Wednesday, January 23, 2008

My Agenda

Every so often, I will receive an e-mail or see a comment on a blog or newsgroup questioning the reasons that I write what I write, or do what I do. In order to make my motives clear, I have decided to write this essay detailing my journey in adoption, and why I feel so passionately about the China adoption program.

I adopted my eldest daughter in 1998. My then-wife and I decided to adopt largely as a result of the publicity surrounding the "Dying Rooms" controversy, and research at that time led us to believe that we were doing a good thing in choosing China. We wanted to "save" a child, providing a home for a child we were told would otherwise not have one. Additionally, I embraced China because I supported her desires to control her population, something I strongly supported. For me personally, it was a chance to "put my money where my mouth was", and hopefully make a difference in a child's life.

Soon after returning home with Meikina, my then-wife and I submitted a dossier for a second child from China. Six months after going DTC, we divorced, and my wife told our agency to pull our dossier. I had already emotionally bonded with our new, but unknown, daughter, so the day our divorce was finalized, I resubmitted my dossier to adopt as a single Dad. In March 2002, I returned to China with Meikina and adopted her xiao mei mei, Meigon.

Whereas my first trip to adopt Meikina had been a blur of activity, my second trip was much more controlled. In the midst of the process of throwing money at just about everyone, one fee stood out: "Newspaper ad: 425 yuan." "What is this fee?" I asked the assistant director in charge of my adoption. "Oh, that is just a newspaper ad that was placed when your daughter was found to allow her to be adopted." Can I have a copy of this newspaper ad, I asked. "No, it is not given to the adoptive families. Sorry."

I was a bit peeved that I was unable to get a copy of a piece of my child's history that I had paid for, so over the next four months I asked hundreds of adoptive families if they had received a copy of their child's finding ad. No one had. Finally, the following November I returned to China to do some research in Meikina's birth city, and asked my guide (later my wife) if she knew which newspaper published the finding ads. A few days calling around to Guangzhou newspapers (Meigon was from Guangzhou) netted the name of the newspaper in charge of printing the ads.

We rushed down to the newspaper offices, located along a small street in the center of Guangzhou. When we introduced ourselves and explained why we had come, we were shown into a small room stacked floor to ceiling with old newspapers. We began looking through the newspapers, trying to find Meigon's picture. After five hours, and with no luck, I was about to abandon the search when suddenly I found the newspaper for November 2001. Looking up at me was four-month old Meigon.

It is difficult to convey the utter thrill that went through me. My referral photo for Meigon was taken when she was fourteen months old, so the finding ad photo was nearly a year earlier. It was utterly amazing!! In that moment I decided that if I treasured such an artifact for Meigon, perhaps other families would also. I purchased as many papers as I could carry, and "Research-China.Org" was born.

Simultaneous to this discovery, I had begun conducting research trips to different orphanages, beginning with Meikina's orphanage in 2000. I was anxious to discover any and all information regarding my children's early lives, such as where they were found, who found them, who cared for them, and if possible who gave birth to them. Plus, I was totally hooked on China itself. My research projects, conducted on a shoe-string budget, allowed me to return to China and gather more experience and information. As families heard of my projects, I was asked to go to more and different orphanages and do similar searches for other families. I treated each child's history as if it were my own daughter's. We visited orphanages, hunted for finders, and sometimes uncovered birth parents. It was exciting and incredibly fulfilling work.

My frequent experiences with orphanage directors, foster families, and average Chinese citizens began to add additional details to the culture and process that results in the international adoption program. I met many directors who cared very deeply for the children brought to their care, but also other directors who couldn't name any of the children they had adopted. I began to see that the adoption program wasn't the perfect system I had thought it was when I had adopted Meikina. I witnessed events that taken individually could be written off as isolated, and although they bothered me, I largely put them away. My goal in researching in China was to uncover the life-stories of the kids in my projects, and that remained my primary focus.

In the course of the intervening seven years, three events have had a big impact on my view of China's international adoption program.

The first occurred in my adoption of Meigon. We visited the Guangzhou orphanage to gather some pre-adoption history, and I casually asked the orphanage staff how many domestic adoptions they did. Their reply was that they did many, and in fact had a four year waiting list of domestic families wanting to adopt from the orphanage. I went home wondering how I could adopt a healthy young child when there were domestic families waiting four or more years to adopt from the same orphanage.

This question came to the forefront again when I met a women in Guangzhou on another research trip that had attempted to adopt a child from the Guangzhou orphanage. She had been refused, even though she was in her mid-thirties, married, with a middle-class income. She had called six orphanages around China, and been refused by all of them. In a final desperate attempt to adopt, she purchased a child from a stranger in what can only be described as a black market transaction. She lives with her daughter, still unregistered, one of millions of such families in China.

The third event, which brought the previous two events into clarity, was the Hunan scandal. With the revelation that directors of multiple orphanages were purchasing babies from traffickers to adopt to international families, the previous two events became clear. Suddenly I realized that the story I had believed in 1998 was no longer valid. Hunan revealed the "new reality" (if it was in fact new I don't know, but new to me) that China's orphanages were no longer laboring under a burden of thousands if not millions of unwanted babies, but in fact were dealing with a dearth of healthy babies, and were looking at extra-legal means of procuring additional infants, solely for the purpose of adopting them for money to foreigners.

On a fundamental basis, I have an issue with capable families inside China being denied access to children from their village, town or city so that those same children can be adopted abroad. In early 2006, I surveyed over 300 orphanages involved in the international adoption program researching my article "The Hague Agreement and China's International Adoption Program," to be published in "Adoption Today" magazine.

In that article, I convincingly show that the overwhelming majority of China's IA orphanages have created financial or geographical hurdles to prevent most middle-class Chinese families from adopting children inside China. Most simply refuse to even consider a domestic adoption. The article details one of the reasons why child-trafficking is so prevalent in China -- most childless couples have been denied access to China's orphans.

I also have an issue with the ill-conceived reward program that was in place in Hunan, and that is still in place in many, many orphanages today. It must be remembered that in China's countryside, the average farmer earns less that 2,000 yuan a year. Thus, offering a family 2,500 to 3,000 yuan for a healthy child is immoral, given the known financial pressures most families face. As one woman admitted, when it was discovered that she and thirty-nine other women in a small Yunnan village were getting pregnant simply to sell their children to traffickers, “If you want to make money, simply have a baby. Having a baby is faster than feeding a pig” (Yunnan Legal Daily, 7/28/04).

I understand the need of Western families to grow their families, and I understand the desire to ignore, and even fight against, those who might create problems in China's adoption program. Certainly I don't want the China program to end, as my entire financial house is built on that program. It would be very easy to simply tell adoptive families false platitudes, encourage them to adopt, ignore the problems and make my few dollars. Certainly that is what most other individuals do: Keep telling families that everything is alright, that there are no problems in China, that the orphanages are still full of unwanted kids. I find it ironic that people who have only seen a single orphanage can attempt to refute the overwhelming evidence that this is no longer true.

I could remain silent, but then I remember my tearful friend in Guangzhou, angry at the hundreds of Western families taking the children outside China that she so desperately wanted to adopt. I remember her asking me how I would feel if the U.S. Government systematically prevented me from adopting in order to adopt our orphans to rich families in Japan or Europe. I remember the words of the orphanage director telling me that families were waiting four years to get a chance to adopt a healthy child, even as I held the hand of one as I boarded an airplane to America. And I remember the words of the opportunists in China, who now perceive the market for these children, and are intentionally bringing orphans into the world to feed the demand. “If you want to make money, simply have a baby. Having a baby is faster than feeding a pig.”

The international adoption program is not an island, walled off from the greater society in China. Sure, we can say it is only 10,000 kids each year, a small percentage of the entire society. That is true. But it represents 10,000 domestic families that each year will be told, "Sorry, there are no children available for you." It creates 10,000 families a year that will seek the black market trade in order to satisfy their desire to raise a child. Families need to realize that the international adoption program is a piece of a grand, interconnected mosaic.

So, what is my agenda? Am I, as some accuse, in this for the money? I operate a small research firm whose sole function is to provide adoptive families with information on their children. Whether it is a glimpse of their child's birth city through my DVDs, or an early photo of their child through the finding ads, I want to allow every family the opportunity to gain what I have obtained for my children -- a glimpse into their pre-adoption lives.

But I also have a place for the disenfranchised and voiceless -- the families inside China desperate for a child, the special needs children in China's orphanages that have little chance of ever being adopted, and who face the very real prospect of growing up without a conventional family. I seek to give these people a voice -- to speak for them. This may offend some, but it must be done. It is an issue of justice and equality. It is an issue of law.

So my agenda is to provide families with as much information regarding the true state of affairs in China as I possible can. I believe that China needs to change their program, to keep their healthy children inside their own country, to eliminate the financial incentives for orphanage directors to design systems that result in more "orphans" being created. I simply am trying to shine a light on the corruption that is becoming more and more prevalent in the China program.

I love China. I love the Chinese people. But I want the program to be beneficial to all, not just the rich. For every healthy child adopted from China there is a SN child that will remain in an orphanage for her entire youth. For every healthy child adopted outside China, there is a domestic family that will be denied a family.

We should address these problems, and unitedly work to rectify them.

That is my agenda.