Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Birth Parent Searches are Often Simple

Among the many e-groups devoted to China adoption are the newsgroups dedicated to families wanting to search for their child's birth family in China.  These groups, whose members number in the hundreds, share ideas and anecdotes about how a successful search should be conducted. 

Additionally, there are hundreds of families informally searching.  These families don't belong to any formal groups, but seek information from other adoptive parents, agencies, and other respected sources of adoption information.  They all share a common goal -- to locate their child's birth family in China. 

Unfortunately, for most of them a successful birth parent search will remain an unfulfilled dream.

It is not that birth parent searching is difficult; it is not.  In fact, locating birth families is not overly complicated.  In our recent research projects in Jiangxi Province, for example, we have located scores of birth families, many without even trying.  An adoptive family dedicated to truly learning the truth about their child's origins in China can do so, yet emotional barriers prevent most from really trying.

What are these barriers?  For one, there is a common idea among adoptive parents that a birth parent search isn't in their job description, that it is something that is best left to the adopted child.  This misguided notion assumes (incorrectly in almost every case) that the information will "keep" -- that success is just as likely in 20 years as it is today.  Unfortunately, in China next year is a long time.  Ignoring the fact that such basic sources of information such as finders, foster families, orphanage caregivers and directors will almost certainly no longer be available in twenty years (either from moving, dying, or loss of clear memories), waiting such a long time also diminishes the chances of finding hospital and police records, and probably the birth family themselves.  It goes without saying that I believe adoptive families are foolish to wait in seeking their child's birth family, since doing so almost always insures that the search will fail down the road (I am focusing on searching; whether to reveal information to an adopted child is a completely different subject, which I addressed in an essay entitled "What to Tell -- And When". 

But there is another reason adoptive families don't look -- fear.  Last year we announced to the adoptive family groups for the Hunan scandal orphanages that we had obtained the receiving logs for many of the children adopted from those orphanages.  The numbers of children listed were in the thousands, yet only a dozen families inquired about their child's record -- most apparently decided that having that information was not important to their child's future.  There is no doubt that many adoptive families experience feelings of ambivalence regarding such information -- possessing it requires them to alter the "family story", to acknowledge the impact of trafficking and money on their adoption.  Many choose to ignore offerings of such information.  I understand that impulse, we are dealing with it in our own family.  But our first priority as adoptive parents should be to obtain every shred of information we can about our children.  We ignore such information at our own peril.

Searching families ostensibly want to locate their child's birth family, yet most again act in ways that will ultimately prevent them from ever having success in their search.  Why?  Because even after all of the stories and evidence that has come out of China regarding incentive programs, Family Planning confiscations, etc., many adoptive families still cling to the idea that the information provided by the orphanage is largely true, that the director, finders and others will honestly respond to questions, and that having someone simply ask the "basics" is all that is needed to search.  In most cases, such a strategy will doom a search to failure.

To begin a successful search, families must accept and understand that there are two ways that almost all children end up in orphanages: found abandoned and reported, or pulled in through incentive programs (including Family Planning confiscations).  An adoptive family must assume that either of those situations played a role in their child's history.  Most adoptive families will fail because they don't want to consider that their child ended up in the orphanage through Family Planning activity or due to baby-buying or other incentive programs.  Unless you enter the search with your mind receptive to any possibility, you will miss key pieces of information that will lead you to the proverbial dead-end.

A successful search begins by looking at the orphanage's overall adoption patterns.  Do findings appear random?  Have any significant shifts in patterns occurred?  Does the orphanage fit the patterns for other orphanages in the area, or does it exhibit characteristics that set it apart from the other area orphanages (such as a dearth of male findings, or an abundance of infant findings).  Our Birth Parent Analysis was specifically designed to provide that information, but another source is fellow adoptive families (who, unfortunately, are almost always uncooperative).  Armed with detailed data about the "lay of the land" in a specific orphanage area, a family is ready to formulate a birth parent search strategy.

Most families begin by approaching the orphanage director, asking for information such as a police report, birth notes, etc.  Unfortunately, this is usually the last thing a family should do.  By alerting the orphanage that you are looking into your child's history, the potential exists that the orphanage will contact key people in your child's history and coach them on how to respond to your questions.  Finders will be told to stick to a "boiler plate" storyline:  "I was on my way to work, and heard a baby crying, etc., etc."  Once the orphanage contacts these key people, your chances of a successful search fade to nothing without your even realizing it.  Few will contradict the direct orders of a government official and tell you a story that contradicts what you have been told. 

Let me cite a recent example.  In researching a child's birth parents recently, we investigated the finding of a child found by a "Ms. Wei" (name changed), who worked for the orphanage.  The police report for the child indicated that Ms. Wei reported that she was on her way to the market on the morning the child was found.  As she passed the market gate, she heard some crying and glanced over and saw a baby in a box.  "What kind of parents would do such an evil thing?" Ms. Wei stated in her police report.  She went into great detail about calling the police, and the police confirmed by signature her story. The adoptive family had little reason to doubt the veracity of the events as described by Ms. Wei.

We met Ms. Wei away from the orphanage (something we learned long ago was necessary to getting good information) and asked her about the finding.  She recounted in pretty good detail the story as told in the police report, except for one difference: In our interview she said she had been on her way to work, and was passing the market.  When pressed, she finally admitted that she had not really found the child, but had been sent to pick her up from an area hospital. Her story (and the police report) had been fabricated out of whole cloth. 

A family unaware of the background at this orphanage would have accepted Ms. Wei's story, assumed that a market finding meant that locating the birth family was impossible, and never realized that the birth family was in reality a family friend. 

There is little question that if an adoptive family had approached the director and asked to talk to Ms. Wei, that he would have quietly contacted her and told her to stick to the official storyline.  An adoptive family, unaware of the finding patterns in their child's orphanage, would have then conducted an interview and received the "corporate line" about the finding.  They would have left the city never realizing how close they came to finding the truth. 

But performing a successful search required this family to acknowledge and accept the  realities of their child's orphanage -- the peculiar gender ratios, the finding location clustering, the improbable finding stories.  Our research family was willing to do that; many others aren't.  Rather, they will conduct no preliminary research into their child's orphanage, naively ask their child's orphanage director for assistance in locating and interviewing the finder, and innocently go through the steps most birth family search groups advocate.  These families will almost always meet with failure.

When we perform our searches, we make one basic assumption that has served us very well -- assume that everyone we speak to has something to hide.  In court parlance, we treat everyone as a "hostile witness".  This doesn't mean, of course, that we act rude or aggressive with finders, etc.  Rather, we probe, repeat questions, and most importantly we ask the "tough questions."  I read an account of an adoptive mother a while ago who had interviewed her daughter's finder.  She asked about the circumstances of her daughter's finding, and received the common explanation:  "I was on my way to work when . . ."  She says she studied his face to see if he was being truthful, but felt it rude to probe his story deeper.  She left with confirmation of what the orphanage had told her.  But her interview probably would have yielded more information if she had been aware that over ten children had been found at the same location, and that the orphanage displayed characteristics consistent with incentive programs.  The bottom line is to ask the difficult questions -- "Did you really find this child? Do you have an idea who the birth parents might be?  Did you receive money for reporting my child to the orphanage?"  Those are the type of questions that bring forth the truth.

There are other important points to consider, including whether to have an area resident do the asking and interviewing, or whether to do so yourself?  How does one approach police and hospital officials to get information and records?  There are many possible avenues of information, but all must be treated in just the right way to obtain that information.  And even doing everything right does not guarantee success. 

In our own research, we have discovered that a common tactic used to prevent both birth parents and adoptive families from discovering each other is to alter or switch finding information. For example, the Qichun, Hubei orphanage director admitted to one adoptive parent that “they deliberately fudged the estimated birthdate. This was routinely done, he said, specifically so that a birth family would never be able to corroborate a child's birth date should they comeback in later/months years trying to reclaim a child.”  Obviously this tactic cuts both ways -- while preventing a birth family from correctly identifying a relinquished child, it also prevents an adoptive family from having vital information for a birth parent search. 

We saw another tactic used in a recent birth parent project in Jiangxi.  While we were successful in locating numerous birth parents, many of them were birth parents for children not in our project.  This was because the orphanage had switched the police reports and finding data of our project child with another child found around the same time.  This shuffling of finding information would create obvious problems for a search.  

Not all of the hurdles of a successful search are a result of orphanage action; some involve the finders themselves.  While I have found most finders to be cooperative, often they will specifically inform us that they are unwilling to put us in touch with the birth family because of the deception that occurred in obtaining the child.  In our recent research in Jiangxi, for example, a quiet dinner with an employee of the orphanage, who was the finder of one of our research subjects, admitted that she lied to the birth family when she promised them that their daughter would be adopted by a local Chinese family and not sent to the orphanage.  She stated that this was necessary, because many people believe that internationally adopted children are used for organ donations, and thus don't survive.  Thus, even though she knew the birth family, she would not allow us to contact them since they would then know that she had deceived them.  A birth father that we located in  became ferociously angry when we tracked him down and he learned that his daughter had gone into the orphanage and had not been adopted by a local family as he had been promised.  While incentive programs often increase the chances of a successful birth family search, if the birth family was deceived into relinquishing their child to the orphanage, orphanage workers, foster families and other finders will be unwilling to cooperate for fear of reprisal from the birth family. 

Searching for birth parents requires that every assumption you have ever made about your child's finding be discarded.  It may be that the finding occurred just as you were told.  But it is more likely that your child actually was transferred, person to person, into the orphanage, and therefore a trail of custody exists.  Discovering that trail requires detective work and good interviewing skills.  Not many families do either, and for that reason will never see a reward for the expenditure of the time and money they invested into their search.