Liza da Silva prefers to call herself ‘detective’ than ‘fixer’. Her work has been in the spotlight since it was revealed last week that the hit TV show without a trace matched adopted children to the wrong biological parents.
The program receives a lot of “negative attention,” says Da Silva, who did between five and ten assignments for Spoorloos. The essence of what she does is ‘investigate’ and ‘provide information’.
Last Wednesday, Colombian fixer Edwin Vela had an important role in the broadcast of the TV program Scammers Tackled by journalist Kees van der Spek. The episode shows how he is involved in a mismatch twice. The story begins with a young woman from Assen who, together with her friend, discovers that her so-called biological mother is not her biological mother at all. The two look for a second case together, which also turns out to be a wrong match.
The good news: in this second case they find – albeit ten years later – the real biological mother of the adopted child, who is now an adult man. This time the man knows for sure, the match is confirmed with a DNA test. Since the broadcast, KRO-NCRV has been investigating fourteen other matches made by fixer Edwin Vela. Those involved tell the NOS that it went wrong in at least five more cases.
How do these ‘fixers’ work? And how exceptional is a case like Vela’s?
The work of these ‘researchers’ is anything but simple, says a fixer working in East Asia, who does not want her name in the newspaper for privacy reasons. By telephone she tells about her experiences as a paid researcher for Spoorloos – years ago. Her last case for Spoorloos was around 2008. She now works for other media.
“Spoorloos sent me documents with names on them, sometimes even an address,” says the fixer. But often the addresses were no longer correct. Fixer Da Silva agrees. Sometimes the names don’t even match. “I once had a case in Brazil where a minor mother at the orphanage gave her mother’s name.”
Da Silva did her assignments for Spoorloos voluntarily: “You should not want to earn money from other people’s tears.” About ten years ago she started her own foundation with which she traces biological parents of adopted children. She works from the Netherlands and has many contacts in Brazil.
You shouldn’t want to make money from other people’s tears
Liza da Silva ‘fixer’
The fixers pull out all the stops to trace the families of adopted children: local databases, street interviews, the local child protection, the orphanage, foundations involved in the adoption. The fixer in Asia: “And sometimes it still doesn’t work. For example, because the employees of the orphanage have become too old to remember things well.” She thinks that in the years she worked for Spoorloos she only solved about ten percent of the cases. “Spoorloos did not make a fuss about that, if in doubt: no match.”
Once the family member has been found, the work can be grateful, says the fixer in Asia. “It was very satisfying when I found someone’s mother.” The fixer mainly operated alone, without the intervention of a correspondent. “Spoorloos asked me to report extensively on details and asked a lot of questions.”
The work has a dark side, says fixer Da Silva. “It is an absolute nightmare to make a wrong pairing action.” Taking a DNA test is crucial, she says. The fixer in East Asia agrees. Until 2008, when she worked for Spoorloos, the research usually did not involve DNA tests.
Da Silva was “stunned” when she heard that Spoorloos has only been using DNA testing as standard since 2019. The tests have been available for much longer. “If there is no commercial laboratory or large hospital locally, you can have a cheek mucus sample sent to the Netherlands by registered post. All you need is a clean cotton swab from the drugstore, rubber gloves, a protective envelope. I have often helped families with this.”
Spoorloos has indeed tested for DNA as standard since 2019, says a spokesperson for KRO-NCRV. But even before that, since 2000, DNA tests were used to verify a match. “At the beginning a few times a year in case of doubt, over time more and more.” Previously, DNA testing was “a very time-consuming process,” the spokesperson said.
Various sources working in adoption research and a Dutch hospital confirm that the DNA tests based on cheek mucus became accessible since the turn of the century. Initially, this was only possible at the hospital and it cost around 1,500 guilders. It now costs about 1,000 euros at the hospital and less than 200 euros at a commercial laboratory.
Amanda Janssen of the Sri Lanka DNA Foundation helps adoptees and their biological family. She says about Spoorloos: “I was honestly very surprised that they did it without standard DNA tests for so long. DNA does not lie.” Her own foundation has been doing this from the start, in 2017. You can order a test on the website for 69 euros.
Janssen himself was adopted from Sri Lanka, “with false papers”. Since she became pregnant herself, she has been looking for her biological family there. She has already had a mismatch twice, which came to light through DNA checks.
DNA testing is therefore the holy grail of research methods in the adoption world. Yet there are other ways to determine a match, say Da Silva and the fixer in East Asia. A common “trick” is not to reveal the child’s name and date of birth to the birth mother, Da Silva says. “I’m just saying I have good news: your child is looking for you.” If the biological mother can confirm the name and date of birth, that says a lot. Another method, according to the fixer in Asia, is to interrogate an aunt or grandmother. In addition, physical features can make you feel uneasy.
With her foundation, Da Silva will soon offer two hundred biological mothers in Brazil the opportunity to donate DNA whose profile will be included in a database. They don’t have to pay for it. “Hopefully many more matches can be completed in this way.”
With the collaboration of Wilfred Takken.
Also read the interview with history professor Marlou Schrover: Matching often goes wrong, ‘sometimes with the best intentions’
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 17, 2022