Saturday, August 13, 2022

Is STR (CODIS) Testing Adequate for Birth Parent Searching?

Post script 10/12/22

This week a scandal broke in the Netherlands regarding a popular TV show there called "Spoorloos" (Without a Trace). The show, which helps adoptees from all over the world locate birth family, apparently failed to verify potential birth families through DNA testing. The result is that a number of adoptees who thought they had found their birth families had in fact been misled. Of the four birth families tested so far, two have been shown to be unrelated to the respective adoptee.

These cases involve birth families from Colombia, but China has seen similar cases. In the Spoorloos cases, a simple DNA test would have prevented a lot of pain. This morning the Belgium story gained some additional publicity with a TV news interview of Noemi Plateau, the subject of the article below. Her story is different from the "Spoorloos" scandal in that in her case DNA was used, but with an inappropriate DNA test. The problem was compounded by a lack of understanding by several members of the testing chain as to the implications of her test (Video from the documentary is imbedded in the article). But the result was the same: An adoptee was misled to believe their birth family had been located, when they in fact had not.


In June 2021, I was contacted by documentary film-maker Lidewij Nuitten in Belgium about being part of a series involving roots searching (Entitled "We Are Family", the trailer and series can be seen here). The series would feature different people involved in searching for lost family, including two Chinese adoptees. The adoptees and the film maker asked if I would help them in plotting a path forward for their search, and I readily agreed. 

The series was broadcast in June 2022. Composed of six episodes of about 30 minutes each, the series documents the efforts of the film-maker as she searches for her family's historical roots, combined with her following the search of the two adoptees. It is a very heart-felt journey for all involved, and definitely worth watching if you live in Belgium (or have a VPN outside of Belgium). 

For the purposes of this blog article, I will focus on the two Chinese adoptees profiled. They enter the film about a third of the way through episode 1 (1-11:54 -- future references to the series will include the episode number, and time mark). Episode one introduces them, and the remaining five episodes alternates back and forth between the two story lines. For brevity I will simply say that the first step taken was to test themselves with 23andMe, Ancestry, and MyTapRoot (MTR) (1 - 32:24).

In episode 2 (2-12:11) I participated in a Zoom call where we discussed the finding information of both adoptees, as well as some ideas on how they could conduct a search. 

In episode 3 (3-1:20) the adoptees get their first DNA results from 23andMe and GedMatch. Like most other adoptees from China, their closest relatives were third-fourth cousins. They film an innovative TikTok video, and start a media campaign inside China.

It is in episode 5 that the events occur that will be the focus of this article. One of the adoptees gets a message from Roots of Love (5-23:12) (One can watch these segments from the documentary in this article linked above). 

After introducing themselves, the representatives of Roots of Love tell the adoptee that a recent search project in  Chongqing had netted 20 birth family samples, all submitted to MTR's STR/CODIS data base. "This week, we heard some news that there was a random surprise match with one of our other birth parents in China. . . . And we found out that it was you. We have positively tested your birth father." As the adoptee begins to weep, they went on. "But the DNA came back as a complete match to you," CRL continued. According to Roots of Love, the DNA matched on all 21 loci. 

Roots of Love emphatically claimed to the adoptee that they had located the birth father of the adoptee. "There's absolutely no doubt. It was a perfect match."

The birth father, however, had doubts. As far as he knew, he had no children from 1996, so it seemed impossible in his mind. So he requested a new test, a more detailed STR/CODIS test, that looked at 30 loci instead of the 21 that MTR tested for. The adoptee was called again, not by Roots of Love, but by MyTapRoot. "The second DNA results are in," she tells the film-maker, "because something about the results wasn't right or something." 

"I don't know how I feel," the adoptee starts the conversation with MTR, "because it is a bit weird. I am a bit confused. Is it possible to, like, quickly explain what happened with the second test?" The MTR representative begins, "With your initial test, your first test, we measured 21 loci, and that is what we always measure for our test, 21. And if it's 21 out of 21 match, we notify people that is is a match."

The adoptee was then told by MTR that the test that the birth father requested seemed to largely confirm a relationship to the adoptee, according to MTR's representatives, although it failed on two loci. "When we received that report and re-matched it, out of the thirty, two were not matched." That failure ruled out he being the birth father, but they speculated that he was, nevertheless, a very close relative. "Because of the amount of similarity in your loci, it's so similar, to the point that it cannot possibly be an uncle or a brother. It's closer than that," the adoptee was told. This understandably created a deep emotional response from the adoptee. "Has anyone else got a confirmation and then it was not a confirmation?" she asks. No, was the reply, "you are the unlucky first, I guess."

And that is where the story essentially ends. No resolution. 

Did the adoptee really find her birth father? According to Roots of Love, she did. It was a "perfect match", according to their (MTR's) CODIS test. Even if it wasn't a birth parent according to MTR after the second test, he was a very, very near relative. But one is left at the end of the documentary with no clear answer: How were these two people related?

I met the adoptee while in Holland last May, so I reached out to her to see if she had learned any new information in the intervening three months. I asked if a third test had ever been done, as was alluded to by MTR. "Yes," she replied. "Tell me that at least it was an autosomal test," I replied. It was. Since she had her DNA in GedMatch already, the birth father was tested with 23Mofang by Roots of Love, and his results  were uploaded to GedMatch. It was hoped that the test would provide some clarity as to how closely related he was to the adoptee. 

It did.

There was no relationship.

The adoptee was devastated. "I don't know if I can trust DNA tests anymore," she explained in my conversation. How could it have gone so wrong?

It shouldn't have gotten this far, of course. Dogmatic claims of a "perfect match" aside, it is known that STR/CODIS tests are susceptible to "false positives" -- when a test indicates a relationship where there is none: 

Because of the shared DNA, when testing the minimum 16 DNA markers for paternity (DDC tests a minimum of 20), there is a slim possibility that the man who is not the possible father could match the child being tested at every location. This scenario can create what is called a 'false positive' result. So can a paternity test be wrong? In this case: yes, even though lab processes were followed correctly.

"Additional tests on an increased number of markers, however, could reveal that the man is not the biological father of the child."  

In other words, because STR (CODIS) tests only look at a very small number of data points (loci), it is possible that two random, unrelated individuals can share those 21 loci, as we saw in the case of this adoptee (The same situation occurred in a murder case in Louisiana where a man matched 34 of 35 loci, and had his life turned upside down by the police who felt that he had committed murder. A full autosomal test later showed no relationship to the DNA of the murderer.) This will result in a false positive. It is hard to overstate how completely devastating this can be to the adoptee and the birth family. It is very, very fortunate that the birth father in the documentary requested the more detailed test, which still matched on twenty-eight of the thirty loci, but failed on two, disqualifying him from being the adoptee's birth father. It wasn't until the autosomal test was done (which should have been done at the beginning) that the non-relationship was discovered. 


There continues to be "controversy" in the Chinese adoption community about DNA testing, but there shouldn't be. The advantages of autosomal testing for locating birth family is abundantly clear. For one, non-parent relationships are detected, allowing for more adoptees to locate birth families. But, as this experience shows, the CODIS test results themselves can be incorrect, with emotionally devastating results.  

If any adoptee has been randomly matched to a birth parent through MyTapRoot, Roots of Love, Nanchang Project, China's police data base, etc., they absolutely must test themselves and the birth family with an autosomal test to verify the match is accurate. 

I reached out to Roots of Love, and they referred me to their website, which states: "When a searcher finds a biological relative who needs to take a DNA test, we cover the costs and test them through either an STR/paternity/CODIS-type test or autosomal test (GEDmatch database)." An August 11, 2022, update regarding the closure of MyTapRoot added that they are "working towards migrating all of the parents in MyTaproot to another STR/CODIS-compatible database that does free matching." It is unknown and undisclosed what CODIS data base will be used going forward, but it is probably "GenGen", which rose from the ashes of MTR.  It seems to this writer that the inability of Roots of Love to provide clarity to the question of what testing will be used going forward indicates that they seemingly will utilize both kinds of tests, even with first-hand knowledge of the STR's significant weaknesses. 

This film clearly shows why STR/CODIS testing should never be used for random birth family matching. The reality is that in a population the size of China's, there will be thousands of random people who will match on the 21 loci used in CODIS testing. Thus, CODIS should only be used for potential target matches, where it is known that the birth parent probably did parent a child. In this case, the birth father was not in the correct time and place to have been the birth father of the adoptee, a point he made clear, ultimately demanding a second test. 

Which begs the question: 

If any random match made using an STR test must be verified by doing a follow-up autosomal test to avoid a false positive, why do STR/CODIS tests to begin with? Why not simply begin with an autosomal test? 

I have never heard a coherent answer to this very simple, but crucially important, question.

I don't want to be seen as picking on Roots of Love. They are simply the organization that facilitated this painful and emotionally devastating false positive. It could just as easily have been any other CODIS testing entity. I am simply wanting to convince everyone that we should no longer (if we ever should have) use STR/CODIS testing on birth families in China. Adoptive families should be the pushers of this change. If an organization, any organization, will not test a birth family you locate for inclusion in GedMatch, look for an organization that will. Don't donate money to any organization that won't act in the best interests of adoptees, birth families, and the the adoption community. If there is any good that comes from the pain of the adoptee as seen in "We Are Family," it should be the commitment of every member of the adoption search community to do the right thing going forward. 

As a community, we should demand that change. 


Postscript: This article/review of "We Are Family" s
et off a firestorm. Almost as soon as it went live, Roots of Love was notified, and they angrily contacted the film maker (who had read my article before publication) and demanded that their part of the film be removed (not possible since the film had already been broadcast in Belgium). The film maker did contact Youtube, and requested that the video clip from this article be taken down, which they did. By that time over 700 readers had seen the video.

There have been many opportunities for Roots of Love to do the right thing over the past three months. First, they could have made the adoption community aware in June that one of their tests had had an issue, and that they were going to change their protocol to prevent a false match from occurring in the future (announcing that they would be testing with autosomal tests exclusively would have accomplished this). Second, they could have issued a statement yesterday indicating that they had had discussions, and that things were going to be done differently in the future to prevent something like this from happening again. I gave them a head's up over the weekend, giving them a chance to get ahead of the curve on this, but they refused.

The very real issue is that IF the birth father had not requested a second test, the adoptee would have gone the rest of her life thinking she had located her birth family. She would have stopped searching, and therefore never found her actual birth family. The false positive that resulted from the STR/CODIS was potentially catastrophic.

Rather than address this main issue, instead Roots of Love is attempting to bury it, and keep the adoption community in the dark.

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Guangxi Family Planning Scandal

A new Family Planning scandal is erupting in China, this one taking place in Quanzhou, Guangxi Province.

In September 1989, a boy was born to a couple with six previous children, father Deng Zhen Sheng and mother Tang Yue Ying. Soon after the boy was born, Family Planning paid a visit to the family and assessed a fine of 6,000 yuan, and the family was given 15 days to pay the fine. The family put together  and paid 1,380 yuan, all they had. Family Planning then confiscated some furniture and other possessions of the family.  

Nearly a year later, in August 1990, Ms. Gao Li Jun, head of the Quanzhou Family Planning office, tricked the family into bringing the boy to the her office, even sending a driver to the family’s village to pick them up. While in the Family Planning office, the boy garnered the attention of the Family Planning leader. Ms. Gao invited the family to her house for dinner. While eating, she tried to talk them into allowing her to find a rich family to adopt their son, since they were poor. “No,” the husband angrily replied, “who wants to adopt my son? I won’t give my son to anyone.” The subject was dropped.

After dinner, Ms. Gao arranged for a room for the family at a hostel across the street from the Family Planning office. Ms. Gao told them to not leave the room. Less than an hour later, five “comrades” from Family Planning broke into the room where the mother, daughter, and the son were (the father had gone to the market). They took the boy.

The family attempted for years to retrieve the boy, asking for information about their son. Ms. Gao repeatedly told them that when he turned 30 he would return to them.

In 2020, the family’s patience ended and on June 21, 2022, the birth family filed a complaint with the Quanzhou government.

Up to this point, the story is common, and certainly would not become a big scandal. It is the response of the government that is the fuel for the scandal.

The first response to the complaint came from the Quanzhou County police. “We have your complaint, and have transferred it to the Quanzhou County Anhe police station.”

The Anhe police then passed the buck to the area health department. On July 1, 2022, the family received a letter from the County Health Bureau. We have received the complaint "demanding that Gao Li Jun be held accountable for trafficking in children and requiring the Public Security Agency to initiate an investigation,” the response stated. The letter continued, saying that the regulations regarding Family Planning policy in the 1990s “were strictly implemented,” Since their child was the seventh child born to them, “there [was] no child abduction behavior.” The letter concluded, “Therefore, the Bureau will not accept your petition.”

The family obviously did not want to accept this “let sleeping dogs lie” response to their case. So they contacted a reporter. On July 5, 2022, the story hit the internet, and spread like wildfire across China (the original reporting has since been taken down, and our links probably will also soon disappear). The netizens in China are furious for a few reasons. The primary anger is directed at the government officials who seem so callous to this family’s story, and just brush off their case. Second, that Ms. Gao Li Jun apparently had a racket going of confiscating children under the guise of the Family Planning regulations to adopt to third party families.

This story seems to have hit a very raw nerve inside China. Tens of thousands of people are spreading the story (assuming a particular story stays up long enough to spread). It will be interesting to see if international attention is brought to it (the children from Quanzhou County were adopted through the Guilin orphanage, so there may be an international component to this story, since finding ads list the Family Planning Bureau as the most common finding location in Quanzhou County). But what is known is that this story is again a reminder to searching birth families that they are not alone. More such stories will no doubt follow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Is Baby-Buying Still Going On??

This essay originally appeared on our subscription blog. For families that wish to remain current of research and developments regarding China's adoption program, signing up for our subscription blog ( is a must. There we discuss and research topics that are too sensitive to be discussed publicly. At $20 for life, it is the best investment you will ever make.


We recently conducted a "wide-net" birth parent search project in Jiangxi. One of the big questions about China's program is why the number of children being submitted for international adoption has declined so sharply following the Hunan scandal of November 2005. There is no doubt the number of children fell simultaneous to the scandal publicity, the only question is why.

I recently spoke with a Japanese journalist for NHK Television, the Japanese version of NPR. He is doing a story on the impact of the Hunan scandal on the Chinese adoption program by profiling one of the American families that had adopted from China in 2005, and how the intervening 16 years have changed their perspective on the China program. When I showed him the graph of submissions by month from the dominant Provinces in 2005, he asked why things had gone so quickly south.

The truth is we don't know the actual reason why, but we do know what aren't the reasons. The reporter speculated that the orphanages began funneling adoptees to domestic families to avoid potential international scandal. "You are right, that is a possible scenario. However, we have the adoption statistics from domestic adoptions inside China, and they show domestic adoptions did not increase following the scandal." OK, the reporter queried, maybe China's signing on to the Hague Agreement in January 2006 caused orphanages to "change their stripes," and cease to buy babies, since that violated the newly signed international agreement. "Well," I replied, "that is also a possibility. But in February 2006 the Beijing CCAA held a China-wide meeting of orphanage directors, and told them to submit every child that entered the orphanage for international adoption, no matter their health or gender." They specifically address paying rewards for babies, stating that if an orphanage was caught paying 1,000 yuan or less for a baby, the government would protect them, but if they were caught paying more than 1,000 yuan, they were on their own. "If Beijing really wanted orphanages to abide by the Hague Agreement, they could have simply said, 'Don't pay money for babies.'" Besides, I added, we have seen that orphanages have continued to traffic in babies after 2006.

Which brings us to our recent experience. We sent a friend of ours to northeastern Jiangxi Province to locate any birth families in the villages and towns that had relinquished a baby between 1995 and present. Our friend was approached by a birth mother, who showed them a copy of the adoption certificate from the orphanage of an American family that had adopted the child in Spring 2012. She asked our friend if we could help her locate this family, so that she could find out how her daughter was doing. Lan reached out to the birth mother to learn her story. 

The birth family were officially registered as an "urbanite," meaning they were allowed only one child under the One-Child Policy. When the birth mother became pregnant with a second child, they wondered how they could have their second child registered. They had means and relationships, so they planned to hide their second child, since the Family Planning fee was over 30,000 yuan. To do this, they rented a second apartment in town to try and avoid detection. 

And then a woman approached her. This woman was known to the next-door neighbor of their new apartment. The elderly woman worked as the assistant director of the local orphanage before retiring. The ex-assistant director told the birth mother that her son was infertile, and although he and his wife had tried for many years, they were unable to have a biological child. She wondered if the birth mother would be willing to let her son adopt their second child if she was a girl? It would make them so happy, and the birth mother's child would remain in the area. The birth mother felt that this solution could work, since she would be able to watch the child grow up from afar. She agreed to the ex-orphanage employee's suggestion.

So, when the birth mother gave birth to the baby in the town hospital in March 2011, the ex-assistant orphanage director was there to pick up the baby the same day she was born. The birth mother felt good, knowing that her baby girl would be living with a successful family in the area, and would not be hard to check on if the birth family wanted.

So, the following year the birth mother tracked down the assistant director and excitedly asked her how her daughter was doing with her son. Strangely, the retired assistant director grew agitated, told the woman not to talk to her again, and said that her daughter had actually been adopted to a foreign family and she would never see her again. The woman's callousness infuriated the birth mother, and she told the woman that she was going to the police to file a kidnapping report. "Go ahead," the woman replied, "Go to the police if you want. I don't care."

So the birth mother did. She smoozed a local police officer and got them to file a report. The police went to the orphanage, interviewed the orphanage director, and arrested the retired assistant director. They also made a copy of the orphanage file for the child, including the adoption certificate. They gave the copy to the birth mother. 

And then released the retired assistant director. Charges dropped.

So, now the birth mother had the name and address of the family that had adopted her daughter. 

We have reached out to the adoptive family. The story is obviously developing, and DNA testing will need to be done to confirm the relationship. Since the child is now only eleven years old, it may take time. But we are hopeful of a somewhat happy ending to this birth family's saga, and thankful to the birth mother for her persistence. It provides yet another data point for the current situation in China and her international adoption program. 


For data purposes, the birth date of the child was retained by the orphanage, although they indicated that the child was found at two days old "at the gate of the orphanage." When the birth mother saw the abandonment certificate in the orphanage file, she was incensed. "They say I abandoned my daughter at the orphanage. I never did this. Why did they shame me with this lie?" 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

“Searching for Your Chinese Birth Family” – A Review

It was only a matter of time before someone put pen to paper to offer a guide to Chinese adoptees as to how to search for birth families in China, and Wesley Hagood shows through his presentation that he is up to the task. Having known Wes since 2004 when he requested his daughter’s finding ad from us, I have always been impressed by his doggedness and attention to the smallest of details. Both of these characteristics are on full display in this book.

“Searchingfor Your Chinese Birth Family” is divided into nine chapters and appendixes covering the full range of how a search could be conducted, including chapters on using DNA, hiring searchers to search using the orphanage documentation, and searching using social media inside China. He wisely recommends that searching adoptees begin with a genetic genealogy-based (DNA) search because it is easy, inexpensive, and over time has the greatest probability of success (Wes speaks here from experience. After employing hundreds, if not thousands of hours implementing other methods of searching, the match to his daughter was ultimately made by a simple DNA test). Wes employs a very broad “adoptee-centered” searching approach, meaning that he offers any and all ideas for a single adoptee to utilize, giving little emphasis to effectiveness and value of the various search ideas, nor for the potential impact of those ideas on the community at large. Other than small lists prioritized by what he feels is the order things should be done in, he offers no opinion as to whether an adoptee should employ particular search avenues, or whether these ideas will have a chance of success. In other words, there is very little data behind the ideas.

To use one small example: On the list of potential DNA data bases that an adoptee could utilize he references Zuyuan, a company that briefly came on the scene in 2018 concurrent with Wes writing this book. Zuyuan’s claim to fame was that they were able to match a pre-identified birth family with a pre-identified adoptee using a third-party DNA company. When word spread of this reunion, the adoption community was excited, and people started thinking that this could be a viable path for reunions. It was this excitement that allowed Wes to include Zuyuan on his list of Chinese data bases.

The problem was that as adoptees uploaded their DNA to Zuyuan, Zuyuan then turned around and marketed their DNA to birth families to encourage them to test with Zuyuan, for a fee. Some of these birth families, a few of whom we have met, felt that since they had done a DNA test with Zuyuan that they would not need to test further to get into other, more reliable and far-reaching data bases. Thus, in a very real sense, birth families that tested with Zuyuan (and it probably wasn’t many before the company shut down a short time later) were potentially deprived of any chance of locating their relinquished child. Their DNA may be lost to the adoption search community (Wes did include a footnote to our article strongly discouraging the use of Zuyuan).

The primary issue I see with Wes’s book is that by approaching the subject from an "adoptee-centered" perspective, Wes ignores the overall search community, and how individual steps taken can positively or negatively impact the larger search efforts of all. He fails to point out that not only should adoptees search for themselves, but they should be mindful of how their actions will impact those that follow after. Yes, an adoptee should do everything in their power to search, but only if those actions don’t hurt the chances of others. Those that pushed for Zuyuan, for example, unwittingly damaged the search efforts of the entire community. I would have liked to see more “broad picture” discussion in Wes’s book of the various data bases and other strategies he wrote about. Such a “data driven” appraisal to go alongside his recommendations would have greatly increased the value of the book.

The book is extremely valuable for presenting the huge pile of bricks from which an adoptee can pick and choose to form their search "platform." Most will not use all of the ideas, because as Wes points out each adoptee’s story is unique. Wes correctly emphasizes that before an adoptee does anything, they should gain the information about their particular orphanage. Understanding what was happening in an adoptee’s orphanage is crucial to building a search “platform” on a solid foundation.

Wes’s final chapter, “Our Story – Xinyi Under My Skin,” is a tremendously informative and enjoyable chapter. It should really be read first. It is here that we see the doggedness and determination of the author on full display. I was left wanting more at the end of the chapter. He confirms, for example, that the Xinyi orphanage had a baby-buying program in place, something we confirmed in 2019 when we matched an adoptee from Xinyi with her birth family in Wuchuan. But Wes deprives us from knowing what he learned about how his daughter came to be in the orphanage. The revelation of these reunions is important, I believe, to allow later adoptees to know what their story may have been. (In private correspondence Wes relates that the birth family has no idea how their daughter ended up in the orphanage, which information also informs other searching adoptees).

Wes has compiled an impressive book on searching. I would encourage searching adoptees and their families to use “Searching for Your Chinese Birth Family” as a springboard for researching their own search strategies. It is a valuable resource.