Monday, April 02, 2012

The Dark Side of China's "Aging Out Orphan" Program

9/24/13 Update: Since the publication of this essay, China's "aging out" program has grown.  Director Pei, retired director of the Luoyang orphanage, is now the in-country liason for China's "orphan hosting" program, whereby supposedly older, aging out children are invited to travel to the U.S. to live with American families, with the hope that these families will decide to adopt them. Director Pei has begun working with director Zhou of the Fuzhou orphanage in Jiangxi Province, recruiting older children from their areas to participate in these programs.  This "Orphan Hosting" program has been embraced by New Horizons, who is working with director Pei,  CCAI, America World Adoption, Lifeline, and other agencies. The most recent fabricated "aging out" adoption was completed in June 2013.

4/24/12 Update:  The past three weeks have apparently seen a lot of activity at WACAP, with several key staff members rumored to have left the agency.  Additionally, families have come forward reporting similar experiences with other orphanages, including one assistant orphanage director of a large Jiangxi orphanage who allegedly laundered his own daughter for international adoption.  The U.S. State Department is rumored to be looking into the allegations presented in this article, although I have no first-hand confirmation of that.  

4/4/12 Update:  One of the families profiled in this article has decided to lend her own voice to the story.  "Debbie" writes an immensely popular blog here, and posted about her story this morning.


I didn't want to post this article publicly. I have been pretty much in a "zen" place, posting the in-depth articles about China's international adoption program to my subscription blog.  I have known about the issues discussed in this article for a while, but felt that families wanting to know more could subscribe to our blog.  This kept the "blow back" from waiting families and others at a minimum, since subscription blog readers are composed of families who have deep experience in China's program, and could accept the stories and discoveries without too much emotional anxiety.

After it was posted to our subscription blog, other families stepped forward, and the gravity of the situation became obvious, and too important to remain "hidden" from other adoptive families. So, after much consideration, I felt that waiting families and those who have already brought home one of these children needed to know the potential problems that exist in their adoptions.

The sad reality is that as the number of healthy, young children coming into China's orphanages has declined, waiting families have often migrated to China's Special Needs and Special Focus program. Orphanages have responded to this increased interest by inventing creative means for obtaining children to satisfy this new demand.  The following article focuses on one well-known orphanage, but evidence shows that this program is wide-spread (see related links at the conclusion of this article).

I contacted WACAP for their input, and they responded with a lengthy response, insisting that I correct my "misunderstandings". I informed them that while I appreciated their perspective, the information in the following article originated from first-hand accounts of adoptive families and others. I did tell WACAP that I would be happy to post their comment at the end of the article, but they declined my offer. I personally have no ax to grind with WACAP, and appreciate the difficult position they find themselves in when dealing with China. They are used in this article merely as the unfortunate example to illustrate an extensive and deep-rooted problem; certainly other agencies are equally involved.

I have long ago given up on the hope that China's program will change, its abuses end. Therefore, this article is simply a "red flag" to prospective adoptive families to learn from the sad experience of these families, and a host of others, to be aware of potential deceptions and abuses. For families that have already adopted an "aging out" child (Although this article focuses on adoptees older than ten years old, the problem encompasses children of all ages), be alert to red flags in your own relationships and conversations with your adopted child. This article will hopefully shed a bright light on these deceptions, and protect future birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive families from entering agreements blindly.

If you have a similar story to those recounted below, please feel free to leave a comment, or contact me at BrianStuy@Research-China.Org.  Your privacy will be completely protected.  

Brian H. Stuy


Luoyang City Orphanage, Henan Province

The Dark Side of China's "Aging Out" Program

In the Fall of 2008, WACAP adoption agency began to send e-mails out to many adoption groups pleading for a new group of older orphans who needed families. "They are all listed as healthy," the broadcast e-mail read, "They are in danger of turning 14 and 'ageing (sic) out.' This means they may have no support or resources and have to live on their own in China - if they are not adopted before they turn 14." This particular group would become known as the first "Journey of Hope" program through WACAP, one of the largest China adoption programs in the U.S. Emails went out and word spread through the Yahoo groups discussing WACAPs new program, which included the Luoyang orphanage adoption group, where adoptive families were advocating for children "soon to be aging out" of that orphanage, which comprised the majority of the children on WACAP's list. One Luoyang adoptive parent wrote of "a program that was to get older kids adopted. Perhaps there is a new effort to get the older kids paperwork ready and have files in at CCAA. Maybe, they are being added to CCAA's new 'shared' list. Thirty or so agencies are now being 'tested' with the new 'shared' list of older or sn kids."

Observers of China's international adoption program have observed that the program has "morphed" over the years, with particularly sharp changes occurring after the Hunan scandal of 2005. Not only did the number of children coming into China's orphanages experience a sharp decline following December 2005, but the composition of those foundlings also changed. Whereas historically more than 95% of foundlings had been extremely young healthy females, following the scandal the percentage of male and SN foundlings began to sharply climb. Today, around a third of all Chinese adoptions are male, and over half are Special Needs. To take an illustrative example, between 2000 and 2011, Guangdong Province submitted 2,343 boys for adoption out of a total of 23,032 children, or roughly 10% boys. However, that average masks a substantial shift that occurred after 2005. In the six years between 2000 and 2005, Guangdong Province orphanages submitted 14,266 children for adoption, of which 488 were boys (3.4%). In the six years between 2006 and 2011, Guangdong orphanages submitted 8,766 files for adoption, of which 1,855 were for boys (21%). The situation is similar when it comes to special needs submissions: Between 2000 and 2005, 218 SN children were submitted by the Guangdong orphanages, representing 1.5% of all adoptions from that Province. That number increased to 822 between 2006 and 2011, raising the average to 9.4%. A majority (78%) of these children were found after 2005.

This kind of demographic shift is typical, if not more pronounced, in the other Provinces as well.

With that shift has come an increase in awareness of "Special focus" children, including those in danger of "aging out". Attentive observers rightfully wonder where these children came from, and why the sudden apparent shift in cultural norms that have resulted in such a dramatic increase in male children being made available for adoption.

There was an overwhelming response from the adoption community to WACAP's publicity of their "Journey of Hope" children, and the majority of the children were soon matched, but not all. More than a year passed and there were still children waiting from the program. Some of the children had been moved to the shared list and other Luoyang children were beginning to show up on individual lists. Some children had already been home for a year. The children left behind were communicating with those who had already found families, questioning when they too might have a family. The pleas of one particular child, "Jonathan", pulled on the heartstrings of "Sue" (not her real name) as he continued to wait. Jonathan was telling his friends who were already in America that if he did not have a family soon, the orphanage would kick him out. "Someone help me get adopted," he pleaded to his friends. Word spread and Sue wondered what would happen to him, so she called WACAP and inquired if she could actually bring him home.

In 2010, Sue and her family would travel to Luoyang and formally adopted Jonathan into their family.

The next few months went well, and although there were language barriers and other communication issues, Sue felt that things were progressing as well as expected. But one thing bothered Sue: Her thirteen year-old son had a developed physique, and was sprouting a mustache.

Sue began to ask her son if he was really thirteen, and he assured her that he was. "Are you sure you are thirteen?" she pushed. As he had an upcoming birthday, she wanted to make sure that the celebration was purposeful. But Jonathan exhibited no excitement about the celebration, and in fact acted like the whole episode embarrassed him. Sue found this puzzling. "Perhaps he has never had a birthday celebration," she wondered, "the poor boy." Again she asked him about his age. "Can you at least give me what Chinese sign you were born under?" she pleaded. One afternoon, after pushing him yet again to give her some clue as to when he was actually born, he responded, "China told me never to tell. China said I could never tell my real birthday."

Sue was stunned. "You are our child now, they can't do anything to you." Her son understood, but was still terrified to say anything. "No, I can't tell, I can't tell, China said to never tell." No matter how hard Sue pushed, Jonathan would not relent.

A few weeks later, Jonathan initiated the conversation. "Can China get me in trouble?" he asked. No, was Sue's answer, you are safe from China. "OK," Jonathan replied, "then I am 17, not 13."

Sue did not know what to think. She had gone to China to adopt a boy that was ostensibly a young teen, and now she realized that she had adopted a near-adult. Who had known this? Her agency? The orphanage? Jonathan continued: "You know, I am not alone. There are lots and lots of my friends that have the same story." Indeed, witnesses in the orphanage remember Director Pei, when he heard in 2008 that WACAP was coming to start up the "Journey of Hope" program, going out with the orphanage van and coming back a short time later with two teenage kids to put in the program.

Sue went to retrieve Jonathan's paperwork received at his adoption. The paperwork says your birth mother is dead. No, she is alive. It said your grand-father was old and ailing. No, he is not. He is alive and well. And then Sue recalled a conversation at the school conference a few months earlier. Jonathan's teacher mentioned how neat it was that he could still talk to his brother in China. Sue assumed the teacher was confused, as she had no knowledge of a relationship with family members, especially a brother. Surely the teacher misunderstood. Sue was wrong.

It was in that moment that Jonathan decided to open up and tell his story. "My birth family visited me while I was in the orphanage. I have a photo we took as a family a week before you came to adopt me." Jonathan retrieved the secret photo and showed it to Sue. She observed how fit and happy the family looked, not at all like the "old and ailing" grandparents she had read about in Jonathan's pre-adoption descriptions. Jonathan explained that his birth family was against the idea of Jonathan going to the U.S., out of fear they would never see him again. Jonathan, however, was excited. This was his chance to become rich and famous.

But if Jonathan's birth family was against him being adopted, how did he end up in the orphanage?

This question was posed to Jonathan's birth grandfather, who was the individual that had relinquished Jonathan to the orphanage. When asked why he had turned his grandson to the orphanage, he recounted how one day he and his wife were approached by Luoning County Civil Affairs officials. They started the conversation by observing that if he and his wife were having any troubles raising their grandson, that the officials could help arrange for their grandson to be taken to the orphanage, and the orphanage would help raise him. "If your grandson goes into the orphanage," they were promised, "he will get a good education and get a good job." Jonathan would later tell us that it wasn't until 2009, just before he was adopted to the United States, that his grandparents learned that he would be leaving Luoyang. At no point during the "pitch" did the Civil Affairs officials notify him or his grandparents that he would be leaving China, and when his birth family learned of that fact two years later, they were extremely worried and upset.

"Do you believe he really will come back one day and take care of you?" we asked the sixty-five year old spry and energetic grandfather. "Yes," was his reply.

Jonathan's story is consistent with others from Luoyang. "Kate" adopted her daughter from Luoyang in 2010, along with a deaf child from the Beijing orphanage. Kate's Luoyang daughter also opened up and revealed that her birth family had also been approached by officials who discussed relinquishing her. Two days before Kate finalized the adoption, and when Kate was already in the Province to finalize her adoption, the Luoyang orphanage still did not have the relinquishment paperwork signed by the birth family.   To increase the pressure on the grandmother to sign the required paperwork, the orphanage took Kate's daughter on a two-hour drive to her grandmother's house.  The orphanage needed the grandmother to sign papers relinquishing her grand-daughter so that the adoption could be finalized.  With Kate in the area, time was running out.

This trip re-traumatized Kate's daughter, forcing her to experience the pain of losing her birth family all over again.  Kate's daughter was fairly sure her Grandmother did not want her to be adopted and taken away.

As Kate's Luoyang daughter told her the story, Kate felt a familiar sense of outrage, for her Beijing daughter had also told her that she had been brought to that orphanage as a six-year old under similar pretenses. Kate's Beijing daughter was sent to a Beijing school for the deaf, which she attended during the week.  Since there were no classes held on the weekend, Kate's daughter stayed in the Beijing #2 orphanage on the weekend.  Kate's daughter recounted how her parents would frequently visit her, bringing her treats as she went to school in the Beijing school. She would return home for Chinese New Years, but otherwise remained at the orphanage for most of the year. She had lived two hours outside Beijing, in a rural farming community. One day, without any warning or preparation, Kate's Beijing daughter was adopted by Kate, leaving her family to wonder what ever happened to their daughter.  The Beijing #2 orphanage apparently also raised Kate's daughter's age from eleven to nearly fourteen in order to take advantage of the speed with which "aging out" children are adopted by Western families. 

WACAP has frequently told adoptive families concerned with hearing such stories from their children that kids often fantasize about their birth families, supposedly unable to understand why they were "abandoned". But Luoyang's recruitment program was witnessed first-hand by Michael Melsi, a twenty-something American who started volunteering in the Luoyang orphanage in 2006 as an English language instructor. Michael spent most of his time in the Luoyang orphanage on the fourth and six floors of the orphanage, among the teenagers in Luoyang's "Special Focus" program. There, he befriended most of the children waiting to be adopted from the waiting child lists of WACAP, CCAI, and other agencies.

At the beginning of his time in Luoyang, Michael observed that “it was pretty apparent that the kids had some kind of distant relatives that were involved in their lives to some degree, never in a million years at that time would I have thought that they actually had parents or close relatives.  But it was clear that even though they were in an orphanage, they were from a community where they still had ties.”

That point was driven home during Spring Festival 2009. Michael assumed this would be a sad time for the kids in the orphanage, so he arranged to bring the kids some treats and activities to help celebrate the Chinese “Christmas”. When he arrived at the orphanage, he found that very few of the older kids (older than 6) were there. Michael wondered where they all had gone, and asked the orphanage staff where the kids had disappeared to. At first he was told the children had been sent to spend the festival with area families, who had volunteered to help give the kids a bit of “normal lives”. That did not sound right to Michael, so he pushed further, and was eventually told that the kids had gone home to their extended birth families (aunts, uncles, grandparents) to spend the holidays with them.

When WACAP formed the “Journey of Hope” program in 2008, Michael noticed that some of the older kids were being sent out of the orphanage and disappearing. When he asked the orphanage staff and other children about this, he was told that those kids had “selfish relatives” who were refusing to allow the adoption of their kids who they were unwilling to care for. Thus, the kids were being forced to leave the orphanage. Michael researched where some of his “kids” had ended up, and found that they had returned to their birth families. It soon became apparent in several cases that women who were initially said to be "aunts" were actually the children's birth mothers. When Michael asked the birth families why their kids had ended up in the Luoyang orphanage, they reluctantly told him that they had understood that the orphanage would provide for the expenses of raising their children. Furthermore, the birth parents felt it would offer their children the opportunity to get a better education and live in the city, which they believed would provide the children with a better life in the future. When the orphanage began to pressure them to sign documents relinquishing parental rights to their own children, they had refused.

Michael became increasingly concerned with what he was seeing in the Luoyang orphanage, and contacted several adoptive families to inform them of the situation. He also decided to contact WACAP directly, and outlined many of his findings and concerns. Within two days, Michael was contacted by the orphanage and informed that he would not be permitted to return to the orphanage, with officials citing concerns that he was a carrier of swine flu.


Director Pei, the Luoyang orphanage director, presented WACAP with a plan that he was formulating. Although no longer the orphanage director (the orphanage saw a change of directors in 2010), nevertheless in late 2011 Pei contacted WACAP and informed them that he was interested in guiding a group of relatives of children adopted through WACAP's "Journey of Hope" program to the United States.

WACAP has had a long history with the Luoyang orphanage, going back to the early 1990s when the agencies head, Janice Neilson, formed a mutually beneficial relationship with the orphanage director, Pei Zhong Hai. Over the course of the next seventeen years, WACAP arranged funding for the Luoyang orphanage, and Pei provided children for adoption.

So it was that WACAP contacted "Debbie", the adoptive mother of one of the "Journey of Hope" girls, and asked if they would be agreeable to a visit by their daughter's biological Uncle in their home. Of course this came as a huge shock to Debbie and her husband, who could not understand how the people described in their daughter's adoption paperwork as being too poor to care for their daughter were now suddenly able to afford to fly to the U.S. and tour around with their daughter's orphanage director. They were angry, confused and very frustrated as the realization came to them that they had been deceived by the orphanage to begin with. They informed WACAP that they felt very uncomfortable with the situation, and WACAP informed Director Pei that Debbie and the other families were not welcoming of his proposal.

Debbie realizes now that she should have noticed the red-flags surrounding the "aging out" kids earlier, but chose to ignore what she described as disquieting clues. "All the them had the same stories," she remembers. And indeed, a perusal of WACAP's 2009 "Journey of Hope" listing bears this out: "WCL, Contest winner and artist. Healthy 12 year old boy. . . .He has been at the orphanage for over three years. He remembers nothing about his birth parents or where he lived before the orphanage." "XL. Violinist. Healthy 12 year old girl. . . . She has no memory of her birth family." "HL. Athlete. Healthy 12 year-old boy. . . When asked about his memories before he arrived at the orphanage he said he has no memories before that time." "GBL, Basketball player and jogger. Healthy 12 year old girl. . . . She has no memory of her birth family. "YHL, Performer, Healthy 12 year-old girl. . . . When asked about her birth parents, she said she does not remember anything."

When asked about these children, Jonathan admits that he is aware of several who know full well who their birth families are, and some of them were among the kids admonishing him to remain quiet. He recounts how in March 2007, the orphanage sent the van to pick him and the other children recruited by the Luoning County Civil Affairs Bureau up. On the day of the "pick up", all of the families were notified to bring their kids to the county Civil Affairs Bureau, where the the orphanage van waited. On the morning Jonathan was picked up, he was accompanied by ten or eleven other children, ranging in ages from a few months to over seventeen years old, mostly boys. All were allowed to say goodbye to their birth families before being loaded into the orphanage van and taken away to what most, if not all, felt was an orphanage education school.

In January 2011, the CCAA commended the Luoyang orphanage, describing them as a "Model Welfare Institute for International adoption in 2010", the year that Jonathan and his friends were adopted abroad. The Luoyang orphanage director boasted that "There is no trifling with international adoptions. The leaders of the Civil Affairs Bureau and the officers of our orphanage have attached great importance to the working of international adoption, from the preparation of the finding ads to the adoption paper work, to when the kids are sent into the arms of adoptive families, including the adoptive families returning back to visit the orphanage. All of these works were overseen by the director, with very carefully attention, and well done by following the rules step by step. This ensures that there was no mistake of any of those kids sent for international adoption. It also brought a new world for the growth of those kids."

Sue and the other families would disagree. While some of the families have been informed by their adoptive children of the truth behind their adoptions, many of the other children still urge Jonathan to remain quiet. "Don't tell! We were told we can never tell." Thus, there is little doubt that many families of Luoyang's "orphans" don't realize that their child, along with their birth family, really expect that this is simply a "study abroad" program. Already, stories of adoption disruptions and turmoil are being recounted as the children grow frustrated that they are not being given the material gifts that they had been promised. Unfortunately, Luoyang's program is in no way unique, as many orphanages across China have seen similar spikes in "aging out" children needing to be adopted.

The issues go beyond simply raising a child under false pretenses. Once an adoption, even one performed under false premises, is completed, the child becomes a legal beneficiary of the adoptive parents estate, for example. Then there are the issues surrounding the true nature of the relationship between these children and their adoptive families. As Sue recounted, she could see the stress of lying on her son's face as he repeatedly covered up the truth from her probing questions. One day, he just got tired of lying.

Sue articulates a cautionary note to families assuming that these "aging out" and other tales of woe are accurate:

People who adopt these aging out kids need to go into this knowing full well that it is very possible that this child is significantly older, already aged out, it is very possible that their birth dates were changed, it is very possible that they have birth family still there and that there is more to the story. It is not just the cut-and-dry ‘this orphan needs a home.’ You need to be sensitive to the question of whether an industry is being created by these aging out kids that you are feeding into when really they don’t need to be coming here.”

Related articles:"Promises, Promises!"
"China's New 'Orphan Program'" (Subscription blog article)