Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Are the Problems in China?

I receive inquiries on almost a daily basis asking if I feel a particular child being adopted has been trafficked or stolen. One thing that is apparent from these e-mails is that there is a lot of confusion among the adoptive community as to what the issues are with China's adoption program.

China's international adoption program began in 1992 at the behest of foreign aid organizations concerned with the care of orphans in China's orphanages. It was presented as a win-win proposal -- China would receive funding to improve their social welfare system, something they were apparently unwilling or unable to do themselves, and the orphans would find homes with loving families.

The program began with 252 adoptions in 1992 (to the U.S. and Netherlands). The number increased to 679 in 1993 when Canada joined the program, and doubled in 1994 to 1,328. In 1995 the program exploded, with nearly 3,000 children adopted internationally, and adoptions increased each year following until reaching a peak of over 14,500 children in 2005, when children were adopted to the U.S. (7,906), Spain (2,753), Canada (973), the Netherlands (800), Sweden (462), France (458), Norway (299), Denmark (207), the United Kingdom (165), Australia (140), and Belgium (63) (Non-sourced numbers available in "Intercountry Adoption in the New Millennium: UK Experience in a Global Context," Peter Selman, Paper presented at Imperial College, London, March 1, 2008).

The China Myth
China’s international adoption program has historically been attractive to adoptive parents for several reasons, outlined succinctly by Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), one of the largest China-only adoption agencies in the U.S. CCAI emphasizes the attractiveness of the China program due to its consistency and predictability (no surprise fees, delays, etc.), the overall health of the children referred, and the fact that children in China are largely abandoned, and thus have no birth parent records:

Children placed through China adoption are abandoned children. Because child abandonment is illegal in China, birth parents leave no trace of their identity. During their trip to China, adoptive families receive a certificate of abandonment that proves the biological parents have relinquished their parental rights through abandonment. There is no legal avenue for the birth parents to reclaim custody. (http://www.chinesechildren.org/Adoption/WhyChina.aspx)

Families have historically been told that the number of children abandoned each year numbers in the hundreds of thousands. One adoption agency states that “There are over 15 million orphans in China. Most are healthy young girls, abandoned due to China's one child per family law.” (http://www.achildsdesire.org/chinaadopt.htm). Another charity states that “upwards of 200,000 children are abandoned each year.” (http://www.hopesheart.com/AboutHopesHeart/newspaper.lsp). Joshua Zhong of CCAI writes that there are 573,000 orphans in China, but “Interestingly, the study showed that fewer than 69,000 orphans are living in Chinese orphanages, compared with 450,000 living with their relatives” (http://www.chinesechildren.org/Newsletter%5CWindow%20to%20China/WTC_03_2006.pdf).

With propaganda such as those described above, most adoptive families from China have seen little reason to question the reality of their child’s orphanage story, or the integrity of the program itself. The conventional wisdom of the past 15 years has been that without the international adoption program, thousands of children would remain in China’s orphanages, and have no chance of finding or experiencing the love of family.

But is it true?
In 1991, a year before international adoptions formally began in China, New York Times reporter Sheryl Wudunn reported that in Changsha City in Hunan Province "the proportion of baby girls given up for adoption -- most come from rural areas -- has been increasing each year." However, Su Kejun, director of the Civil Affairs Bureau in Changsha, was quick to add that "the number of couples who want kids exceeds the number of kids we have to give."

While I harbor the same long-held traditions as most adoptive families, I do question these assumptions in light of growing evidence. Was there ever a true need for the international adoption of China's healthy young children? Do we truly think that in a country of China's population domestic families could not be found for the seventeen thousand children adopted internationally from 1992-2000? Wudunn's article, as well as a companion article by Time's writer Nicholas D. Kristof, show that prior to the introduction of the international adoption program a healthy domestic adoption program existed. This program was enhanced in 1999 with a major overhaul of China's laws concerning domestic adoption.

China Adoption Law Changes
China began legalizing and codifying laws regulating domestic adoption in 1992: “In April 1992, the Chinese government published the Adoption Law, the first law of its kind in China’s modern history, to legalize and promote domestic adoption.” (http://www.chinesechildren.org/Newsletter%5CWindow%20to%20China/WTC_03_2002.pdf). Initial requirements that Chinese adoptive couples be childless and over 35 limited the number of families able to adopt. As Chinese demographer Kay Johnson states, “This was hardly a law aimed at finding adoptive homes for abandoned children within China.” Because of the inadequacies of the 1992 Adoption Law, the regulations were changed in 1999, reducing the parental age requirement to 30 years old, and allowing couples with another child the opportunity to adopt (ibid.). Statistics published in 2001 indicate that domestic adoption increased significantly in 2000 (ibid.).

Orphanages participating in the international adoption program saw demand for healthy children increase substantially after 2000. Increasing domestic demand as a result of the 1999 adoption law changes, coupled with increasing international demand from families being drawn to the China program by positive press and favorable program qualities (outlined by CCAI above), created a situation that put domestic families inside China desiring to adopt in competition with international families seeking to adopt the same children – healthy young infants. International families had a distinct advantage, however -- they donated $3,000 for each adoption, something many Chinese families couldn't afford. Thus, long lines of domestic families formed while healthy children continued to be adopted to foreign families.

Problems Begin to Appear
It wasn't long before directors of orphanages began to realize that adoption represented a lucrative business -- financially and professionally. Much like city managers gain prestige by governing a larger city over a small one, directors sought to increase the size of their programs in order to obtain prestige in their communities, obtain larger and more elaborate facilities, and to obtain higher adoption donations to fund their programs and to increase their personal incomes.

Beginning at least in 2002, but most likely going back years earlier, orphanage directors in Hunan began to create financial incentives for employees to procure children for international adoption. The extent of the program wasn't known until late 2005 when the Chinese press revealed that at least eight orphanages (6 would end up being prosecuted) in Hunan and neighboring Guangdong Province had aggressive baby-buying programs in place. It might be useful in the following discussion to define some terms that will be used in recounting these episodes of malfeasance on the part of various orphanage directors.

The most common activity instituted by orphanage directors is the creation of "incentive" programs in the areas around their facilities. The development of this type of program involves contacting area hospitals and informing doctors and other medical personnel that the orphanage is willing to offer rewards to anyone referring a birth family to the orphanage. Doctors then communicate this information to birth parents that have children in the area hospitals, or who come in for pre-natal exams. Families are made aware that they can receive substantial sums of money (usually around 2,000 yuan) if they relinquish their newborn child to the doctor or the orphanage directly.

Additionally, orphanage employees, including foster families, are offered incentives to be on the lookout in their villages for pregnant women. Rewards are again paid for referrals.

In addition to the initial story of incentive programs revealed in the Hengdong, Hengnan, Hengshan, Hengyang County and Qidong orphanages, recent Media expose's have shown the incentive programs are in place in Changde and Fuzhou orphanages. My own experience leads me to believe that over 50% of the children adopted from China come from orphanages that offer incentives to birth families or finders.

"Incentive" programs do not directly involve kidnapping of children, or forced relinquishment of children by birth families. Rather, they involve the free-will abandonment of children in return for a financial reward. While the Hague Agreement allows the payment of a "reasonable" fee to finders, it strictly prohibits the payment of any money to birth families.

The following conversation (recorded in April 2008) explains the reasons why many orphanages get involved with incentive programs. This interview with an orphanage worker in Jiangxi's Fuzhou orphanage, illustrates how the incentive programs operate.

This is a classic example of an incentive program being needed to bolster adoption rates falling as a result of the success of a Family Planning program. The more successful the Family Planning office is at reducing unwanted children in their area, the fewer babies are found, so the orphanage feels it necessary to increase the money offered to draw children in. Clearly without the financial incentive Fuzhou would have few babies rather than being the largest adopting orphanage in China.

The problem, as this video also clearly articulates, is that there is no checks on who sells the child to the orphanage. Anyone -- a finder, a kidnapper, or a birth parent -- can turn in a child for the reward. It is a "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement, opening the door to substantial abuse. One recent example of this occurred in Dianjiang orphanage in Chongqing. There a small child was kidnapped off the street and brought to the Dianjiang orphanage. She was submitted for international adoption. When her birth parents inquired if their daughter was in the orphanage, they were denied access to see. Finally, after many attempts to see if their daughter was in the orphanage, the birth mother finagled her way in and found their daughter. Such are the problems of offering money in China -- everyone responds.

The biggest issues, in my opinion, have to do with these incentive programs. By offering such a large sum in the poorest areas of China, orphanages open the door to people kidnapping children for the "ransom". Orphanages open the door to women producing children simply to sell, creating "baby farms." I must be clear that I don't believe that orphanages create these problems in China -- these problems are much larger than the orphanages. But in promoting incentive programs to bolster adoptions, orphanages become participants in the baby trafficking problems in China. They become a piece of the overall puzzle.

Evidence also suggests that orphanage directors frequently launder the children brought into their orphanages. The Qichun orphanage, according to one adoptive father from that orphanage, reported that the director “admitted to us that this orphanage deliberately changed the date of birth, so that no family could later come back (though none ever did so) to claim a child that they claimed was born on a particular date: no such child would ever be recorded in the orphanage registry” (correspondence in files). On a recent research trip to the Fuzhou orphanage (Jiangxi), a majority of the “finders” listed in the adoption paperwork of the children denied ever finding a child. In the Fuling District (Chongqing) orphanage, children brought from neighboring Youyang County are listed as “found” at the gate of the Fuling orphanage, the finding location for virtually every one of the children adopted from Fuling since May 2006. Thus, it is clear that orphanages systematically launder the children to prevent birth families from locating lost children and adoptive families from interviewing finders and obtaining pre-adoption histories. Of course all of the laundering activities are designed to keep illegal trafficking hidden and to prevent birth families from retrieving confiscated or lost children.

In conclusion, let me be clear -- I do not believe that most children adopted from China are kidnapped from their birth parents, although press reports show that some are. I believe that a majority of children, however, originate from orphanages that offer incentives -- "baby-buying" programs. I do not believe that the orphanages are a primary cause for infant trafficking in China, but willing participants in this larger issue.

Detecting Trafficking
How might an adoptive family find out if their child's orphanage is involved in trafficking of children? There are several tell-tale indicators to watch for, including:

1) Higher adoption rates than the other orphanages in the area -- If your child's orphanage has increasing adoption rates while orphanages nearby have declining rates, that should be cause for concern.
2) Common finding locations -- Fuzhou had many kids found within sight of hospitals, for example. Other orphanages with baby-buying programs list all of their children as being found at "the gate of the orphanage." An unusual finding location pattern is strong evidence for an incentive program, since finding locations should be fairly random.
3) Frequent finders -- Xiushan in Chongqing, for example, has a handful of people finding most of the kids, while Fuzhou's finders were almost all employees of residence committee offices.
4) A reluctance by the director to answer questions -- If a director seems to obfuscate during questioning at the time of adoption, it may be that they are hiding information about their program.
5) Most kids healthy and young -- Orphanages that have a very low special needs rates are suspect, since a growing majority of true foundlings possess special needs. Thus, if an orphanage adopts a high percentage of healthy children, they probably have incentive program in place.
6) Larger than average number of male adoptions -- Much like a skewed Healthy-SN ratio is a tell-tale sign, so is a large number of male adoptions. Healthy male children are greatly prized in China, and a woman that gives birth to an unwanted male child has many options available to her -- family friends, village "mediators", and traffickers. Thus, simply abandoning a healthy boy is fairly rare. Therefore, if an orphanage begins adopting significant numbers of healthy boys, it could mean they are offering incentives to birth parents.

Of course, discovering these indicators involves sharing information among other families in your orphanage group. Unfortunately, there is a long tradition of adoption agencies and others instilling in adoptive families a feeling of secrecy -- "Your child's story is private, and should not be shared." This mentality accomplishes one thing -- it disallows families from discovering evidence of trafficking, and thus keeps them ignorant of their child's true history.