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

More families are traveling to China to unravel the mystery of where their adoptive children came from and who their parents are. For the few who are able to make any headway, luck is a big factor.

December 28, 2009|By Martha Groves and Barbara Demick
  • Jeannie Butler, with daughters Haley, right, and Helina, both adopted from China, packs donations for Chinese orphanages.
Jeannie Butler, with daughters Haley, right, and Helina, both adopted… (Christopher Berkey / For…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Beijing — 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.

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