Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH)
Column: COVER STORY
Author: BENJAMIN MARRISON PLAIN DEALER COLUMBUS BUREAU REPORTER
Dateline: WUHAN, CHINA
Kong Fei is studying a flashcard when the American visitor enters the dimly lit classroom. The Chinese boy snaps his head around to see the man standing in the doorway, and his brown, almond-shaped eyes brighten.
Like the 11 other small children around him, Fei knows wonderful things can happen when a foreigner visits. He knows the only time visitors are allowed inside the Wuhan Foundling Hospital is to take home one of the orphans.
The 4-year-old boy and most of the other children race around the eight tiny wooden tables and chairs and swarm around the stranger. They stare longingly, each hoping the man has come for them.
Aside from his persistence, Fei stands out for another reason: He is one of the few young boys living in the orphanage. Virtually all the orphanage residents are girls.
The visitor asks Li Guang Hui, the gold-hearted woman who runs the orphanage, why Fei is here. As the interpreter repeats the question, Li pulls the boy in front of her and drops to one knee. She quickly unties and removes his left shoe, pulls off his black sock and lifts his pant leg, exposing a 4-inch scar across his ankle.
"When he was abandoned," Li says, "his foot was not right." She twists Fei's foot to show how it was turned in. The scar, she explains, is from surgery performed at the orphanage hospital. Now the boy's limp is almost unnoticeable.
Still, Fei is as unwanted today as the day his parents abandoned him.
Fei is one of an estimated 1 million children living in orphanages in this massive yet impoverished country. In China, where families are permitted only one child by government order, parents want perfection.
As a result, boys and girls with birth defects are discarded. And, because property can be handed down only to a son, healthy girls are abandoned regularly. The lucky ones are found and end up in orphanages.
For years, those abandoned children lived in the orphanages until they were old enough to work there, get a job in a mill, or become prostitutes.
But in the last few years, China has opened the doors of its orphanages to outsiders, and scores of children are being adopted around the world and in Ohio.
"China is the hottest country right now for adoptions because there's all these beautiful baby girls there and because they're fairly flexible with their requirements," says Debra Smith, director of the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse in Rockville, Md.
"There has been a very steady increase in the adoptions from China since the country realized there was a demand for these babies and opened its doors," Smith adds.
According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 28 Chinese children were adopted by U.S. citizens in 1990. By 1992, the number had climbed to 201. And by 1994, it had jumped to 748. This year, adoption agencies nationwide fly to Asia every few weeks to bring back six babies or more.
"We had a total of two between 1991 and 1993," says Margaret Cole, executive director of European Adoption Consultants in North Royalton. "In the last six months, we've had 38. That's a pretty good program."
And a pretty strong demand.
The demand comes from a variety of reasons.
For Eileen and Bob Groh, it was years of unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child.
"We tried fertility drugs and all that," Bob says, "but finally we got to the point where we said, `We can keep spending money on this and hope one day we'll have a child, or we can spend the money on a child that's already alive and kicking - and we can help the world by taking a child that's already here and needs a family.'
When the University Heights couple decided to adopt, they had no idea they would end up in the Orient. But, as they were making their decision to adopt, Baby Jessica was making news.
Jessica was born to Cara Clausen, an unmarried woman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Feb. 8, 1991. Clausen named the wrong father and Jessica was given up for adoption to Jan and Roberta DeBoer of Ann Arbor, Mich. A few weeks later, Clausen told Jessica's real father, Dan Schmidt. The couple, who married in 1992, immediately went to court to retrieve Jessica. The DeBoers fought back, but after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their plea, they surrendered 2-year-old Jessica in the summer of 1993.
"Over and over again, people are telling us they don't want to adopt domestically because of the Baby Jessica idea," says Cole. "They know if they go overseas they won't have to worry about the birth mom coming back after the child. People who could adopt here are choosing to go with international adoptions because they don't want to be that one out of 40,000 or 50,000 to be a Baby Jessica."
It was on Eileen Groh's mind.
"I just couldn't imagine that happening," says the 43-year-old registered nurse at the Cleveland Clinic. "The more we saw about those kinds of things happening on TV and in the news, I didn't want any part of it. There was no way we could deal with that."
On the advice of friends who had adopted, the Grohs visited European Adoption Consultants. There they saw a picture of an 18-month-old Chinese girl, "and she just stole our hearts," Bob says. "We just had to go that route."
Mark and Elizabeth Kacirek had already traveled the route, but for a different reason.
Both had children from previous marriages, but none together. But with Elizabeth approaching 50 and Mark at 44, they did not feel natural childbirth was an option.
"With our ages, childbirth was a little risky, so adoption was the best way to go," says Mark from his North Olmsted funeral home. "But to adopt here in the U.S., it was virtually impossible because of our ages.
"When we started checking out different countries and what would be best, everything led us to China," Mark continues. "And we ended up in China."
So did Peter Gerhart, dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, and Ann Tarbutton, a lawyer, of Shaker Heights.
"We wanted to complete our family," explains Gerhart. "Since our oldest son has been out of the house, we only had two at home. Plus, we thought that every little girl should have a little sister."
The couple felt the same way when they gave their eldest daughter a sister - a little girl they adopted from Korea.
"We had such a great experience with Margaret that as soon as she was absorbed into the family, we began thinking of adopting again," Gerhart says.
The couple had one requirement: The child had to be Asian.
"Our daughter Margaret felt like the odd man out," Tarbutton explains. "Everyone else looks like us. We thought Margaret needed somebody that looked like her. It was too difficult to get another Korean child, and China just seemed right."
Not only is China proving to be the right place for an increasing number of adoptive parents, it also is one of the quickest ways to get a baby - usually faster than a nine-month pregnancy or a U.S. adoption.
"We had been told it could take as little as a year and as long as four years to adopt, to basically get in line and wait until you are chosen by a birth mother," says Karen Lang of suburban Columbus. She and her husband, Victor Pluto, both work for Aetna Insurance Co.
"In my mind, I couldn't help but think, `What if we were successful, and a birth mother chose us, and we go through everything and she changes her mind?' I emotionally did not want to have to deal with that or ever have to worry about that.'
Pluto says he also was uncomfortable with the birth mother having any relationship with the child, "but with an international adoption, there's no risk of that."
The appeal of international adoptions extends beyond a quick turnaround with little risk of a birth mother wanting the child back, adoptive parents say.
"At first it starts out like anybody else wanting a new baby for your family," says Elizabeth Kacirek. "But once you go over there, you realize that it's a humanitarian effort as well."
The idea of saving a life was important for Lang and Pluto, too. "We felt," says Lang, "if we were going to change our lives after being footloose and fancy-free all those years, that we should give a child a home that otherwise might not even survive."
Unfortunately, Lang is not being dramatic.
According to some studies, half the children who enter orphanages in China do not live. And those that do survive often are malnourished. According to some estimates, the country spends just 20 cents a day per child to care for the million children living in the orphanages.
The Wuhan orphanage is reportedly better than most. Still, the hallways are dim and damp. The wood floors, once painted red, are worn and decaying. Infants and toddlers live in yellow metal cribs that are chipped and rusted. The names of the children are written on scraps of cardboard, and their birth dates, usually an estimate, are scribbled below.
There are not enough nurses to care for the babies snuggled beneath thick blankets. In one room, 16 infant girls are being tended by one young woman. Babies cry for food, and the nurse moves as quickly as she can to feed them. The wide nipples on the bottles let the formula flow rapidly, causing the infants to guzzle instead of suck.
Off in one corner, a baby's cry is muffled by a blanket. When the visitor lifts the quilt, he finds a teary child with Down syndrome. The nurse quickly covers the infant and shows the visitor another baby.
The conditions are similar in all the rooms the visitor sees. However, officials restricted the visitor to a small section of the 400-child facility.
Adoption experts say anyone who believes the conditions at orphanages are because the Chinese do not value young life is misinformed.
"The Chinese people love children," says Barbara Irvin, of Family Adoption Consultants in Macedonia. "They simply adore them."
However, despite China's unmatched economic boom, many of its 1.2 billion people are dirt-poor. Peasants are packed into dark and dank bomb shelters beneath cities, live in straw huts in fields, and wander the streets.
Many people shop at street markets, buying meat that is unprotected from the humid air and disease-toting insects. Outside the Wuhan orphanage, people walk through the runoff of a 4-foot mountain of garbage to get to the produce, meat and fish stands. Some of the food lies atop blankets spread across the sidewalks and alleys.
Further evidence of substandard conditions can be found inside the Shanghai Hospital, said to be one of China's best.
In one hallway, cigarette butts are strewn about, a puddle of vomit covers the middle of the floor, and a wastebasket overflows with bloody gauze and medical supplies. That day, people were having their blood drawn by sticking their arms through a slot in the wall - all sharing the same needle.
"It's hard to judge such a completely different culture from ours," says Pluto. He and his wife are among the few parents fortunate enough to see the orphanage where their child spent her first few months.
"It wasn't as clean as I thought it would be," recalls Lang. "The room was filled with cribs, and the babies were two to a crib, all lying on bamboo mats. The babies were not clean by our standards; it was rundown but not dilapidated. It had a courtyard and chickens were running in and out of the courtyard.
"One of the highlights for us was when they took us back to another courtyard in the back part of the orphanage to a small room, because they wanted to show us the new arrivals. We thought we were going to see one addition, but there were five. They were lying there on one bed, all lined up.
"It's a very sad situation."
Few adoptive parents have been to China before making the two-day flight to get their child, and therefore do not really know what to expect. They are escorted by David Hughes, Chinese coordinator for European Adoption Consultants. Once they arrive, events happen quickly.
"As soon as they get there, they give them the baby," says Cole. "We make sure everything is OK and is as they expect it. The parents are learning in a real quick fashion how to get to sleep in the hotel, how to get the baby to sleep, what kind of bottle they need. Usually, there's a lot of feeding problems. By the second night, they're learning to adjust. On the second night, Dave's not getting phone calls every hour on the hour."
Gerhart and his 21-year-old son, Matthew, retrieved 8-month-old Grace in August 1994. Gerhart remembers the delivery of the child as an unceremonious event, but one with everlasting memories.
After checking into his hotel, an exhausted Gerhart hopped into the shower. "When I got out," he says, "there was a knock on the door and they said, `Would you like to meet your daughter?' She was right there in the hall.
"They put her in my arms and, what can I say, it was a great thrill. She looked a little frightened and uncertain, but she really didn't cry. She just looked at the people."
Lang met her daughter in a hotel room, too.
Nannies from the orphanage delivered the six babies to the parents.
"It's still hard to describe the feeling you have," Lang says tearfully. "First you go through all the paperwork, you fly to a foreign country, you know it's going to happen, but you don't know what to expect.
"For me," Lang continues, "the minute they handed her to me she wasn't Chinese, she wasn't adopted, she was my baby."
The nannies had tucked a red envelope containing a Chinese dollar in the outfit Madeline was wearing.
"It was for luck for the first year," Lang explains.
The memories of the children left behind and the thought of mothers being forced into giving up their babies makes the adoptions bittersweet for the parents.
"I think a lot about the mother who had to give her up," says Tarbutton. "I only hope we can be worthy to raise her as her mother would have wished."
Tarbutton and the other parents say they will try to explain to their adopted children why they were abandoned. Some can tell their children where they were found, but nothing more.
Li, director of the Wuhan orphanage, says the mothers always leave their children where they know they will be found. Some are left on the roads into the orphanages. Others are left at bus stations.
"We were told [Grace] was left in the market, right before the market opened," Gerhart says. "If that's a true story, this is a child that was abandoned to be found. This was not a child abandoned to die."
The Grohs were told that their daughter, Remy, was abandoned on the road near the orphanage in Nanchang.
Madeline Pluto "was found in a paper box on the steps of a town official," says her mother.
And Kalli Kacirek was found in a steel mill.
"The more time goes by, the more curious and emotional I get about it," says Elizabeth Kacirek. "I think of her mother, and what she must think.
"On Kalli's birthday, I did wonder about that little lady. I hope she's all right, I really do because she's given us such a wonderful thing.
"It's really sad, because they don't choose to do this. It's not the people, it's not any one person, it's not one government official. It's the way their life is. I feel so sad that they have to do that. I keep wondering, do they think we're taking their children away. Do they hate us? Or do they appreciate it?"
So how will Kacirek explain it to her daughter?
"I don't know," she admits. "I wonder that myself. I've always thought you answer each question as it comes up and the big ones take care of themselves.
"I want Kalli to know her birth mother loved her. We don't want her to ever think she was thrown away. I want her to know the condition of life over there and why things are the way they are.
"I'll tell her her mother knew she would have a better life somewhere else. We love her mother and bless her every day. She gave us the greatest gift anyone can ever ask for," she adds.
But these gifts do not come cheaply.
"I suspect the total cost was more than $15,000," estimates Gerhart of the adoption of his daughter, Grace.
"We spent around $20,000," says Elizabeth Kacirek of her adoption of Kalli.
With so many American families wanting children and China overflowing with orphans, why does it cost so much?
Many people just venturing into the adoption world are shocked to learn of the expense, says Smith, of the adoption information clearinghouse.
"You are paying the orphanage their expenses for maintaining the child, the authentication of documents, travel, lawyers and a lot of this and that," Smith explains. "Besides, you're paying salaries of social workers and caretakers and all kinds of different things.
Domestic adoptions, on the other hand, have different costs, such as providing medical care to the pregnant woman and counseling services to the pregnant woman and adoptive family.
"In this country, many pregnant women think they're going to place their child for adoption and change their minds. Because of that, adoptive parents pay extra for all those mothers who changed their minds because the adoption agency needs to make up the money," Smith adds.
Cole, who runs the European Adoption agency, won't discuss fees, saying officials in the Chinese government get upset when they read those figures.
Irvin, of Family Adoption Consultants, agrees that talking about the money involved angers officials in China.
"You're not coming there to abscond with a child, but because you have a commitment to helping children in need," Irvin says. "You're not paying for a child, you're paying for services for people here and abroad and giving some assistance to the country in which the child was born to help other children."
Kacirek, along with Rebecca Clarahan, Carol Pruitt and Barbara Courtland, all adoptive mothers from Greater Cleveland, are trying to create a nonprofit agency that can help others overcome the expense hurdle.
The four families also have formed a play group so their children will be around other Chinese children.
"We didn't want the children to grow up without seeing other Chinese children," Kacirek says. "I want her to be proud of where she came from."
Karen Lang plans to use a Chinese school affiliated with Ohio State University to help teach China's culture to her daughter.
Ann Tarbutton and some friends who have adopted Chinese babies are setting up their own classes to teach the children the Chinese culture. "There are so many people adopting from China that having a Chinese baby isn't uncommon now," she says.
Adoptive Families Support Association has the same mission as Kacirek, Lang and Tarbutton, but on a much grander scale.
The 130-family Cleveland organization was created in 1972 at the time of the Vietnam orphan airlift. Then, it was known as Project Orphans Abroad, says Karen Seavers, a board member. The adopted children are from places like Vietnam, Korea, India, Eastern Europe and China.
Parents and children see different presentations each month. Toddlers do arts and crafts. Middle-school children might learn about music and crafts from a country, and the older children might talk about sensitive adoption issues, Seavers says.
The older children, she explains, "are sensitive to the fact they are culturally different than their parents. They ask about how they should answer when people ask, `Where are your real parents?' My kids tell them, `They're at home.' But it's very difficult.'
Other times, Seavers says, the children wonder if they have birth brothers or sisters, what their birth parents are like. "With this group, they can see that they're not alone in thinking this," she says.
Aside from the informational aspect, Seavers says, the association provides something much more valuable: "It gives us the chance to get together once a month so people can be with families that look like theirs. It's important for kids, particularly the older ones, to see other families like theirs. They come home to parents who don't look like them."
In addition to learning the culture, Kacirek, Clarahan and Pruitt plan to learn the Chinese language.
"We thought it would help us connect with the Chinese people," Clarahan explains. "My husband, Mike, and I want to be able to teach Molly a little bit of Chinese down the road."
Molly is 21 months old, and came from the Wuhan orphanage.
Clarahan and other adoptive parents want to take their children back to China to experience the culture firsthand.
"I want her to see her country. I want her to see where she came from. I want her to see her people, and we want to see it with her. I don't want anything to be a mystery to her."
When the Kacireks return with their daughter, it will undoubtedly trigger memories.
"The saddest moment for me was when we left Nanchang," Elizabeth Kacirek remembers. "Nanchang never seems to be a very sunny place. It's always cloudy, almost polluted looking. And the airport looks like it came right out of World War II.
"I remember walking out on the tarmac and thinking about leaving this town where this child came from that had instantly changed our lives. I remember sitting in the airplane, looking out this dirty little airplane window and starting to cry.
"I cried because we left so many other little girls there," Kacirek says. "I kept thinking, `We'll be back.'
Kacirek and other parents say not a day passes that they are not reminded of the world their children came from. They wonder if they would have survived and if they ever would have been adopted. And they think of the babies that remain.
PHOTO 1 BY BENJAMIN MARRISON Kong Fei holds a box of flashcards in his classroom, where he and other orphans learn Chinese and English. Fei was abandoned because his left foot was turned in. Despite corrective surgery, the 4-year-old does not have a family of his own. PHOTO 2 BY ANDREW CIFRANIC / PLAIN DEALER PHOTOGRAPHER Mark and Elizabeth Kacirek adopted Kalli in China. Kalli was found abandoned in a steel mill. PHOTO 3 BY TERRY WILLIAM HARRIS / PLAIN DEALER PHOTOGRAPHER Four families who have adopted Chinese girls have formed a play group. Molly Clarahan, daughter of Mike and Rebecca, searches for toys at the Kacireks' home. In the center background is Chloe Louise Pruitt, daughter of Carol and Gary, and Elizabeth Kacirek with daughter Kalli. PHOTO 4 BY TERRY WILLIAM HARRIS / PLAIN DEALER PHOTOGRAPHER Eileen and Bob Groh hold daughter Remy, who was abandoned near the orphanage in Nanchang. PHOTO 5 BY BENJAMIN MARRISON Peng Xiu Mei is awakened by a nurse as she sleeps in a crescent-shaped chair. Nurses place youngsters in the wooden chairs to keep those able to crawl from scrambling about the enormous orphanage. PHOTO 6 BY BENJAMIN MARRISON Nurses watch over infants in this dark nursery inside the Wuhan Foundling Hospital. The room is typical of the orphanage's nurseries, where babies receive minimal care and attention. PHOTO 7 BY BENJAMIN MARRISON A nurse feeds one of 16 infants in her care, too hurried to lift the baby out of its metal crib before giving it the bottle. In the nurse's right hand are bottles for babies she has yet to feed. PHOTO 8 BY BENJAMIN MARRISON Orphans gaze at flashcards showing different plants, such as cotton and carrots. The words are in both Chinese and English. PHOTO 9 BY BENJAMIN MARRISON A man shops at the outdoor market in the alley leading to the Wuhan orphanage. The meat hangs outside all day, unprotected from disease-carrying insects and the dirt that is thrown up by passing cars and bicycles. Nearby, produce is spread on blankets on the ground. COVER PHOTO BY BENJAMIN MARRISON / PLAIN DEALER REPORTER Bao Lu, a 1-year-old girl at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital.