Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Using the Web to Find Birth Families

The exciting story of a Chinese father's reunion with his kidnapped son, accomplished through various social media inside China, has adoptive families understandably excited about how they also might be able to leverage internet databases, etc. in their own search for the birth families of their children.

It seems, from a perusal of many birth parent search groups, that most adoptive families are still working under the assumption that the orphanages have been forthright in presenting information, and continue to believe that abandonments are the usual means by which children come into the orphanages. Such an assumption, if in fact untrue, will cause the adoptive families to utilize means of investigation that will almost always lead to failure. For example, if one assumes that a birth family left a child at the gate of the orphanage, one might also expect that the birth family might be curious enough to add their names to a database. This would be a natural assumption to make if one assumes a child was in fact abandoned as we are so often told.

But the growing realization is that such true abandonments are, in fact, very rare. It is important for adoptive families, when they are starting a search, to realize that everything they know about their child may, in fact, be a fiction. This statement will offend some adoptive families, who have invested their adoption story with emotional baggage that in large part makes it difficult for them to search with an open mind. They fiercely seek to cling to the "China myth", the idea that their child was wanted, even loved, and that cruel circumstances prevented the birth family from keeping their child. While this may sometimes be true, adoptive families must realize that the probability is that their child was relinquished for other reasons, including for money, promises, through deception, and a myriad other reasons. It is important for adoptive families to start a search realizing that any of these reasons may play a role in their child's history. To emotionally refuse to accept any one of these possibilities will impose artificial limitations, which will almost always significantly reduce the probabilities of success.

It is probable that between 2000 and the present, in excess of 80% of the healthy infant children adopted came into the orphanages through incentive programs. An adoptive family may scoff at this figure, refuse to accept or believe it, and continue their search assuming that their child was truly found abandoned. That is certainly their right, but they should realize that by such thinking their search will, in most instances, be doomed to fail. They will employ means of searching that are inefficient, will not adequately target the birth family of their child. These families will "go through the hoops" of a search, not realizing, or perhaps in fact hoping, that the search will not be successful.

If one allows for the possibility that a child was trafficked into an orphanage, one can readily see how ineffective certain search methods such as databases, market fliers, and other "top-down, shotgun" approaches would be. One of the peculiar aspects of most stories dealing with trafficked children inside China is that even with substantial and sustained publicity, the birth families for the children retrieved from trafficking rings rarely come forward. Certainly most adoptive families would feel that having their child on TV all across China would be an effective way to locate a birth family, yet time and time again it has been shown to be very ineffective. Why? Because the children captured in trafficking rings were almost always willingly sold by the birth families to traffickers, and they have little interest in coming forward and reclaiming that child.

The idea that instituting a database that can be used to "match" with searching birth families is, from the outset, fatally flawed for this simple reason. Most birth families will not be interested in coming forward. This reluctance will be partially emotional, partially legal, and partially out of ignorance. Many of the birth families that we have located had no idea that their child even ended up in an orphanage, but were told the child was being adopted locally. Thus, even if a birth family had an interest in reuniting, many would not suspect that their child ended up in a foreign family.

If one assumes that a child was truly abandoned, one would expect that the birth and finding information would be as accurate as possible, and that this information would allow a birth family to "search" a database and find their child. But evidence shows that this assumption is often misplaced. One adoptive father of a child from the Qichun orphanage in Hubei recounted a conversation where the orphanage director “admitted to us that this orphanage deliberately changed the date of birth, so that no family could later come back (though none ever did so) to claim a child that they claimed was born on a particular date: no such child would ever be recorded in the orphanage registry.” On a research trip we made to a Jiangxi orphanage, the foster family caring for the child had the hospital birth record giving the birth date of the child as three days earlier than the "official" birth date, even though the orphanage had provided the foster mother with the hospital record. Thus, inaccurate biographical information would prevent, even if the birth family and the adoptive family both accessed the same database, a match from being made.

Adoptive families understandably hope for a simple method to locate birth families -- a DNA or other database that will allow them to put in their child's information, push a button, and out would come the birth family information. Certainly if such a service existed that was open and free to use, there would be little to lose by participating. But in reality, given the "complexities" surrounding most children adopted from China, such a program will result in failure in nearly every case. Technological barriers inside China, birth family participation rates, information accuracy, and many other reasons will prevent successful matches except in rare and very specific instances (kidnapping, Family Planning confiscations, etc.)

Is there a magic panacea for finding a birth family? No. It takes hard work. It takes an open mind willing to follow the trail wherever it goes. It takes sleuthing skills, determination, and an ability to accept information that runs contrary to one's preconception. Adoptive families unwilling to put in that kind of energy will largely fail. Hiring "investigators" unfamiliar with the situation in a given orphanage will meet with failure in most instances if the methods employed do not match the circumstances. Posting fliers in a market belonging to a trafficking orphanage will produce few results. Adding information to a database requires a 1 in a thousand stroke of luck. These avenues can be employed as a last, "hail Mary" attempt at finding birth families, but there are many more targeted approaches that should be employed first. Generally, the most success will come from a "bottoms up" approach -- quiet, discreet, focused attention to an individual child's birth family. Other methods can be used, but they will almost always meet with failure, and represent a poor use of limited funds and energy.


Families wanting to gain a deeper understanding of their child's orphanage and abandonment circumstances should seriously consider purchasing our "Birth Parent Search Analysis". Available for under $50, this report outlines the patterns in a given orphanage, and how those patterns would impact a search for birth parents. We believe that conducting even a basic search without having as much information as possible can seriously undermine your efforts.

Monday, February 07, 2011

"The Missing Girls of China"

Another academic article by David Smolin has been published, this one focused more narrowly on China and her international adoption program. The entire article is extremely informative, and offers insightful comments and explanations for the slowdown in China's adoption program, refuting some of the most commonly held explanations such as CCAA imposed quotas, etc. On our subscription blog we discuss the article and some of its implications for understanding the current state of China's adoption program.