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In China, dark side of adoption exposed

Parents speak out on coercion, theft of babies for profit

By Barbara Demick
Los Angeles Times / September 27, 2009

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TIANXI, China - The man from family planning regularly prowled around the mountaintop village, looking for diapers on clotheslines and listening for the cry of a hungry newborn. One day in spring 2004, he presented himself at Yang Shuiying’s doorstep and commanded: “Bring out the baby.’’

Yang wept and argued, but, alone with her 4-month-old daughter, she was in no position to resist the man every parent in Tianxi feared.

“I’m going to sell the baby for foreign adoption. I can get a lot of money for her,’’ he told the sobbing mother as he drove her with the baby to an orphanage in Zhenyuan, a nearby city in the southern province of Guizhou. In return, he promised that the family wouldn’t have to pay fines for violating China’s one-child policy.

Then he warned her: “Don’t tell anyone about it.’’

For five years, she kept the terrible secret. “I didn’t understand that they didn’t have the right to take our babies,’’ she said.

Since the early 1990s, some 80,000 Chinese children have been adopted abroad, the majority going to US families.

The conventional wisdom has been that the babies, mostly girls, were abandoned by their parents because of the preference for boys and China’s restrictions on family size. No doubt that was the case for tens of thousands.

But some parents are coming forward to tell harrowing stories of babies taken by coercion, fraud, or kidnapping - sometimes by government officials who covered their tracks by pretending the babies were abandoned.

Parents who say their children were taken complain that officials were motivated by the $3,000 per child that adoptive parents pay orphanages.

“Our children were exported abroad like they were factory products,’’ said Yang Libing, a migrant worker from Hunan province whose daughter was seized in 2005. He has since learned that she is in the United States.

Doubts about how babies are procured for adoption in China have begun to ripple through the international adoption community.

“In the beginning, I think, adoption from China was a very good thing, because there were so many abandoned girls. But then it became a supply-and-demand-driven market, and a lot of people at the local level were making too much money,’’ said Ina Hut, who last month resigned as head of the largest adoption agency in the Netherlands because of concerns about baby trafficking.

The Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs, the government agency that oversees foreign and domestic adoption, rejected repeated requests for comment. Officials previously said that they believe abuses are limited to a small number of babies and that those responsible have been removed and punished.

For adoptive parents, the possibility that their children were forcibly taken from their birth parents is terrifying.

“When we adopted in 2006, we were fed the same stories, that there were millions of unwanted girls in China, that they would be left on the street to die if we didn’t help,’’ said Cathy Wagner, an adoptive mother from Nova Scotia. “I love my daughter, but if I had any idea my money would cause her to be taken away from another mother who loved her, I never would have adopted.’’

The problem is rooted in China’s population controls, which limit most families to one child, two if they live in the countryside and the first is a girl. Each town has a family planning office, usually staffed by Communist Party cadres who have broad powers to order abortions and sterilizations. People who have additional babies can be fined up to six times their annual income - fines euphemistically called “social service expenditures.’’

“The family planning people are more powerful than the Ministry of Public Security,’’ said Yang Zhizhu, a legal scholar in Beijing.

Throughout the countryside, red banners exhort, “Give birth to fewer babies, plant more trees,’’ and, more ominously, “If you give birth to extra children, your family will be ruined.’’

But the law does not give officials permission to take babies from their parents. Some families said beatings and threats were used to force them into giving up their daughters. Others said they were tricked into signing away their parental rights.

“They grabbed the baby and dragged me out of the house. I was screaming,’’ said Liu Suzhen, a frail woman from Hunan Province. She was baby-sitting her 4-month-old granddaughter one night in March 2003 when a dozen officials stormed her house. She said they took her and the baby to a family planning office, where a man grabbed her arm and pressed her thumbprint onto a document she couldn’t read.

Once a child is taken to an orphanage, parents can lose all rights. “They wouldn’t even let me in the door,’’ said Zhou Changqi, a construction worker whose baby daughter was taken in 2002 by family planning officials in Guiyang. Zhou tried repeatedly over three years to get into the Changsha Social Welfare Institute, one of the major orphanages sending babies abroad, until one day he was told:

“It’s too late. Your daughter has already gone to America.’’