Tuesday, January 23, 2007

NYT Op Ed: Where Are All the Children?

[I'm reprinting the whole article because it's important.]

The Mystery of the Chinese Baby Shortage
McLean, Va.

ACCORDING to a State Department report released this week, American citizens adopted 6,493 children from China in 2006, a decline of 18 percent from the previous year’s total of 7,906. And yet, just over a month ago, this newspaper reported that China had prepared strict new criteria for foreign adoption applications because the country claimed it lacked “available” babies to meet the “spike” in demand.

China has always limited foreign adoptions, and it does not publish reliable statistics on the number of children in its orphanages. So how is one to know whether the decrease in adoptions reflects a lack of supply or a lack of demand?

In the week following the report on the new guidelines, more than one bewildered person said to me, “But I thought there were lots of babies in orphanages in China!” My response was to helplessly reply, “So did I.” My understanding of this was based not on conjecture, but on having been to China twice to adopt, having seen orphanages with my own eyes, and on research and other eyewitness accounts. Many hundreds and perhaps thousands of orphanages operate in China, most of them full of girls.

According to a February 2005 report in The Weekend Standard, a Chinese business newspaper, demographers in China found a ratio of 117 boys per 100 girls under the age of 5 in the 2000 census. Thanks to China’s one-child policy, put into effect in 1979 in order to curb population growth, and a strong cultural preference for male children, this gender gap could result in as many as 60 million “missing” girls from the population by the end of the decade, enough to alarm even Chinese officials.

And what happened to these girls? According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (a term that takes on a whole new meaning when referring to China), there are about seven million abortions in China per year, 70 percent of which are estimated to be of females. That adds up to around five million per year, or 50 million by the end of the decade; so where are the other 10 million girls? If even 10 percent end up in orphanages... well, you do the math.

A few months ago, in a conversation with my friend Patrick Mason, executive director of the International Adoption Center at INOVA Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, I confessed a growing fear: that China, the country from which my two daughters were adopted, would sooner or later shut down its international adoption program. Dr. Mason immediately dismissed my concern, saying, “The number of orphans is just too great.”

And yet, I continued to wonder whether, as China increasingly asserts itself on the world stage and prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, allowing Westerners to adopt thousands of infants each year would fit the image it wanted to project. I suspect not, and China’s new restrictions lead me to believe that national pride is more important than getting these children into loving homes.

The issue of abandoned and institutionalized children remains a taboo subject in China, a problem the government does not even acknowledge exists. The impulse to hide it seems to stem partly from embarrassment and partly from fear of revealing the grave human rights abuses the one-child policy has produced; surely, watching a parade of well-off foreigners cart off thousands of babies would make the Chinese authorities understandably uncomfortable.

But the answer is not to stop the foreigners from adopting; it is to put an end to their reasons for doing so. My fondest hope, and the hope of thousands of parents who have adopted from China, is for all the orphanages there to close because there are no more abandoned children to put in them. This will be accomplished only when China decides that there is no economic or political justification for the magnitude of suffering that has resulted from the one-child policy. The government must openly acknowledge the problem, in part by publishing verifiable information about the status of its orphaned children, and take real steps to correct it. To do so would go a long way toward building the international trust and respect China seems to want so badly.

China has announced the lifting of restrictions for foreign journalists in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Perhaps this will allow reporters to look for answers to some basic questions: how many children are there in institutions in China? If there is nothing to hide, why do visitors need approval to visit orphanages? Why are only certain orphanages allowed to participate in the international adoption program, and what is going on in the ones that are not?

The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, to which China and 69 other countries are signatories, goes a long way toward ensuring against child abduction and trafficking; but it does not include provisions that would require member countries to report such information as the number of children housed in institutions or the criteria used for selecting “suitable” children for adoption.

The treaty states that “for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality,” each child should have the opportunity to grow up in a “family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.” Indeed, it requires that each signatory take “as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.” One could argue that China’s one-child policy directly violates the treaty by ensuring that many children will not remain in the care of the family but be relinquished to the care of the state.

Under the new Chinese adoption guidelines, the international adoption celebrity Angelina Jolie could not adopt from China (she’s not married, and alas, she and Brad have more than two divorces between them, which is a no-no); nor could the actress Meg Ryan (again, not married). Another person who is not eligible is yours truly. My husband is over 50, so I would have to trade him in, marry again, wait the required five years (another new rule) before beginning the adoption process, and by that time I would be sneaking up on 50 myself.

It is comforting to know that Madonna is still eligible, at least until she turns 50, gets fat (the new regulations call for a body mass index of less than 40), gets divorced or goes broke (anyone with a net worth of under $80,000 is excluded).

The Chinese have asserted that the demand for adoptions far exceeds the number of babies it deems “available,” based on criteria that have never been made public. We can only wonder how many babies will be left behind by Beijing’s new policies — perhaps spending their lives in institutions because of these arbitrary and artificial limits.

Beth Nonte Russell is the author of the forthcoming “Forever Lily: An Unexpected Mother’s Journey to Adoption in China” and the co-founder of the Golden Phoenix Foundation.


Blogger Sheri said...

Ray, have you seen the blurb on Beth's forthcoming book??


WOW. I pre-ordered it... I was soooo impressed with this op-ed piece!!


4:59 PM  
Blogger Ray said...


When I read the article was when I first heard of the book, so I'll have to check it out, especially since she's a local!

She also mentions Patrick Mason, who we visited before we traveled to get Ally. He was very helpful and gave us a lot of good information.

5:12 PM  
Blogger dublin said...

We've adopted from China twice...in early 1996 and again in late 2002. Our translater in 2002 was a local young woman who spoke of the adoption situation in China in a very straight forward manner. She was familiar with our childrens' rural orphanage and told us that only 5% of the babies admitted to the orphanage that year had been allowed to be listed for adoption. The government only lets certain orphanages participate in international adoption...and even THOSE orphanages are restricted to a certain number of babies they can list for adoption.

After adopting in 2002, we became active in a chat group of other families from all over the globe who shared one thing in common, each of them had a child from this one specific rural orphanage. It was so sad to hear the stories a few years later from families in France and Spain who adopted children who had been WITH my own daughter...cribmates of hers...before I adopted her, but were not themselves listed for adoption until two full years later (because of the restriction of how many children each orphanage can list). These toddlers had spent two extra years lost in the beaucracy and institutional neglect. They had never been introduced to food...still drank formula from a bottle. At almost three years of age, these children had profound speech and eating problems. They had never learned to tolerate solid food and so would gag when their parents tried to feed them. They didn't know how to chew. They hadn't had the opportunity for their oral muscles to develop as they normally do as a child learns to eat solid food and, consequently they had speech issues on top of their nutritional challenges. SO NEEDLESS. There were thousands of families desperately wanting those very babies the year I traveled to China to bring home their crib mate...but, because of an inhumane system, they were made to languish two more long years.

By the time I got my daughter (at 9 months) she already showed signs of lack of stimulation...would stare at her own fingers hours on end; would rock herself incessentantly with a blank, unseeing stare; would bang her own head repeatedly against the mattress or floor... It breaks my heart to think of the babies that had to wait an additional two years...and even THEY are the lucky ones...they made it OUT. Many never do...which is unconscienceable when there is such an abundance of families yearning to bring those babies home.


7:40 PM  
Blogger Talia Carner said...

Kudos to Beth Monte Russell for daring to raise the question and to challenge the Chinese government. (The Mystery of China's Orphans, Feb 1,2007). Organizations doing charity work in China are under direct threat from the government of the People's Republic of China not to criticize its practices and to distance itself from those who do, and many American adoptive parents of Chinese girls have taken seriously the threat of shutting off the adoption faucet if they get involved in China's "politics."

There are some answers to the "mystery" featured in Ms. Russell article. In China, 1.7 million girls disappear each year (a figure extrapolated from the 2005 UNICEF annual birth report and the Chinese government 2006 report of boys-girls ratio.) Furthermore, in 1995, before clamming up on the figures relating to its orphanages, the Chinese government reported 40,000 "social welfare" institutions. A few hundreds of them have been either improved or disbanded due to Western charities' involvement. That still leaves over 39,000 institutions where "orphans" (misnomer for abandoned infants) still live in inhuman conditions, often doomed to fatal neglect. In addition, 2005 China Quarterly reports between 300,000-400,000 abandoned children who fall between jurisdictions and therefore are not even in orphanages.
But the government of the People's Republic of China will never admit that life in the West is a better choice than the death of its children.


Talia Carner
Author, China Doll

6:21 AM  

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