Chinese parents compete with foreign applicants to adopt healthy babies

By Ni Dandan in Shanghai Source:Global Times Published: 2014-4-2 20:38:02

A helper takes care of the babies in Zhengzhou Orphanage in Henan Province on December 17, 2013. Photo: CFP

Zhao Lin (pseudonym) felt awkward sitting in the marriage and adoption registration office in the Jing'an district of Shanghai. Zhao had come to inquire about child adoption.

"Have you found yourself a relinquished child?" A young officer asked Zhao after handing her a pamphlet highlighting the key points of China's adoption law. "No," she replied, surprised by the question.

The 32-year-old was at the office with hopes of being registered as a prospective adoptive parent and getting in line to adopt a child from the city's orphanages.

But she soon discovered it would be a challenging task to find a healthy child.

It now takes nine to 10 years on average to adopt a healthy child from Shanghai's orphanages, according to Chen Zhanbiao, director of the Marriage and Adoption Registration Division of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau.

"Why so long? The major problem is that the majority of the orphans here have serious disabilities," Chen said, adding that domestic families don't want children with any kind of disability. "When domestic families adopt, it's mostly functional. They'd like to adopt a healthy girl so that when they get old someone can take care of them. But some foreign families adopt simply out of a kind heart. They accept children with certain disabilities."

"The percentage of severely disabled orphans is usually above 90 percent," Chen said. "But the city has more than 1,000 families waiting to adopt a healthy child. Over the past two years, of all the adoption cases I've handled, only two children were totally healthy."

Kay Johnson, a professor of Asian studies and politics and director of the Hampshire College China Exchange Program, started to research adoption in China in 1991 when she adopted her daughter from an orphanage in Wuhan, Hubei Province. She said that it's almost impossible for a Chinese family to adopt a healthy baby from orphanages.

"I know in one medium-sized official orphanage in Anhui Province, for example, they may have two or three healthy children a year. And I guess people who get one of these two or three children probably have guanxi (connections) and may offer a large donation."

Zhang Wen, executive director of the Children's Hope Foundation, and also an adoptive mother, agrees with the professor's point. "If you don't know anyone with the civil affairs department or from the orphanages, basically you can never adopt a healthy child from there," Zhang told the Global Times.

The China Civil Affairs Statistical Yearbook 2013 indicated that the country's social welfare institutions held as many as 104,000 children in 2012. A total of 27,278 got adopted that year. There is no official figure indicating how many of these adopted children were healthy.

For families like Zhao and her husband who are facing fertility issues, adoption is now their only hope to have a healthy child.

However, due to the shortage of healthy adoptable kids, many people have turned to an underground market to find children from dealers.

While Zhao knew adopting a child would be a difficult endeavor, it was only recently she discovered it could be illegal.

Zhao had heard the tale of 60-year-old Shen, a Shanghai native, who adopted a grandson from a single mother in the city's Chongming county last year because her daughter was infertile. She was among 19 "illegal adopters" arrested by the Shanghai police in a crackdown in February.

Given this revelation, Zhao now has doubts about whether she will ever be a parent.

Despite being legally dubious, purchasing children has long been a popular option in China. Online platforms have helped connect families wanting to adopt or give away children, and have provided the gamut of services required to get each new baby a hukou (household registration).

In February, the Ministry of Public Security netted 1,094 suspects working for four such online platforms.

Priority treatment?

The civil affairs yearbook revealed that 15 percent of adoption from orphanages in 2012 were international. The situation has changed significantly compared with the year 2005 when more than 14,000 international adoption cases were recorded, while the domestic cases stood at only 10,000. The presence of international adoption has been blamed for making it even more difficult for domestic families to adopt a healthy child from orphanages.

Orphanages in some provinces have even been accused of giving special priority to foreign families over their Chinese counterparts. The Century Weekly magazine reported in 2011 that vested interests were involved in the international adoption industry. The report said family planning officers in Shaoyang, Hunan Province, were actually selling children in the local orphanage to foreign adoptive families at $3,000 each.

Zhang Wen, who assisted three foreign couples to adopt Chinese children in 1992, when China's adoption law had just come into force, said adoptive families are supposed to pay a "donation" to the orphanages they are adopting from and according to her knowledge, the sum is now set at $5,000 for foreign adopters at most orphanages today. "Although there's no set figure for Chinese adopters, sometimes Chinese families pay even more."

Professor Johnson personally paid $3,000 when she adopted her daughter from Wuhan.

Even without the donation concern, Zhang Wen said many Chinese orphanages do prefer foreign adopters because "foreign adopters are seen friendlier and kinder while Chinese adoptive families are more particular."

In recent years, the percentage of international adoptions has been declining. One of the reasons behind this is that even foreign families now have to wait seven or eight years for a healthy baby.

But Professor Johnson suggested that Chinese orphanages should completely shut the door to foreigners waiting to adopt healthy Chinese children. "When there are not enough healthy children for childless parents in China, why are the orphanages giving away healthy children to foreigners? How could it be necessary?"

Using connections

Finding it almost impossible to adopt from orphanages, many Chinese have turned to "agents" or people they know to find children up for adoption.

Lu, 37, adopted her son from a migrant family in 2011. The Chongming native had been waiting for a healthy child from the county's orphanages for four years before she opted for an alternative method.

"My father knows people in the orphanages. They simply haven't had any healthy children for years," Lu told the Global Times, refusing to reveal her full name.

Like most adoptive families who search for a prospective child on their own, Lu's family didn't accompany the migrant family to register with the civil affairs authority to legalize the adoption. Instead she purchased the baby a birth certificate to get him a hukou. "We're worried that since the baby is the migrant family's second child, it might be troublesome to get him a hukou in the official way," she said, adding that her family totally meets the criteria to be adopters.

China's adoption law says that parents who are unable to rear them due to unusual difficulties can put their children up for adoption. "But the law doesn't specifically define the unusual difficulties. Legally speaking, it's basically blank regarding who can put their children up for adoption and how," Chen said.

In practice, Shanghai requires families who want to give away their children to provide papers to prove their income and health status, their marriage certificate and the confirmation documents from the neighborhood committee where the families live. "If a family relies completely on the minimum living allowance, then it basically qualifies," Chen said.

In reality, many who put children up for adoption are single mothers or families who have given birth outside the family planning policy. "We can categorize these single mothers as people with unusual difficulties. But what if she gets married later on and has another child, that's against the family planning policy?" Chen asked, adding that another important factor is that it is regarded as indecent to have a child outside of marriage. "Unlike in the West, single mothers feel embarrassed to officially put their child up for adoption in these circumstances."

Risk of punishment

Professor Johnson said that when families who have given birth in violation of the family planning policy formally put their children up for adoption they are fined. "Their property may be taken from them and they could lose their jobs," she said. Even if it's not against the family planning policy, they still run the risk of getting charged for the crime of abandonment if they are found to not have been qualified to put their children up for adoption.

To better guide people who decide to give away their children, the Chinese government has been trying out new methods, Chen said, citing the now-scrapped baby hatch in Guangzhou, where anonymous parents could safely abandon babies. Unfortunately, the hatch, which ran for just 48 days, was suspended last month. All the 262 babies received during the period had different types of disabilities. It was the first baby hatch that had to be shut down since the scheme was first trialled in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, in June 2011.

To explain the high numbers of people using the hatch and why it was shut down, Chen said that people believed their children would have better chances in Guangzhou.

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