SOCIETY

BURSTING THE CHINESE BABY BUBBLE

China has been making it harder for foreigners to adopt. How hard? Well, with the backlog building, prospective parents could, as of this week, be looking at an arrival date of 2016.

KATRINA ONSTAD May 19 2008
SOCIETY

BURSTING THE CHINESE BABY BUBBLE

China has been making it harder for foreigners to adopt. How hard? Well, with the backlog building, prospective parents could, as of this week, be looking at an arrival date of 2016.

KATRINA ONSTAD May 19 2008

BURSTING THE CHINESE BABY BUBBLE

SOCIETY

China has been making it harder for foreigners to adopt. How hard? Well, with the backlog building, prospective parents could, as of this week, be looking at an arrival date of 2016.

KATRINA ONSTAD

In a community centre in downtown Toronto on a cold January afternoon, a group of little Chinese girls in red dresses and white tights sat playing. About 14 PAPs (“prospective adoptive parents”) were lined up on folding chairs facing the girls and their mothers, many attending their first information session with a local adoption agency called Open Arms to International Adoption, hoping to learn the ins and outs of adopting from China.

Michael Sims sat in the second row, taking in the familiar scene: he and his wife, Stephanie Hodnett, had attended a session much like this one in the very same room almost three years earlier. “It’s a very powerful advertisement,” he says. “You have a room full of desperate people, many of whom are despairing of having a child, and you bring in happy people with their happily adopted children and have them play in front of you. It’s like dangling crack in front of a crack addict.” According to Sims’s recollection of the afternoon, five white women, between the ages of 40 and 55, sat at the front of the room and talked about adopting from China. A PAP at the back of the room asked about waiting times. One of the presenters said about two years. The audience member replied that another Ontario agency was saying the waiting time had increased to about four to five years. Sims recalls that Deborah Maw, who runs the Open Arms agency and declined to be interviewed for this story, called out from her place at the back of the room and adamantly stated two years.

Sims felt himself getting angry. He and Stephanie (both of whom are friends of mine) had struggled with infertility issues for a year, and then made an enthusiastic decision to adopt. Two years in, they were burnt-out and fed up. Motivated by a kind of perverse curiosity, Sims had driven to this information session to see what new parents were being told. In his pocket was a handful of leaflets stating that adopting a healthy child from China today could take five years or longer. Sims, a former engineer and Web programmer, had invented a calculator for parents waiting to adopt from China, and posted it on a website he built called chinaadoption-

forecast.com. Using weighted averages based on the length of time people in the past had been waiting for their “referrals” (when the file is processed in China, and a child assigned to the PAPs), the tool was, in January, estimating between five and eight years for families just beginning the process. This week, with the backlog building, the calculator predicts an estimated bring-home date of 2016. “You see these lemmings waiting to jump off the cliff, and you have to say: please don’t do it,” says Sims.

During the break of tea and cookies, Sims attempted to hand out his flyers. Some of the parents were suspicious: “What are you selling?” they asked. Maw saw what he was doing and told him to leave, shouting that she would call the police. She followed him out.

“What a perfect ending to this whole thing,” says Sims, shaking his head in the living room of his modern downtown house. “No Chinese baby, and a door slamming on my back.”

We are supposed to be living in a global age, a post-racial Obama picnic that spans the planet. Images of Angelina Jolie and her rainbow of children represent the new modern family, and international adoption is the template. In 1970 there were 10 inter-country adoptions in Canada. By the mid-’90s, the number had increased to 2,000, with roughly one-third of those coming from China. China’s has long been the most admired international adoption program in the world, even with a current price tag of more than $20,000. After China began its efforts to control population through an official one-child policy in 1979, many babies (almost always the less desirable sex, female) were abandoned. Overflowing orphanages provided muchwanted children to Western parents whose money was used to improve care and help build a smooth, highly predictable program: between 2002 and 2006, an adoptive couple could expect to come home with a child 16 months after starting the process.

A new anthology, called The Lucky Ones: Our Stories of Adopting Children From China, is a kind of love letter to the program, with essays from 22 Canadians charting the path to adoptive parenthood. CBC News: Sunday

anchor Evan Solomon writes about the joy of swimming with his new daughter in the hotel pool in China hours after meeting her. Actress Sonja Smits recounts the shock and elation when she and her husband receive a referral for a boy baby, not a girl.

The book brims with the kind of happy endings that inspired thousands to get in line. Between 1996 and 2006, China sent out over 50,000 children around the world. As Cathy Murphy, director of adoption services for the Children’s Bridge, an Ottawa-headquartered international adoption agency, says: “There’s a comfort level with China. Everyone knows someone who has adopted from China. But that picture is changing.”

She’s right: the optimism that infuses The Lucky Ones feels almost antiquated. The very idea of international adoption seems to be caught in a moment of deep reconsideration, despite Brangelina and Madonna. For the past three years, the number of international adoptions in Canada has been on a steady decline. In 2006, Canadians adopted 1,535 children from abroad, down nearly 18 per cent from 1,871 in 2005. Most dramatically, the number of Canadian adoptions from China dropped from 1,001 in 2004 to 608 in 2006.

Speculation abounds as to why this is happening, but getting solid information out of China is as difficult on the adoption issue as any other. The most obvious reason is supply and demand: for years, the China Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA, the Chinese government agency responsible for adoption) has claimed there are more people wanting children than there are children available. But in a country of 1.3 billion, where the onechild policy was recently renewed, where are the babies?

Murphy likens the shift in China to South Korea’s transformation. South Korea has had one of the most successful international adoption programs in the world since the ’50s, but the numbers of children sent slowed down dramatically as the country’s economy flourished in the ’80s and ’90s. In other words, China is getting rich enough to look after its own babies, and many local nouveau riche families are now able to absorb the fines associated with having more than one child.

Murphy has seen the changes first-hand, having adopted a daughter in China 10 years ago. “Her foster family could barely afford a bicycle. When we went back last year, they had a car,” she says. “The road to the orphanage was a dirt road, now it’s a four-lane highway.”

Brian Stuy runs a company called ResearchChina.org out of Salt Lake City, Utah, that researches adopted children’s histories. Stuy sells curious adoptive parents DVDs about

the orphanage and region where their children began their lives, even shooting some of the common locations where babies are abandoned. For a fee, Stuy will also locate a baby’s “finding ad,” the photos the government places in the newspaper when a child is first found.

In his work, Stuy has visited nearly 50 orphanages. These days, when he asks orphanage directors how it’s going, they tell him the same thing: “It’s going down.” But the domestic need is going up, likely because Chinese women are postponing pregnancy until later, and because the stigma of a girl child is decreasing. “There are millions of couples inside China who are unable to have their own children. Most of these families are very desirous to have a family to carry on their name,” says Stuy.

Before 2001 in China, the only people who could adopt were couples with no children. But since 2001, the Chinese have been legally allowed to adopt a second child, a strategy

that circumvents the one-child policy. Adoption is particularly popular with families that have a boy already and now want a girl, according to Stuy. The symmetrically balanced family is an ideal, but one available only to the very wealthy. Stuy’s research suggests that it costs a Chinese family between 10,000 to 30,000 yuan, or approximately $1,500 to $4,300, to adopt (the CCAA did not return requests for an interview). By comparison, the average urban worker makes 25,000 yuan a year. Adoption is a privilege available only to the top economic tier of the Chinese population, but in the new China, this tier consists of millions of people.

“We can only look at children being raised in their own countries as a good thing,” says Stuy, who has three adopted Chinese daughters himself. “We should be happy. We should wish that every country could end their program.”

This new emphasis on domestic adoption follows the spirit of The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions, an international agreement that’s been ratified by 75 countries, including China in 2005. The

convention’s primary goal is to protect the best interests of children by bringing a level of transparency to adoption proceedings and thereby preventing systemic corruption, and the abduction and sale of children. But the Hague convention also states that children should be raised whenever possible in their home country, an intuitively positive stance that has also made it harder to adopt from countries that have ratified the agreement. In Bulgaria, for instance, a child can be adopted out only after three Bulgarian families have rejected him or her, and it’s become close to impossible to adopt from that country now.

As it’s become easier for some Chinese to

Any prospective parent with a body mass index above 40 or a facial deformity or blindness in one eye need not apply

adopt, China has been making it harder for foreigners to do the same. The CCAA issued a long list of new rules for PAPs on May 1, 2007: adoption is open only to straight married couples; partners must be between 30 and 50 with $80,000 in assets. Any PAP with a body mass index above 40, medically controlled depression or any number of slightly random medical issues including facial deformity and blindness in one eye, need not apply. Suddenly, fat people, gays and lesbians and singles were locked out. Chinese officials said they were trying to stem the backlog of waiting families, and place their children in the most “suitable” situations possible, limiting risk for their futures.

“[The May rules were] the clearest sign yet that the door was closing,” says Douglas Chalke, executive director of Sunrise Family

Services Society, an adoption agency in North Vancouver. “Authorities in China play their cards so close to their chests we’re left with rumour. It’s not impossible that things could improve, but I highly doubt it. The pendulum seems to be swinging away from international adoption around the world.” Earlier this year, reports of staff reductions at the CCAA led to widespread panic amongst waiting parents on message boards, many of whom interpreted the alleged layoffs as another sign that the program was shutting down completely. The latest indication that things are getting harder for adoptive parents is word from several recently returned families that donations—the portion of the fee that goes directly to the orphanage, usually in American cash—are rising in some orphanages from $3,000 to $5,000. All of these hints make China sound like the bad boyfriend who doesn’t have the

conviction to break up, but makes the relationship so unappealing he hopes his lover will get the message and take off first.

If the split does occur, China gets to look like the self-sufficient superpower it clearly wants to be. With the Beijing Summer Olympics approaching, many in the adoption community speculate that the slowdown will turn to a trickle. Not only is it possible that the Olympics may halt activity at the CCAA through October, but with all eyes on China, it may be a good moment for the government to erase any lingering notion, no matter how incorrect, of China as a country that sells its kids to white Westerners. “The slowdown could be a way of saying we want to stand up to the colonialist powers, to say we won’t let them take our precious resources. This nationalist attitude explains

part of what’s going on,” says Elizabeth Bartholet, professor of law at Harvard University and faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program.

For years, despite its well-oiled parts, the reputation of the Chinese adoption program has been faintly tarnished by the hint that this much money changing hands creates, if not corruption, at least the conditions for corruption. In 2005 in Hunan province, 50 people were arrested for trafficking babies for sale to orphanages. The Chinese government dealt with the PR disaster swiftly, shutting down orphanages and sentencing 10 people. Still, Brian Stuy claims he has met people in the orphanage system with evidence that some have given rural birth mothers cash incentives to hand over their children.

It may be simpler, then, for China to simply shut down the program than address its weaknesses. If so, Elizabeth Bartholet sees this as a huge step backward for the principle of international adoption, and it’s a step that she believes is facilitated by the very groups that are supposed to be looking out for children. In a new paper that will be a chapter in an upcoming anthology called Baby Markets, Bartholet cites a domesticadoption-first bias in two huge international children’s rights organizations, UNICEF and the UN. UNICEF’s policy puts international adoption just above institutional care in its list of preferred options for orphaned children, stating that permanent family care in the form of foster care in-country is preferable to out-of-country adoption. A paper on its website proclaims: “Lack of regulation

and oversight, particularly in the countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather than the best interests of children, takes centre stage.”

Efforts to crack down on corruption have made international adoption more difficult. On April 25, the Associated Press leaked a report from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi stating that there was

The Chinese may want to erase any lingering notion, no matter how incorrect, of China as a country that sells kids to white Westerners

a pandemic of baby buying and corruption in the Vietnamese system, citing an example of a mother who couldn’t pay her hospital bills having her baby sold. Vietnam had become a popular alternative to China in the past few years—Angelina Jolie adopted from there in 2007—but suddenly last week, that country announced it will stop accepting adoption applications from the U.S. as ofjuly l. On April 30, Guatemala started a legal review of all pending adoptions after fraud allegations were raised involving fake IDs of birth mothers.

For Bartholet, it’s a dangerous, if wellintended, overzealousness: “In comparable areas, we say: let’s enforce the laws and punish the violators. UNICEF says: let’s stop adoption and punish the children.”

In the new film, Then She Found Me, directed by and starring Fielen Hunt, a 39year-old woman struggles to have a child. In a running joke throughout the film, she’s told by various characters: “Adopt from China! They’re putting them in trash cans there!” It’s a gag that’s sure to incense the adoptive community, which was up in arms earlier this year over a similarly comic line in the film Juno (the pregnant teen protagonist tells a couple who long to adopt: “You shoulda gone to China. You know, ’cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods”).

But perhaps as disheartening as the cavalier quip about the disposability of children is the finale of Then She Found Me: after crisis upon crisis, both reproductive and romantic,

a major character in the film solves her problems by adopting from China. This happily-ever-after is a quaint, retro-model of international adoption.

Jane (not her real name), of Calgary, adopted two daughters from China, in March 2004 and April 2006, an experience she described as ‘very positive.” She and her husband had hoped to adopt a special-needs child from China, but after researching the wait times, and considering the uncertainty surrounding provincial approval for a special-needs adoption, they decided to go the biological route. Jane is now pregnant with a third, an option not available to many PAPs.

Thousands of would-be parents are floundering in a kind of adoption wilderness, waiting for their children. “Adoptive parents are

becoming more militant, more frustrated and angry as things are shutting down around them and their options are narrowing,” says Douglas Chalke of Sunrise. The U.S. ratified the Hague convention last December, which Chalke worries could make it nearly impossible for Canadians to adopt from the U.S. (in 2006, the U.S. was the fourth most popular international adoption country for Canadians after China, Haiti and South Korea). “When parents come to me now and say, ‘Okay, what are my options?’ I honestly don’t know what to tell them anymore,” says Chalke. “We’re going to have a kind of adoption gridlock, where the world of adoption is going to look like Manhattan traffic at 5 o’clock. Anywhere you have children available for adoption, the world is going to descend.”

At Children’s Bridge in Ottawa, staff are counselling prospective parents (with the exceptions of repeat adopters and those who are Chinese-Canadian) away from the China program. They have the resources to do so: Children’s Bridge, like Sunrise, facilitates adoptions with several other countries. It’s the China-only agencies—there are dozens

in Canada—that seem most vulnerable to closure in light of the waning Chinese program. But Chalke sees a grim future for any type of agency facing the changing tides of international adoption: “We might all go out of business.” PAPs, however, may not be hearing the same frank disclosure from their own agencies.

On a popular American website called Chinaadopttalk.com, also known as Rumor Queen, waiting parents—a boisterous, anxious group—trade information on their LIDs (the log-in dates, when the files go to China)

and referrals (when a family is finally matched with a child), using the information to piece together a baby arrival date. Many complain on message boards of agencies that are less than forthcoming: “The number of agencies that are saying that the current wait is under two years is criminal,” writes

one poster. Writes another: “AGENCIES ARE STILL NOT BEING HONEST ABOUT WAIT TIMES!!! I have spoken with two people recently who want to start a China [non-special-needs] adoption, and among several agencies that they are researching (all of whom are big, well-known, respected agencies), they all indicate a wait of 2Vi to three years! It seems agencies are sticking to that three-year story. It makes me SICK!!!! I’m especially sick of agencies that say that the wait will get longer but then will come back down... I hate that agencies are giving families false hope... and taking their money while they do it.”

But many of these same parents who complain anonymously are loath to come forward; they are extremely protective of China and the program, going so far as to slap down anyone who names a problematic agency online. The online world of international adoption is saturated with babyfriendly cuteness; lots of emoticons and signatures like “Ella’s mom heart heart,” and mentions of “ladybugs” as good luck harbingers. Brian Stuy, with his investigations of baby buying and prodomestic adoption stance, is Enemy No. 1. An adversarial anonymous poster chastises him: “Criticizing the country from which your children are adopted is not the most intelligent approach. It also puts future adoptions in jeopardy for those of us waiting.”

When I posted on Rumor Queen, asking if anyone wanted to share their experiences, my name, and that ofMaclean’s, were dragged through the mud, with several posters pleading to Canadian parents not to respond because the CCAA would read the article and shut down the program.

“I think of them as battered women,” says Stephanie Hodnett. “Most of them have been through so much to get to the point of adoption, years of infertility treatments, all the social stigma of adoption. And then the process itself is so awful. They’ve internalized it to such a degree that they feel like they deserve to be treated badly.”

The emotional tenor

of the international adoptive process is intense, from beginning to end. Canada may be in the midst of a widely reported population crisis, but provincial gov-

ernments are doing little to make international adoption an appealing solution. The rules for adopting vary wildly from province to province, and the barriers are many. As of January, Ontario introduced PRIDE, a mandatory training program for prospective parents. In Ontario, the 27 hours costs more than $625 for one person and $1,200 for a couple. Anyone who wants to adopt internationally will have to complete the program. (Domestic adoptions through Children’s Aid do not have a fee.)

Along with PRIDE, prospective adopters will have to contact an adoption practitioner, a social worker who completes a “home study.” The process can take several months and is priced by the social worker, with the average being $2,000 to $3,000. Hodnett and Sims could find only one practitioner in their area who was available, and they waited a month to begin the process in 2005. They remember the roughly half-dozen threeto four-hour meetings as “humiliating,” filled with ques-

tions about their sex lives and seemingly random pieces of trivia from their pasts, like why did Stephanie’s father change jobs 30 years ago? Hodnett would cry after every session. Then the social worker vanished and didn’t return their calls. The couple went to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services to complain about the process, and were told to talk to their adoption agency. But their agency told them not to make noise about the home study or they might be denied approval. “You feel held hostage,” says Hodnett. “I could certainly imagine a situation where you could consider the rights of the adopted kid, and also treat the parents with some kind of human dignity.”

The social worker finally surfaced with her completed report, and the file went to the ministry in November 2005 for approval. It languished there for 12 weeks (message boards revealed several other Ontario couples in turmoil over the unexplained delay). Sims and Hodnett learned that the woman in charge

of reviewing files had been in a car accident, and no one had taken over her workload while she recovered for over two months. “Due to China’s slowness, the 12-week delay that Ontario gave to us translated into a delay of over one year in receiving a referral from China,” says Sims. “If Ontario had not delayed us, our dossier would have been sent to China in December 2005 instead ofMarch 2006, and we would, in March 2008, have just returned from China with our adopted child. Life is strange.”

The process became so stressful, in fact, that when the Sims-Hodnett file had been approved and was logged in to China, they decided to try a round of in vitro fertilization, at a cost of $10,000. By then, cottoning on to the increased wait times, the couple didn’t tell their agency when Hodnett became pregnant with twins (Hodnett found out that prospective parents have their adoption process stopped in Ontario if their biological children are younger than 18 months old, a rule established by Ontario, not China). Throughout the pregnancy, they talked about this hypothetical child from China as another arm of their family. A few weeks ago, their twins turned one. As ofMarch, they were still waiting for their baby from China. “I know the agencies have no control over what happens in China, but even when we figured out the waits were delayed, our agency kept telling us no, no, don’t worry, it’s still less than two years,” says Hodnett.

Chris Johnstone-Ardern and her husband, Mark, are a Toronto-based couple who began the process of adopting from China in early 2006. Their file was approved and logged in to China in November 2006, but they quickly learned that the wait they had initially anticipated would take just over a year had grown to three years. They began investigating alternatives, and turned to Ethiopia, losing almost all of the money they had paid their agency. “I would compare pulling out of the China

program to having a miscarriage,” says Johnstone-Ardern. “We felt like we were losing our child. There was a lot of grief.” She and her husband are now legal parents to a wide-eyed one-year-old girl named Hana. They brought her to Canada from Ethiopia last Friday.

For Canadians outside big cities, the international adoption process can be even more frustrating. Last year, Tammy MacKinnon, a 34-year-old mother of three and foster mother of one in Charlottetown, applied to adopt a Waiting Child from China. These kids are not usually severely disabled, but can be older or have minor, often corrective medical needs, like cleft palates, missing limbs or syndactyly (webbed fingers and toes). But P.E.I., which had a narrow interpretation of the Hague convention, told MacKinnon that Islanders couldn’t be matched with a child through an agency because children in the Waiting Child program had to be adopted directly through China. Without a Canadian agency to match them with a child, MacKinnon estimates P.E.I. families would have to wait three to four years rather than six to 12 months to bring home a child.

Joining up with other frustrated parents, MacKinnon formed the Adoption Coalition of P.E.I. and went to the government, asking them to permit families to be matched by agencies. After several meetings, the government agreed to an alternative in January, allowing Waiting Child families to be matched by agencies. “You just feel like there’s a kind of insensitivity,” says MacKinnon. “Our file sat for seven weeks in P.E.I. before it could even get to China. I mean, let’s be honest, they might be processing two files a week. It’s not like she’s got 100 on her desk, right? Why does it take so long?”

Whether Chinese adoption in Canada has reached a crisis point, or just a juncture of deep ambivalence, the picture will look different in the future. There is a way to jump the queue: the Waiting Child program. “We’re going to see more older children adopted, more special needs children, and that’s great news for both the kids and the parents,” says Cathy Murphy of Children’s Bridge, one of the few agencies licensed to handle Waiting Children.

This change to the face of adopted children reinforces the ideological shift at hand; the ideal of borderless global villages, where children can be raised in any kind of loving home, appears to be falling out of fashion, viewed by some as a form of colonialism that predates political correctness. In the States, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) has called interracial adoption a form of “genocide.” But other research suggests that children who remain unadopted and linger indefinitely in foster and institu-

tional care are at risk for unemployment, prison, and a dark future.

Harvard’s Elizabeth Bartholet, who is the adoptive mother of two grown children from Peru, sees the repercussions of this new cultural insularity as dangerous. “What happens to these kids who don’t get adopted out isn’t that they end up in great foster facilities. Many will get left in an orphanage, or end up on the street, very likely dying an early death or having a horrible life. I’m not sure how that’s better than being adopted to a loving foreign

family,” she says. “There’s very little evidence to the racial and national essentialist claim. If we discourage international adoption, we encourage surrogacy, we encourage medical interventions. We’re encouraging white people to reproduce white people. It’s a racial bias.” But Cathy Murphy of Children’s Bridge

Many of the parents who complain anonymously are loath to come forward;

'I think of them as battered women,’ says one observer

points out that 9,000 babies were sent from China last year, and it remains the largest sending country in the world. There is no evidence that the families waiting will never receive their children, but for now, few are joining the queue. Except for those with Chinese heritage, who get expedited, “hardly anyone calls about China anymore,” says Doug Chalke of Sunrise. Murphy advises her clients to look to other alternatives, especially Africa. “For people who want to parent, there are still lots of options. There are still so many children out there who need homes. We just have to let go of the dream of the easy Chinese adoption, and shape a new dream.”

For Hodnett and Sims, their adoption dream took a surprising turn: despite being told a pregnancy without medical intervention was an impossibility, Hodnett found herself pregnant with her third child this spring. After nearly three years, the couple recently cancelled their adoption from China. They are happy about the pregnancy, but there is a sense of loss, too. Says Hodnett: “Of course we wonder what might have been.” M