Adoptive families’ quests to trace Chinese roots often meet dead ends


My name is Haley. I was adopted in 1995. I now live in America. I enjoy singing and playing the violin and hanging out with my friends. I have a good life, but I would like to find my biological family.

Just minutes after Jeannie Butler and her adopted daughter, Haley, tacked a Chinese-language poster with this message to a wall in the Yangtze River village where she had been abandoned, a woman emerged from a restaurant next door and did a double-take.

The woman stared hard at Haley, 14, then at the baby photo on the poster.

“Oh, my gosh, she looks just like my cousin’s daughters!” she blurted out as an interpreter with the Butlers translated.

A flurry of cellphone calls ensued. By that evening, Haley had met her biological father and the eldest of three biological sisters. The reunion in July went so well that Haley and her parents are spending the Christmas season this year with her extended biological family in China. They hope to meet the birth mother Tuesday.

Such encounters are rare for the thousands of American families who have adopted Chinese children. But increasingly these families are making the return journey to China, not merely as tourists climbing the Great Wall and steeping their daughters (and they are almost all girls) in Chinese culture, but as detectives trying to unravel the most elusive mystery of all: Who is my child?

Who are her biological parents, and where are they from? Is she Han Chinese or a member of one of the many ethnic minorities? Does she have a biological sibling? And, most important, how did she come to be abandoned and referred for adoption?

The number of Chinese adoptees looking for their birth parents is expected to rise as the girls, most of them still very young, reach adolescence and then adulthood. But in China, the families often confront an entrenched culture of secrecy that clashes with Americans’ presumed right to know.

“We were at the right place, at the right time. All the stars were in alignment for Haley to meet her birth family,” said Butler, 49, a costume designer from Nashville who raises funds to help Chinese orphanages.

Many who try to investigate are frustrated by their inability to speak Chinese and unfamiliarity with the culture, incomplete or erroneous orphanage records and bureaucratic obstacles. In 2007, a delegation of American adoptive parents visiting an orphanage in Hunan province were allowed in only under the condition that they promise in writing not to ask questions.

Unlike the trend toward open adoptions in the United States, in which adoptive and biological families are known to each other, adoptions in China are closed. And unlike many other countries that send babies abroad for adoption, China deems it illegal to abandon a child. The result is that in China unwanted babies -- in most cases given up because of a one-child policy limiting family size -- are usually abandoned anonymously.

In some cases, babies fell into the hands of child traffickers who transported them hundreds of miles away from their place of birth; family planning officials involved in those incidents tried to cover their tracks with false documents that made it appear the babies had been abandoned.

“The link with the birth parents for almost all the children adopted by U.S. families is forever lost,” said Changfu Chang, an associate professor at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa., who has made a number of documentaries about China adoptions, including one featuring Chinese parents speaking tearfully about the babies they relinquished.

Low success rate

Chang says he knows of perhaps 20 adoptive families who have located birth relatives of their children, a minuscule number considering the more than 60,000 Chinese babies adopted by Americans since the early 1990s.

“The orphanage usually doesn’t know anything other than where the baby was found and when,” said Wang Xiaoli, a volunteer interpreter at an orphanage in Chongqing who often acts as a liaison between adoptive parents and orphanage officials. “And sometimes they are reluctant to tell the adoptive parents too much.”

But determined American parents don’t generally take “no” for an answer.

Many are talking about setting up a DNA database so that their children at some stage might be able to find matches with the Chinese families who relinquished them. Others are putting up posters, taking out advertisements or enlisting Chinese researchers to investigate.

“My husband says we ought to buy a billboard in our daughter’s birthplace asking for information. I wonder how the Chinese authorities would feel about that?” Bernadette McNamara-Moran, a television writer from Los Angeles who is investigating her daughter’s origins, said with a laugh.

She said her daughter, now 7, is bursting with questions about why she doesn’t look like her pale, freckled parents and what happened to her biological family.

“I owe it to my daughter to make every effort to get her questions answered. I don’t want to be always saying to her, ‘I don’t know,’ ” said McNamara-Moran, who has e-mailed hotel concierges and police stations in Anhui province for information about the place where her daughter was abandoned. She is also planning a trip to China.

Investigations require money and patience. Susan Morgan, a teacher from Philadelphia with two adopted daughters, ages 11 and 12, has made 13 trips to China and has yet to locate either girl’s birth parents.

“I did find our older daughter’s foster mother,” Morgan said. “Barring a miracle, that is as close to a Chinese mother that my daughter will find.”

In response to the clamor for information, a handful of agencies have begun doing the gumshoe work of searching for birth families.

Dogged pursuit

The best-known is, started in 2000 by Brian Stuy, an adoptive father in Salt Lake City. He and his Chinese-born wife, Longlan, have assembled an archive of about 20,000 advertisements (most with baby photographs) placed in local newspapers by orphanages, which are required by law to seek birth parents before referring a child for adoption.

They also try to persuade orphanages to divulge information that might not have been supplied to the adoptive parents, such as the location where a baby was found or the identity of the person who found her.

“Often the person who is listed as finding the child has a suspicion about who is the birth family, or even a connection,” Stuy said.

He recalls a case in which he noticed that a woman who reportedly found a baby had the same name as the foster mother. When Stuy questioned her, she admitted the baby was her granddaughter. Her daughter-in-law had not wanted to keep the girl because of the limits on family size, but the family, concerned about the child, had arranged for her to stay with the grandmother until she could be adopted abroad.

Connie Munro, a lawyer from Vancouver who adopted a girl in 2000, had a similar experience when she decided to photograph the place where her adoptive daughter was supposedly abandoned.

“I hired a car and driver and we drove out to this village where she’d been found at the gate of this farmer’s house,” Munro recalled. When she questioned the farmer and his neighbors, it turned out that one of them was her daughter’s grandfather. She also discovered that much of what she’d been told -- including her baby’s age -- was incorrect.

One of the biggest obstacles in investigating babies’ origins is child trafficking. In 2006, the director of an orphanage in Hunan province was convicted of buying babies for foreign adoption from brokers who had transported them from southernmost Guangdong province because of the higher prices paid in the north. Court documents suggest that some of the babies might have been kidnapped.

The Los Angeles Times reported in September that dozens of adopted baby girls had been forcibly taken from their birth parents by local government officials in Hunan and Guizhou provinces who wanted a cut of the cash donations (averaging $3,000 per baby) that adoptive parents pay.

Moya Smith of Boulder, Colo., who adopted a daughter in 2002 from one of the suspect orphanages, said she and other parents have been frustrated in their effort to find out whether their children were among those stolen.

She was among a group of six families who visited the orphanage in Shaoyang in Hunan province in 2007. “We all had to sign this form saying that we weren’t going to ask questions,” she said. “Actually, we were surprised we were allowed in there at all.”

In cases where no corruption was involved, adoptive families have received warm welcomes from the orphanages and, in many instances, access to their children’s files.

“They were wonderful. I was absolutely amazed at how willing they were to help us,” Jeannie Butler said of the orphanage officials and police who helped her locate Haley’s family last summer.

Butler and Haley had been to the town, Maanshan in Anhui province, about five years earlier and had put up a poster at the outskirts of town but had gotten no response. Last summer, they enlisted the help of police, who brought them to the spot where Haley had been left under a tree. Across from the tree, they put up the poster, which had been translated into Chinese.

Soon after the woman recognized Haley, the Butlers’ interpreter got a call from police, who said a man identifying himself as Haley’s father wanted to meet them. He was a businessman who owns a meat company, and he told the Butlers that he had been away when his wife gave birth to their fourth daughter.

When he returned, he said, he asked his wife: “Where’s our baby?”

“It was another girl, and I threw her away,” his wife replied, according to Butler’s account.

During their brief reunion, Haley met her eldest biological sister, a graduate student at a Shanghai university who speaks English.

Although the physical resemblance between the girls was obvious, Haley and members of the Chinese family later took DNA tests that confirmed the relationship with 99.99999999% probability.

“The lab told me they had never seen so many 9s,” Butler said.

Butler said the family has been pondering what sort of relationship Haley will maintain with her entire biological family after the December reunion.

“It’s really up to Haley,” Butler said. “I will do all I can to help her with whatever she chooses to do.”

If anybody could give Haley advice, it is Susan Soon-keum Cox, a Korean adoptee who is a vice president of Holt International Children’s Services, an agency in Eugene, Ore.

Cox, who located two half brothers when she was 40, offers the caveat:

“When you find your birth family, that isn’t the end, that’s the beginning.”