Saturday, April 07, 2007

El Salvador: Matching "Lost Children" with First Parents Through DNA

From a less popular blind man's perspective on the the adoption elephant, all adoption is predicated on a human tragedy of one sort or another.

And so it ought to be.

Adoption that is not predicated on human tragedy is itself the instigator of needless human tragedy.

So it is that the popular press totally "misses the boat" when it portrays adoption as a happy-happy, all teddy bears and light and adoption angels affair.

An elephant understood ONLY from the perspective of the blind man standing at the trunk is an "elephant" that exists no where in the real world.

But that is the subject of another blog entry for another day....

This blog entry is about children who came into the international adoption stream as the result of a particular kind of human tragedy. And that tragedy is war.

War tends to lead to the separation--intentional or accidental--of children from their parents. Parents may have intentionally sent their children away to a safer place in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Parents may have helplessly watched as their children were torn from their own arms and taken away by hostile forces. Or parents may simply have been accidentally separated from their children in the usual chaos and confusion of war.

At any rate, if we imagine ourselves in the place of these parents and we ascribe to them the same humanity that we afford ourselves, we can imagine the anguish that these parents would feel and their desire to find their children again--to know what became of them. Whether they are dead, or whether they are alive and well. And if they are alive and well, the desire to see them again.

Adoption, despite promoting the fiction that children have only one set of parents--the ones who have current legal custody of them--doesn't magically erase the desire of human first parents who have lost their children to wartime danger and chaos, to find and to reconnect with them in some way.

"We all have an intense need to know. And the strongest human force on Earth is a parent searching for their disappeared child."

Eric Stover, director, Berkeley's Human Rights Center, speaking on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, 02/15/07
There are several news stories that have appeared in the press in the last few months detailing the efforts to reunite adoptees from El Salvador with their original parents by DNA testing.

This effort is being used as a model as part of a broader project to build DNA sample bases to reunite families and their children from various recently war-torn countries including North and South Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Chile, and Argentina.

At least 8,000 people are still officially listed as missing more than a decade after the end of El Salvador's civil war (fought from 1980-1992). Many of these missing persons were children. Warring parties routinely kidnapped children--some were killed and some eventually found their way into the international adoption stream, to be adopted by Americans and Europeans.

"..hundreds of [Salvadoran children] were kidnapped by the Salvadoran army and given to orphanages for adoption. During the war, the military would often turn over abducted children to the Salvadoran Red Cross, which either placed them in orphanages or arranged for their adoption in El Salvador or internationally. Forced into hiding and exile during the war, hundreds of families had completely lost track of their biological children by the time Peace Accords were signed in 1992"

--quote from article written by Elizabeth Barnert, The San Francisco Chronicle,04/09/06
Conditions for children in war-torn in El Salvador were so dangerous that thousands more children were voluntarily relinquished for adoption by their parents. Authorities urged parents to send their children away overseas in order to protect them. Parents did so in the desperate hope that their children would have a better chance of survival far away from El Salvador.

The children, who disappeared from El Salvador during the war, have been called the "lost generation." There are literally thousands of children who were separated from their parents and went "missing" in one way or another.

Until now, there was no way for parents to know what had become of their children--whether their children were long dead, or had grown to adulthood safely, far away in the household of another family in another country.

Now, there are human rights activists who are trying to help El Salvadoran parents know what happened to their children, and conversely, help El Salvadoran adoptees locate their original parents.

An NGO (non-governmental organization)called Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos (Search for the Missing Children), was established in El Salvador in 1994 with the express purpose of assisting families "in investigating the fate of their missing children."

More recently, the effort has gone more high tech. Berkeley's Human Rights Center director, Eric Stover is one of several people now collaborating to help reconnect adoptees in the US and elsewhere with their original parents through DNA testing and a computer database of DNA information.

"When I came up here to the village, we then went to the local radio station, and we made an announcement asking families to come forward who had disappeared children. And then the buses arrived, and people came off, and we went into the church, and we started taking blood samples"

Eric Stover, director Berkeley's Human Rights Center speaking on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer
The organization Pro-Busqueda has collected DNA samples from the families of hundreds of missing Salvadoran children. The DNA information is stored in a database that currently contains about 800 samples, but which organizers hope will eventually contain between 3,000 and 5,000 samples. Volunteers are even now in El Salvador tramping through remote areas trying to locate and take DNA samples from families who lost children.

Of the approximately 250 international adoptees from El Salvador that have experienced reunions with their original parents, nearly 70 have been made possible by the DNA matching project.

If you know any adoptees who might be from El Salvador or any of the
other countries featured, it would be good to notify them. This information just
might be the help they've been looking for to find their birthfamilies.


Searching for lost children
Hundreds are still missing in El Salvador, The San Francisco Chronicle,04/09/06

El Salvador's war children return to their roots, The London Independent, 7/17/06

The following link provides several options for viewing The News Hour with Jim Lehrer's story including a transcript, audio, and video formats:

DNA Testing Reunites Families Separated by War, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, 2/15/07

DNA database offers Salvadoran war orphans key to stolen past, Berkeley Human Rights Center Press Release of 6/12/06

Link to the Berkeley Human Rights Center:
Berkeley Human Rights Center website


  1. I am a member of ichild and have been behind reading e mails - so I'm just seeing this on the group.

    We have just started the adoption process - and now I'm concerned! How do we know for sure we are getting a true orphan? Is is the US agency or do they not know what is going on in India?

    Thanks for any info!

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Several things I'd recommend.

    First join the yahoo group,Adoption_Agency_Research. There you can learn from others in process and who have already completed the process, about the various pitfalls and which agencies are likely to be/have been problems.

    Secondly, check out David K's website, Adoption Agency Checklist and do the things David suggests on the checklist.

    Thirdly, simply go into it with your eyes open, with a little bit of skepticism--ask questions and demand answers when things don't make sense.

    Finally, read, educate yourself on the issues in whatever country you adopt from, and read the rules that govern adoption in that country. (The rules governing adoption from India can be found at Guidelines for Adoption from India)

    When things aren't according to the rules, ask questions and again, demand answers.

    Good Luck!