Sunday, December 16, 2007

Adopting Special Needs Children

My research over the past two years convinces me that the need to adopt healthy children from China is over. China's problem with infant trafficking makes apparent the domestic demand for healthy infants, and the long waiting lists at most orphanages is compelling evidence that many families inside China are desirous to adopt through official channels. Given the recently adopted principles of the Hague Agreement, it is clear that from a moral and ethical point of view, China needs to keep her healthy children home.

But that doesn't mean the China program needs to end. In fact, were I the head of the CCAA, I would revamp my special needs program to encourage and facilitate the adoption of China's truly disenfranchised -- the thousands of children living in her orphanages that were born with special needs -- large birth marks, cleft lips, missing fingers or toes, hepatitis, and any number of "imperfections" that make them for all intents and purposes unadoptable inside China. Many of these special needs present unsurmountable financial problems to domestic families, but are of little consequence to families with medical care opportunities in the West. Thus, I believe the CCAA should expedite SN referrals, allow prospective adoptive families greater access to special needs children, and do everything possible to migrate the 14,000 annual international adoptions into the Special Needs program. It presents a win-win-win scenario -- Orphanages receive the continued financial resources they require, domestically unadoptable children find homes, and adoptive families would not face the ethical dilemmas of taking a child from China that could easily have been adopted domestically.

I have a special place in my heart for these children. What follows is the story of one family and how they came to adopt two special needs children. Laurie M. describes the questions all of us face when considering a special needs adoption: Am I able to do this? What if the problems are worse than I expected? But in the end she and her husband made the leap of faith, and are now parents to two beautiful children with special needs.


It was Spring and my husband was going to China on a Cleft Lip/Cleft Pallet (CL/CP) mission trip with an adoption agency and he wanted me to come along. My hometown had been completely destroyed by Katrina the prior August, and my heart and soul were in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and certainly not in China. I was very sad and didn't want to add the pain of China's orphaned babies to the load that was tearing at my heart. If I went, I knew that while he was in surgery, I would probably have the opportunity to tour a few orphanages and being a very empathetic person, I felt it would be too much for me. As I expected, he came back saying he wanted to adopt a child. I said, emphatically "NO!" A year later, after tax time, our accountant said that his solo practice was doing extremely well and he looked at me and said, " can we adopt a child?" I said, "I'll look at the web site. That's all I can promise." I looked at the web site and found the waiting child photos and kept looking at them for a few days. I got their application and filled it out and brought the medical checklist to Robert. He refused to check even one special need. Honestly. He wouldn't budge. He wanted a NSN little girl, apparently, while I was thinking of a SN little boy.

I looked at the web site again, and my heart kept being drawn to a little boy who looked wise beyond his two years and kind of dapper too. I requested his paperwork and saw that he had a repaired CL/CP. Robert is an ENT and does CL/CP surgeries and ear surgeries and I felt that we could easily handle this kind of special need. I found a yahoo group for his orphanage, where I found that these babies were all raised in foster families and that the adoptive families loved the director and the care their children received. The children often had few, if any delays and they were obviously well loved and had adequate nutrition. I looked in the paperwork for signs that this little boy would thrive. He cried if not fed first. Good sign, he expects his needs to be met. They said, before his lip repair, that he would "smile so sweetly". By that I knew he was loved. He was in foster care so he had great chances of bonding with a new family and the fact that his CL/CP were both repaired very early also meant that his chances for good speech were excellent. The SWI had taken a special interest in him and done what they found was best for him long term, by repairing the palate. They had only had a few special needs children, and he was their only boy. I also learned that children with CL/CP have such a difficult time feeding that under ordinary orphanage conditions, they will not survive. They have to have had one on one care to have gotten to the point that they were considered adoptable, so many of the orphanage deprivations and delays would be less likely. Early nutritional deficits should be expected because of the cleft, which explained his small size. I felt peaceful and confident and in my heart, I knew this little boy would thrive in our home.

So...I presented Robert with the paperwork and asked him to pray about just see if he felt what I felt for this little boy. Our agency put him "On Hold" for us and I waited. The first deadline passed and he agonized and could not decide. They gave us an extension. The deadline came and went. Again, he could not decide. One final weekend extension was granted, but they really needed to know by 5:00 on Monday evening. I was in the grocery check out at 5:00 when he called me. "We need to talk when you get home. I want to go for a walk," he said. In all the weeks of waiting I grew to accept the fact that he would most likely say, "No" and that was fine for me. I knew in my heart that if we were not both 100% committed that we should not proceed. We walked and he said, "I don't have the faith for this kind of thing." "It's OK. I understand," I said. Then he added, "But I think we are supposed to bring this little boy home." "What?" "I think you are right. He's our son."

Well, then there was the whirlwind of paperwork and PA and finally the trip to China over the Christmas holidays. This little child seems tailor-made for our family. He even shares some of our weird little foibles. We love him passionately and he loves us and brings us so much joy. Every day or so, my husband looks at me, and sighs and says, "Thank You." He says that he struggled with all the possible complications and the treatments for CL/CP that he knew about. My intuition made the job easier for me, but he had to find a way to work with his intellect to say, "Yes." He's so glad that he did.

After the adjustment period, when our new son was happy and thriving, I began to look again at the waiting child lists, and to think about one last child. My husband looked me and said, "No more CL/CP kids. No more boys." "Ok."

One day, I saw a new list and there was this little girl at the top of the page, with a sweet smile. I asked for the password. She had been abandoned the month before we traveled to China last year, at 4 years old. I looked at her and my heart just broke. I thought about how our son would have felt if he had gone to the bathroom and come out and found that we were gone. It hurt so much to think about it. Her special need was a varus elbow deformity. Her arm had been broken and repaired, leaving her with a long scar.

When asked to show that the elbow bent, for her referral pictures, she looked both very sad and almost angry. She looked straight at the camera, not timidly, just directly, and when she smiled, she looked like any other sweet little girl in a school photo. The pictures looked more like "after" photos than "before" photos. Her paperwork said that she liked group life and played with children of all ages. She could pick up a peanut with her chopstick and she loved to talk and was "broadloving." If that were not astounding enough, she could count to 100 and skip and hop on one foot. I thought she was lovely, but I also realized that she would have memories of whoever had cared for her before her abandonment and that there would potentially be PTSD issues to address, too. These concerned me more than her varus elbow. While there was a wealth of information and photos of our son and even his foster mother, there was very little real information about this little girl's past. I wondered and talked with friends in China about possible scenarios for her abandonment.

The agency had a petition process, in which interested families submitted applications and pre-adoption paperwork that included a social worker's recommendation and information on how the special need would be addressed. It was Wednesday and the paperwork would all be due by Friday. I approached my husband and showed him her pictures and asked what did he think. "She's wonderful. What do you want to do?" "Petitions for her are due on Friday. We probably won't get picked." "Oh. I think we should go for it," he said. "What?...don't you want to read her medicals, don't you need to think about it?" "No. You've done all that." "You don't need to agonize and pray and wait?" "Nope." I called our social worker and we got started and I called the agency. They had received over 50 emails about her. Wow! That was encouraging for this sweet little girl. Even though she was an older child and had a SN, she would, without a doubt, be placed! I breathed a sigh of relief. I talked with the staff at the agency about why she may have been abandoned and what she would need. I said, "Well, I am sure, with all those people, you will find her a good home. That's all I really care about. We probably won't turn in a petition." "Well, I don't want to discourage you," she said, "but the chances of being chosen are very slim."

I hung up the phone and called my husband and explained. "I think we should still petition," he said. "Really? It's $250 and it's non-refundable." "Yes. It's a good cause." "Ok." I kept going with the paperwork. I had heard from a friend that we could add a letter explaining why we felt that we were a good match for her, and I added that, along with our family photos. I explained to our 6 year old son what I was doing and asked if he had anything he wanted to tell the people who were choosing her family. He said, "Tell them we will be gooder to her than anything and I think she'll be the best little sister ever!" So I put that as a post script to the letter, explaining, "Of course, he realizes that we might not be chosen." I am told that when the committee met, they each believed that they would have to argue that we were the best match for this little girl. It ends up that the decision was unanimous! We were meant to be her family.

We were honestly stunned and excited and amazed. Now we are once again chasing down papers and trying to figure out how to prepare a little girl who is very far away for her new family. We know that there are risks with an older child adoption and that, in our daughter's case, there will be special abandonment issues that we will be helping her to work through. Someday, we may hear the whole story of her life, as she remembers it. But for now, we know that she is also in a very good SWI and that the children are loved and well cared for. They are all named, "Precious" something. She is our "Precious Girl" for now. What was her name before? We don't know. Who did she live with before? We don't know, but we pray that she was loved and treated kindly. We hope that her ability to be kind to others means that someone has also shown her kindness. Now, we wait and we pray.

If you are considering a special needs child, I can honestly say that our son has brought a particular kind of light and joy to our days, and he brings a smile to strangers' faces every day. A friend has predicted that our waiting child will become "one of the greatest loves of [our] lives." I always say that adoption is not for the feint of heart, but sometimes in life, those great leaps into the unknown are the best kind of all.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Searching For Birthparents -- How Can It Be Done

This blog article is comprised of three segments. The first is an article entitled "Public and Private Finding Locations: The Clues Each Contains." I wrote the article for the current issue of "China Connection: A Journal for New England Families Who Have Adopted Children From China" (December 2007, pp. 21-22).

The second segment is also from the current issue of "China Connection" (p. 23), and describes the legal ramifications for birth parents to come forward in China. Can they be prosecuted? Would fear of prosecution keep them from coming forward if adoptive families searched? This segment addresses those questions.

The third segment are my answers to common questions posed by adoptive families contemplating a search for their child's birth family. Should it be done? Who should do it? How can it be done? The answers to these questions are obviously personal on some level, and I don't advocate a single answer to any of them. 

Update:  Since writing this series of articles, we have compiled the data from almost all of the orphanages in China.  An analysis of this data has proven extremely helpful for families starting to search.  Our "Birth Parent Search Analysis" is a very important overview of what issues one might face in searching for birth parents in each orphanage area, and what the probable hurdles would be.  More information about these reports is available on our website.   


In my six years of researching what happens to children who are abandoned in China, I have been asked many times for help in locating birth parents of adopted children. Many methods have been tried, some successfully and others not. Based on my experiences, I am passing along some information that could be useful in locating members of a child’s birth family in China, if this is something adoptive parents and their child want to pursue.

Finding locations for children can be categorized into two main types: Public and “private” locations. Hospitals, orphanage gates, police stations, and schools fall into the arena of public finding places, and the vast majority of children adopted from China have been found there. Generally, public finding locations provide little guidance in locating birth parents because no direct thread leads from the location to the birth family. Though my research gives me good reason to believe that most babies are left close to where they were born, identifying a birth parent with only this clue is like walking into a Wal-Mart seeking information about your neighbor’s child. The chance of finding someone who knows anything of real value is very, very small – but not impossible.

Some public locations are more likely than others to provide threads of information. For example, when a baby is found at a hospital, a paper trail might exist. A hospital might have birth records detailing the names and address of those who gave birth there.

Sometimes, finding out information about the person who found the baby – and the name of the “finder” is often available in orphanage records – can provide additional clues. Frequently it turns out that children who were reported as being found at a government office or at an orphanage were not actually “left” there but they were “brought” there from another area.

With one child whose “finding place” I researched, this turned out to be the case. In her adoption papers, she was listed as being found at a village Residential Committee office, a not uncommon finding location. When I visited that location and asked people in the village about this child, several remembered her being “found” but told us the child had been found by a family in the village. My wife and I were then taken to talk with that husband and wife, and they confirmed that they knew this child’s birth parents. This is an example of how gathering a few clues and doing a little digging, even in the face of overwhelming odds, can result in birth parents being located.

Another consideration is the population of the area where a child was found. One of my daughters, for example, was found in the middle of the city of Guangzhou. This made a search for her birth parents all but impossible. Another of my daughters was found in the small town of DianBai in western Guangdong Province. In her case, it would be possible to conduct a search for her birth parents by printing a few thousand fliers, and distributing them for a week at the town market. Since nearly every woman in China visits a local market every few days, markets are very good ”search centers.” At such a location, fliers can be distributed in the hopes of locating a birth parent.

Private Finding Locations
Sometimes a child’s finding location is not in a public area but instead happens in a “private” place. These places are owned or controlled by individuals or families, such as residences or farms, family-run stores or restaurants, and they are usually chosen because the birth family knows the owner. Sometimes such a location is selected because the family who lives there is having trouble giving birth to a child and it is felt that giving this family a child will help them to conceive. Other times the “finder” might be chosen because they have a son and it is believed they might also like to have a daughter. Another consideration is whether a family is considered well-off and thus able to afford the fee to register the child with the local government.

At private finding locations, often clues are available to assist in birth parent searches. (Many children who are left at “private” locations do end up being placed in an orphanage and are adopted internationally.) In one Jiangxi orphanage we researched, birth parents were known by three quarters of the finders at the private residences and stores we visited. As we spoke with them, it became obvious that these locations were carefully considered by the birth parents; each “finder” had particular qualities that made them attractive as adoptive parents.

Contacting Birth Families
Adoptive families are cautioned, however, against believing that all birth parents will express an interest in making contact with their abandoned child. In my experience the majority of birth families have shown no interest in revisiting their abandonment history by making contact with adoptive families. Even when I’ve provided photos and phone numbers, a majority of them have refused the information.

What I’ve learned in these encounters makes me wary of the “opportunities” for reunion that DNA matching appears to offer. Although adoptive parents and their children might decide to pursue a search for birth parents by registering with a DNA database, I believe there will be significant cultural and personal hurdles in China that will discourage birth parents from participating. These barriers – which I think will preclude large numbers of birth parents from participating in DNA databases – include the fear of governmental reprisal (though this fear seems largely unfounded), financial considerations, and a cultural proclivity to ”look forward, not backward.”

In summary, locating birth parents in China is possible if the circumstances are right. Private finding locations such as residences and small stores have a high degree of success. Finding locations in small villages also bring a good degree of success. Seeking local hospital records might provide information, but these inquiries must be made quickly before records are archived or destroyed. But adoptive families must also remember that even when the search proves successful, the birth parents might leave the discovered door closed and locked, unwilling to allow the connection to be made.

Risks -- Perceived and Real for Birth Parents in China
One might wonder if birth parents face any risk by publicly coming forward and looking for their abandoned child – or being contacted by a family searching for them. Although the idea of a five-year statute of limitations has been discussed among the adoption community for abandoning a child, this concept is not specifically found in Chinese criminal law regarding abandonment. The 1992 “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women” states that “drowning, abandoning or cruel infanticide in any manner of female babies is prohibited,” but assigns no penalty. Article 261 of the Criminal Code states “A person who refuses his proper duty to support an aged person, minor, sick person or any other person who can not live independently shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years, criminal detention or public surveillance if the circumstance is flagrant.” Thus, infant abandonment might be classified as a criminal act, which could result in a prison term of up to five years if convicted, but it is not clearly stated.

“There are legal provisions requiring parents to rear and educate their children and prohibiting the maltreatment or abandonment of children. Nevertheless, the Penal Code fails to provide clear definitions, so that in practice it is difficult to mete out punishment to parents who dump their babies,” He Jialin of the Sichuan Hetai Law Firm stated in a 2005 article entitled “Facing the Reality: Baby Dumping.” In practical terms, the maximum penalty typically faced by birth parents for abandoning their child is the fine that would have been imposed had they registered their child. In other words, there is rarely an additional penalty for the act of abandonment.

Chinese law discusses statute of limitations in relation to the imprisonment lengths imposed for various crimes. “The law says that the statute of limitation for crimes carrying a maximum penalty of no more than five years’ imprisonment is five years; 10 years for crimes that attract imprisonment of more than five years but less than 10; and 15 years for crimes carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years or more” Since infant abandonment could be classified as a violation of Article 261 of the Criminal Code, it can be assumed that the statute of limitations for abandonment would be five years.

All of this relates only to legal requirements and definitions, which are rarely absorbed by the average Chinese citizen. In practical terms, a family’s fear of government reprisal is perhaps the strongest disincentive for birth parents to come forward at any time. Even if the five-year statute of limitations were widely known and understood (which it isn’t), the vast majority of birth parents would not trust the government to respect those provisions.

What is widely believed by the vast majority of Chinese, however, is that the police are reticent to search for, let alone charge, birth parents with abandoning a child. “When female infants are murdered or abandoned by parents or family relatives, law enforcement and civil services agencies hardly ever conduct any investigation to go after the perpetrators because many of local police and officials still believe that it is parents’ right to decide whatever they want to do with their children and killing one’s newborn child is a family/domestic matter not a crime,” observed Xin Ren, a professor of criminal justice at California State University in Sacramento in an article she wrote, “Protecting Women and Children Against Trafficking in China.”

Given this understanding, children are confidently left in hospitals, in front of a neighbor’s home or police station, or in a park with parents knowing that the risk of detection and prosecution is very low. But few birth families would openly reveal their crime by coming forward in a public way. Thus, infant abandonment is in the vast majority of cases a “don't ask, don't tell” situation in China.

Questions & Answers to Searching for Birth Parents

Q: Isn't searching for birth parents the prerogative of my adopted child? Is it my right to search for her history?

Searching for your child's birth parents doesn't require notifying your child that you have found them. In our case, we intend to keep the information private until the day when our daughter does ask about it. But given the dramatic changes occurring in China, waiting for 15-20 years before searching almost guarantees failure down the road. Control of the contact is as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. You can write yearly letters without letting your child know anything about it.

As parents, it is our responsibility to provide any information we can to assist our children to gain a full understanding of their history and origins. Whether our children ever draw on that information is up to them, but we must be prepared. To avoid or relegate responsibility to search for her birth parents until she is old enough to want to search herself will ultimately mean that information will not be obtainable. Individuals die and families move. How would any of us feel if we were faced with the question, "If you could have found them, why didn't you?" In my mind, it is much better to have information my children never ask for, than to not obtain information that I am one day asked about.

Q: I am afraid of opening a Pandora's box by locating the birth parents for my child. What if they want more contact than I am comfortable giving?

Again, the control will be yours. At first, you might consider all communication take place through an intermediary such as your agency or a family friend. This eliminates any chance the birth family will initiate contact that you are not comfortable with. Additionally, you are under no moral or ethical obligation to provide financial resources to the birth family. What you offer and provide is completely up to you.

Q: Isn't it illegal to put up signs and make searches for birth parents in China? Won't I get in trouble?

In doing birth family searches many times, I have never had any resistance from Chinese Government officials. The Chinese government is not anxious for these contacts to be made, but is fairly powerless to prevent them. If families are misguided into thinking that contact will be possible through official or governmental avenues, they will miss valuable time and opportunities. The Chinese government will never sanction such contact, for the simple reason that they do not want to encourage the knowledge that abandoned children are adopted internationally.

Q: Should I use an organization "registered" in China to make a search?

While organizations that conduct heritage tours and other in-country experiences serve an important service, their ability to gain cooperation from orphanages and the CCAA requires that they don't breach the established rules and requirements of the Chinese government. For that reason, these organizations may discourage families from conducting searches out of fear that it will result in retaliation from the Chinese authorities. The same applies to adoption agencies. Thus, the adoptive family will usually have to act independent of official channels and organizations to conduct birth parent searches.

Q: What are some other methods that can be employed to search for birth parents?

Aside from contacting individuals who might have knowledge of the birth parents (finders, orphanage staff, and foster families), other ideas include distributing leaflets in the neighborhood surrounding the finding location or at local markets. These leaflets should be general in nature, listing no personal information about the adoptive family or the child. Contact information might include an e-mail address or in-country cellphone number. This method will result in many fruitless contacts (birth parents of other adopted children), but reduce the impulse of someone to come forward pretending to be your child's birth parents. This method also has the benefit of keeping control of the communication lines with the adoptive family.

Placing "Birth Family Search" ads in newspapers is also a common strategy, but generally inefficient. There is little certainty that a birth family will read the newspaper chosen for the ad, and the most widely-read newspapers are those covering wide geographical areas. It is, however, another option. One downside to the ads is that most newspapers require the advertiser to submit and pay for the ad in person, requiring a contact in the area.

Ultimately, it is up to each adoptive family to decide if they should search for their child's birth parents. Personally, I am anxious to obtain as much information regarding my child's life-history as possible. I would like to know why they were abandoned, what their birth families look like, are there siblings, etc. I want to know this so that when my children ask these questions, I can provide definitive information, not broad generalities and suppositions.

But any contact made would be on my terms, with my sanction and approval. After having my questions answered, I would find a level of communication that I was comfortable with. I would not tell my children we had located their birth parents unless they asked me to help locate their birth parents. At that point, I would decide if the time was appropriate to tell my daughter that we in fact knew her birth family. In this way, control of her history remains with my daughter.