exposing the dark side of adoption
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High-flying diplomat's China girl

By Jeremy Watson
29 March 2009 / Scotland on Sunday
SHE is a high-flying Scottish diplomat who has the job of promoting the best of Britain in one of the world's most populous and commercially important cities.
As the UK consul-general in Shanghai, Edinburgh-born Carma Elliot is responsible for the nation's relationship with China's ever-expanding business capital.

But Elliot also has a very personal stake in the world's fastest-growing economy. The diplomat has adopted an abandoned Chinese baby girl and now combines the role of single mother with her official duties.

"I got to the stage where I was thinking about my work-life balance and realised that this was something I wanted to do," she says. "Through my professional life I was aware of the social circumstances of these babies.

"So I thought long and hard about it and when I decided to go ahead I was delighted when the Chinese authorities approved the adoption. Then one day I got a call saying my baby was ready for collection. Within a couple of hours I became a mum."

Elliot, 44, has had a textbook career with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) which she joined straight from studying Chinese and German at Leeds University.

As a student, she studied in Shanghai in 1984 and one of her first postings for the FCO was to the Chinese capital, Beijing, shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Postings followed to Brussels, Bonn, Paris, and Madrid before she returned to China and the mid-western city of Chongqing.

Her job there as consul-general – one level down from ambassador – was to look after the interests of British businesses and travellers in the little-known region while helping to build commercial relationships between the two countries.

It was also there that she became aware of the plight of abandoned baby girls.

"It's quite a complex situation," she says. "There is a book called Wanting A Daughter, Needing A Son which sums it up. People may want daughters but they feel they need a son to look after them as they get older. In places where there is a one-child policy, some hold out for a son and put the daughter up for adoption.

"Then there are also cultural issues in that being a single parent is very unusual. So babies born during teenage pregnancies are also sent for adoption. The mothers do care what happens to their child so they are usually left outside an orphanage or hospital where they know their babies will be found and looked after."

According to a 2005 estimate, there were up to one million able-bodied and disabled children – most of them girls – living in about 1,000 state-run orphanages in China. Thousands of baby girls continue to be abandoned each year although the one child rule, introduced to curb population explosion, has been relaxed in many provinces.

Many female foetuses are also aborted, which has led to an astonishing population imbalance in China. There are 37 million more men than women, the most unbalanced gender ratio in the world.

In 1996, facing a rising number of abandoned children, the Chinese government established a central authority to oversee the demand for foreign adoptions.

The USA is now the biggest importer of Chinese orphans with around 50,000 being adopted by American parents every year at a cost of around £12,000 per child.

Elliot returned to China and Chongqing, a major regional centre and a city of five million as consul-general in 1999. Fluent in five languages, including Mandarin, she became known as the best-known voice of Britain in China by hosting a weekly phone-in radio show called Let's Talk, reaching millions of Chinese listeners.

Elliot praises the careful method that the Chinese authorities apply to matching up children with prospective parents.

"You do not select a baby, you are matched up with a baby. They ask whether you want a boy or a girl, which age group, and whether you want a child from a particular ethnic group. There are 56 in China," she says.

Elliot will never forget the phone call from the orphanage. "I got a call out of the blue to say 'come and collect your child.' As the orphanage was close to where I was living I just jumped in the car and went off to get her," Elliot says.

That morning was the first time she had physically set eyes on the seven-month-old baby she decided to call Isabel.

"Like any new parent there is a sense of amazement and curiosity about how things will turn out," she says. "Then it was just a matter of getting to know each other and learning about her character."

Elliot has no idea of the exact circumstances in which Isabel, now seven, was abandoned, only that she spent the first months of her life in the orphanage.

"Abandoning a child is illegal so many of the babies arrive with no note or anything that would lead to the identification of the mother."

She is aware that it is unusual for a single woman to take the decision to adopt. "Yes, but you find that when you are a single, working mum in an expatriate community there is both acceptance and a lot of support. I also have a wonderful English nanny, Rebecca, who is like a big sister to Issy and takes good care of her when I am not there.

"I do not know that if there had been another parent in her life her life would have been better. As it is, I am very proud of the way we've done this together."

Elliot was awarded the OBE for diplomatic services in 2003 and after a two-year spell as consul-general in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, between 2004 and 2006, taking baby Isabel with her. Elliot returned to China two years ago and a new position as consul-general in Shanghai. She will remain there until mid-2011.

She was back in Edinburgh last week as part of an FCO delegation making arrangements for a giant trade fair in Shanghai, a city of 21 million people, next year. She is UK Assistant Commissioner General of Shanghai World Expo 2010, an event that will showcase British businesses to China and the rest of the globe.

Although Isabel remained in Shanghai for this trip, she has met her grandfather on an earlier trip to Scotland. "He's very proud that there is now a Chinese member of the Elliot clan," her mother jokes.

"If you were to ask her now she would say she is Scottish because she has a Scottish grandfather," she says.

Her joy is watching her daughter grow and develop characteristics that are alien to her adopted family. "She is very musical," says Elliot. "That must come from her biological parents because we are all tone deaf."

She now realises, she says, what hard work it is being a parent. "But every minute is worth it. I am sure I can provide for her both emotionally and financially, I have the best job in the world and I am lucky enough to be living in China at such a vibrant time as this. Not only that, I have had the privilege of being given the chance to adopt one of their children and hopefully give her a good life."

'Best thing ever'

Veteran West of Scotland MSP Gil Paterson knows all about the abandoned babies of China. He and his partner Sheila adopted a two-year-old girl just over six years ago after struggling to have their own child. Lucy is now eight and doing well at primary school near her Stirlingshire home.

"It was the best thing we ever did," says Gil, right, an SNP list MSP. "She's a very bright child, very happy and a real joy to have around."

On the day that Lucy was born and left in a shop doorway wrapped in a red blanket – January 4, 2001 – Paterson and his wife were enjoying a holiday in California. Their happiness was underpinned, however, by an underlying sadness that they had tried and failed for 11 years to have a child, despite IVF treatment.

"We considered adopting a child in Scotland, but because of our age (Paterson was 60 at the time] we were told we could only adopt an older child. Nothing wrong with that, but we just wanted a child of our own."

Through business contacts, Paterson learned about an alternative: adopting a child from China's overcrowded state orphanages.

The couple applied to the Chinese authorities for an adoption, and on December 18, 2002, they met Lucy for the first time. Days later she flew home with them to Scotland to start her new life.
2009 Mar 29