Wednesday, June 02, 2021

What Is "Wide-Net" Searching"?

There has been a lot of discussion on adoption groups about our initiative launched two weeks ago regarding a new approach to birth parent searching. Like anything new, there are a lot of questions. So, here are some answers. If we don't cover your question, let us know in the comments and we can add it to this article.  

1) What is a "Wide-Net" Search, and how is it different from traditional methods of search?

Traditionally adoptive families have searched for a single birth family in China: Their child's. For the past six years, DNAConnect.Org has used a different approach: Search for any birth family in the area, and hopefully that birth family will be the direct birth family of an adoptee, or will be related as an aunt, uncle, first or second cousin, etc., to an adoptee. This approach, which we have coined a "wide-net" method of searching, has many benefits over the old way. First, under the old model if a birth family came forward with a child that was born in 1995, they would not be tested or even pursued if the child doing the search was born in 2001. Unquestionably, this resulted in missed matches, since it may be that the 1995 birth family was related to the searching adoptee more distantly. By testing the 1995 birth family, it would have been discovered that they were a first or second cousin, for example. This would then allow the adoptee to locate their own birth family by way of this other family. Fully 20% of all of our matches are a result of this kind of networking.

This presupposes, of course, the use of autosomal DNA testing, which detects these non-direct relationships. So, when any birth family comes forward, rather than trying to match them to one of the adoptees in a project, they are simply tested. It is hoped that this birth family will be related to an adoptee as a birth family member, first generation relative, or second cousin. We usually test a birth sibling (not the birth parents themselves) because then we have access to relatives on both sides of the birth couple. This is important: If you test only a birth mother for example, you will, of course, not detect any relatives on the birth father's side of the family. Thus, siblings are always tested when possible. 

So, since we are searching for any birth family in an area, the posters and social media stories don't contain any specific finding, birth, or other identifying information. The posters, for example, just contain faces of adoptees from that area, ranging in age from a few years old to an adoptee in their mid-twenties. The idea is to present faces that will get the most response from as many different birth families as possible. Thus, a project participating adoptive family is not joining the project with the goal of locating their child's specific birth family, but any birth family in the area. It is numbers game -- by having as many birth families test as possible, it is hoped that the "genetic net" will catch a lot of relatives for all adoptees from that area. 


The advantages are obvious in implementation: Traditionally search adoptive families have included personal details on their search posters, information that usually is inaccurate. A birth family might be looking for their child born on March 20, and look at a poster that has their child on it, but with a birth date of April 3 since the orphanage changed or misestimated it. They pass it by, assuming that the child can't be theirs. Or an aunt, who relinquished a child in 1998 may not pass or pay attention to a poster with a child born in 2002, not realizing that her brother also relinquished a child in that year. For these reasons, child-specific posters don't gain much "viral" traction, and thus are not seen by as many people.

By reformulating our goals as a search community from the one to the many, more birth families will be located, tested, and matched to adoptees. And the more that do, the most success we will all have.


2) How much does a "wide-net" search cost? Does DNAConnect.Org charge anything for organizing and helping a project?

DNAConnect.Org is in contact with over 600 birth families from all over China, as well as birth parents we have "friended" on various search groups scattered across China. Sadly, we are not in a position to put the necessary energy into all of these areas. But we can easily help an organized group get into touch with these area contacts to facilitate searching. There is no charge for this, as it furthers our mission to "maximize the efficiency of DNA collection for searching adoptees in China."

But the projects will cost families some money, although it will be a small fraction of what individual families pay for searchers currently. Costs of reproducing color fliers and paying a local person to go to area villages to distribute those fliers in a market, by a school, etc. would be divided up among participant families, but would seldom be more than $100 per family. Some groups are hiring Jane to do these, which would increase the costs greatly, but this is not necessary. Lan can often help find a local birth sibling that can be hired for a lot less. But the project leader will work with the project group to determine how they want to conduct the search. We offer strategic support. 

So, as a bottom-line answer: Each project group decides how much a search in their area will cost. 

3) How does one join a project, and am I limited to joining just my child's orphanage group?

As is now well known, children moved around China prior to adoption. Thus, some families often wonder if joining another group might be helpful. A family whose child is from Changning, Hunan, for example, may want to join the Wuchuan, Guangdong search project, since so many children originated there. While we understand that impulse, keep in mind that we are not searching for specific birth families, but all birth families. Adoptive families in Wuchuan will be searching for birth families in that area. Thus, there is little need to join more groups than the one your child is from.

To join a project, simply email us at "BrianStuy@Research-China.Org". We will put you on our list and send you a confirmation email. If there is an established search group already up and running, we will forward your email address to the group leader, who will get you up to speed on the project. If you are among the first to write us from a specific area, we will let you know when enough families from your area have registered to form a group. Either way, you will be in a group. While some of the smaller orphanages are still needing participants, most of the larger orphanages have already got groups up and running (30 groups are already formed and operational).

4) How long does a project run?

 While most traditional search projects involve hiring a searcher to go into an area, put up a bunch of posters, and then leave, "wide-net" projects go for a long time, at least a few years. We call this the "Wuchuan Effect." We started with a single birth family in Wuchuan and through repeated social networking, leveraging successful matches, etc., have over 100 birth families located in that single area. Other areas such as Ningdu, Jiangxi and Quzhou, Zhejiang, have seen great success in the same way. So, this project runs for a long time, with new methods being employed, new and fresh social media campaigns being created, etc. Once set up, a "wide-net" project needs never to end. It is up to the families of the project.  

5) How is DNA collected once a birth family is located?

To maximize efficiency, and to make it easier on the project families, all search posters, articles, etc., have Lan's WeChat code imbedded in it. Thus, a birth family is put in direct contact with Lan once they scan her code. Lan then starts the dialogue with them -- when was your child born? How was the child relinquished? Does the birth family have any knowledge of where the child went? Was the child born in a hospital or through a midwife? Lan then arranges for a member of the birth family to be tested using an autosomal test. 

By having a native Chinese person interfacing with them directly, the birth family is much more likely to conduct a test. All birth family DNA is then processed and uploaded to GedMatch. Any adoptee interested in searching should get themselves tested as soon as possible (23andMe is the dominant DNA testing data base for Chinese adoptees) and upload their DNA to GedMatch no matter which company they use. 

I understand the attraction of hiring a searcher to search for your child's birth family, but it must be understood that due to the fabrication that took place in most situations, such an expenditure of large amounts of financial resources truly benefits only one person -- the searcher. In the vast majority of cases, this route provides little of use to the individual family, and certainly not to the adoption community itself. By pulling our energies together -- fishing with a net rather than a hook -- we will reap far more success as a community than if each of us fishes individually. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Evaluating Your GedMatch Results

You have submitted your DNA to 23andMe.com, and have uploaded them to GedMatch. You have your relative's list, and you wonder, what does it all mean?

This essay will hopefully help you make sense of those results, and help you to use them to further your search. But first, it is important to know what GedMatch is, and what its limitations are.

GedMatch is an open data base, as opposed to 23andMe, Ancestry and others, which are a closed data bases. "Closed" means that you can't put DNA from another source into 23andMe, for example, but you must buy their kit to be included in their data base. GedMatch is an "open" data base since you can upload DNA from a wide variety of processors, including 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage, etc. This is a huge benefit, since it allows people to just upload their results from 23andMe, Ancestry, etc., and be able to compare their DNA profile with thousands of samples processed by other companies. This saves a ton of money, since we don't have to purchase more than one test. This feature is the primary reason we upload all of our birth parent DNA samples to GedMatch.

So, let's take a look at the results of one of our kits and see what typical results may look like (click on image to enlarge). 






So, the basics: Column 1 is the kit number of your relative. You can click on this link to see THEIR relative's list. Column 2 (The "A") prefills your kit and the profile to the left into the one-to-one comparison. You can run different tests to see what segments of your DNA match, etc. It is not necessary to really get too involved with this feature, but just know that it is there. Column 3 is the name of the profile, column 4 is the email contact for the profile. This is valuable information if you decide to contact this person (more on that below). Column 5 ("Largest Seg") is the largest continuous segment of DNA you share with the person. Generally speaking, each time a person's DNA is "mixed" through reproduction the DNA is fractured into pieces. Thus, the further away from another person you are biologically, the smaller the fragments of the shared DNA you both received from your common ancestor will be. Column 6 ("Total CM") is the total common DNA you share. In other words, it is the sum of all common DNA segments, the longest segment from column 5, and all of the smaller segments. Both of these metrics will be larger the closer you are in relatedness to the other person. 

Both column 5 and 6 are combined to arrive at the most important column in your list: Column 7, the "Gen" column. This is the most imformative column for searching purposes, because this number tells you an estimation of how many generations separate you from the other person. For searching purposes, you are looking for a "Gen" number of less than 3. Without getting too technical, a "3" means that you shared a great-grand parent as a common ancestor, meaning that you are second cousins (A great resource for interpreting GedMatch's "Gen" numbers can be found here). Depending on who was tested, a match of "3" or less could possibly be leveraged to locating a birth family, depending on how familiar the other person is with their family tree. But assuming the other person has parents still alive, and those parents know their first cousins, it would be possible to network and test the various branches of that small tree to locate birth parents.

Column 8 ("Overlap") is a fairly technical column, and is explained here. We don't use this column at all, but if you wish to get into the weeds it gives value. Column 9 is the date that your sample and the other persons were first compared. When you first upload your sample to GedMatch, every one of your relatives will have the same date -- the date your kit was processed. But, over time, new kits will be added to your list as new samples of other people are added. So, if a match appears with a later date than your upload date, that is an indication that the new match is a recent addition to your relative's list.  

Column 10 is also a very important column, and you may want to refer back to the image I included above. I already mentioned that the ability to compare DNA from various platforms is one of GedMatch's strengths, but in a sense it is also a weakness. In computer programing, this weakness is called "GIGO," or "Garbage in, garbage out." Not all DNA processing companies are created equal for matching purposes. The gold standard is 23andMe, which currently tests 640,000 SNPs (segments of your genome that are different among people). The more SNPs that are tested, the finer the "resolution" is for your DNA. It is like a TV -- the more pixels, the better the picture. 23andMe has the highest number of "pixels" (SNPs) in the industry. Ancestry, FamilyTree, and MyHeritage compare a similar number, but there is small variation between companies as to which "SNPs" are tested. For matching purposes, it doesn't matter because with that many data points being compared, true relationships can be accurately determined. Thus, if you match to a relative that used 23andMe, or Ancestry, or one of the other premium testing companies, the match you see will be a solid, accurate match. 

The problem is when the match is to a non-US company like 23Mofang or WeGene. When you look at our listing above, our top match is with *Anna, at 3.1 generations. One might normally think this is a solid match, just outside our search window, but close! However, when we see what company *Anna used for her DNA processing, we see that she left it blank. Without knowing which company she used, we can't determine how reliable that relationship is. Why? Let's take a look at our second match to see.

"Theo" tested with 23Mofang, and is our second closest match at 3.5 generations. Why does this name look familiar to most Chinese adoptees? Because this sample appears of many lists. 





He Qian is a birth mother living in Hengyang City, Hunan, while Yang Ping lives in Wuhu, Anhui and Yang Man Xiu, the sample at the beginning of this article, lives in Ningdu, Jiangxi. None of these people are related, but all three share "Theo" as a common relative at around 3 generations. 

How can this be?

The problem lies in the fact that 23Mofang and WeGene look at different SNPs than 23andMe, Ancestry, and other western processors. As 23Mofang detailed it, "We undertook modifications to some of the loci of the array to improve its applicability to the genome of the Chinese population." In other words, 23Mofang (as well as WeGene) tests different genetic markers than 23andMe, Ancestry, etc. That is why kits from these Chinese data bases often show up near the top of Chinese adoptee's relatives lists. But sadly, these relationships are almost always exaggerated. 

So, when you get your results, you should probably ignore any matches that show a blank testing company, or that list 23Mofang and WeGene. Assume these are not valid matches. Common names that appear over and over include:

Acheng Zhaoye (WeGene)

Anna (Blank)

Chinese Korean (Blank)

Dongguan Chen (Blank)

Guangzhou (WeGene)

Huangxin (23Mofang)

Theo (23Mofang)

So, after eliminating suspect matches, the next thing to do it reach out to your top 5-10 relatives (4 generations or closer) to ask them what part of China they originated from. You are not looking to utilize these matches for searching purposes (only <3 generations will help with that), but seeing if your somewhat near relatives are from the same area of China as you or your child. We all realize by now that just because an adoptee was adopted from orphanage X in no way makes it certain that the birth family of that adoptee is from that orphanage area. The movement of children from one area to another for adoption was/is prevalent. So, if you contact five near relatives and they cluster around Western Guangdong, for example, and you or your child was adopted from an orphanage in Hunan, those relatives suggest you were not born in the immediate orphanage area. It is not certain, of course, but suggestive. But it may help you expand your view of where to search. 

To summarize: GedMatch relatives closer than 3 generations are useful for birth parent searching. Most families inside China are aware of first and second cousins in their families, so networking close relatives is possible to locate a birth family. 

Matches more distant are helpful for triangulation purposes, to suggest other areas of China that a birth family may have lived or at least originated from. We have seen this in our own family's search activity -- our daughter's first cousin match (an adoptee) is from a small orphanage at the other end of the Province. We are now focused on locating this other adoptee's birth family because we know if we locate hers, we will locate our own daughter's. 

And matches from 23Mofang and WeGene are not commonly usable for either purpose.  








Monday, January 04, 2021

It Is Time For the Adoption Community to Take Searching Seriously

Last week we were informed that one of the birth parents we tested had died. While most of the birth families we have met are between 30 and 60 years old, as time moves on the number of birth parents passing away will only increase. It is time that the adoption community collectively begins to take searching seriously, and take steps to maximize the efficiency of our collective efforts. Today, the searching has been by-and-large a collection of single efforts to locate specific birth families, with each adoptee and their family expending valuable time and efforts for their own search, with little attention being paid to the needs and success of the community as a whole. This must change. This essay is written with the desire to reframe the search efforts of everyone searching in China. The goal is for all of us to work so that the maximum number of birth families can be reunited with the largest number of adoptees, including our own. 

The following essay was originally given in the 2015 Heritage Camp of adoptees and their parents in Colorado.  It is hoped that the steps presented here will help any family in their search. 

____________________________


The idea of searching for our child's birth family is fraught with all kinds of emotional and financial currents.  What will happen if we are successful? How much will it cost?  Should I conduct a search before my child expresses an interest in searching?  While most of the answers will depend on variables unique to each situation, some basic foundational principles nevertheless apply to all searches. I have composed a list of ten commandments that everyone should consider before beginning a search. These commandments are largely chronological, in that the early commandments address concerns at the beginning of a search, and later commandments address issues that arise in a search itself. While targeting the adoptive parents as the primary audience, adoptees are also an important component and can easily place themselves into the intended readers. 

  1. Put Aside Your Own Fears
First, we need to acknowledge that searching, and finding, birth parents can be scary.  “Will they want my child back?” “How will finding my child's birth parents change my relationship with my child?” Anyone that has considered searching have had such questions run through their minds.  But the thing to keep in mind is that these fears are often about our fears as adoptive parents. They don't address the importance this may have for our children.  In other words, it is about our own insecurities, not what may be best for our children. Thus, the first commandment of searching is to put aside our own fears, and focus on what may be most important for our children. If we keep their needs (now and in the future) in the forefront, these decisions become easier. 

Adoptees tell us this. Zoë Halbeisen, a recent adoptee that we matched to her birth family in China, describes her experience thusly:

"I never felt like I had a piece of myself missing. I accepted the fact that I would probably never know my birth parents or my true origins. You can imagine my shock when a spontaneous DNA test turned into the biggest adventure of my life. I just wanted to find out if I was really 100% Chinese, and I ended up finding out much more. Connecting with my birth family has been an amazing and fulfilling journey. As an adoptee it’s hard not to question your history or wonder why you weren’t wanted. But I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was loved by a whole family an ocean away who never gave up or forgot about me. The best thing has been getting to know them and getting to know myself. I’ve loved learning about my history and culture. After meeting my family in China its all the little moments that are my favorites. Just staying up late talking to my birth sisters, going shopping at the mall, eating way too many dumplings, all these normal things were so extraordinary. Being loved by parents so far away, having similarities with sisters I’d never met, walking the streets where I was born, visiting the village of my grandparents, these were all things that I never thought would be possible. On an existential level its made me feel more whole and connected with who I am. By having all these questions answered I feel a sense of peace that I didn’t even know I needed. It feels good knowing I’ve given that peace and closure to my birth family as well. I could’ve never taken that DNA test, and I could’ve gone my whole life not knowing my birth family, but I would’ve never felt this level of acceptance with myself, or had known how much love one can feel. Now my family has doubled in size and I can’t wait to keep making memories with them."

As we talk to other adoptees, we repeatedly hear what Zoë communicated: It is not a replacement of family, but a growing of it. There are no downsides to being reunited. No family in China has asked for anything, no adoptee has ever been pressured or even asked about returning to China. It was for most adoptees just a filling of the emotional and intellectual hole of not knowing so much about their early history. 

  1. Start Now, Not Later
There is an unfortunate meme in the adoption community that searching for birth parents should be instigated by the adoptee, and not the adoptive parents. Many who embrace this idea are themselves afraid of searching, due to fear.  But the reality, especially in China, is that waiting until a child is 15 or 18 years old to decide to search will almost certainly doom a search.  China's population is very mobile, with huge numbers of people moving to cities for work, marriage, or other reasons.  Buildings are torn down, new ones built, nannies retire or quit, finders forget details. Keep in mind that even if an adoptee (or her adoptive parents) are not ready to have contact with a birth family, gathering information early, rather than late, for when and if an adoptee is ready for contact, will make later contact a possibility, when and if desired. In addition, a birth parent’s heart may receive healing simply by knowing that their child is alive.     

Time is the enemy for successful birth parent searching. 

The problem lies, I believe, in the assumption that an adoptee must know that a search is taking place, that they need to be aware of every development.  As I wrote about on our blog, for many it is an all or none undertaking – either I don't search and wait for my child to indicate a desire, but probably dooming our search, or I do the search now and involve my child against their will. 

The correct path, I believe, is a middle-of-the-road approach.  This involves searching, and stockpiling any information you learn until your child expresses an interest. So you search, but wait to inform your child until they desire it.  For me as a parent, it is risk mitigation  – Would I rather search for the birth family and have my child never express an interest in learning about her birth parents, or would I rather wait until she expresses an interest before searching, and having the waiting doom the chances of a successful search, leaving my child wondering for the rest of her life “what could have been.”  In my mind, the first risk is small, the second quite catastrophic.  

To put a finer point on the question – I view my job as a parent generally as primarily one of doing everything I can to help my child be happy in life, to be a whole person, to be in control of their own destiny. If I do (or don't do) anything that might impede that end result, I feel that is a dereliction of duty as a parent.

So, how would it go?  You search as much as possible, and if successful (or even if not) you periodically tell your child something like “You know, if you ever feel you want to know more about your time in the orphanage or your birth family, just let me know, and I can help you find answers.” This empowers your child to make the decision of when they want to know, how much, etc. They are in control. You don't need to say, “Listen I know who your birth parents are, so if you want to know what they look like or who they are, just ask.”  This does not empower a child, but takes away their control, since you have already pushed information onto them. 

This “middle path” allows you to take advantage of the opportunities available by not waiting a long period of time, but retains an adoptee's right to control her pursuit of information. As a result, the risk of having a failed search due to lost opportunities is greatly reduced.

We experienced this first hand with our youngest daughter. Adopted in 2004 at three years old, we learned who her birth family was when she was eight. Around dinner one evening shortly after learning the birth family's identity, we asked all three of our daughter's if they had a desire to learn about their birth family. My youngest said she didn't care. So we waited. A few more years went by, with us sending occasional letters to the birth family, but Lan and I not tipping the hand to our daughter. We would touch base occasionally. Finally, at eleven, our youngest expressed an interest to know what they looked like. Lan showed her a photo of her birth family. We totally expected a flood of questions like "How did you get this photo?" "What are their names?", etc. Nothing. Our daughter was satisfied for the moment. For a long moment. Finally, at eighteen, she asked if we knew who her birth family was. She was ready, ten years after we had located the birth family.

We allowed her to decide when, if ever, she was ready to learn of her birth family. But we began searching as soon as she was adopted so that we would not miss any opportunity to be able to help her when she was ready. Adoptees want control of the information and when it is presented, but few that understand the search issues in China truly want their parents to do nothing for eighteen or more years.  

  1. Discount Everything You Were Told
You have thought about it, and are ready to begin searching. The first actual step to a successful search is to discount everything you were told by the orphanage about your child's finding.  I am not saying it is all a pack of lies, but approach all of it with an open mind, making no assumptions that any of it is accurate.  This can be very, very hard to do.  The adoption trip is an emotional experience.  There is a huge feeling of love and bonding that occurs between ourselves and our child.  We emotionally bond with our guide, who takes us on this wonderful journey, and we often experience an emotional connection to the orphanage director, nannies, etc.  As a result, we feel a loyalty to them.  We come home and often fund-raise for the orphanage, we send letters and pictures back, etc.  We feel like we have a relationship of trust, that we are all on the same page. 

But the reality is that this is rarely the case.  Many directors are actually actively lying to you with a smile on their face, working behind the scenes to prevent you from learning the truth about your child's origins and early life. They will take you in the orphanage van to your child's finding location, point to where she was found, even bring forward the person that found her in a basket with some powdered milk and some clothes. All of this is to assure you that what you have been told is true. 

It may be.  But it probably isn't. 

Your job in searching is to see beyond the frequently fabricated finding stories and find the truth.  Keep an open mind.  Don't accept anything as fact until you have tested it.  Don't let your emotional connection cloud your judgment and the search steps you undertake. 

I experienced this first hand in my search for the birth family of my oldest daughter. Her adoption paperwork listed two female finders who supposedly found her at the Civil Affairs Bureau one Summer morning in 1997. I discussed this experience in Nanfu Wang's "One Child Nation."  When I went back to her orphanage in 2000, I asked the orphanage if I could meet these women.  When I got there, one of the women was there waiting.  I had my guide interpret for me as I asked her how she had come to find my daughter.  She said that she and her friend were on their way to work one morning, and as they approached the entrance to the Civil Affairs Bureau they heard a baby crying.  They walked over to a large tree, and found a cardboard box with a two-day old baby inside.  She was dressed in a red and white dress, "like those worn by farmer families," and had some cash, an empty bottle, and some powdered milk with her.  As this finder told me her story, I could see exactly what she was describing, as I had been to the Civil Affairs Bureau many times. When I asked about the other finder, I was told she had since moved away. I treasured her recounting of my daughter's finding, appreciating the immense detail she had given me. I was absolutely certain, given the unprompted details she had provided, that my daughter had actually been found as described. 

Ten years later, my wife and I began to dig more deeply into my daughter's orphanage data, and began to notice patterns that caused us to question our daughter's story.  So, Lan returned to the orphanage area, and dropped in on the women I had met ten years earlier.  My wife noticed that the finder was nervous when Lan began asking her questions, and kept asking if Lan had already visited the orphanage and gotten permission to talk with her.  Lan brushed these concerns aside, insisting that all she wanted to know was how she had found our daughter.  The woman professed no recollection of the details.  When Lan asked her about the other woman, she again insisted that she had moved away.  "Do you have her cell number?" Lan asked.  Yes.  After leaving, Lan called the number, and told the woman on the other end of the call who she was, and that she would like to take her to dinner. When she told the woman she was in Dianbai, the woman excitedly told Lan she was about 15 minutes away.  "I understood you had moved away," Lan told her.  "Oh no, I am just returning from a meeting in Maoming, about 30 minutes away."

A few minutes after Lan hung up with the second finder, she called Lan back. "I am sorry.  I can't have you take me to dinner.  We never found your daughter.  Our names were simply put into the finding document by the orphanage.  We had nothing to do with your daughter's finding."  As I reflect on my experience with the woman I had met in 2000, I realized that the orphanage had carefully prepped her before I had gotten there, given her a story to tell, and for ten years I had assumed it was the truth.  

Which leads us to the next commandment.

  1. Get to Know Your Child's Orphanage
So, how does one go about assessing the validity of their child's orphanage information? This is challenging for one main reason: Most adoptive families have been convinced by their agencies and the adoption community in general that their child's history should be private, and not to be shared with others. This mentality makes it difficult to gain a broad view of the overall orphanage landscape.  As a result, you see one tree (your child) and don't see the forest of all findings.  You are unable to answer questions such as how many kids were found at the same location as your child (important to ascertain validity), how many children were found the same day as your child (helps determine if Family Planning was a factor), etc.  By gaining a broad view of your child's orphanage you can assess the likelihood that their finding info is accurate or not, and whether the orphanage is engaged in unethical behaviors that will have an impact on your search. 

Let's take a look at how this would work in practice.  Imagine that you surveyed a thousand families in your city or town, and asked them where they would leave a child of theirs if they needed to.  A few of these families might say a neighbor who they know is childless, others might say an area school.  Others might choose a small business that an area resident owns, others might choose a hospital.  Most would probably avoid government offices, since that would decrease the odds of being caught and punished, but certainly a few might choose these kinds of locations. Of the 1000 answers, you would have a wide spectrum of answers.  Not all would be unique, but if you mapped out the finding locations it would appear something like this.


Now, let's compare this pattern to what we see in many orphanages.  Here is a three-month listing of children found in the Fengcheng orphanage in Jiangxi Province.  What do you see? One sees many of the locations being used over and over again. 


One can see the same thing in another orphanage, this one in Guangdong. The Jiangcheng orphanage has the same pattern of repeated locations.  In fact, when one maps the locations in Jiangcheng, one sees that they are almost all found within eyesight of two main areas – the orphanage and the People's Hospital.  There is little question that these locations aren't accurate.


Research-China.Org's goal is to provide adoptive families with the “forest” surrounding their child's finding to prevent them from wasting valuable time and money using search strategies that will be useless at best, and counter-productive at worst.  Many families approach their search assuming that their child truly was in fact found on the side of the road, and therefore they feel that they need to do posters, news stories, and other ideas to reach as many people as possible.  While those adoptive families are employing these strategies, the orphanage could be contacting the person who brought the child into the orphanage to alert them that the family is searching, telling them not to cooperate, and to make sure the adoptive family doesn't meet with success.  Thus, it is very important to know what you are dealing with before doing anything. Our "Birth Parent Search Analysis" looks into the patterns described above, and provides you with an assessment of how reliable the finding information is, whether Family Planning was involved, etc., as well as giving you a roadmap of the most effective steps to take if you decide to conduct a search.  

  1. Befriend Foster Families, Nannies, etc.
Wouldn't it be great to have someone “on the inside” that could help give you the true information about the orphanage and your child?  Perhaps this person had records that contained the names of your child's birth family.  Many adoptive families overlook a primary source of usable intel in their search: Foster families and nannies.

Foster families are usually hired by the orphanage to care for children in their homes from the time they arrive until they are adopted. They are uniquely qualified to know what is going on inside the orphanage. But usually the orphanage treats them so poorly that they have no loyalty to the orphanage and especially the director. For that reason, they are great sources of information because they know a lot, and aren't afraid to talk.

That was what we found in Yifeng, Jiangxi.  When we met with foster families, many of them had vaccination booklets for children they had cared for.  Although they were supposed to give them back, one foster mother had “accidentally” lost it, and still had it in her drawer.  This vaccination record showed that the child had been born in another Province and brought to Yifeng. It also had the names and residential information of the birth parents. 

Foster families we have met have reported being visited by birth families while they cared for their children prior to adoption. The truth is that foster families are one of the most important avenues of information. They may not know a lot about a specific child, but they always know information about what is going on in the orphanage, and that can be very important info for a searching adoptive family.

  1. Start Small
As you may have noticed, we have started discussing how to search and have not even talked about posters, news stories, etc., commonly used by adoptive families. That is for a very good reason: Such methods rarely work. I didn't say NEVER work, but rarely.  Unfortunately, these methods get a lot of play in the adoption community, so more effort is made to incorporate such “shotgun” ideas than they deserve. Additionally, using such methods too soon can damage your search success by needlessly alerting the orphanage that you are searching, allowing them a chance to contact and command a finder, foster family, etc., to refuse to cooperate should you then track them down. 

In your search, you should always start small and work larger.  It is much more effective to interact with a finder/foster mother/nanny, for example, and find out that the majority of children come from hospitals outside the city, than to blanket the city with posters that the birth family will never see. Recently we spoke with a foster mother of a closed orphanage who told us that almost all of the children adopted from the orphanage had been brought in from other cities in the Province; few originated in the area. But the problem is even larger than that. A lot of birth families are told that their child will be adopted by a local family. These birth families could look at the smiling face of a child on a poster and think, “That can't be my child, since this child was adopted to the U.S. My daughter was adopted by a local family,” and walk away. Combine this general problem with the fact that most searching families use incorrect birth dates, finding locations, etc. Posters and news stories may make it feel like something is being done, but they should only be attempted after every possible “discreet” method is tried.

  1. Use Social Media
You have a lot of info about the orphanage, and you are ready to start a search. One of the first steps is to get QQ International and WeChat and start contacting people in your child's orphanage area. Often the people on social media are young, mostly college students, and eager to help.  They may not get you to the finish line, but they can help you locate people, get behind the scenes information, look for records, etc.  QQ/WeChat is a great way to get in touch with people who live in the area, and will be able to help you understand factors that you face in searching.

One mistake searching adoptees and their families make is to spread information about themselves that is not accurate (on posters, etc.). 

Birth dates, finding dates, finding locations, and other information contained in a finding ad or adoption paperwork may be, and probably is, inaccurate. Keep the information vague to get the attention of as many birth parents as possible. Not only will your posting get more attention, but you will increase the chances of actually being seen by the birth family. By including inaccurate or falsified information, you are only making it more likely that the family you are searching for will pass over your posting thinking that since the finding location was not in reality used, that you must not be their child. Using a wider social media net will increase your chances of success, and will also allow other birth families to be located, helping the search community.  

  1. Be Careful Who You Use to Search and Their Issues
There are several “searchers” inside China that are very willing to assist an adoptive family in searching, but some are more effective and trustworthy than others. Like directors, these searchers are very friendly, beloved by many, but largely ineffective in actually locating birth familiesespecially if general background research and analysis of the orphanage history and the reliability of the adoptee’s finding place has not been conducted in advance. Private searchers are much more likely to be successful, if such advance research has been done Some of the problem lies in the previous relationship many of these searchers have with orphanage directors, and the significant conflict of interest these relationships represent. Since a searcher relies on the goodwill of the orphanage staff, their loyalty will be with the orphanage if problematic issues are discovered. This "split loyalty" should be kept in mind when considering a searcher. We have written about a few of these searchers on our blog, so won't go into too much detail here.  Whoever you use, make sure you get a clear idea what will be done for the money, and make sure it overlaps well with what you know about the orphanage.  In other words, don't pay for posters when interviews are called for.

  1. Submitting DNA to 23andMe/GedMatch
Whatever your position relative to searching, at a minimum you need to submit your child's DNA to 23andMe and then upload the results to GedMatch. 23andMe is the largest data base of Chinese adoptee DNA in the world. GedMatch is a free "consolidation data base," where DNA from 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage, etc., can be uploaded for matching across platforms. Our sister company, DNAConnect.org, submits all DNA that we collect from birth families to GedMatch. Aside from a ton of fascinating information, you might find a connection to a sibling, cousin, or even a birth family. Trying to save a few bucks by purchasing an Ancestry.com or other company's kit is ok if you have done 23andMe already, but don't hurt yourself and your search by not getting 23andMe as the first test. Just don't do it.  

An area where the China adoption search community is significantly hurting itself is in the collection of birth parent DNA of families located during searches in China. By not focusing our attention on getting birth parent DNA into the most effective autosomal data base, we make searching more expensive and less successful for everyone. 

There are a few autosomal DNA companies that can be used to test a birth family, but the most important thing to remember is to make sure whatever company is used, that the DNA is uploaded to GedMatch. The most widely used data base for birth parent testing is again 23andMe, but this company explicitly states they will not knowingly accept a sample that originates in China. Several alternatives exist, however, if you find this problematic. MyHeritage, Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA all accept DNA samples from China, so sending those kits to China to collect birth parent DNA is possible (MyHeritage will even ship the kit to China for you). The primary objective with ANY birth parent DNA is to get it into a data base where it could be most easily matched to adoptees. Those are 23andMe and GedMatch. As long as you test the birth family with an autosomal test that allows you to upload the results to GedMatch, it will be most easily accessible for adoptees to match to. 

But why is an autosomal test so important? To understand the power of autosomal testing, imagine you are walking through a dark forest with just a small pen flashlight. You can only see a super limited area in front of you. Now imagine instead you have a large, big-battery flashlight which lights up the entire area in front of you. That is the difference is power of simple paternity/maternity tests using allele technology when compared to autosomal tests. With the allele tests used by MyTapRoot and others, the only possible match is with a parent to a child. In other words, the match must be a direct hit; sadly, extended family members are not detected with these tests. With autosomal testing such as 23andMe, Ancestry, etc., not only is a direct hit detected, but also near misses such as siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Additionally, even further relatives such as second cousins can be detected and networked to locate birth families. Quite simply, autosomal testing magnifies the detection "flashlight" hundreds of percent. Instead of detecting just one match, it can result in the detection of 20 or more possible matches. As an adoption community we simply should not be supporting ANY effort to put Chinese birth parent DNA into any non-autosomal data base. If a birth family agrees to be tested a second time (many won't), then other alternatives can be explored. But the first time a birth family is found and tested, we MUST get them tested with autosomal technology and uploaded to GedMatch for matching with international adoptees. 

The problem is deeper than just relationship detection. Chinese birth parents are very skeptical of going to the police to be tested, often with good reasons. Not only are they skeptical of the police in general, but experience has shown that the police are often not on the same page when it comes to reuniting separated parents and children. As one searching birth father wrote Lan, "Families who have lost children are almost all the people at the bottom [of the social ladder]. It’s very easy for [illegally obtained] children to be brought in to be registered, and you can spend money to do that. Suppose I were the director of the police station, and I helped many families who bought [from traffickers] their children to register the children illegally. I would not send the blood samples of these children to [the data base], because a match is evidence of a crime." (See here and here for well-known examples of this kind of story). This is one of the main differences between eastern and western experience -- the police in China often bury evidence, secretly throw away blood samples, etc., to protect the government and each other, as well as the financial business they receive from registering black-market children. The buying side of the black market are usually wealthy families, while the other side, as pointed out above, are the poor and uneducated. Thus, the political power resides with the buyers of trafficked children. One birth father that we met had himself tested five times with the police. Each time, the police apparently told the father his sample would be included in the police data base, but in each instance his sample was thrown away. It was only when he tested with a sixth police station, that did submit his DNA (because he insisted that he witness the entire process), that he located his son inside China.

It is this skepticism that will prevent the police data base from ever being a successful matching tool for international adoptees. The dominant population inside China that does go to the police are those whose children were kidnapped, since legally they are on the "right side." Those who relinquished children illegally, the vast majority of the birth parents of our children, will not submit their DNA of their own accord to the police data base. Since most of us are looking for just this segment of the population, using an inside-China allele test will fail to locate the birth parents we are searching for. Of course, it doesn't cost much for us to send in our child's DNA through MyTapRoot to compare, but it truly is the longest of shots, and is the reason that success has been limited to mostly targeted matches -- ones where the birth family came forward with information regarding the identity of the adoptee (adoptive parents names, etc.), the adoptee was contacted and told to put their DNA into the data base, and the match made. The adoption community must understand that ANY DNA data base can make "targeted" matches. To be viable for the Chinese search community, the data base must be able to make random matches, where the birth family and the adoptee are not known prior to the match. This is the way most adoptee will locate their birth families, and as a community we must make sure we all contribute to that data base. Right now, that data base is the combination of 23andMe and GedMatch, but primarily GedMatch.

Again, this is not meant to slight any particular program, but to promote "best practices." Because autosomal DNA tests are absolutely the most successful at locating birth parents (fully 20% of our matches began as "indirect" hits that we networked to the birth family), as a community we should make sure that any birth parent we locate inside China is first tested autosomally. While 23andMe is the best data base since so many adoptees have already tested there, any autosomal DNA company will work as long as the results are then uploaded to GedMatch. Only after this test is done should a birth family be told to do other tests. Only then.

I call on everyone that interfaces with a birth parent in China to first collect a sample for autosomal processing. If the birth family agrees to doing a second test, an allele test inside China is fine. But no birth family should be sent to the police station or other location to be tested with an allele test if the autosomal test has not been done. Doing this damages the search efforts of all, and is not good searching practice.  

To re-emphasize: The largest component of the search community inside China are birth families whose children were taken from them, either by a kidnapper or by Family Planning. Relatively few of the families who relinquished their child willingly will be actively searching. As a percentage of the international adoption pool this is a small segment of the birth parents we are searching for (Although Family Planning confiscations are not rare, as a percentage of the total it is smaller than willfully relinquished children, and kidnapped children are a smaller segment still). The birth families that we are looking for are the "silent majority", those who relinquished children and are not even searching. These families will not go to the police to put their DNA into a data base, because culturally they have no right to do so (They view themselves as having given up their child for another family to raise, and most Chinese families keep these adoptions a secret, even from the child. Thus, there is no point to searching, these birth parents believe). The only way these families will be tested is by locating them, letting them know their child is possibly searching for them, and asking them to spit into the autosomal DNA vial. This is the best and most successful method of searching, and the one that will result in the greatest number of matches for the community. Conversely, most adoptees will never do an allele test and submit it to a Chinese data base. Nearly all adoptees do 23andMe as their first test, and most never do another. 

Allele tests suffer from a triple downside: Poor matching characteristics, poor participation by the Chinese birth parent side, and poor participation by the international adoptee side. 

If you do go to China to search and meet a birth family, even if they are not your child's birth family, get contact information so that DNA can be collected for inclusion into the GedMatch data base.  Either arrange yourself for them to be autosomally tested, or contact DNAConnect.Org and we will arrange for them to be tested for free.  Do not encourage or facilitate birth families to test with allele testing inside China until AFTER they have submitted their DNA for insertion into GedMatch. Since many will refuse to do a second test, this insures that their DNA is put into the most effective and likeliest data base that will locate their child, and allow other matches to be achieved. In this way, over time, more and more searches can be successful. There is no cost for doing so, and you just might change an adoptee's life!! 

  1. Stay in Yearly Contact
You have searched, and have successfully located your child’s birth family.  Now what?

First, realize that the birth family is just as uncertain as you are. They never thought that anyone would try finding them. They are not interested in having their birth child back, and they are thrilled that she will have a better life than they could have provided. 

But now that they have been contacted, they will want to know that their child is doing ok.  In our research, many, many times we have been asked if the kids adopted by Westerners are healthy and happy.  This is because there is an idea, especially in rural China, that foreigners adopt Chinese babies to use for nefarious reasons such as organ harvesting, the result of a story from the late 1980s. So, you should do everything you can to reassure the birth family that their child is happy and healthy. This need not involve your child directly, but may be as simple as a yearly letter with some updated photos.  This will allow you to remain in contact, but also allows your child the space needed to determine when, or if, they want to make direct contact.  

There are community benefits to doing this. Many of the birth families we have located were found as a result of a successful match to a family member or friend. In other words, birth families talk to other birth families, and if the matching experience was a positive one, then the matched birth family will "spread the word." This is critical for the adoption community. If we are to ever locate a majority of the birth families inside China, we need the help of people inside China, especially first-hand witnesses like birth families, to help us. So, as an adoptee/adoptive family who has been successful, the burden is on you to magnify that success by encouraging that word is spread. 

So, to recap:

1) Test your child or yourself with 23andMe first. Don't go for the cheapest option, go for the most effective one.

2) Educate yourself about the reality of the China adoption program. While many of us entered the program assuming that our children were abandoned at some location, we now know that such a scenario is seldom based in fact. In fact most children arriving at orphanages were brought there directly, often by relatives or professional intermediaries and sometimes by family planning officials who had seized the child. Communicate with your child that the information provided by the orphanage is probably inaccurate, and that films like "One Child Nation" and other sources of data show that their adoption story may be much more complicated than previously assumed. 

3) Learn about your orphanage before you start a search. We just matched an adoptee from Huazhou city orphanage with a birth parent in Wuchuan City, some distance away. All of the searching, posters, etc., will not work if this is the situation you are in. 

4) Require searchers inside China to provide you with the contact information for ANY birth parents that come forward. Make this a requirement to hiring them. Test all located birth families with an autosomal DNA test and get that DNA into GedMatch. This can be done yourself (if you buy the kits and agree to remain in contact with them for the next two decades, as well as work the "near hits") or send the info to DNAConnect.Org for free testing. We have the infrastructure inside China to make it all very easy. If you provide such contact information, any future match to your child through DNAConnect.Org will also be free of fees to you.  

5) Open your heart to the benefits of reunion. Every adoptee that we have matched has been benefited by knowing their actual life story, not the myth that the orphanage provided, which is emotionally damaging. Many adoptees are understandably angry and reluctant to search/make contact with birth family due to internal anger and grief that mistakenly are based on orphanage fabrications.  We saw this first-hand this week when we attempted to contact an adoptee whose birth family we have located in China. After forwarding a letter from the adoptee's birth sister to her, the adoptee's father angrily wrote back: "We have told you my daughter doesn't care to have ANY interaction with or about these people who left her to die. Inform the lady who sent you the letter that if [our daughter] is her sister she should consider her dead. Because that is what her biological parents did to her. They left her to die on a street corner."  We know, of course, that this never happened since we have interviewed the birth parents, and the midwife involved in the delivery had connections to the orphanage, but that is the damage that fabricated orphanage finding stories can have. 

In all your searching, work to benefit the rest of the search community. If we all exercise "best practices," we will bring greater search success. You may find my daughter's birth family, and I may find yours.