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Accounts of Chinese children being kidnapped, bartered and sold to orphanages have many adopters wondering about their children. Some may try to track down the birth parents -- but then what?
By Martha Groves
November 11, 2009 / latimes.com
When television producer Sibyl Gardner adopted a baby girl in China in 2003, the official story was that the infant had been abandoned on the steps of the salt works in the city of Guangchang, where a worker found the day-old child and took her to a social welfare institution.
But after reading with "utter horror" the latest revelations of child trafficking in China in the Los Angeles Times, Gardner found herself contemplating a trip to back to Jiangxi province to investigate how Zoë, now 7, came up for adoption.
"I don't think I could live with myself for the rest of my life thinking that my desire to have a child could have caused tragedy in someone else's family," Gardner said. "I'm going to need answers, and for my daughter's sake as well."
China has long been the most popular source for U.S. parents seeking to adopt from overseas. Since the early 1990s, more than 80,000 Chinese children have been adopted by parents from other countries, the United States leading the way.
In the last five years, U.S. parents have adopted nearly 31,000 children from China. The conventional wisdom has been that the children were abandoned because of China's restrictions on family size and the nation's traditional preference for boys, who serve as a form of social security for parents.
But adoptive parents have been unsettled by reports that many children have been seized through coercion, fraud or kidnapping, sometimes by government officials seeking to remove children from families that have exceeded population-planning limits or to reap a portion of the $3,000 that orphanages receive for each adopted child.
Some adoptive parents "looked the other way" when they heard reports about child trafficking in Hunan province years ago, said Jane Liedtke, founder of Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers programs and tours for families with children from China. Now that trafficking cases have been documented not just in Hunan but also in Guizhou, Guangxi and other provinces, "people say, 'Oh, I didn't know. My agency didn't tell me. If I'd known, I wouldn't have adopted.' "
To that, Liedtke responds: "Oh, yes, you would have. You wanted a child."
Mark Brown said he and his wife, Nicki Genovese, felt sickened by the thought that their daughter might not have been found at the gates of a park and taken by police to an orphanage, as they had been told.
They had just returned to Los Angeles in 2005 after adopting a Chinese foundling in south-central Hunan province when they read the news reports about trafficking. Police had arrested 27 members of a ring that since 2002 had abducted or bought as many as 1,000 children in Guangdong province and sold them to orphanages in Hunan.
"It put everything into question," said Brown, whose family has since moved to New York. "Was she really found? Was she abducted or taken by family services? If she had been taken away from her parents, it is heart-wrenching.
"On one hand, it's horrifying and your stomach is churning. On the other hand, it brings to light something you're trying to block out -- that business there and life there is pretty wild."
As reports have continued to surface, some adoptive parents have become wracked by ethical, legal and moral questions.
"I was shocked but educated" by the most recent revelations, said Judith Marasco, who is on sabbatical in China with her 5-year-old adopted daughter. The fact that some people have been punished, she said, suggests that many more "are getting away with these abominable acts."
"No adoptive parent wants to entertain the thought that our child was the victim of this kind of child trafficking," Marasco said. "But think of the Chinese parents and how much worse this is for them."
China for many years was considered to have one of the world's most dependable international adoption programs.
"When I chose China, it seemed to be a very clean, very legal process, and that was a good deal of what appealed to me," said Peggy Scott, who adopted 16 years ago and is president of Families With Children From China-Northern California, a support group.
Some families on adoption-related e-mail groups have expressed fears that reports of child trafficking will taint all China adoptions, even though agencies and adoption experts say most of the adoptions in China are well regulated and legitimate.
"We shouldn't draw overly broad conclusions from any specific examples," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit group that works to improve adoption policies and practices. Still, he said, "one kid, one birth mother where it's done badly, unethically or for the wrong reasons is one too many."
A U.S. congressional commission that monitors human rights in China said in a 2005 report that "trafficking of women and children in China remains pervasive," with many infants and young children abducted for adoption and household services.
According to an estimate cited in the report, 250,000 women and children were sold in China during 2003.
China has cracked down on many family planning officials and orphanage workers found guilty of trafficking, with some violators sentenced to death or long prison terms, according to Chinese news agencies. Still, Liedtke said the United States has treated China differently from other sending countries. U.S. families, for instance, are not allowed to adopt from Cambodia, Vietnam and Guatemala because of evidence of trafficking or other corruption.
"As a country, we should come out and say the Chinese government has to demonstrate what it's doing to prevent" trafficking, she said. But she added that it would be tragic to close off adoptions from China because "there are still way too many children who need help."
The Canadian government opened an investigation in October after The Times documented numerous cases in which Chinese babies were confiscated from their parents by local government officials and sold for foreign adoption.
And BBC News reported recently that China had rescued 2,008 kidnapped children and had reunited some with their birth parents. The Chinese established a national DNA database this year to help trace missing children.
For Ellen and John Lawler of Echo Park, who traveled to China with Brown and Genovese, the initial trafficking reports came as a shock. They plan to return to Jiangsu province to search for their daughter Jemma's biological parents. They have an advantage: The orphanage director wrote a book with photographs of adoptive families so residents of Gaoyou could see that the children were being cared for.
"He wanted to lay the groundwork for the possibility of birth parents coming forward," Ellen Lawler said.
Meanwhile, with China adoptions now taking several years, the Lawlers are seeking to adopt a second child, this time from Ethiopia, where distressing reports of trafficking have also surfaced.
"I've discussed this with [our] agency, and I've been reassured," Ellen Lawler said. "But I could be accepting it because it's what I want to hear."
Although Gardner, a supervising producer for the "Saving Grace" TV series, doesn't expect to take Zoë back to China for at least a year, she is already considering the complicated logistics. She has an important clue that many parents don't have: photos of the foster mother in China who cared for the child until a couple of weeks before the adoption.
Gardner would probably hire a translator for the trip, since she speaks no Mandarin. She would invite other parents who traveled to China in 2003 with her and her former husband, Gary Stetler, to join forces and make the journey together.
More daunting, she acknowledged, is how an adoptive mother in the United States could "make amends for such a tragic thing," if she learned that her daughter had been bartered.
"I don't have an answer for that," she said. But she is certain of this: "I would want that family to know Zoë and her to know them."