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.


Unknown said...

I have no such illusions about 2 of mine - adopted older with visible special needs. I believe that although their paperwork may contain falsehoods.. the length of time they were in the SWI, the fact that one of them NEVER receive treatment (poor distant SWI) and the other did (rich city SWI) that the reasons we were given are as accurate as they can be.. My other child is almost certainly a trafficked case.. and we have already discussed this with her.. poverty is poverty. So we have faced and continue to face the dichotomy of poverty and abandonment and plenty and adoption.

Sue said...

What a heartfelt post Brian.

What may be described as an abandonment, may easily be what you describe as a relinquishment in other terms. We will never know for certain unless we were there and privy to the thoughts and actions of our children's birth families.

It is my hope and belief that many parents, in the absence of concrete information, may have already framed their children's beginnings in the way you encourage, in order to avoid unnecessary negativity. There is always a balance to be reached between facts, conjecture and speculation and the effect of these upon our children, as you say.

Offering possible scenarios, including the possibility that the relinquishment may or may not have been difficult for the birth family, is the way I have always chosen to educate and promote my girls' emotional well-being. There is a huge difference between presenting something as a fact and as a likely possibility. I am certain adoptive parents are well aware of this. As a Brit, I am culturally less inclined to over-sweeten anything and if anything, have had to avoid presenting possible harshness in my daughter's stories. They are 15.5 and 10, have visited China twice and so far, seem not to bear any grudges.

Offering what we know, together with what we think we know, and distinguishing between the two, can encourage our children to have some compassion for the difficult choices made by their birth families. This can only increase their feelings of power and love.

If I have understood you correctly, I confess to being worried by your exortation for families to essentially change their stories. I fear that unless there are signs of distress, over and above normal grief, this could unsettle the children even more and to what end?

In my opinion, we must be careful; before we tell our children that we may have been mistaken and here is our current thinking on events, we should decide:

a) are our children in need of a reframing at this time? Could it wait until exams/college etc are over?

b) are we certain that this new thinking is not flawed and subject to revision at a later date?

There's no shame in not knowing for sure. Does a parent's quest for truth make the unknowns in their children's lives intolerable?

Thanks for the well written and thought provoking article and research and may God bless you, your wife, your children and their birth families, wherever they are.

Sue - UK

Korkysmum said...

Brian I think your comments are spot on for many, many cases. Our daughter's paperwork said "found at the gates of a village". The truth seems to be that her paternal grandmother colluded with her friend to have the baby passed to her friend's own son and daughter in law (who were childless)if the baby was a girl. The child was left on the doorstep under cover of darkness and firecrackers set off to attract attention. Within days the family planning officials had removed her from there and put her in the orphanage. As you say, she passed through several hands in her earliest days.

Margaret UK

Cheryl Weigel said...

I would say that my daughter's reaction is the same. The photos you took of Cassie's finding place were taken on a day when it was raining and the market square was empty. This bothered Cassie more than I knew as she never brought it up even when we had discussions about it. When we visited last summer it was a sunny day and very crowded. While the rest of the trip to Kunming was somewhat of a Cassie the most important thing was feeling assured that her birth mother did not leave her somewhere where "she might not be found".

Elizabeth said...

Interesting article, interesting comments. Since our daughter's "finding" place was at the orphanage, this notion of being left is less of an issue for us. I've never used the word abandonment because I simply don't like it. We have always said, "we don't know..." Also, our social worker said to say, "your birth parents could not take care of a child and we don't know why." I do talk about the one child policy though.

In the end, feelings are feelings and we must validate them ALL. Of course they're angry and sad...who wouldn't be? I don't think using the term relinquish makes all that much sense for the young ones either because it's too big of a word. Maybe when they're older.

As one other poster said..loss is loss and it is all generally confusing for them AND for us. As we find out more and more, it's clear that the story may change many times over.

Good luck to all the parents and kids with this!

Kay Bratt said...

Very interesting article and I'm sure immensely important for AP's to think about. Many readers of Silent Tears have contacted me over the years with thoughts/questions similar to this. Some of those were the main reason I wrote Chasing China. I can't imagine thinking for years you were abandoned only to find out later you were not. There are so many stories and truths that we'll never know about the children who come from China. So much healing to be done. While I don't agree with everything you write, Brian, on this I do feel it should be something to ponder for AP's as they help their children come to terms with their birth stories, or lack of.

lola said...

A year ago, at age 7 my daughter Alice asked specifically what happened between being born and landing in the orphanage. I was caught off guard at the time but had decided early on that the word "abandoned" would never be used in this discussion. I have always been skeptical of the finding story we were given, since it very generic and was the same story that was given to a family we traveled with. Since our talk, my Alice often refers to the poverty and one-child policy as being what brought her to the orphanage. She is not angry or sad about it. Although she does talk about wanting to take a DNA test to find out more about her ancestors. Thank you for this article as it is great info to ponder and always nice to hear other perspective's on adoption in China.

French Marianne said...

Thanks so much Brian, for having posted a article from your SB.
I fully understand now ! You are very lucky to have a special word in English, that better describes the fact our children were brought to orphanage. We have not this chance in French. We only can use "abandon" word because we do not have the choice : there is no other word available in our language. We should probably invent one...

Amy said...

My three children from China all have special needs that required surgery so I believe they were abandoned. I appreciate this article because they haven't asked a lot of questions yet and it has made me think about which wording to use when the time comes.

Anonymous said...

You wrote, in response to your daughter's question: We would never have brought you to the orphanage.

Right. Only those "birth parents" would do such a thing.

I get that you need to reassure your daughter she won't be abandoned again. But was it necessary to say that in a tone that implies someone else would have done so in an easy manner?

Basically, this is how it came across to me:

"Maybe your birth mother did that, but *we* are better than her; *we* would have never done that to you."

You can be reassuring without framing things in the " *we* would have never done that" because that implies an accusatory frame of mind.

Research-China.Org said...

Wow, you got that all from what I wrote? I am an amazing writer.


Anonymous said...

I used to stick around the blogosphere a lot and read similar posts about adoptive parents taking the " *we* would never do that" approach.

It creates an accusatory frame of mine - we would never do *that*, even if *she* did.

My comment was to express the idea that one can be reassuring without "accusative."

I also guess that you didn't mean for it come across that way - your top priority is reassurance, which is why I felt it could be phrased better.

Anonymous said...

@ lola:

Although she does talk about wanting to take a DNA test to find out more about her ancestors.

Yeah, being someone who's tried to look up her family ancestry and been "locked out" of it due to language, I can understand wanting to know more about one's origins.

Research-China.Org said...

What would be the way you would frame it? (I'm not sure of the exact words I used, but admit it would have been possible for it to be interpreted, if one were so inclined, as accusatory. That would be my bad). But I suspect it is difficult to simultaneously reassure without it also being possibly interpreted as accusatory, as such things often are. "You look great in that new outfit" can of course also be interpreted as "You don't look great always, or in other outfits."

See what I mean?


Anonymous said...

The problem with your outfit analogy is that it is not in the same magnitude as one being abandoned/relinquished and transferred over to a new country and family.

When you say "You don't always look great, or [even?] in other outfits" you're not speaking for anyone or framing it from the actions of someone else. You're simply speaking of the person's appearance.

When you say "We would never have done that", you are framing it - basically saying someone else "would have."

As to your first question, I just thought about that, and wondered why you felt the need to say "We would never have brought you to the orphanage."

Is there a reason you could not have just said "No, we didn't bring you to the orphanage. We adopted you *from* the orphanage because we wanted to raise you and love you/take care of you. Someone else brought you to the orphanage, but we don't know who or why. We can only guess."

Her confusion is that you brought her to the orphanage. All you needed to say is that no, you did not. Yes, we know her birth parents brought her there, but we don't know *why.* This is why I was saying to be careful about how you frame things.

The latter part of that is probably non-satisfactory, particularly for a child, but that's what happens when you adopt from China. Facts are missing.

Anonymous said...

To sum it up, until an adoptive parent learns anything about the birth parents as absolute fact, I would suggest being neutral.

I know it's a danger for children to think of birth parents as "fantasy parents" or to end up "demonizing" these parents on the basis of having been abandoned/relinquished.

You also wrote: But I suspect it is difficult to simultaneously reassure without it also being possibly interpreted as accusatory, as such things often are.

It is. Tricky conversations, as I've so often read. Children from China (or Korea) are always going to say "Why?"

And there isn't always going to be a solid "Because..."

Anonymous said...

Btw, I know I've been a little repetitive in my comments... I just worry that I might not have expressed myself adequately enough.

I also know what I've been saying "This comes across as wrong to me", and that having someone say "Well, how does it comes across as wrong?" is to be expected, which is why I've left multiple comments.

Anonymous said...

We adopted a son from China (Henan) in 2010, who is now a beloved younger brother to our daughter, adopted from China in 2004 (8). He celebrated his second birthday in China on the day of his adoption. He was adopted out of the special needs program, and though everyone else in our group of ten families had sn kids, he has none. He is either on target or advanced in his development. Toward the end of the adoption trip, we were approached by another parent in our group who asked us (politely) what is his special need. After telling her that he had no sn, though he was diagnosed with "poor brain development", she said she had heard of nsn boys being pushed through the sn program with "poor brain development" diagnosis so they would be adopted more quickly. Have any of you heard of such stories? Now that I have subscribed to the blog and read your posts, Brian, I'm deeply saddened by the possibility of our Jiangxi daughter being caught up in trafficking. And, with our son, the storyline is even more tricky. I've cried many tears over this and wonder if any international adoptions are ethical.

wm said...

Sorry Anonymous, I didn't interpret anything about the following sentence by Brian to his daughter: "We would never have brought you to the orphanage" that implies anything about the birth parents, good or bad. I think you're reading a bit too much into it. All the sentence states is what Brian and his wife would or would not do, that's it.

Also, why all the anonymous posting?


Anonymous said...

@ wm: I suppose I could have used some sort of moniker. I wasn't planning to leave so many anonymous comments until I backtracked and realized what I wrote could evoke a defensive reaction.

I just had a friend look over my comments and she agreed my original comment was harsh. She actually rephrased it in a better manner:

[the sentence "we would never had brought you to the orphanage" is problematic because it could be read as their families being inferior for having anything to do with their child ending up in the orphanage]

That's what I was trying to express earlier and probably didn't convey that very well.

- Anonymouse!

lola said...

You have missed the point of the article.
Besides, adoptive parents are not perfect... We are parents above all and chose adoption as a route to bring a lovely human into our lives. No one analyzes every comment they make to their child. Obviously we try our best to choose our words wisely...
My biological son has a much bigger issue with feeling as if he will be left alone than our adoptive daughter. Does that mean that I shouldn't tell him, " I will never leave you, you are safe with us always." ? No, I do tell him that because in this crazy world, that is what a child needs to hear sometimes...adopted or no.

Anonymous said...

Janet, Our daughter was also listed as "mental delay" but clearly has no special needs at all. She is 100% healthy with no detectible delays. I also had heard of these labels being assigned to get children into the SN program. DD was 3.5 when she entered the orphanage and labeled with a SN at 5 years old. We brought her home at 5.5 years old. The medical report from the SWI could not have made it clearer that she was healthy and that they disagreed with the diagnosis. So I do believe this happens. - Kristin

Anonymous said...

I meant to add one more thing before I posted. Our daughter remembers her "abandonment" at a train station. Her parents said they were going to the bathroom then never came back. I don't use the word abandonment with her and probably never will. I view it as they left her in a highly public place knowing she would be found. I am grateful for this as she could have been left somewhere to die. I constantly wonder about the reason she was given up and I will probably never know. - Kristin

janeen aussiland said...

thanks Brian, This something I have thought about for many years and during my first attempts at explanation to my daughter of her placement into her SWI. early on I decided to not use words such as abandoned, or left. this being the case my daughter and I have discussed these terms at length from thier use by others and in books and articles. I have often stayed neutral validating feelings of my child primarily. I have used 'placed' and 'found by' as alternatives when she was little. i would like to find the optimistic approach to situations that in hindsight may not have been ideal, ethical or understood by those of us not living in a culture that takes many years to fully understand. Digressing I equate this discussion as a positive way to review our family concepts around adoption - similarly to catch words like attachment and bonding - things are not stationary and as we know more we change and alter our engagement in them - all truely positive stuff Brian.

nina said...

Brian could you please discuss the whys of families that give up their special needs kids? Do you feel there is also corruption in the special needs adoption program? Our son has a visible special need but I am not sure if we can ever truly understand why he would have been given to the SWI? I think there is such a culture difference we can never really understand. Do you have any thoughts on this issue? Thank you for the thoughtful article.

Research-China.Org said...

I have not researched many SN abandonments, so it is hard to be too certain about them. We have had a few instances where we found a SN child had been brought into the orphanage through an "education" program, with promises to the birth families, etc. You can read about those in our posts on Luoyang. We were also approached by an orphanage who was willing to pay money for a cleft-affected boy, so we know that baby-buying of SN children is possible. The most peculiar point, however, is the sharp increase in SN children since 2006. Either all of those SN foundlings were not surviving before, or there is something drawing in more SN children.