Monday, January 30, 2006

A Response to Parade Magazine

It is a familiar refrain: “Why did you adopt from China, when so many children need homes here in the U.S.?” A recent question in “Parade Magazine” posed the same question this way (Sunday, January 29, 2005):

Q: Why do stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie adopt foreign kids when many are waiting here?

Parade’s answer was: In Hollywood, it's fashionable to adopt infants from the Third World. "Also, many believe there's less red tape outside the U.S. Often it's worse," explains actor Henry Winkler. He works with the Children's Action Network, which says 119,000 foster-care kids in the US are eligible for adoption.

How many children are truly available for adoption in the U.S.? An analysis of the U.S. government’s most recent statistics shows the following (2003):

In 2003 (the most recent year for which information is available) there were 25,070 children under the age of one year in the foster care program. There was an additional 129,000 children between one year and five years in the program. There are of course many more children older than 5 in the foster care program, but we will limit our discussion to this population of kids, because it is the age group most attractive for adopting parents.

An important point to keep in mind, however, is that not all of the children in the foster care program are eligible for adoption. The U.S. foster care program serves many purposes, primary of which is child protection. Most of the children (55%) in the program will end up being reunited with their birth parents, an outcome that is preferred. An additional 11% end up living with relatives. In 2003, only 18% ended up being adopted by an unrelated family.

Because reunification is a primary goal of the foster care program, States have established set evaluation timeframes for birth parents to regain custody of their children. This period prevents young children from being adopted quickly, and therefore very few children under the age of 1 year are available for adoption. Although Mr. Winkler correctly quotes a figure of 119,000 children being available for adoption, it is instructive to see how that number breaks down.

Of the 119,000 children available for adoption in 2003, only 3,850 children were under a year old (3%). An additional 38,200 (32%) children between the age of one year and five years were available for adoption, but almost certainly the majority of children were four- or five-year olds. The majority of the children available for adoption were between six and fifteen years of age (58%).

Thus, if a family desires to adopt a young infant or toddler, there are few opportunities available in the U.S. foster care program. In fact, the vast majority of adoptable children are in excess of five years old, with the median age being over ten years old.

These children need homes, of that there is no doubt. In a perfect world every child, regardless of his or her age, would be adopted into a loving family. But in the real world, the vast majority of couples looking to build a family seek for a variety of reasons to adopt a child that is as young as possible. The U.S. foster care program is ill equipped to provide the numbers of babies desired by adopting families. Thus, most are forced to look overseas, or to arrange for private adoptions (which bring in many ethical problems also).

In addition, there are serious concerns on the part of adoptive parents when it comes to adopting a child from the foster care program. Several well-publicized cases in which birth parents sued and regained custody of legally adopted children has nurtured a fear that no adoptive family wants realized. Also, many adoptive families are reluctant to take on the emotional scarring that many in the foster care program have experienced. Another factor is the bureaucracy involved with adopting a child from the foster care program, which, contrary to Mr. Winkler’s assessment, is almost always more burdensome than adopting internationally.

I guess the point that bothers me most about the question asked by the reader of Parade Magazine is that it is almost always posed by those who have not adopted at all. Instead of impugning the characters of the Meg Ryans and Angelina Jolies of the world, why don’t these same people simply adopt a child from the foster care program? Calling their adoption "fashionable" demeans the great thing they, or anyone adopting a child, has done. I guess I would respond to those that ask this question, “Unless you have adopted an orphaned child from anywhere in the world, either here in the U.S. or overseas, keep your cynical questions and comments to yourself!”

Are Angelina Jolie and Meg Ryan part of a new trend in Hollywood? I certainly hope so! I applaud both women for bringing attention to the orphans of the world, wherever they are. Both women are helping to increase the acceptability of adoption, and should be praised for the attention they are bringing to this subject. The reality is that our culture holds up natural childbirth as the preferred method for gaining a family, and adoption is almost universally viewed as a second choice. Public figures like Angelina Jolie are working to change that culture, and bring the status of adoption to higher esteem. Only then will there be hope for the millions of orphaned children in the world.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Domestic Adoption in China's Orphanages

There have been several interesting comments to this post, which in many cases I have responded to. I encourage you to peruse the comments at the end of this essay.

As adoptive parents of Chinese children, most of us have wondered what would have happened to our children had we not adopted them. Would they have been adopted by a Chinese family? Would they have lived out their childhood in the orphanage? Perhaps some of us adopted from China because we assumed that they would not have been adopted, and would have remained in an institution unless we provided them with a family.

As I wrote in a previous blog essay, the international adoption program has had a profound effect on the dynamics of orphanage adoption in China (“The Finances of Baby Trafficking, 12/3/05). Recent baby trafficking stories such as those in Guangxi and Hunan Provinces have brought many questions to mind, the forefront of which is how can a country that has so many children in orphanages have a significant baby-trafficking problem.

In that blog essay, I recounted the experience of “Xiao Mei,” a friend of mine in Guangzhou. She and her husband had tried unsuccessfully to adopt a child from the Guangzhou orphanage, only to be told that there was a 3-year wait for a healthy child. I had been told the same thing on a visit to the Guangzhou facility. When I asked orphanage personnel how there could be a waiting list for domestic adoptions at the same time there were international adoptions being performed, I was told that the children that were adopted internationally had been “passed over” by Chinese families. I was given to understand that Chinese families sought only the most beautiful, most intelligent children for adoption, and were willing to wait to obtain such a child.

Xiao Mei’s experience cast doubt on this explanation, so I decided to conduct a more scientific survey of orphanages. Using, I put together a list of 40 orphanages selected randomly from the 248 orphanages that currently participate in the international adoption program (drawn from the listing of orphanage Yahoogroups listed on Raising China's Childen website). This sample size should give us a clear picture of the impact the international adoptions is having on the orphanages that participate in that program.

The interviewer was a female Chinese resident posing as a married woman, 35 years old, with no children. During the course of the interview she would indicate that she was well off. The following orphanages were surveyed between January 10 and 19, 2006:

Bengbu (Anhui) -- Xiangfan (Hubei)
Chaohu (Anhui) -- Loudi (Hunan)
Ma’Anshan (Anhui) -- Qidong (Hunan)
Quanjiao (Anhui) -- Xiangtan (Hunan)
Liangping (Chongqing) -- Yueyang City (Hunan)
Xiamen (Fujian) -- Zhuzhou (Hunan)
Dongguan (Guangdong) -- Lianyungang (Jiangsu)
Foshan (Guangdong) -- Nantong (Jiangsu)
Guangzhou (Guangdong) -- Ji’An (Jiangxi)
Leizhou (Guangdong) -- Nanchang (Jiangxi)
Qingxin (Guangdong) -- Pingxiang (Jiangxi)
Qingyuan (Guangdong) -- Shicheng (Jiangxi)
Shenzhen (Guangdong) -- Xinyu (Jiangxi)
Zhaoqing (Guangdong) -- Yongfeng (Jiangxi)
Guilin (Guangxi) -- Yongxiu (Jiangxi)
Nanning (Guangxi) -- Hanzhong (Shaanxi)
Tianjin (Hebei) -- Xianyang (Shaanxi)
Daye (Hubei) -- Kunming (Yunnan)
Honghu (Hubei) -- Wenzhou (Zhejiang)
Huangmei (Hubei) -- Yiwu (Zhejiang)

During the course of the survey, the following questions were asked of each orphanage representative:

1) Are there any healthy infants (less than one year old) available for adoption?
2) If not, how long is the wait to adopt?
3) What is the adoption fee to adopt?

A total of 32 orphanages responded to these questions, and results are tabulated as follows. The totals are based on the responding 32 orphanages, and in instances where the totals do not total 32, it is due to some orphanages not responding.

Are there any healthy infants (less than one year old) available for adoption?
Yes: 5 (16%)
No: 26 (81%)
No answer: 1 (3%)

Of the five orphanages that indicated that some healthy babies were available, one indicated an adoption could take place only if a substantial donation (30,000 yuan or $3,700) was made. Otherwise no babies were available. Another orphanage, while acknowledging that healthy babies were available, opined that it would be better for the babies to be adopted internationally.

This confirms comments by orphanage directors with whom I have conversed. Many feel that the children in the orphanages will have better opportunities in foreign families. There seems to be a strong bias among some directors to place children internationally. I sincerely believe this bias does not stem solely from the higher adoption fees foreigners provide the orphanages; rather, I think that many sincerely believe that the children will have happier lives with better educational and financial opportunities outside China. This bias surely plays a factor among the 26 orphanages who indicated that their orphanages had no healthy babies as well, a fact that is easily refuted by analyzing the orphanage’s finding ads.

Several orphanages had restrictions in place that barred a family from outside the city from adopting. Others gave preferential treatment to locals, while not specifically prohibiting non-locals from adopting. One orphanage indicated that although they had no children available officially, a 3 month old girl could be procured from a family friend, who was contemplating giving up a third daughter.

How long must I wait to adopt a healthy baby from your orphanage?
No wait: 6 (19%)
Less than one year: 2 (6%)
One to two years: 8 (25%)
Over two years: 3 (9%)
No answer: 13 (41%)

The large percentage (41%) of orphanages refused to be pinned down on the time required before a healthy child would become available. Of the orphanages that indicated they had healthy children available for adoption, 80% indicated no wait, and the other orphanage indicated a wait of less than a year. Many of the orphanages indicated that if the family was able to donate a substantial amount to the orphanage, exceptions could be made. Therefore, most of the orphanages seemed flexible on this point, depending on the level of interest of the adoptive family, and their financial situation.

What is the fee for a Chinese family to adopt from your orphanage?

This question was answered by over half of the orphanages (65%), with the rest not willing to disclose the adoption fee. A significant percentage (28%) of orphanages indicated that their adoption fees were income-dependent, and were calculated on the adoptive family’s ability to pay (sliding scale). The fees ranged from a low of no fee (Bengbu, Anhui) to 30,000 yuan. Of the others, many charged fees ranging from 5,000 yuan (15%) to 20,000 yuan to adopt domestically (18%). The highest adoption fee quoted was 30,000 yuan by three of the orphanages.

When one contrasts the answers provided in the survey with the finding ads placed in preparation for international adoption, it becomes clear that almost all of the orphanages surveyed placed a preference for international adoptions. For example, the Guangzhou orphanage in Guangdong claims to have a three-year wait for domestic families, yet this orphanage has adopted internationally at the rate of between 80 and 100 children per year for the last five years. Not all of these children, of course, were healthy young infants, but a high percentage were. Foshan and Qingxin, also in Guangdong, each indicated a wait time of over two years for Chinese families, yet each submits over 25 children annually for international adoption. All of the orphanages in this survey continue to place children internationally, despite the fact that most have families willing to adopt domestically, many with those families waiting several years.

This data supports the contention that the international adoption program is draining adoptable children from the domestic adoption program in China. Some of the bias to international adoptions no doubt springs from the belief that the children will have better quality lives outside China, but there can be little doubt that the financial incentive is also a key player. With most orphanages requiring substantial fees for domestic adoption, or banning them outright, it is easy to understand how baby trafficking problems can develop.

This is not to suggest that these orphanages do no domestic adoptions. Surveys that I have conducted in the course of my researching orphanages (some of whom appeared on this list) indicated that most orphanages do adopt between 15 and 50% of their children domestically. These domestically adopting families no doubt fulfill the qualifications of most of the orphanages we surveyed: local residents with substantial financial wherewithall. But there are no doubt many other families willing to adopt, but not meeting the strict requirements imposed by most orphanages.

Can't these families simply apply at orphanages that don't participate in the international adoption program?

Several orphanages indicated that it is China policy to allow all orphanages to participate in the international adoption program. This will be the subject of our next blog essay.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Importance of Yahoogroups

In the corner of my living room, beneath my printer table, lies a pile of stuffed animals, photo albums, letters and other artifacts from my research projects. Attached to each is the name of an adoptive child, and each was given me with the urgent request that I try and locate that child and send them the gift. The gifts, photos and letters were given me by foster families, orphanage directors, and care givers who obviously cared for and remembered the child that was at one time in their care. The one thing they have in common is that they remain under my desk.

I have tried to locate each of these children, sending e-mails to the city newsgroup asking the family to contact me. Most inquiries go unanswered. In the age of digital information, many adoptive parents don't take advantage of the single most important asset they have for obtaining information about their child's life in China: the Yahoogroup dedicated to their child's orphanage.

Most city newsgroups are not very active. My own newsgroups for DianBai and guangzhou average a few messages a week. Yahoogroups allows subscribers to receive individual e-mails (best for less active groups), a daily digest (for busier groups) , "Special Notices" when only important messages sent by the list moderator are sent out, and "no mail," which is for those subscribers that only want to read the postings from the Yahoogroup webpage.

When it comes to "specific interest" newsgroups such as an orphanage newsgroup, I strongly discourage families from choosing "no mail." A week turns into a month, and soon important information is lost in the archives, missed by the adoptive family. More suitable would be selecting the "Special Notices" option, which is essentially the same as "no mail," but allows you to receive important notices.

I would also recommend list moderators maintain the usefulness of their group lists by periodically switching those set at "no mail" to "special notices". Of course, "Special notices" should be sent out only when it is of specific importance, something Yahoo explicitely states in their instructions. Reunion information, research information, searching for specific children qualifies, none-specific advertisements and such do not.

In an age when many families are visiting the cities and orphanages where our children are from, it is impossible to predict what information might suddenly become available. In several cases I have located newspaper articles, birth families, and other vitally important information, only to be frustrated in my inability to locate the adoptive family.

If you are not a member of your child's newsgroup, join today. A list of city newsgroups can be located at the following website:

If you are already a member, and have your setting at "no mail," revisit your decision and reset it to "Special Notices" or "Daily Digest". One day you may be very glad you did.

P.S. Please forward this posting, or a similar message to your locate FCC newsgroup, travel groups, and other audiences. Perhaps one day I will be successful in locating the homes for all of my gifts.