Birth Parent Search Analysis Essay

A Baby Step in a Birthparent Search
Posted by Stacy Clark to The Yin and the Yang 7 years, 8 months ago | 2 Comments | Post a reply

Filed Under:Birthparent Connections, International Adoption, China Adoption

Should I search for Hanna’s birth parents? Is this my choice to make, or hers? She’s only six. But, if I wait, will the trail grow cold? After pondering these questions in my last post, I took a baby step. That felt like a leap.

I followed up on the e-mail from a mother in my Yahoo! Group and initiated a “Birth Parent Search Analysis.” Not a search per se, the analysis promised to provide information on the probability of success in finding Hanna’s birth parents—should she or I decide to look for them in the near, or distant, future. 

Ordering the $50 report from took two heart-pounding minutes to complete a simple online name and date form. The hardest part was scanning our daughter’s “Certificate of Abandonment” so I could e-mail it to the research organization. The other hard part was the sleepless night I spent wondering if I had done the right thing. At 3 a.m. “what ifs” are like shadows on the wall, they loom large from small things.

So, why did I order the report? Taking your comments on my previous post to heart, I got to thinking about waiting until Hanna is ready, and trails growing cold and other things like trips across the skies and tearful hellos and goodbyes. Things seeming inconceivable this morning with Hanna curled up, asleep beside me.

With her older sister at a sleepover last night, Hanna took the chance to sleep in the big bed. Say what you will about the pros and cons of the “family bed” (there are definite downsides involving elbows and ears), but waking up to the soft breaths of a dreaming child, the flicker of a smile on her lips when she rolls over and sees me here, seem worth whatever future consequences there may be.

I digress, yet isn’t this the crux of my birth parent search dilemma in a way? What I do now will affect our daughter in the future and there is no way to know how.

What I Learn from My Birth Parent Search Analysis
While the research organization stated a four-week turnaround, the report came in four days. This Saturday morning I sit propped in bed with the paper in hand. Here’s what I learn, aside from some general adoption numbers and gender percentages for our daughter’s orphanage:

Our daughter was reportedly found at the gate of the orphanage. But I knew this. I visited the orphanage in China and met the man who said he found our daughter. He shook my hand and walked our family to the red-tile wall outside the gate. I stood, holding our baby, looking down at the food wrappers and debris gathered at the foot of the wall, and imagined her lying there the day she was found. With our social worker translating, I asked the man for details. He shrugged, smiled. “He cannot remember,” she explained. Geez if I found a one-day-old baby, I would remember every little thing, I thought, before realizing, maybe his finding was not so unusual.

The report, indicating that 50 percent of all findings for this orphanage during a six-year span encompassing our daughter’s birth were by the red wall, now seems to validate my recollection. This rate raises concerns, the report states, possibly indicating “non-random abandonments.” A concern enhanced by the fact so many children were found by orphanage representatives. I brush my hand over Hanna’s sleeping head. Oh dear. What does this mean?

Reading on, I learn certain red flags might mean there was some type of incentive program in place in the city where Hanna’s orphanage lies. The report does not explain, but my mind races through stories of kidnapping and baby-selling, and I hope this is not what the report is implying. Thankfully, the report then discusses other indicators—including interviews with finders back in the year our daughter was born—to suggest the findings were real. Well okay, let’s go with that.

Given the little I know about my daughter’s first days, I would like to hold onto the vision of her being placed at that wall by loving arms. That’s the story I would like to tell her; not the other one, the ugly one that may make her feel like a commodity or that her adoption was a mistake.

The last part of the report analyzes the probability of success for a birth parent search and suggests tactics. It is likely our daughter was born in a hospital and records, though archived, will exist. So, there is a trail, potentially. A trail that could grow cold. But one Hanna could follow someday if she chooses. At least I can give my daughter that much when, or if, she asks.

Maybe we will pursue a search, or maybe we won’t. This was one tiny, distant step. The other is a certainty I can’t quite come to yet. It still seems that should be Hanna’s choice. In finding out just these facts, what I know is how much we really don’t know. Maybe this is the reality of an international adoption from China. The more clues the greater the mystery.

Yet, I learn this. We were previously told Hanna’s Chinese name, Dong Zhi, meant “Winter Mushroom.” She was born in winter and named after a local mushroom. It made sense. The report explained this Zhi mushroom is a powerful healing medicine in China. Therefore, our daughter’s name can be interpreted to mean: “Winter Healer.”

When I look down at the child who came to us in the winter of 2004, I know this much is true. 

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Searching For Birthparents -- How Can It Be Done

This blog article is comprised of three segments. The first is an article entitled "Public and Private Finding Locations: The Clues Each Contains." I wrote the article for the current issue of "China Connection: A Journal for New England Families Who Have Adopted Children From China" (December 2007, pp. 21-22).

The second segment is also from the current issue of "China Connection" (p. 23), and describes the legal ramifications for birth parents to come forward in China. Can they be prosecuted? Would fear of prosecution keep them from coming forward if adoptive families searched? This segment addresses those questions.

The third segment are my answers to common questions posed by adoptive families contemplating a search for their child's birth family. Should it be done? Who should do it? How can it be done? The answers to these questions are obviously personal on some level, and I don't advocate a single answer to any of them. 

Update:  Since writing this series of articles, we have compiled the data from almost all of the orphanages in China.  An analysis of this data has proven extremely helpful for families starting to search.  Our "Birth Parent Search Analysis" is a very important overview of what issues one might face in searching for birth parents in each orphanage area, and what the probable hurdles would be.  More information about these reports is available on our website.   


In my six years of researching what happens to children who are abandoned in China, I have been asked many times for help in locating birth parents of adopted children. Many methods have been tried, some successfully and others not. Based on my experiences, I am passing along some information that could be useful in locating members of a child’s birth family in China, if this is something adoptive parents and their child want to pursue.

Finding locations for children can be categorized into two main types: Public and “private” locations. Hospitals, orphanage gates, police stations, and schools fall into the arena of public finding places, and the vast majority of children adopted from China have been found there. Generally, public finding locations provide little guidance in locating birth parents because no direct thread leads from the location to the birth family. Though my research gives me good reason to believe that most babies are left close to where they were born, identifying a birth parent with only this clue is like walking into a Wal-Mart seeking information about your neighbor’s child. The chance of finding someone who knows anything of real value is very, very small – but not impossible.

Some public locations are more likely than others to provide threads of information. For example, when a baby is found at a hospital, a paper trail might exist. A hospital might have birth records detailing the names and address of those who gave birth there.

Sometimes, finding out information about the person who found the baby – and the name of the “finder” is often available in orphanage records – can provide additional clues. Frequently it turns out that children who were reported as being found at a government office or at an orphanage were not actually “left” there but they were “brought” there from another area.

With one child whose “finding place” I researched, this turned out to be the case. In her adoption papers, she was listed as being found at a village Residential Committee office, a not uncommon finding location. When I visited that location and asked people in the village about this child, several remembered her being “found” but told us the child had been found by a family in the village. My wife and I were then taken to talk with that husband and wife, and they confirmed that they knew this child’s birth parents. This is an example of how gathering a few clues and doing a little digging, even in the face of overwhelming odds, can result in birth parents being located.

Another consideration is the population of the area where a child was found. One of my daughters, for example, was found in the middle of the city of Guangzhou. This made a search for her birth parents all but impossible. Another of my daughters was found in the small town of DianBai in western Guangdong Province. In her case, it would be possible to conduct a search for her birth parents by printing a few thousand fliers, and distributing them for a week at the town market. Since nearly every woman in China visits a local market every few days, markets are very good ”search centers.” At such a location, fliers can be distributed in the hopes of locating a birth parent.

Private Finding Locations
Sometimes a child’s finding location is not in a public area but instead happens in a “private” place. These places are owned or controlled by individuals or families, such as residences or farms, family-run stores or restaurants, and they are usually chosen because the birth family knows the owner. Sometimes such a location is selected because the family who lives there is having trouble giving birth to a child and it is felt that giving this family a child will help them to conceive. Other times the “finder” might be chosen because they have a son and it is believed they might also like to have a daughter. Another consideration is whether a family is considered well-off and thus able to afford the fee to register the child with the local government.

At private finding locations, often clues are available to assist in birth parent searches. (Many children who are left at “private” locations do end up being placed in an orphanage and are adopted internationally.) In one Jiangxi orphanage we researched, birth parents were known by three quarters of the finders at the private residences and stores we visited. As we spoke with them, it became obvious that these locations were carefully considered by the birth parents; each “finder” had particular qualities that made them attractive as adoptive parents.

Contacting Birth Families
Adoptive families are cautioned, however, against believing that all birth parents will express an interest in making contact with their abandoned child. In my experience the majority of birth families have shown no interest in revisiting their abandonment history by making contact with adoptive families. Even when I’ve provided photos and phone numbers, a majority of them have refused the information.

What I’ve learned in these encounters makes me wary of the “opportunities” for reunion that DNA matching appears to offer. Although adoptive parents and their children might decide to pursue a search for birth parents by registering with a DNA database, I believe there will be significant cultural and personal hurdles in China that will discourage birth parents from participating. These barriers – which I think will preclude large numbers of birth parents from participating in DNA databases – include the fear of governmental reprisal (though this fear seems largely unfounded), financial considerations, and a cultural proclivity to ”look forward, not backward.”

In summary, locating birth parents in China is possible if the circumstances are right. Private finding locations such as residences and small stores have a high degree of success. Finding locations in small villages also bring a good degree of success. Seeking local hospital records might provide information, but these inquiries must be made quickly before records are archived or destroyed. But adoptive families must also remember that even when the search proves successful, the birth parents might leave the discovered door closed and locked, unwilling to allow the connection to be made.

Risks -- Perceived and Real for Birth Parents in China
One might wonder if birth parents face any risk by publicly coming forward and looking for their abandoned child – or being contacted by a family searching for them. Although the idea of a five-year statute of limitations has been discussed among the adoption community for abandoning a child, this concept is not specifically found in Chinese criminal law regarding abandonment. The 1992 “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women” states that “drowning, abandoning or cruel infanticide in any manner of female babies is prohibited,” but assigns no penalty. Article 261 of the Criminal Code states “A person who refuses his proper duty to support an aged person, minor, sick person or any other person who can not live independently shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years, criminal detention or public surveillance if the circumstance is flagrant.” Thus, infant abandonment might be classified as a criminal act, which could result in a prison term of up to five years if convicted, but it is not clearly stated.

“There are legal provisions requiring parents to rear and educate their children and prohibiting the maltreatment or abandonment of children. Nevertheless, the Penal Code fails to provide clear definitions, so that in practice it is difficult to mete out punishment to parents who dump their babies,” He Jialin of the Sichuan Hetai Law Firm stated in a 2005 article entitled “Facing the Reality: Baby Dumping.” In practical terms, the maximum penalty typically faced by birth parents for abandoning their child is the fine that would have been imposed had they registered their child. In other words, there is rarely an additional penalty for the act of abandonment.

Chinese law discusses statute of limitations in relation to the imprisonment lengths imposed for various crimes. “The law says that the statute of limitation for crimes carrying a maximum penalty of no more than five years’ imprisonment is five years; 10 years for crimes that attract imprisonment of more than five years but less than 10; and 15 years for crimes carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years or more” Since infant abandonment could be classified as a violation of Article 261 of the Criminal Code, it can be assumed that the statute of limitations for abandonment would be five years.

All of this relates only to legal requirements and definitions, which are rarely absorbed by the average Chinese citizen. In practical terms, a family’s fear of government reprisal is perhaps the strongest disincentive for birth parents to come forward at any time. Even if the five-year statute of limitations were widely known and understood (which it isn’t), the vast majority of birth parents would not trust the government to respect those provisions.

What is widely believed by the vast majority of Chinese, however, is that the police are reticent to search for, let alone charge, birth parents with abandoning a child. “When female infants are murdered or abandoned by parents or family relatives, law enforcement and civil services agencies hardly ever conduct any investigation to go after the perpetrators because many of local police and officials still believe that it is parents’ right to decide whatever they want to do with their children and killing one’s newborn child is a family/domestic matter not a crime,” observed Xin Ren, a professor of criminal justice at California State University in Sacramento in an article she wrote, “Protecting Women and Children Against Trafficking in China.”

Given this understanding, children are confidently left in hospitals, in front of a neighbor’s home or police station, or in a park with parents knowing that the risk of detection and prosecution is very low. But few birth families would openly reveal their crime by coming forward in a public way. Thus, infant abandonment is in the vast majority of cases a “don't ask, don't tell” situation in China.

Questions & Answers to Searching for Birth Parents

Q: Isn't searching for birth parents the prerogative of my adopted child? Is it my right to search for her history?

Searching for your child's birth parents doesn't require notifying your child that you have found them. In our case, we intend to keep the information private until the day when our daughter does ask about it. But given the dramatic changes occurring in China, waiting for 15-20 years before searching almost guarantees failure down the road. Control of the contact is as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. You can write yearly letters without letting your child know anything about it.

As parents, it is our responsibility to provide any information we can to assist our children to gain a full understanding of their history and origins. Whether our children ever draw on that information is up to them, but we must be prepared. To avoid or relegate responsibility to search for her birth parents until she is old enough to want to search herself will ultimately mean that information will not be obtainable. Individuals die and families move. How would any of us feel if we were faced with the question, "If you could have found them, why didn't you?" In my mind, it is much better to have information my children never ask for, than to not obtain information that I am one day asked about.

Q: I am afraid of opening a Pandora's box by locating the birth parents for my child. What if they want more contact than I am comfortable giving?

Again, the control will be yours. At first, you might consider all communication take place through an intermediary such as your agency or a family friend. This eliminates any chance the birth family will initiate contact that you are not comfortable with. Additionally, you are under no moral or ethical obligation to provide financial resources to the birth family. What you offer and provide is completely up to you.

Q: Isn't it illegal to put up signs and make searches for birth parents in China? Won't I get in trouble?

In doing birth family searches many times, I have never had any resistance from Chinese Government officials. The Chinese government is not anxious for these contacts to be made, but is fairly powerless to prevent them. If families are misguided into thinking that contact will be possible through official or governmental avenues, they will miss valuable time and opportunities. The Chinese government will never sanction such contact, for the simple reason that they do not want to encourage the knowledge that abandoned children are adopted internationally.

Q: Should I use an organization "registered" in China to make a search?

While organizations that conduct heritage tours and other in-country experiences serve an important service, their ability to gain cooperation from orphanages and the CCAA requires that they don't breach the established rules and requirements of the Chinese government. For that reason, these organizations may discourage families from conducting searches out of fear that it will result in retaliation from the Chinese authorities. The same applies to adoption agencies. Thus, the adoptive family will usually have to act independent of official channels and organizations to conduct birth parent searches.

Q: What are some other methods that can be employed to search for birth parents?

Aside from contacting individuals who might have knowledge of the birth parents (finders, orphanage staff, and foster families), other ideas include distributing leaflets in the neighborhood surrounding the finding location or at local markets. These leaflets should be general in nature, listing no personal information about the adoptive family or the child. Contact information might include an e-mail address or in-country cellphone number. This method will result in many fruitless contacts (birth parents of other adopted children), but reduce the impulse of someone to come forward pretending to be your child's birth parents. This method also has the benefit of keeping control of the communication lines with the adoptive family.

Placing "Birth Family Search" ads in newspapers is also a common strategy, but generally inefficient. There is little certainty that a birth family will read the newspaper chosen for the ad, and the most widely-read newspapers are those covering wide geographical areas. It is, however, another option. One downside to the ads is that most newspapers require the advertiser to submit and pay for the ad in person, requiring a contact in the area.

Ultimately, it is up to each adoptive family to decide if they should search for their child's birth parents. Personally, I am anxious to obtain as much information regarding my child's life-history as possible. I would like to know why they were abandoned, what their birth families look like, are there siblings, etc. I want to know this so that when my children ask these questions, I can provide definitive information, not broad generalities and suppositions.

But any contact made would be on my terms, with my sanction and approval. After having my questions answered, I would find a level of communication that I was comfortable with. I would not tell my children we had located their birth parents unless they asked me to help locate their birth parents. At that point, I would decide if the time was appropriate to tell my daughter that we in fact knew her birth family. In this way, control of her history remains with my daughter.

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