Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hunan in Retrospect

"The CCAA included in its investigation all of the children from Hunan province adopted by Canadians, and found that all of these children were legitimately orphaned or abandoned and that there are no biological parents searching for them" (Letter from Canada's Intercountry Adoption Services, dated 12 March 2008).

On November 25, 2005 the world was alerted to "Orphanages in central China's Hunan Province" buying "at least 100" children and adopting them for "8,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan". While the earliest report did not connect this buying by the orphanages to international adoption, later press coverage began to make the connection. Xinhua News, in an update to the story published the following week, stated that officials involved indicated that "some of them were even sold to foreign adopters."

The Chinese Government, seeing the story becoming a firestorm of concern and controversy in the international press, shut down coverage two weeks later, forbidding any press coverage of the story inside China. It then began mounting a significant damage control campaign to reassure the world that children were not being trafficked into the orphanages for purposes of adopting them to Western families.

The first step was to limit the scope of the investigation and trial to a small geographical area -- Hengyang City in southern Hunan Province. This narrowed the orphanages implicated to just six: the Qidong, Hengnan, Hengshan, Hengyang and Hengdong County orphanages, and the orphanage in Changning City. Second, the government focused the investigation on just 85 children: the number of children trafficked into these six orphanages in 2005.

Additionally, the CCAA instructed the Hunan Provincial Civil Affairs to immediately stop processing adoption submissions for the entire Province. As a result, adoption submissions stopped in late December 2005, although children processed before the shut down continued to be adopted into 2006.

Once the Chinese government shut down reporting on the story, it was able to guide attention away from orphanages originally named as involved in the trafficking. Initial reports, for example, named Changsha First orphanage in Hunan's capital as "a stable client" that "had bought many babies from the Hengyang orphanage." Additional orphanages named in the early reporting included "Binzhou [Chenzhou] and Zhuzhou" and orphanages in "Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guangdong Province."

In February 2006, twenty-three officials were tried for child trafficking. Most of the officials were given a slap on the wrist, with only one receiving jail time:

"Chen Ming, former head of Hengdong Social Welfare Home, was sentenced to one year in prison. The heads of Hengyang and Hengdong county civil affairs bureaus Deng Guangyang and Zhou Liqun, among others, were sacked for their negligence of duties."

While Chen Ming, director of the Hengdong Orphanage was sentenced to one year, he would in fact only serve three months. Three of the primary traffickers, including Liang Guihong, Duan Meilin and Dai Chao, were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Liang Guihong was the source of most of the children trafficked from Wuchuan City in Guangdong Province to Hunan. In late 2002, she was put in touch with Duan Meilin, a resident of Changning City in Hunan. Over the next three years, over 1,000 children would be moved from Wuchuan and sold to orphanages in Hunan and other areas.

With the well-publicized trial over at the end of February 2006, the CCAA informed the Provincial Civil Affairs office to recommence processing of adoptions from Hunan orphanages, excluding the six involved in the trial. Adoptions for these six would be delayed for another five months, and quietly restarted in September 2006.

A March 11, 2006 Washington Post article seeking to show that children have been kidnapped in order to be internationally adopted prompted the CCAA to issue a short, exactly worded statement four days later. In this statement, identical except for the country being addressed, the CCAA assured the world that "all of the children" involved in the trafficking "were legitimately orphaned or abandoned and that there are no biological parents searching for them." While many in the adoption community assumed that this meant that no trafficked children had been adopted internationally, the purpose of the statement was to refute the charges of kidnapping raised by the Post article.

Adopting families are given a "Progress Report" on their prospective child at the time of referral that gives informal information regarding their child. Often this progress report includes information that doesn't end up in the final adoption documents.

That is the case with the adoption paperwork for Ning Mei Lin (name changed to protect the child's identity). In March 2004, Ning Mei Lin's adoptive parents, a family living in Canada, excitedly received a referral for a one-year old girl. She was found, the Progress Report stated, "at the entrance to the Quanfeng Station of our city by Duan Meilin, a resident of Yiyang Town." Duan Meilin would be arrested almost two years later for trafficking children.

Ning Mei Lin was trafficked to the Changning orphanage early in the trafficking program, in January 2003. What is significant is that the orphanage did not even feel compelled to change the name of the trafficker. Also significant is that Ning Mei Lin proves that trafficked children were adopted internationally.

Chen Ming, director of Hengdong County's orphanage during the trafficking period, described in a recent Dutch Documentary how Duan Mei Lin and her partners would "shop" the children from one orphanage to the other:

"Normally we paid 3,000 yuan. If you offered only 2,000 yuan or less, then they brought the child to someone else’s orphanage. The men with the children came by and compared the prices."

Thus, it is hard to know for sure which orphanages Duan Mei Lin and her partners dealt with, but we can see the impact their business had on the orphanages that were implicated and prosecuted.

Adoption Statistics of the "Hunan Six"

It is interesting to look back and see the effect the trafficking had on the adoption rates of the orphanages involved. While the Chinese Government sought in the press to minimize the number of children involved, adoption rates and court testimony both show that hundreds of children were involved.

Testimony at trial was limited to the 85 children trafficked by Duan Mei Lin and her partners to the six Hengyang City orphanages in 2005: Hengnan County (22), Hengdong County (18), Hengyang County (11), Changning City (7), Qidong County (15), and Hengshan County (12). Observers at the trial, however, indicate that the numbers were actually much higher. For example, informants close to the orphanages indicate that between 2003 and 2005, Hengnan County had purchased 169 children, Hengshan County 232, and Hengyang County 409 children from Duan Mei Lin and her fellow traffickers. All of this ignores other sources of children that the orphanages employed independently of Duan Mei Lin and her family.

It is important to realize that the Hunan trafficking scandal began as a directive in 2001 by the director of the Changning orphanage for his employees to begin looking for adoptable children in the area. Finders of unwanted children were "rewarded" with 1,000 yuan, an attractive amount of money in a rural area where average annual wages are less than 3,000 yuan. A similar program was instituted in the Hengyang County orphanage, where employees were promised bonuses if they located three adoptable children.

In late 2001, Duan Mei Lin and her family located Liang Guihong, an elderly woman in Wuchuan City in Guangdong Province. Ms. Liang was a baby-broker, a woman known fro taking in unwanted children and finding adoptive families for them. When Duan Mei Lin found Ms. Liang, she and her family "became wild with joy." For them, they had located a gold mine. They purchased a child for 720 yuan and brought it to the Changning orphanage, where they were paid 2,300 yuan for their trouble.

It wasn't long before other orphanages heard of the easy supply of children coming out of Guangdong. In 2003 employees of the Hengyang County orphanage journeyed south to Wuchuan to visit Ms. Liang. They offered to pay more for the babies. The price paid for each child climbed from a few hundred yuan to 3,500 yuan in the matter of a year. By the end of 2004, other orphanages, including Qidong County orphanage, had joined in the competition for these Guangdong babies.

Three of the six orphanages did international adoptions in 2000, Qidong and Hengshan Counties and Changning City. Collectively, these three orphanages adopted 138 children in 2000. The number remained practically unchanged in 2001, falling to 135 children. The number of adoptions began to increase in 2002, with the adoption rates of these three orphanages increasing 66% to 225 children. Rates in these three orphanages increased further in 2003, with 280 children being adopted.

In 2004, Changning's adoption numbers began to fall precipitously as competition from other orphanages in the area denied them many of the children from Wuchuan. Whereas Changning had seen a doubling of adoptions from 2001 to 2003 (40 to 118), in 2004 its numbers fell back down to 52, falling again in 2005 to 14. It appears from this data that the orphanage concluded that further purchases of the children from Duan Mei Lin was too expensive or impractical.

Qidong County, however, picked up much of the slack. After doing 19 international adoptions in 2002, Qidong's numbers increased 289% to 55 in 2003. In 2004, Qidong's IA submissions increased an additional 24% to 68. As a result, adoption submissions for Qidong and Hengshan Counties and Changning City totaled 217 children, a 23% decline. In 2005, Changning (now practically invisible with 14 adoptions), Hengshan and Qidong Counties submitted 285 children for adoption, a 31% increase. Qidong County more than doubled its adoption submissions from 2004 to 2005, submitting 68 in 2004 and 148 in 2005. Thus, from 2000 to 2005 these three orphanages saw adoption rates skyrocket 206%, while adoption rates in the other Hunan orphanages climbed only 40%.

The other three orphanages involved entered the international adoption program after 2000. Hengdong County started international adoptions in 2002, submitting 58. This number almost doubled to 105 in 2005. Hengnan County began adoptions in 2004 with 27 submissions, a number that increased to 121 in 2005. This explosive growth was duplicated in Hengyang County, which submitted 14 files in 2004, a number that climbed to 118 in 2005.

Collectively, the six orphanages involved in the trafficking adopted 629 children in 2005.

And then "on November 11th 2005, at approximately 3:00 pm at the Hengyang train station, two women had just placed the three infants with them into a black carriage when the police began to encircle them." The trafficking business of Duan Meilin and her family was closed.

The adoption submissions for these six orphanages cratered in 2006, partially as a result of the CCAA's actions in halting adoptions from these orphanages. As a result, 2006 saw a total of only 72 files submitted by all six orphanages. This number continued to decline in 2007, when the six submitted only 33 files for adoption.

In hindsight, the adoption patterns of these six orphanages should have raised red flags. While Hunan Province collectively fell 27% from 2002 to 2005 in adoption submissions, these six increased on average 222%.

Adoption Statistics of Other Implicated Orphanages

Three orphanages were implicated in the initial reporting on the Hunan trafficking, but were not formally prosecuted in Qidong -- Changsha First, Zhuzhou and Chenzhou (Binzhou) orphanages. Changsha First, Chenzhou and Zhuzhou were among the largest adopting orphanages in Hunan in 2005, with Chenzhou itself having the largest adoption program in Hunan Province. How do their adoption rates compare to the "Hunan Six" orphanages we just studied?

Changsha First was described as a "stable client and had bought many babies from the Hengyang orphanage." In fact, police, in the raid on the Hengyang County orphanage compound, "confiscated a car at the orphanage, which it reportedly received as a gift from a similar [orphanage] in Changsha, Hunan's capital."

Changsha First saw its numbers increase from 73 in 2000 to a peak of 348 in 2002 before falling to "only" 177 in 2005, a 242% increase over the six year period. Following the arrest of the Hunan traffickers, Changsha's numbers declined from 177 in 2005 to 58 in 2006. Last year (2007), Changsha First submitted only 11 files for international adoption.

Zhuzhou saw its adoption numbers increase from 139 in 2000 to 281 in 2002 before falling to 116 in 2005. Following the scandal, Zhuzhou's adoption submissions fell to 50 in 2006 and 31 in 2007. It is possible, even probable, that Zhuzhou was not a participant in the Duan family "business". In 2002, "the Duan family sold three infants to the welfare center of Zhuzhou City in Hunan province, capturing 6900 yuan, but as soon as they exited the building the Zhuzhou police seized them. The Hunan Provincial police immediately went to Wuchuan for further investigation. Upon learning about Ms. Liang the Wuchuan City Welfare Center went to her house and took the children away." The Wuchuan orphanage received seven children as a result of this raid. Thus, it appears that the Zhuzhou orphanage attempted to stop the Duans by reporting them to the police.

Chenzhou, a medium-sized international adopting orphanage in 2000 with 69 adoptions, grew to be among the largest by 2003, when it submitted 212 files for international adoption. Also known as Binzhou is some press reports, Chenzhou's adoption numbers fell from 188 in 2005 to 141 in 2007. Chenzhou orphanage has seen the smallest reduction in adoptions following the Hunan trafficking story.

Suspected Non-Implicated Orphanages

With the exception of Chenzhou City orphanage, all of the orphanages implicated by press reports as participants in the baby-buying program of Duan Mei Lin experienced dramatic declines in adoption rates in 2006 and 2007. In fact, collectively the nine orphanages implicated declined 81% from 2005 to 2007. Clearly, the disruption of Duan Mei Lin's trafficking network had dramatic repercussions for these orphanages.

Why were the Qidong area orphanages prosecuted, and the others not? I believe it was due to the fact that Chenzhou and Changsha were orphanages scattered to the north and south of Qidong, far from the center of the story. Prosecution of these large orphanages would open the door to investigations of even more orphanages in those areas, something the Chinese Government was loath to have happen. Additionally, these orphanages represented a significant portion of the international adoption program in Hunan. For that reason, when the trial began in February 2006, no mention was made of these orphanages, either in press releases or during the trial.

There were more orphanages purchasing children from the Hunan traffickers who were not named in either the press reports or in court. These were described only as orphanages in "Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guangdong Province." Does a review of adoption statistics reveal any likely candidates for these un-named orphanages?

On the border region of Guangdong and Hunan Provinces are two orphanages that actively participated in the international adoption program in 2005. Shaoguan City and Qujiang District orphanages, located a short distance south of Hunan Province, experienced adoption patterns similar to the Hunan orphanages involved in the trafficking. In 2000, for example, Shaoguan City orphanage submitted 14 files for international adoption, while the neighboring orphanage of Qujiang submitted 12. Both programs saw dramatic increases from 2000 to 2005, with Shaoguan sending 56 files to the CCAA in 2005, and Qujiang submitting 66.

Like their Hunan counterparts, both orphanages also saw their submissions decline in 2006, even though no action was taken to slow adoptions in Guangdong Province. By 2007, Shaoguan's submissions had fallen from 56 to 8, and Qujiang's numbers collapsed from 66 to 0 submissions in 2007.

It is of course possible that these two orphanages were victims of coincidence, and had nothing to do with the Hunan traffickers. All we know is that orphanages in Guangdong were involved. Perhaps one day we will find out which ones they were.

Stopping Trafficking

Stopping this traffic will be no small feat. The basic economic incentives that rule markets have a powerful hold, even when the trade is for humans. Infants can fetch anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000. Even if the biological parents see only a small fraction of that amount, in impoverished countries that may be a hefty sum. And parents in receiving countries buy babies in spite of corruption, in the hope of giving them a better life, without realizing that they may be encouraging more trafficking ("The Baby Trade", Foreign Affairs, November/December 2003, p.119).

The U.S. State Department was of course aware of the trafficking allegations coming out of Hunan in December 2005. Relying on assurances from the Chinese Government that this was a small, regional problem, the State Department was no doubt encouraged by the CCAA's actions in shutting down Hunan to further adoptions until its "investigation" was completed. Apparently trusting that the Chinese Government was being forthright in is statements, the U.S. State Department took no action to limit adoptions in progress, or restrict future referrals. Additionally, it mounted no known independent investigation to determine how many other orphanages were involved in similar buying programs. For all intents and purposes U.S. State Department didn't, or couldn't, conduct its own investigation.

It must be realized that the U.S. State Department, and parallel bureaucracies in other receiving countries, are loath to push China to make changes, even when evidence of wrong-doing is found. Whether it is tainted toys, bad food, or purchased children, officials are slow to come out and demand investigations into known problems. It is only when public outcry rises, when the risk of inactions increases, will the pressure to act see results.

There was no such outcry with Hunan. Families in the adoption community were largely silent, hoping that the story remained small and that the program would continue on. For the most part, attentive parents were those who had not yet adopted their first or second child, and thus were emotionally invested in having the problems resolved. The State Department was thus under no significant public pressure to do anything other than wait for the Chinese to give them the green light.

Few in the adoption community asked how it could be that the problem could be limited to only six orphanages in a small area of Hunan Province. Few asked why these directors felt it necessary to reward employees and pay traffickers to locate babies for adoption when the conventional wisdom held that the orphanages were full of children. And few asked how many other orphanages across China had similar "reward" or baby-buying programs. By looking at Hunan in retrospect, we can see clues to the larger issue of baby-buying by China's orphanages.


Here are the adoption statistics for each orphanage in Hunan Province from 2000 to 2007 (click on image to enlarge):

1) Initial news report in China Daily, November 25, 2005

2) Follow-up Xinhua article from December 2, 2005

3) China shuts down press coverage on the trafficking story from December 16, 2005

4) Chinese authorities incorrectly report "Hunan adoptions not halted"

5) Hunan trial transcript (English) under "Vonnis"

6) English translation of best Chinese coverage of the Hunan story
7) Washington Post article concerning Hunan Trafficking

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Death Outside the Dying Rooms"

There is much debate as to how accurate BBC's 1995 documentary "The Dying Rooms" was. The idea that children were neglected to the point of death is hard for many to accept. But perhaps there is a more common explanation for infant mortality in the orphanages -- not a result of outright neglect so much as a result of ignorance and laziness.

The following story was sent to me by a Western Aid Volunteer working in a large orphanage in northern China. This volunteer has assisted the orphanage for over half a decade, and has seen this issue upfront and personal. Their story offers an interesting insight into this problem, yet an insight that encourages us to support organizations such as "Love Without Boundaries" and "Half-the-Sky" in their work to surgically repair children with cleft pallets, for example, and to educate caregivers in how to provide proper care for special need children. Issues remain, but these and other programs are making a difference.


The “Dying Rooms” report by BBC over a decade ago made the claim that orphanages in China regularly made conscious decisions to let children die of starvation. There have been many records released of the children’s deaths in various facilities and survival rates published that proved that these orphanages had zero population growth. "Zero population growth" means that the number of children under the authority of the CWI does not increase. In other words, the number of adoptions, deaths and transfers (when the children age out) are equal or greater than the number of incoming children. I know in the orphanage I worked in that the number of children coming in was around 200, sometimes 250 per year. Only recently have the number of adoptions reached 50 (and 2008 might be close to 100). Of course, I do not have numbers for other orphanages, but I assume they are similar. In any event, I do know that adoption was less frequent 1995-1999, and the number of incoming children was about the same. Yet, the population of the orphanage did not increase. As adoptions and "age out" transfers are done according to known standards, this requires a lot of deaths, most of which are preventable.

I do not want to contradict the report; in fact, I do not doubt that it could have happened. However, in my personal experience, zero population growth in Chinese orphanages could have several other reasons that would not be immediately evident to casual observers.

I came to China in 2000, long after the Dying Rooms report and after several orphanages had begun to make major changes. The city I came to is in northern China, and almost 95% of the children at the CWI are special needs. I worked with an organization that provided caretaker salaries, surgeries and supplies, as well as allowed volunteers, both foreign and Chinese, to help with the care of the children.

The two most common special needs that we saw (and still see) were cleft palates and cerebral palsy. The CWI at this time was just beginning to have positive survival rates.

One of the groups of children who would often not do very well were the cleft-affected children. They would often die of malnutrition. Foreign volunteers regularly volunteered here, and if there had been a “dying room”, we would have been able to find evidence. However, the caretakers, through a lack of training and proper equipment, were unable to get enough nourishment down the children. There were several reasons for this.

The first is that a cleft palate affects a child’s sucking power. Caretakers used to feeding NSN kids would place a bottle in their mouth and then wonder why they were not drinking. After a few minutes, they would claim the child was not hungry and give up.

The caretakers were not maliciously harming the child, but their lack of training, overwhelming number of children to feed, and, at times, laziness affected the children. I do not believe this to be a “dying room” situation, in that no one picked out children to die and never touched them again. However, these were very preventable deaths.

The first solution our organization had to this problem was to get the children into foster care with foreign families. Over a period of around 10 years, a large number of expatriate families in this city fostered and eventually adopted cleft-affected children from the CWI. However, this method was labor-intensive and could not reach all of the children in need.

Our next solution was for training. We negotiated with the director, leadership, and caretakers to teach them about how to feed the children properly. This meant that the caretakers had to put more effort into their jobs. This was not accepted by all very easily, but they eventually came around.

We also provided equipment -- specifically cleft-palate nipples that provided for one-way flow and eliminated the need to suck. These nipples (at least the brand we bought) could not be obtained in China.

Another major problem that led to the preventable deaths of several of the children was poor positioning while feeding. Almost all children who could not sit up by themselves were fed lying flat on their backs. Even for a healthy person, this makes swallowing difficult. For children with cerebral palsy, whose muscle control and swallowing reflexes are poor, it is dangerous. Often, the children would aspirate food, develop lung infections or pneumonia and eventually die.

In contrast to issues with cleft palates, I believe this issue to be much more the fault of the system and individual caretakers and supervisors than just ignorance and bad luck. Sitting a child up for feeding is not terribly difficult or counter-intuitive. However, I do not believe that back feeding was done in order to harm the children, but simply because the caretakers were too lazy and/or unconcerned.

However, what makes these issues relevant to the community of those involved with China’s Welfare Institutions is that both of these situations existed long after the light of foreign media had some to China’s orphanages, and was only changed with the direct supervision of foreign personnel. For orphanages where the majority of children are handicapped, laziness and ignorance could easily account for zero population growth much more easily than outright euthanasia.

I am certain that these conditions exist in other orphanages in China. The path of improvement does not lie with freshly painted walls, children who know how to put on a lovely performance, or even tons of foreign money. All of these things are good, but to truly change the lives of the children, we will need to change the hearts of minds of the caretakers. teachers and supervisors who care for them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dancing Girl

Many know that I have started a sister-blog for families with a story to tell -- stories of joy, frustration, happiness and challenges. Entitled "After Stories", it is intended to give the adoption community place to voice their stories in anonymity and without fear of retribution. I encourage readers to visit (and participate) in this blog. What follows is my "After Story".


The anxiety and ambivalence gave me a feeling of deja vu, bringing my mind back to the moments before Meigon entered our lives. Today, my fiance' Lan, Meikina, Meigon and I stood on a street corner, our jackets wrapped around us against the cold, patiently waiting for the arrival of our newest family member, Meilan Lili.

Meikina and Meigon could hardly stand the wait, repeatedly petitioning me with the "when is she coming?" until I thought I would lose my patience. Lan also bore the expressions of excitement, anxiously looking at each passing car, a look of expectation always in her eyes.

I have forced myself through experience to blot out the faces of the kids we see from my mind as we tour the orphanages we visit. For me, to look into their eyes is to invite memories, to bring eternal and unanswerable questions as to the ultimate fates of each of the precious faces that intently watch me as I record their presence through the lens of my camera. It is the only way that I am able to continue doing the research.

So I was caught a bit off guard when Lan asked me if it would be possible to foster a three-year old from the orphanage we had just visited. "Who is she?" I asked, not even having noticed her with a child. As she described her feelings over the next several days, it became clear to me that Lan wasn't thinking of fostering, but rather adopting this little girl.

We returned to the orphanage and spent some time with the child, an obviously bright and precocious little girl. I was drawn to her as Lan had been. We learned that she was from another orphanage, brought to this orphanage to participate in the preschool program. We were told she was not eligible for international adoption, and that her prospects of ever finding a family were nearly non-existent. She was classified as a special needs child due to some seizures she had had early in her life. It seemed the only families that could adopt her were Chinese, and very few of them were interested in adopting a child as old as her, or with potentially catastrophic medical issues.

Over the next month Lan and I spent hours discussing our coarse of action. Lan filled out the required paperwork needed to adopt a child domestically, since she was still a Chinese citizen. I investigated what would be needed to obtain a visa to bring her home to the U.S. (Being married was a required step!) Eventually, there was nothing left to do but make the decision.

And we did.

So now we stood on a cold February morning waiting for our new daughter to be brought to us by the family with whom she had spent Chinese New Years. In my heart I knew it was the right thing to do, but like three years ago when I had adopted Meigon as a single Dad, my head was filled with conflicting emotions.

Meikina had summarized it perfectly when I had announced Meilan’s upcoming adoption over dinner. When I asked her what she thought about it, she turned to me and said, “Daddy, I think things are just perfect the way they are.” I admitted to her that I felt things were perfect also.

Meikina warmed to the idea, and soon became excited to come with me to China to participate in Meilan’s adoption. Meikina had been a true ice-breaker in my adoption of Meigon, and she would prove to be so again.

But her words echoed in my mind as we waited: “Things are perfect the way they are.” Things were perfect for me. I have two amazing girls: loving, compassionate, intelligent; everything that a parent hopes for. I asked myself, why risk upsetting this boat by bringing in an unknown child?

When Meilan finally arrived, she looked a bit dazed and confused, far from the excited and friendly child we had met before. We were told she had just woken up and was still sleepy. She clung to the woman as she was handed to Lan. Meikina and Meigon immediately tried to interact with her, but it would be nearly an hour before at long last Meikina brought a smile to her face. Once that smile appeared, the girl we knew and expected roared back, and soon she was running and laughing with her new sisters.

Meilan is not like either Meikina nor Meigon. She is very determined and strong-willed, and I can already see that parenting her will be a greater challenge than I have known so far.

Every time we got into a taxi those first few weeks, Meilan would anxiously ask us if we were taking her back to the orphanage. Finally I turned around to Meilan, explained that we loved her, and would never leave her. "Here," I said, reaching out my pinky finger, "in our family a 'pinky promise' is an unbreakable oath. I 'pinky promise' you that we will never leave you. You will never go back to the orphanage." Meilan reached out and we sealed our oath.

The next months were difficult as Meilan adjusted to her new family, and there were many moments when the only thing keeping us together was that 'pinky promise'.

Meilan recounted many stories that explained how she came to be who she is. Stories of abuse by the other orphanage children, the need to 'stand out' in the crowd, an ingrained desire to please. Many of her less desirable qualities have faded in the intervening two years since she has come home to Utah. We tried to teach her English in the 15 months it took us to get her visa to come home, and she would have none of it. "I'm Chinese," she would proudly say. But the day she stepped off the plane in Salt Lake, she never looked back. She learned English quickly, and never had a desire to speak Chinese again.

Today Meilan is an exceptionally well-adjusted, if somewhat moody six-year old. She excels in her first grade class. I no longer harbor secret doubts as to whether we did the right thing, or whether she belongs in our family. But I still often reflect back to the time when our daughter was a young toddler dancing for us in the orphanage.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Love Marks"

"She loves math and science, likes to draw and ride her bike. She also carries a small scar on her left shoulder. Mothers in China who abandon their babies will sometimes cut them on the arm.

'To show them that they love them, and didn't want to give them up,' said Buhai."

I was forwarded this newspaper article today, with the question, do birth mothers really mark their children before abandoning them?

When I adopted Meikina back in 1998, "love marks" were a topic of frequent speculation. I noticed that Meikina had two scars on her leg, right at the crease of her groin, and I too believed that she had been "marked". What else could it have been?

I returned to Meikina's orphanage a year later and asked the director if Meikina had borne those scars when she arrived in the orphanage. He assured me that she had no obvious wounds, and when I asked if there was any Chinese tradition about "Love Marks," he assured me that there was no such thing. Many conversations over the next seven years convinces me that this belief is an Adoption Urban Legend.

I have seen hundreds of people in China, for example, that exhibit scars similar to those described in the newspaper story above. A large, deformed and often protruding scar on an upper left or right arm, often looking like a cigarette burn. In every case I have investigated, the cause for these scars is the same: An infection resulting from the use of a dirty vaccination needle.

One girl I did some research for in Jiangxi Province had a large, three inch half-moon scar on her right buttock. It looked to the adoptive family like someone had taken a hot iron and "branded" her at a very young age. It was assumed it had been done by her birth mother as a "love mark."

However, when we located her foster mother, we asked if she had come to her with this scar. "No," the foster mother admitted, "she got that scar when she was with me." One day the little toddler was playing in the kitchen, and had sat down on the five-gallon can that held the heating coals. As anyone who has been to China knows, most homes are heated with compressed coal-slurry, which are usually in a cylinder-shaped. This girl had burned herself on half of one of these cakes.

It is of course possible that some birth mothers intentionally mark their children, but in my experience I have found no woman in China who knew of this idea, and almost all of them are revolted by the idea of intentionally hurting their child. Additionally, directors of the orphanages have no knowledge of this practice, and if any tradition existed they would be the ones who would know about it.

I believe that this "urban legend" arises out of our own expectations that birth mothers might want to one day locate their abandoned daughters, but as I have written previously, I don't see this expectation exhibited among birth mothers I have located and talked with.

So, while we can't definitely say that no scar was intentionally made by a birth mother, the evidence strongly suggests that the vast majority of scars are the result of accidents or poor sanitation.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Gone, Baby, Gone

I recently caught up on a movie that I have been intending to see for a while, Ben Affleck's "Gone, Baby, Gone". IMDb outlines the movie in this way:

When 4 year old Amanda McCready disappears from her home and the police make little headway in solving the case, the girl's aunt Beatrice McCready hires two private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. The detective freely admit that they have little experience with this type of case, but the family wants them for two reasons - they're not cops and they know the tough neighborhood in which they all live. As the case progresses, Kenzie and Gennaro face drug dealers, gangs and pedophiles. When they finally solve the case, they are faced with a moral dilemma that tears them apart.

The issues confronted by the characters of the film are ones the Chinese adoption community is also beginning to confront: What is in the best interest of the child when trafficking or kidnapping is involved? Is it better to keep children in China with birth parents that may lack financial resources to raise them, or allow them to be adopted by financially secure parents in another country?

The power of "Gone, Baby, Gone" is the light it shines on our propensity to judge others. "My sister [Elaine] is unstable; she's on crack and a danger to my niece," judged Amanda's uncle. She probably was, but as Casey Affleck's character points out, none of that matters. "Does it make you feel better? Telling yourself you did it for the right reasons? That you took her to be saved from her own mother?"

How many of us adopt recognizing that even though we will be taking a child from her birth country, her heritage, her culture, all of that is right because "we're just trying to give a little girl a life."

What should be our response, as an adoption community, when we learn that China's children are purchased by the orphanages? Do we sit in judgment, comforting ourselves by believing that any family that would give up their child for money doesn't deserve to be her parents anyway? When we as a community are confronted with growing evidence of trafficking, and in some cases kidnapping, to obtain children "for better homes," do we rationalize this away, or do we demand it be stopped? Casey's character states it most succinctly: "It wasn't your life to give. Elaine is her mother. If you thought she was a bad mother you should have gone to Social Services. Short of that she's her mother and that's where she belongs."

Casey's character is then told to go home and wait 30 years, that he would see more clearly how the world is in that time. Since he hadn't already called the police, the antagonist confronts Casey with words that have been considered at one time or another by many adopting families concerning improprieties found in various international adoption programs, including China's:

"Deep inside you you know it doesn't matter what the rules say. When the lights go out and you ask yourself, 'Is she better of here or better off there?' you know the answer! And you always will. You can do a right thing here, a good thing. Men live their whole lives without getting this chance, you walk away from it, you might not regret it when you get home, you might not regret it for a year, but when you get to where I am I promise you will. I'll be dead, you'll be old, but she will be dragging around a couple damaged tattered children of her own, and you'll be the one that has to tell them you're sorry."

But it is a false premise. One can't see the future, one can't know another's fate. Certainly people like Oprah Winfrey would argue that the conditions one is raised in does not determine the kind of person one will be. Casey's character recognizes that fact:

"You know, maybe that will happen. And if it does, I'll tell them I'm sorry and I'll live with it. But what's never going to happen, and what I'm not going to do, is to have to apologize to a grown woman who comes to me and says I was kidnapped when I was a little girl and my aunt hired you to find me, and you did, you found me with some strange family. But you broke your promise and you left me there. Why? Why didn't you bring me home? Because all the snacks and the outfits and the family trips don't matter. They stole me. It wasn't my family. And you knew about it, and you knew better, and you did nothing. Maybe that grown woman will forgive me, but I will never forgive myself."

Many adoptive parents hear echoes of their own child's voice in these words.

The antagonists in "Gone, Baby, Gone" were entering a deal with the devil: To allow parents to be judged outside the bounds of the law is a Pandora's box that few parents should want opened. It might allow members of my family, for example, to judge me as a danger to my children because I don't subscribe to the religious principals that my family feels have eternal consequences. Might they not view the consequences of my parenting to be as dangerous as Elaine's drug use? Perhaps. But do we as a society want others to make those kind of judgments?

Ultimately, Casey's character decides in favor of the law: There is a way to protect children. The law speaks against kidnapping a child, even if it is felt to be in the best interests of the child. Whether it is the law of the town, or the International Law of the Hague Agreement, it is the law that all of us must respect. "I did what I did for the sake of the child. Alright, for me too," responds the antagonist. I appreciate his impulse, but I reject completely his actions.