Adopted sisters find each other through e-mails, DNA


FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. / / The eyes, the same. Hairline, the same. Nose, ditto.

When Eileen Surrey stared at the baby's picture on the Internet six years ago, she was stunned.

"I thought I was looking at a picture of my child," says Surrey, of Boynton Beach, Fla.

Now, if a DNA test is reliable, Surrey was on to something.

Her daughter, Renee, 8, has a sister -- near Philadelphia. And their moms think the girls, adopted five months apart from the same Chinese orphanage, are fraternal twins.

So how do sisters -- born half way around the world -- become separated and find each other again on American soil? Their story starts in 1999 when Surrey answered a question posted on an adoption Web site by Andrea Ettingoff.

Ettingoff wanted help with 16-month-old Annie's eating problem.

After exchanging baby photos, Surrey and Ettingoff were struck by their daughters' physical similarities. Five years passed with e-mails and occasional face-to-face visits strengthening their convictions. These girls are related, they thought.

Ettingoff, clinical director for the Children's Crisis Treatment Center in Philadelphia, wanted more proof. She pushed for DNA testing.

"I didn't need the DNA," says Surrey, reluctant to test at first. "They're sisters. I already knew in my heart."

But in December, when the girls were 7, the moms swabbed inside their daughters' cheeks for a DNA analysis.

In January the results arrived: The girls are sisters, within an 82.9 percent likelihood. Fraternal twins, the moms believe, because the girls are developing in similar ways.

Same long slender fingers. Same size shoes. Both artistic. Both beaming ballerinas. Now, both are being raised in the Jewish faith and attend Hebrew school. And both love the notion they have each other.

"She's my sister," Renee says, tossing her long dark hair. "I wanted a sister. It's great!"

Though Renee is too young to understand, there's a reason she's not growing up with Annie in China.

China's overwhelming population problem dictates one child per family. Countless babies are abandoned, though doing so can lead to prosecution. As a result, adopting parents typically know nothing about their children's biological families.

"We think it's important that Renee has a tie to her birth family," says Surrey's husband, David. "I have a brother and sister and they're important to me. It's family."

The popularity of DNA testing for adoptees has grown as their numbers have mushroomed. In the past decade, Chinese adoptions have more than tripled -- nearly 8,000 last year.

As a result, more parents are looking for a connection. Atlanta-based Kinsearch Registry is a non-profit DNA database started 18 months ago to help connect siblings separated by international adoptions.

Sister Far, with about 100 members, is an Internet discussion group of families who think they've found their adopted child's biological sibling.

As interest grows, DNA experts caution families: Don't put all your faith in the tests.

"Without DNA from the parents, nothing is conclusive," says Terry Carmichael, marketing vice president of GeneTree, a DNA-testing lab. "Without a parent, the results are statistically based."

In their testing, companies typically examine at least 13 locations on the DNA for markers that occur infrequently in specific populations. Every time they find markers that match for alleged siblings, the probability of a relationship increases. Testing costs between $200 to $500.

"By our standards, 90 percent and up is considered in the conclusive range," Carmichael says.

But that doesn't discourage these two families, who now call themselves "twinlaws." Indeed, the test results have only brought the girls closer.

When Renee heard her mother talking to Annie's mom about the lab results, she cried: "We're sisters! Yes, we're sisters!"

In the future, the couples know things can get complicated. The girls already ask why they can't be together. For now, the families, including Ettingoff's husband, Craig Bernstein, continue planning trips so the girls can see each other.


Liz Doup writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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