Trafficking reports raise heart-wrenching questions for adoptive parents

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."

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Part of the problem, not part of the solution

For a couple of years, PPL has been featuring child trafficking cases, as seen through the international adoption lens.  Over and over, two themes seem to present themselves.  First, adoptive parents with children who have been trafficked are not willing to relinquish their stolen children;  sure, they may agree to "visits" but they are not willing to reverse a so-called legal adoption ruling.  Second, those working for adoption agencies are not punished severely enough. [See what happened to Scott and Karen Banks, and the victims touched by international adoption.] The message received by many is this:  making money through adoption is not a crime, especially if the adopted child gets placed in a great new home.  Problem with this mentality is, many adoptees are being abused within their new great adoptive homes, but this information doesn't get a fraction of the media attention given to happy-go-lucky adoption stories.

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."

Adoptive parents should not only be unsettled, they should be mad as hell when they learn what is being done to parents and children, just so an adoption can be processed and made final.  As long as AP's continue to deny their role in child trafficking, abductions, and kidnapping, the more people working the industry will continue to deliver the goods, knowing damn well there are many in this world willing to pay any amount of money, just to have a much-wanted child.

In other words, an AP must recognize his/her role in corrupt practices within adoption services:  if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Mad as hell

Some APs have been mad as hell and try very hard to do what can be done. It was an AP that initially stepped out of her safety zone to shed light on the family planning confiscations. It is an AP that owns all of the finding ads and shares the info with the world and it was an AP who said enough is enough and pleaded with her country to stop adoptions from this unsafe program.

What many do not see here is that although Jane Liedtke portrays APs as all self-serving and would have "adopted anyway" nonsense, Jane runs a group and professes to be an expert who has guided concerned PAPs and APs away from asking questions or exposing evidence of child trafficking. Jane herself is a "trafficker" that facilitates adoptions from China's NSN and SN program as well as making a comfortable living off the industry that she does not want to see end and has worked overtime in doing damage control over the years.

Having an AP send a child back that was purchased from parents in China will not be the cure all to this sick twisted adoption industry and sadly it won't be the magical fix for the adopted child either. Some issues just can't be corrected so simply.

Yes, APs are guilty for feeding a corrupt program but the blame also falls on the shoulders of those that block efforts to prevent future abuse and whom rely on the income generated from child trafficking.

The open market on children needs to stop and between the adoptees and APs that do care, there must be hope to hold onto.

All that being said, the victims within China do deserve their rights restored and if a child has been trafficked from them, they do deserve to have equal legal rights as those in the West. If a child has been stolen and placed for adoption, the law must work in the best interest for the child and no -- money just can't be that determining factor!

This is what makes me mad as hell. The international laws are not protecting and many victims have been created through trafficking (APs as well). No "poor me" coming from this end, just a realistic view that the only real winners are the industry people (and Jane Liedtke is sure one of them).

Full agreement

Some APs have been mad as hell and try very hard to do what can be done. It was an AP that initially stepped out of her safety zone to shed light on the family planning confiscations. It is an AP that owns all of the finding ads and shares the info with the world and it was an AP who said enough is enough and pleaded with her country to stop adoptions from this unsafe program.

It's also angry adoptees who have taken it upon themselves to expose what takes place post-placement, proving all in adoption-land is NOT as the industry would like to keep pitching and selling it.  [I know from my own personal experience, since we started PPL's case-pages, AP's have been an enormous source of support, encouragement, and information.  I won't lie... this interest and assistance came as a real pleasant, shocking surprise to me!]

Unfortunately, few government leaders/representatives could be bothered with many of the issues that could help initiate real radical child placement reform.  [Seems many groups and representatives prefer to focus on and dabble in the OBC debate than muck up their boots with hard-core corruption issues.] 

The open market on children needs to stop and between the adoptees and APs that do care, there must be hope to hold onto.

I fully agree, however I personally would like to see more concerned first-parent involvement, too.  After all, there are many first-parents losing children to adoption, against their wishes, and their voices and concerns need to be represented, too.  The way I see it, if adoption is a triad-experience, then all sides should be voicing their concerns and fighting for what's best and safest for children removed from parents and put into care.

As far as holding onto hope is concerned, those who know me well know I'm not the most optimistic person in this world.  I have been given many reasons to believe most people are the same, and few people care about things that really matter to me.  I have grown to accept my "pessimistic optimist" personality, and choose to march to my own drummer and beat, knowing many will keep a safe distance from me.  Every once in a while, however, passion and dare I say profound hope gets triggered in me, and it's usually triggered not by big news or events, but by odd little things.  Several years ago, before we launched the case-pages within PPL, an abused adoptee told me it was futile to fight for change and appeal for public/government interest.  Although I gave no verbal/written reply, my inner response was this:

 "Maybe people don't know what was done to us, and maybe people really don't care.  So, yes, maybe it's far too late for our generation, and expecting change is stupid.  Maybe we, the adult orphans, will never get the help or support we need during our lifetime, and maybe we will die knowing we were little more than human social experiments gone terribly awry and wrong.  But what about children being placed in care, today?  What about them?!? What if all that was done to us, it still being done to them? Am I to believe no one really cares?  Am I to believe if I help expose what's being done post-placement, people really won't care?!?  What a horrible horrible world this would be if people knew what was happening, and didn't do a damn thing!"

I have to believe people, who genuinely care about the lives of others, can make a significant difference.

I have to believe positive change is possible, otherwise I fear I will die thinking the absolute worst of people.... and that's no way to live.

It's my belief we are still far from being where we need to be in terms of seeing/achieving positive, effective child placement reform.  At this point, what's still needed is more opened eyes... eyes that see the adoption industry is, and always has been, a system that thrives on lies, half-truths, and divided arguing sides.

Awareness + unity = hope

Kerry, the angry adoptees that have been so easily ignored are indeed the same people that have continued to raise awareness and help others understand the real aspects of the adoption industry and the failed systems/laws. PPL is the most comprehensive fact-based site representing important details of what's not working and what possibly could work.

I also hope we can hear more from the (first) parents but one large hurdle is that the criminals attack the vulnerable and often voiceless in society. It's no mistake that it is the impoverished or migrant workers that lose their children in China or across the world. Many of the parents are removed from legal systems that protect them, many are not able to navigate a legal system and most can't afford to. The risk on their safety and the safety of their family is also high if they speak out.
This is another way in which adoptees and adoptive parents can work together towards change. If we use the resources and connections or skills we have to empower others then hopefully the message will become clear that no longer can the industry get away with the abuse they have in the past.
Based on the number of bankrupt agencies lately, business can't be going as good as it's been in the past and if we continue to keep our weapons aimed at them, maybe the message will finally be heard that WE are not giving up!
'WE' as in us together because having the APs that hold the paperwork right now filled with lies and the adoptees that have the insight to spot the lies and know the enemy best, is the most dangerous threat to this industry.

I am also known to be quite the pessimist, however I'm learning that things do sometimes work out, especially when truth is on our side!

Part of the solution

I don't disagree with the two themes you've presented, Kerry, though I would like to expand a little...

I'm happy to debate the issue of relinquishing stolen children and reversing a "legal" adoption of stolen children. I can only speak with authority on my own case, as it is the one where I know the facts. We uncovered the evidence of trafficking 8 years after the children had been in our care.  They were by then 13 and 12 years old. Nobody in our case (teenagers, their first mother or our family members) wants our son and daughter returned. Given that, there was nothing to be gained by reversing the legal situation of our children. If we had made an application to overturn their adoption orders, how would they (or anyone) have benefitted? It may well have negatively affected their citizenship and other entitlements, if they remained in Australia but were the children of nobody.

The few families I know of, where trafficking was uncovered, are in a similar position to us - with too many years gone by to restore the children to their first homes. So, we do the best we can with a really shitty situation...

I am in total agreement with you about the agencies involved not receiving adequate punishments (if at all!)  I will try to post a recent national newspaper article about our family's endeavours on this front. We have hit brick walls wherever we've turned but will keep on trying. The authorities in both sending and receiving countries need to understand that some adoptive parents will not allow themselves to be silenced when their children have been trafficked. We will continue to push for an investigation because of the lack of interest in discovering what happened, let alone punishing anyone, and because it is the right thing to do. I am still as mad as hell that we were sucked into this filthy world of trafficking.

Exodus 21:16

A kidnaper, whether he sells his victim or still has him when caught, shall be put to death.

remove the incentive

Unfortunately killing child traffickers is not going to solve the issue, even though I appreciate the sentiment. The only thing that is known to work is remove the incentive. In various countries in Latin America child trafficking for intercountry adoption was rampant throughout the 80's and 90's. Changing adoption laws helped, and most Latin American countries now have low numbers of inter-country adoption, which makes trafficking not a lucrative business. Unless countries implement laws that keep numbers low, there will always be an incentive to traffick children, no matter how severe the punishment.

Kill the incentive $$$$$

Since fees for International Adoption are not regulated or standardized--it would be great to force the agencies to all use the SAME fee schedules/price lists. Everyone would have to play by the same rules and clients(PAPS) wouldn't hunt around for the agency that will get them a fast referral if they pay more.
Indeed, take the incentive out of it and you will see more agencies closing.
It is harder and harder for these unethical agencies to play in human trafficking.
If more cases were brought forward and more Agency Directors had to SERVE TIME in prison instead of fines - slap on the wrist (The Banks) you will see more Agencies coil back under their rocks.

Remembering Arlene, Heidy and Anyeli

Because I now understand the potential power of repetition.... I'd like to take a moment to remember the three stolen and adopted daughters from Guatemala: Arlene (daughter of Olga Lopez now believed to be living in Illinois), Anyeli (AKA Karen Abigail/Dulce Maria, daughter of Lodya Rodriguez now believed to be living in Missouri), and Heidy (daughter of Raquel Par, now believed to be living in Iowa), who are still lacking "mainstream" press despite being clear examples of kidnapping for adoption. Thank you, PPL for continuing to document and report these cases and bringing desperately needed exposure to these crimes.

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