Do Orphanages Really Want to Find Birth Parents?

June 25, 2008


Like most adoptive families, I have always assumed that the orphanage directors and staff were looking out for the best interests of the children in their facilities. I assumed that efforts were made to locate birth families. In fact, in each of my daughters' certificate of abandonments it states that "we searched for her birth parents, but were unsuccessful."

But several recent cases show that this is often not the case. These events show that rather than welcome the retrieval of lost children by their birth families, orphanages sometimes fight birth parents to keep the children for international adoption.

In October 2006 I wrote about Yang Li Bing, a rural farmer in Gaoping Village, Hunan. This family would later participate in a Dutch documentary of trafficking. I recounted the story this way:

In March 2006, families in this rural village filed a petition asking for the return of eleven children taken from them by Family Planning officials over the past four years ( One of these families, Yang Li Bing, stated that “his de facto wife gave birth to a girl in July 2004 and even though she was their first child, the county's family planning officers took the infant away on April 29 last year [2005] citing an 'unregistered marriage and an illegal child'."

In an area where the average annual income is about 3,000 yuan, Mr. Yang was told that he could have his daughter back if he paid 8,000 yuan. A few days later, that ransom was increased to 20,000 yuan. Unable to raise that amount of money, Mr Yang lamented that “We are poor people and my relatives were not able to collect so much money in several days.” When he was unable to come up with the cash, a Family Planning official notified Mr. Yang that his daughter had been brought to the Shaoyang orphanage, and that “even if you could offer 1 million yuan,” he could not get his daughter back. He was simply told to “give up hope.”

Of interest to adoptive families is one key fact missing from the media coverage of this story. Yang Li Bing did not learn of his child's abduction by the Family Planning officials until late May 2005. Between his second appeal (told he could retrieve his daughter for 20,000 yuan) and his third appeal an important event occurred: The child's finding ad was published (June 11, 2005). It is clear that once the ad was published, orphanage officials were no longer willing to return his daughter to Yang Li Bing. In fact, they told him his daughter had already been adopted, when in fact she remained in the Shaoyang orphanage for another five months when she was internationally adopted by a family in the U.S.

A similar story occurred in Dianjiang County in Chongqing Province. Xu Shiyun, a teahouse owner, left his business to go to the nearby market. Unknown to him, his two and quarter year old daughter, Xu Tingting, followed after him. Ten minutes later, he returned to learn that his daughter was missing. After a frantic search involving scores of friends and family, Xu Shiyun contacted the police and reported his daughter missing.

The next day, with still no word about his daughter, Xu Shiyun appeared on the local television and pleaded for information about his missing daughter. He gave a description of his daughter, her clothes, physical features, etc. Over the next few weeks, the father posted over 200 fliers around Dianjiang, hoping that someone had found his daughter. One flier was posted at the gate of the Dianjiang County orphanage.

A week later, on July 31, 2003, Xu Shiyun had an inspiration: Perhaps his daughter had been found and brought to the Dianjiang County orphanage, located less than two kilometers from his home. As he approached the orphanage gate, however, his entrance was blocked by the gate-keeper. "We don't adopt two-year-old children," Gatekeeper Lao Daye said, "We only adopt disabled, or young children under 6 months. You should go to the Public Security Bureau to your daughter. "

Feeling rejected but unsure that he was being told the truth, Xu Shuiyun returned the following week (August 8, 2003) and asked if he could look in the babyrooms for his daughter. He was rebuffed. "We can't allow anyone to visit any children's room!"

Two weeks later, Xu Shiyun sent his wife, who was unknown to the orphanage. She claimed that she was interested in having the orphanage foster her young son, and wanted to see the conditions in the orphanage. She was taken to the various babyrooms, and anxiously looked into the face of each child, hoping to see her daughter.

On the fifth floor, she was approached by a caregiver and told to leave. "Get out of here!" the caregiver yelled. "I am here to see how the conditions are like, since I might want to send our child here for fostering." In the midst of the altercation, two-year old Xu Tingting entered from the adjoining room calling "Mama."

Xu Shiyun called the police and after presenting identification and proof that they were the parents of Xu Tingting, he was able to take the girl home. Her legs were scarred from more than 10 cigarette burns.

Xu Tingting, whose orphanage name was "Jiang Xi Shan" had her finding ad placed for international adoption on August 15, 2003, after Xu Shiyun had approached the orphanage, and a week before his wife would finally locate their daughter.

How had Xu Tingting get to the orphanage? Initially, the assistant director indicated she was found at the "gate of the water dike". When pressed for a more exact finding location, the director indicated that the gate keeper had in fact found the girl. Didn't you see the notices posted by the father on the orphanage gate? "No," the director responded, "we didn't know it was the same girl because the notice had no photo." But the notices did have a photo, he was corrected.

After much interrogation by a reporter, the director finally admitted that the child had been brought to the orphanage by an unknown woman. There is little doubt she had been trafficked.

Stories such as this turn traditional assumptions on their head -- "We searched for her birth parents" sometimes means "We prevented the birth parents from retrieving their child." Xu Tingting was fortunate -- her parents craftily entered the Dianjiang orphanage and retrieved their child, although her file was already on the way to the CCAA. Yang Li Bing wasn't as creative, and so his daughter was adopted internationally.


Post Script: Some have questioned whether Xu Tingting was truly trafficked (sold for money) into the Dianjiang orphanage. A follow-up article to the one recounted above details how the trafficker was tracked down and interviewed. She recounted that she had purchased Xu Tingting for 500 yuan from another trafficker. She contacted the Dianjiang orphanage. "The orphanage, a man and several women, they accepted this little girl. They said they would give me 900-1000 yuan payment, but actually only gave me 680 yuan, as a reward for me."


Related material

Written within the same blog, another piece ("What the 'Donation' Really is"), addresses the increasing adoption fees PAP's are now facing:

There is word from China that the fee required by some orphanages to process an international adoption is about to increase from $3,000 to $5,000. I say "some" because a survey of orphanages in Guangdong, Guangxi and Jiangsu shows that the increase is not unanimous, and it is not being dictated by the CCAA. It appears that it is being left up to the individual directors themselves to charge what they feel appropriate. In other words, it is an attempt to get more money from the adoption program.

Prospective families, by and large, have been understanding of this increase. "Things cost more nowadays," one adoptive parents wrote on a popular adoption newsgroup, "and more special needs children are being abandoned so they need the funds more than ever." Another parents wrote "To tell you the truth, the orphanage donation fee was probably one of the only fees I did feel was justified and the least associated with corruption."

It might help to put this increase (and it is being implimented on a "trial-balloon" basis by individual orphanages) into some perspective. The $3,000 "donation" has been part of the adoption program since its inception in 1992, and has not deviated in the following 16 years.

How much is $3,000 in China? With the average director's salary in the neighborhood of $160 per month, a single orphanage donation of $3,000 will pay the director's salary for a year and a half. With the average foster family expense being around $30 to care for a child for one month, one donation fee of $3,000 will care for eight children for a year.

And, lest we forget, the $3,000 orphanage donation was enough money to convince six Hunan directors to purchase trafficked children for $350, only to turn around and adopt them internationally.

Obviously, $3,000 is still a lot of money in China.

But what is wrong with orphanages increasing the fee paid by adopting families? After all, the dollar is way down, and expenses and overhead are increasing. Shouldn't we be a little understanding on this increase?

No. I wrote two years ago about the financial disparity between internationally adopting families and domestic families in China. Due to Western families' ability to pay what in China is a rich-man's fee to adopt, orphanages were actively discriminating against domestic families in order to maximize their cash-flow. As a result, unless a domestic family was able to approximate the contribution made by international families, orphanages were unwilling to adopt a child to them. In fact, 93% of the internationally adopting orphanages were uncooperative when a middle-income domestic family applied to adopt a child. It should be clear to everyone that increasing the adoption fee to $5,000 will do nothing to solve this discrepancy. In fact, one could argue that increasing the donation fee is in violation of the Hague Agreement, which requires a sending country make a priority of placing children domestically.

But the increased fee will have an even darker result. A significant reason for the decline in abandonments across China is the recognition by birth parents that healthy infants have significant worth, and therefore an increasing number of families are arranging their children to be sold to other families or traffickers rather than simply leaving them on the doorstep of the orphanage. Many orphanages, recognizing this supply-demand reality, are entering the marketplace alongside the traffickers, purchasing babies from birth parents or from the traffickers themselves. A fee increase of $2,000 will only add fuel to the baby-buying problem.

At what point will foreign adopters recognize their contributing role in corrupt child trade via baby brokers and child traffickers?

Pound Pup Legacy