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The China Sisters

Two families, linked by a shared adoption experience, discover that they are bound by DNA, as Martha Groves

In the decade since adopting, Denise Shields has regularly sent photos of her daughter to the other families in her travel group. Though living in different parts of the country, the 10 girls call themselves "the China Sisters," connected by a bond as deep as a biological tie.

Nancy Hinkeldey, one of Denise's traveling companions, has been struck over the years by subtle similarities between Emily Shields and her own daughter, Anna. Both girls were adopted from the city of Nanning on November 7, 1994. As Denise's photos piled up, Hinkeldey noticed likenesses in the girls' jaws and cheek lines, in their eyebrows and foreheads, in their hairlines.

Last July, as the girls romped on the beach at the group's 10-year reunion, the two single moms compared notes. Both girls lost their baby teeth late. Both were musical and artistic. When Shields noticed a peculiar indentation on the back of Anna's right thigh, she blurted out: "Emily has that same mark!"

The women discussed with their daughters the idea of DNA testing. The mothers cautioned their daughters that a match was far from likely. But both agreed that they owed their girls the chance to learn whether the similarities were accidental or hereditary. Anna and Emily, both age 10, eagerly consented to be tested.

The news came from a DNA lab in August: the girls share at least one birthparent, and possibly have both birthparents in common.

A complex connection
For Emily, who had pined for a sibling, and Anna, who, despite having two sisters (both adopted from China), had sometimes felt "like a little part was missing," the relationship has been a dream come true.

Like Shields and Hinkeldey, some other adoptive parents are turning to DNA technology to establish biological links between children living in different households, sometimes thousands of miles apart. The few families who have identified such an against-the-odds match find themselves venturing into exciting but controversial territory. Many are at first thrilled to find a biological link for their children, who never were expected to make a connection with a member of their birth family. That exhilaration is soon followed by practical concerns, such as how to keep the children connected if they are separated by vast distances.

Keeping in touch
The Shields and Hinkeldey families have spent a long weekend together in Southern California since learning the news. They plan to rent a beach house together next summer. Meanwhile, Anna and Emily—and Anna's sisters, Eva, 12, and Lily, 5—have burned up the phone and e-mail wires, as they all develop a new sense of extended family.

When school started in the fall, Emily Shields, for the first time, could write on her forms that she had siblings—count them, three. Eva Hinkeldey, meanwhile, is happily tackling the role of big sister, not just to Anna and Lily, but to Emily as well. For all of them, "China Sisters" has taken on a powerful, new meaning.

"These things are still evolving," Hinkeldey said. "Our understanding may be different next year. As it is now, everybody seems happy we found the connection."

Martha Groves is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She is the mother of Nora Tai-Xiu, adopted from Taizhou, China.

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