoken critic of current adoption record practices, which continue to treat adult adoptees as if they were still children. "We're not children," she insists. "We don't act like children, we're intelligent adult human beings doing what we think is right." One AIS member, 76 years old, is legally considered an "adopted child."

It also comes down to a question of blatant discrimination -- of civil and human rights being violated, Rosemary says: "Your birth certificate is the bottom line in defining who you are . . . everybody has a birth certificate, so why can't we get ours? It is inhuman."

Rosemary's search was different from most because the adoption agency, the New York Foundling Hospital in New York City, agreed to search for her and act as an intermediary. Although it saved her a lot of work and hassle, "I had no assurance that they wouldn't just blunder in and blow the whole thing."

The agency didn't know where her mother was (adoption records are not kept up to date) so they reached her brother, who called her. "He couldn't tell whether her surprise or delight was greater," says Rosemary. "I think she felt the way I felt all my life --possible so why even think about it."

For her mother, the memory of Rosemary and the adoption was still too painful and she needed some time alone. She was also concerned about the reaction of her husband's family to the news that she had had a child.She finally told them. "There [in rural Arkansas], families are very important. It's the rare woman who doesn't have a nice big family and Lucia [her mother] had always been childless as far as they knew . . . and here Lucia had a daughter all along and to them it was wonderful."

So a meeting of mother and daughter was finally arranged and they saw each other for the first time at the airport. "When I first saw her," Rosemary recalls, "she put her hands on my face and kept staring at me. She was sort of shaking and kind of crying."

It took Rosemary a while to get used to this new person in her life. "You can't quite get your head on straight. You think about that person all the time, maybe you write their name over and over . . . it's sort of like being in love."

What really changed Rosemary was finding people, her mother, uncle and cousins, who physically resemble her, providing a tangible link to the past. "An adoptee is usually told, 'You're unique. You're one of a kind,'" she explains."Nobody wants to be one of a kind. Everybody likes to belong somewhere. I think I felt a kind of genetic, biological belonging and that's really great. It's given me an acceptance of myself that I never had before."

When Rosemary visited her birth mother in the backwoods of Arkansas, she was in for a bit of a culture shock. "I always thought of myself as a city child, a New Yorker, and here was this lady with a southern drawl from the foothills of the Ozarks. . . It was sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting. . .

"No matter how much information you get on a page from a social worker," says Rosemary, "it won't give you that thrill of for the first time seeing a face that's like yours."