Monday, November 30, 2015

When to Search for Birth Families

I posted an essay called "10 Commandments of Birth Parent Searching" on our subscription blog this morning, which includes some important things to consider before beginning a search.  One "commandment" in particular I would like to spend some public time discussing, because I see it as of utmost importance to children in the Chinese adoption community.  The commandment is simple:

Start Now, Not Later

It is commonly asserted by some in the adoption community that searching for birth parents is the prerogative of the adoptee, and that any effort to gather information or search for birth relatives should only be done after permission is given by the child.  I believe that this is seriously wrong headed, and poses serious risk to the adoptive parents and their child.  This idea comes, I believe, from a misunderstanding of when information needs to be communicated to a child once found.

Many assume that as soon as a birth parent were to be located, that this important event would need to be told to the child.  Most adoptive parents correctly realize that knowing one's birth parents is something that a child should decide whether they are interested in or not.  I strongly believe it is up to the child how they formulate their identity -- who is part of that identity, when they are learned about, etc.  No adoptive parent should ever force the discovery of such an important piece of a child's identity upon them without their desiring it and permitting it. Our children have the right to control that information.

But that does not mean that adoptive parents must wait to begin the process to learn that information until their child expresses interest in it.  China is a rapidly changing country.  Orphanages move, nannies, foster families, finders, directors and others can move or die.  Hospital records can be moved, lost, burned, etc.  The fact is that the possibility that you will be able to locate your child's birth parents is like a piece of uranium -- the information is decaying as time goes on.  Waiting ten or twenty years will greatly decrease the chances that you will be successful.

It really all boils down to risk mitigation.  As adoptive parents we don't know whether our child will want to seek out their birth family tomorrow, next year or in 15 years.  Children change their minds as they age, enter adulthood, or have any of a thousand experiences that may cause them to question their origins.  As adoptive parents, we can either anticipate that these questions will come at some point in the future, or wait for them to come and be unprepared.  Which outcome is more serious:

1) Search for a birth family before a child desires it, and never be asked for it.
2) Don't search until a child desires it, and then have it be too late when it is asked for.

As a parent whose goal is to provide my child every opportunity to be happy and whole, I look upon the second outcome as a catastrophic failure for the child -- having a hunger and need that can never be filled -- and the first outcome as a result with little long-term consequence.  In other words, I would much prefer that my daughter never asks for the information I have already obtained about her birth family (to have wasted my efforts), then to have her one day weep when she learns that I waited and missed opportunities to learn her birth parents' identities because I didn't act when the information was still available. 

Some adoptive families, quite honestly, avoid searching because they are afraid that their child's perception of them as parents will change if the birth family is found. They have an idea that their child's life began on "Gotcha day", and that the love they give their child will suffice, will fill the need their child may have for birth family.  But the reality is that the need to know birth family develops outside of family -- it resides inside a child.  A parent can't predict if a child will want to have this knowledge down the road.  Not searching out of fear is unfair to one's child.

So, what is the best approach? Quite simply -- search and archive. Get as much information as you can, put it away, and wait for your child to ask for it.  This reduces the risk of waiting, while also allowing and empowering your child with the ability to control what s/he knows.  It leaves the ball firmly in the adoptive child's court to decide when they seek the information, but eliminates the risk that when they do want it, that time will have erased all trails and doomed their search to failure.

If a birth family is located, in almost all circumstances communication is controlled by the adoptive family. We have located scores of birth families, and the reaction of the adoptive families have ranged from flying to China to meet them on one end, to sending anonymous letters periodically to the birth family with the understanding that more indepth communication will have to wait until the child seek it on the other. It is the right of the adoptive parents to control and manage that communication.  But to avoid seeking, to avoid communicating and establishing at least initial contact with the birth family of your child prevents the birth family from knowing their child is safe and healthy, and increases the very real risk that one day one or both of them will no longer be available when your child desires contact. 

Aside from actively searching in China, another essential step is the submission of a child's DNA to 23andMe. As more and more adoptive families submit their children's DNA to this data base, important clues as to your child's origins will become available. Additionally, as birth parent DNA is entered into the data base, matches will be made that will make a search in China unnecessary.  One of the first things all adoptive families should take advantage of is the collective information available through DNA.

As adoptive parents, all of us have one goal in mind -- to provide the resources and knowledge necessary to allow our children to grow up happy and whole.  For some adoptees, the experiences and love of their adoptive parents and family will be enough to accomplish that.  For many more, at some point questions and needs will arise that we as parents won't be able to answer or satisfy.  Our job is to prepare for those questions, to do everything we can to have knowledge to provide to complete our children.  The "wait until my child asks for it" mentality, especially as it relates to the situation in China, is ultimately a risky gambit that very likely will result in unhappiness for our children. 

No comments: