Monday, July 09, 2012

Time to Change the Usual "Story"

Recent announcements by the Chinese government made the following essay from our subscription blog timely. 

I can't even remember what prompted the conversation, but it involved the topic of our work, and a story we were working on.  As we were eating dinner in our backyard a week or so ago, my youngest daughter Meilan asked how she had come into the orphanage.  When we first adopted her, she displayed some mild anger issues, and one day soon after coming home she explained that she never understood why we had brought her to the orphanage.  We gently explained that we had not brought her to the orphanage, but that we had adopted her from the orphanage.  "We have videos we can show you of your adoption sweetie.  We would never have brought you to the orphanage."  Later we found out the reason for her confusion -- her birth family had brought her to the orphanage, relinquishing her under the guise that she would be educated "in the city" and then returned to them.

So, here we were, eight years later, discussing some aspect of our research, and our youngest asked "Was I brought into the orphanage?"  Before my wife or I even had a chance to answer, our oldest, Meikina, turned to her youngest sister and, with contempt on her lips, flatly stated.  "Meilan, we were left on the side of the road by our birth mothers."

The contempt was not for her sister, but for the thought.  Meikina viewed the idea that her birth mother had abandoned her on the side of the road with pure contempt.  Meilan, confused by Meikina's answer, turned to me and asked, "Is that true?"

I used to think so.  I entered the China adoption program in 1996, a result of the controversy surrounding the "Dying Rooms" and publicity over China's "orphan problem".  I, like thousands of other families then and now, assumed that the children in China's orphanages had ended up there through anonymous abandonments at places like the Civil Affairs Bureau, an area school, or the local hospital.  The abandonment stories of my daughters became almost holy, with reverential visits to the finding locations, emotional interviews with finders, and sacred "Lifebooks" with photos, maps, and drawings.

In 2000, I returned to China and interviewed one of Meikina's two finders.  She recounted how she had been walking to work with her coworker one morning, had heard a baby's cry over the noise of the crowd, had investigated and found a cardboard box containing a small, two-day old baby girl.  As she described it, the baby was dressed in "countryside clothes", had an empty bottle lying next to her, and two hundred yuan in cash with a red birth note.  The finder's words became a sacred text for me, and I would journey to the Civil Affairs Bureau whenever I was in Dianbai, to sit and watch the location, imagining over and over Meikina's finding as described by her finder.  For me, it was clear that Meikina had been abandoned on the side of the road by her birth mother.

The Hunan scandal of 2005 was the first crack in the veneer of authenticity for me and our adoptions, and those of many others.  Here was an event that seemed to contradict everything we knew about China's orphan problem.  Testimony given in that trial showed that rather than having more babies than they could handle, as had been commonly assumed by Westerners, that in reality by 1996 orphanages in Hunan, Guangdong, Chongqing and Sichuan were beginning to feel pressure to go out into the countrysides surrounding their orphanages and look for kids.  Employees began to be pressured to find kids or lose their jobs; rewards began to be offered for each child brought to the orphanage.  In the Duan case alone, over 1,000 children were moved from near and remote distances to the Hengyang County, Qidong, Hengshan, and other Hunan scandal facilities, and stories fabricated for each child: "Found abandoned at the bus station," "found abandoned at the Xinhua Book Store," "Found abandoned at the Hengyang Meat Processing plant."  The Hunan scandal records show that over 95% of the children adopted from these orphanages had not been abandoned, but had been transported from other areas, where "finders" had received the children from birth parents.  Rather than being abandoned, these thousands of children had been "relinquished", a term that more accurately conveys the chain of custody that occurred.

The Hunan scandal served as the "paradigm shifter" that allowed future research and media investigations to reveal that issues of baby-buying,  Family Planning confiscations, and other extra-legal methods of obtaining children were frequently and pervasively used by orphanages to procure children for adoption.  First-hand accounts of birth families, foster families, Civil Affairs officials, and finders reveal that nearly every orphanage in Chongqing, Jiangxi, Hunan, and the other large supplying Provinces employs some manner of "incentive program" to recruit children into their facilities.  Some pay money, others work with Family Planning, others make false assurances to birth families of education and other opportunities in order to have those birth families relinquish their children.

Thus, for the vast majority of children adopted from China, the official story of how they came to be in the orphanage is a falsehood, created by orphanage directors in order to be able to submit a child for international adoption.  The description of their being found at the gate of some facility by some unnamed or named individual is almost always a lie.  In the lion's share of cases, the children submitted for international adoption were "relinquished" -- given by their birth families to someone, who in turn brought the children to the orphanage.  Only a small percentage of children were truly simply found abandoned.

Why does any of this matter?  Because I believe that for a child to be told their birth family "abandoned" her when that is not the case creates a feeling of contempt and anger for a birth parent where none is deserved.  My wife Lan returned to re-interview Meikina's finder last year, over ten years after my visit.  This time there was no orphanage director sitting "disinterested" nearby as she was asked the questions.  This time the interviewer (my wife) knew the right questions to ask, when to accept and when to question further.  This time the truth was recounted -- that the story of Meikina's finding was a fiction, that her finders had no idea where Meikina came from.  This time the orphanage director confessed, in the face of this contradictory evidence, to having built a fairy tale in order to get Meikina adopted.  Do I know she wasn't found abandoned in 1997?  No, but I now know enough about her orphanage to seriously question whether children were found abandoned, rather than being "relinquished" by the birth family directly or indirectly.

So, at that dinner last month I told my daughters that.  I told them that we had always been told that children had been abandoned by their birth families, left at various locations to be found by others.  But I told them that our research had caused us to question whether that was true.  I told them that in our experience, almost all of the children for whom we had done research showed that they had not been abandoned, but that rather they had been given by birth parents to people who arranged for them to come into the orphanage.  We explained that the reasons were complicated, but that it was very unlikely that their birth families had really abandoned them on the road as Meikina had stated. 

As I thought back over that conversation, I wondered at the tone of Meikina's statement.  There was some real pain in her comment, and I wondered if it was real, or just my imagination.  So, as we are wont to do in our house, we conducted a poll.  I asked all three of my girls to rate, from 1 (highly negative feelings) to 10 (very positive feelings), how the following descriptions made them feel:

1)  I was abandoned by my birth family at the gate of a school
2)  I was relinquished by my birth family and brought to the orphanage

I chose "relinquish" (which I had to interpret for my girls) because it is as neutral a term as I could come up with.  The word itself carries no connotation of impropriety or corruption; rather it simply implies that a child was transferred from one person to another until they reached the orphanage.  Thus, the comparison is really between being left "alone" (abandonment) or being constantly supervised (relinquishment).

The results were interesting, but not unexpected.  In answer to the first scenario (being abandoned) the girls assigned an average score of 2.6.  This score hides one completely neutral score of 5, because, as Meigon explained, she did not find the scenario overly emotive.  The other two assigned a 1 or 2 to the scenario (highly sad).

The average score rose substantially for the second question, using "relinquished", with the average score rising to 6.6, with individual scores falling between 6 and 7.5.  Meilan explained her increase, going from 1 to 6, with these words:  "In the second case I was protected, and in the first case people might not reach you in time."

I think, given the overall realities of China's adoption program -- the abundant evidence of ongoing ethical breaches, the documented instances of widespread baby-buying, and the stories of Family Planning campaigns and abuses -- that adoptive families would do well to "re-invent" the traditional story of how their child came to be in the orphanage.  Rather than promoting an "abandonment"-centered history, with the customary photos, visits to the finding location on heritage trips, etc., more accurate and more emotionally satisfying to our children would be a "relinquishment"-centered story-line.  This would involve the blunt admission that we simply don't know how our kids came into the orphanage most of the time, but that the evidence in most instances suggests that our children were transferred, person to person, to the orphanage.  Not only is this scenario likely to be most accurate in the majority of cases, but it will be emotionally healthier for our children.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Adopting "Children in Plight"

Today's announcement that China will now begin officially adopting children with living relatives to foreign families may seem like a new policy for many outside the adoption community, but this program has been quietly taking place for years. Families of older children from Luoyang, Henan, one of the "trial" provinces, have known about such a program there over a decade. What can be hoped is that with this official acknowledgement an accurate awareness on the part of birth families and adoptive families will be possible. In the past this has not been the case.

Abandonment patterns suggest such programs have been going on for years in orphanages scattered across China. Children adopted from these orphanages seem, in nearly every case that has been investigated, to have been relinquished by birth parents or other birth relatives to the orphanage under the guise that their child would simply be educated in the orphanage school and returned to the family at the end of their schooling. This "education program" is pitched by orphanage officials as a way to have the expenses of raising the child subsidized by the government, and having the child receive a good education, usually in the "big city". For parents struggling to provide these opportunities, such an offer is hard to resist.

Only after the child has had its papers submitted by the orphanage for international adoption and is about to be internationally adopted are the birth families made aware that their child will be leaving China. The orphanage officials then pressure the child's guardian (parent, grandparent, etc.) to sign over guardianship to the orphanage. "You want your child to have a good life, right?" and other such manipulators are used to coerce the family into giving up their child.

In the past, all of this was done behind the scenes. Adoptive families were not told their children had been relinquished to the orphanage by their birth families; rather, they were given adoption paperwork stating the child had been found "abandoned" in a park, railway station, or found wandering the street. Birth families were deceptively told that their child was going to the U.S. for an education, and would return after graduating to get a good job and take care of the family. All of the players in the adoption were deceived into believing the adoption was something it was not.

Perhaps that will change now that the Chinese government is officially embracing the adoption of "Children in Plight". Perhaps birth families will be told when they relinquish their children that they will probably never see them again. Perhaps adoptive families will be told that the child they are adopting had not been abandoned, but had been relinquished by its birth family with the expectation that the child will return to China one day to reunite with their birth family. Perhaps all the parties involved will be truthfully told the true nature of the adoption they are undertaking.

And perhaps a tiger truly can change its stripes.