DNA helping Chinese adoptees do what was once impossible: Locate blood relatives in this country
“Honestly, I couldn’t really fathom it at first, and even now it seems pretty unbelievable."
When she was growing up in Downingtown, Stefanie Beard wondered whether she might someday locate a blood relative in China, from where she was adopted as a baby.
But she never expected to find one in this country — much less one living 12 miles away.
That’s what happened when Beard, 21, a Temple University junior, submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe. The California-based genetics company soon alerted her to the existence of a biological cousin, Claire Mitchell, a 20-year-old Bryn Mawr College sophomore who also was adopted from China.
“Both of our minds are blown,” Beard said.
The women soon realized they came not just from the same southern Chinese province but from the same small town, and in fact from the same orphanage, the Huazhou Social Welfare Institution.
“Honestly, I couldn’t really fathom it at first, and even now it seems pretty unbelievable,” Mitchell said.
They wondered: Could their two sets of biological parents, made anonymous by the circumstances that drive Chinese adoption, have known each other?
Beard and Mitchell share 4.96 percent of their DNA, which puts them in the range for cousins, according to 23andMe.
“That’s not by accident,” said genetic counselor Brianne Kirkpatrick, the founder of Virginia-based Watershed DNA.
Today, about 92,000 Chinese children have been adopted to new homes in this country, a migration that has helped change how Americans define family.
Many adoptees have been searching for blood relations in China, a quest complicated by time, distance, and language. Some birth parents have been found overseas and even a few blood siblings located in the United States.
Now the growth of inexpensive, easily obtainable DNA test kits promises to open the door for broader and more efficient searches in this country. Any adoptive family with a couple of hundred dollars and an internet link can begin to investigate whether an unknown relative might be somewhere in the U.S.
That, the internet, and video technology are helping American families focus what had been guerrilla-style searches in China, where they pursued slim on-the-ground leads or hired “searchers” to do it for them.
“It’s a really exciting time,” said Millersville University professor Changfu Chang, who has produced and directed trailblazing documentaries on Chinese adoption. “There’s a very good chance that before they find the birth parents, they’ll find siblings in the West.”
Still, quests to find blood relatives can be long and costly, and may ultimately lead to disappointment. They’ve also sparked debate within a China-adoptive community that has long insisted that love, not blood, makes a family. If that’s true, then why seek biological ties?
“I do not believe adoptees need to make a choice between adoptive family and biological family,” said Kristen Ingle, a Florida mother who for more than a decade has helped her adopted daughter and others search in China. “[There is] enough love to go around for both. When I talk to my daughter about her birth family, I tell her that we are one family. They happen to live in China and we happen to live across the ocean, but we are one family.”
The Chinese birth-planning experiment that spurred an exodus of babies and toddlers commenced in 1980, when a government afraid of famine sought to slow the nation’s population growth. The one-child policy limited most families to a single offspring, making it a crime to have “extra” children. Violators could be hit with huge fines or even have their homes knocked down.
One result, in a country that prized sons, was that baby girls by the thousands were secretly abandoned, left outside schools, hospitals, and bus stations, and from there swept into state-run orphanages. By the late 1980s, the orphanages were bursting — and China needed a relief valve.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Americans were allowed to adopt, a few dozen children at first, then rising to nearly 8,000 a year.
Research by Hampshire College scholar Kay Ann Johnson showed that rarely was a first-born daughter abandoned, that in most cases she was a second or third child with one or two older brothers. Johnson also found that surrendering a child was agony for birth parents, that many initially tried to hide their “extra” daughter or place her with another family in an informal adoption.
In 2015, with China’s birth ratios badly skewed, the Communist Party announced an end to the one-child policy. Since January 2016, couples have been allowed to have two children.
Today, some Chinese mothers and fathers, less afraid of government retribution, are using such social-media platforms as WeChat, a kind of Chinese Facebook, to try to locate lost daughters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The founders of a Colorado adoption agency recently launched My Taproot, a search service billed as the first big, internationally coordinated effort to help adoptees find birth families in China.
What few fully recognized was that contacts could be found in this country, too.
“We thought, maybe over in China,” Beard said.
She was born in 1997 in Huazhou, a town of about 100,000 people, small by Chinese standards. Most of her first year was spent with a foster mother assigned by the orphanage.
At the age of 11 months, she became the second Chinese daughter of Donna and Michael Beard.
Last year, for Christmas, the family decided to get 23andMe tests, joining the profusion of Americans seeking DNA information on their ancestry and health.
Beard had noticed that people often commented on her looks, suggesting she didn’t appear to be fully Chinese. She knew that mixed heritage can be common in Guangdong province, near the border of Vietnam.
Indeed, Beard learned she was 13 percent Vietnamese.
Mitchell was born in 1999 and adopted in 2000, becoming the 11-month-old second daughter of a family in Overland Park, Kan.
She longed to make a connection with Chinese relatives.
“What stopped me from really immersing myself into thinking about it was just, I don’t want to say hopelessness, but it was such a limited, small chance,” she said.
Mitchell had submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe four years ago.
A table provided by the company summarizes the average percentage of DNA that’s shared in different types of relationships. For instance, siblings may share 50 percent. First cousins once removed share an average of 6.25 percent DNA, and second cousins share 3.13 percent, and Beard and Mitchell fall within that range.
First they exchanged phone numbers, called, and texted, then met in person for Chinese New Year. Since then, they’ve gone to dinner and to the movies. When they’re together, laughter comes easily. Both will keep an eye out for additional blood relatives, as they get to know each other.
“It was crazy, and like super exciting,” Beard said. “I totally believe the universe when it speaks to me, because what are the odds?”