Sold into adoption

Date: 2008-10-25

The Hunan Baby Trafficking Scandal exposes vulnerabilities in Chinese Adoptions of the United States


A. The Story: Babies Sold Into Adoption

On Friday, November 11, 2005, at three o’clock in the afternoon, two women carrying three babies emerged from the Hengyang County train station in the southern Chinese province of Hunan. The women placed the three infants in a black car parked at the station. Chinese law enforcement officers – generally on alert for baby traffickers in China, especially at train stations – intervened. China has a long history of, and continuing problems with, child trafficking. The police were probably not surprised to learn the women were professional baby traffickers; however, they were likely surprised to learn who planned to buy the babies. Sitting inside the car were top officials from a local orphanage and a local senior citizens’ home, Wang Weihong and Zhang Heyun.

Why would an orphanage director buy babies? The answer lies in the large amounts of money donated to orphanages when foreign parents adopt children. As would later come out at trial, the Hengyang Social Welfare Institute had been buying babies from traffickers since 2002. Early on, orphanage officials acted as baby brokers, selling the children to other orphanages that placed the children for international adoption and collected $3,000 per child in mandatory contributions from adoptive parents. In 2004, the Hengyang orphanage obtained permission to participate in China’s intercountry adoption program, at which point it began placing the trafficked children directly with Western adoptive parents and collecting the donations.

Why would the head of the retirement home buy babies? The orphanage director and the senior citizen home director – both county officials – were working together to make money by buying babies for adoption. The Washington Post reported that some orphanage directors have used proceeds from foreign adoptions to build for-profit homes for senior citizens.

Six identified orphanages placed hundreds, perhaps even one thousand, trafficked babies with Western adoptive parents between 2002 and 2005. The profit potential is clear. At $3,000 per baby, even if only one half of the estimated number of children were adopted by foreign families, the orphanages would have collected $1.5 million. Someone made money each time a baby changed hands. The mother of one trafficker said her son was paid $36 for each child he procured. The Hengyang orphanage paid between $400 and $558 a piece for the babies. Hengyang officials then sold the children to participating foreign adoption orphanages for $1,000 each.

The traffickers brought the children from neighboring Guangdong Province, but it is unclear how the traffickers obtained the children. The lawyer of one defendant insisted all the children were abandoned. He claimed a woman in southwestern Guangdong Province, who “was quite well known locally for being warm-hearted and taking care of abandoned babies,” accepted foundlings and arranged with traffickers to transport them to Hengyang. However, when that lawyer’s client, the director of the Hengdong County Social Welfare Institute, was sentenced to a year in prison, the verdict said he “was cognizant of the fact that he had purchased babies that had been abducted.” Also, a local police chief stated: “The suspects said that they were doing good work to save the abducted children from death. However, we found that they paid more to buy children when there was demand.” According to the Washington Post, the Guangdong-based traffickers targeted the children of migrant workers because they thought police would not take such workers’ complaints seriously. The paper reported that “sources familiar with the investigation said many children were abducted.”

Chinese officials arrested 27 suspects in November of 2005. The Hengdong SWI director’s one-year sentence was the lightest. The court sent three of the traffickers to prison for 15 years and fined them each 50,000 yuan (U.S. $6,250). It sentenced another six traffickers to between three and thirteen years. Also, the government fired 23 county officials in Hengyang and prohibited intercountry adoptions from Hunan Province for several months. Shortly after the trial, the Chinese government shut down all media reports on the story.

Many questions remain about the Hunan case, including who the children were, how traffickers obtained them, where they ended up, whether any of them were abducted, and whether birth families are looking for them. The prohibition on reporting about the case means these questions likely will not be answered. Without complete information or open discussion, it is hard to gauge whether or not the Hunan case is an isolated incident. Common sense says it is not. Indeed, since the Hunan trafficking story was reported, media outlets have reported additional instances of baby buying and abduction for adoption in the Chinese intercountry program.

In any case, the trafficking of perhaps one thousand babies from Guangdong to Hunan over three years for intercountry adoption exposes serious vulnerabilities in the process by which thousands of Chinese children immigrate annually to Western Countries through adoption. Neither the receiving countries nor China has made significant changes to the system of intercountryadoption from China since the Hunan scandal. The same incentives to traffic children for intercountry adoption remain. The Hunan case revealed, for the first time, problems that threaten the credibility of what was considered one of the world’s most dependable intercountry adoption programs. The case serves as a warning: trafficking for intercountry adoption happens in China.


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