In March 2011, Rose Candis had the worst lunch of her life. Sitting at a restaurant in Shaoguan, a small city in South China, the American mother tried hard not to vomit while her traveling companion translated what the man they were eating with had just explained: her adopted Chinese daughter Erica had been purchased, and then essentially resold to her for profit. The papers the Chinese orphanage had shown her documenting how her daughter had been abandoned by the side of a road were fakes. The tin of earth the orphanage had given her so that her daughter could always keep a piece of her home with her as she grew up in the U.S. was a fraud, a pile of dirt from the place her daughter's paperwork was forged, not where she was born. Candis had flown thousands of miles to answer her daughter Erica's question -- who are my birth parents? -- but now she was further from the answer than ever.
Almost exactly a year earlier, Liu Liqin had the worst day of his life. He was out on a temporary construction job, looking forward to lunch and his next cigarette break, when his wife called to tell him that their two-year-old son Liu Jingjun was missing. Liu rushed home and began a frantic but fruitless search for the boy. He and his wife called relatives, ran to the local police station to report Jingjun missing, and then fanned out through their city neighborhood calling the boy's name and asking passers-by if they had seen anything. The police told him they couldn't take the case because not enough time had passed since the boy had disappeared. Finally, late in the evening, Liu thought to check the footage from a surveillance camera at a building on the street outside his family's apartment. Sure enough, when the video footage was queued up, in a small corner of the frame, Liu could see a man, face obscured, carrying little Jingjun down the narrow alley where the Liu family lives. I met Liu for the first time in that same alley; he had agreed to become the first subject of a documentary film I was making about kidnapped children in China. "Watching the man in the footage taking him away, I just..." Liu trailed off. "There's really no way to describe that feeling."
"It was touted as the most stable program, the most above-board program," Candis says of the way the agency she worked with. "Certainly they never ever mentioned trafficking."
Rose Candis and Liu Liqin's backgrounds could not be more different, but both parents have spent the past couple of years searching in China for the truth about their children. Both will do almost anything to get at it. And both have been stymied at almost every turn.
Child trafficking and its relationship to adoption in China is a serious problem, but also a deeply opaque one. It is a taboo topic for the Chinese government, which acknowledges the problem exists but also does not make public statistics about the number of children kidnapped or the number of children sold into adoption. Because of the implications for the tens of thousands of families in the United States and elsewhere in the West who have adopted children from China -- Americans alone adopted nearly 3000 Chinese children in 2012 -- the topic is often taboo outside of China's borders, too.
Neither child trafficking nor baby buying in Chinese international adoptions are widely studied. No one can say for certain how many children are kidnapped in China each year, or what percentage of them end up being put up for adoption domestically or internationally. But the problem is a lot more serious than most people know, as I have come to learn over the last few years. In the process of making a documentary film on the subject, my wife and I have spoken to dozens of parents of kidnapped Chinese children, as well as adoptive parents in the U.S., who have come to believe their children were sold into adoption.
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When Candis, an Ohio-based therapist (who asked that I use her pen name to protect the privacy of her daughter), decided to adopt a child, she chose China both because adopting from China can be a bit cheaper than adopting from other countries such as South Korea, and also because she thought the adopted Chinese kids she saw around the U.S. looked cute. "It was touted as the most stable program, the most above-board program," Candis says of the way the agency she worked with advertised its Hague-certified process, developed over 20 years to connect dozens of children with new parents annually. "Certainly they never ever mentioned trafficking."
Adopting a child from any country can feel like an endless process, especially for someone like Candis who at age thirty-six was extremely eager to become a parent. But when adoption day finally came, Candis didn't see anything to raise suspicion. She felt an instant connection to her new daughter, and everyone at the orphanage seemed friendly and warm. It was, quite literally, a dream come true. "They really know how to put on a show," she says. "The [orphanage] director took us to this lovely lunch and he stood up and talked and had tears in his eyes. He did a beautiful job." Candis and her daughter went home ready to start their new life together.
Rose Candis says that at first, things went smoothly -- at least, as smoothly as they can for a new parent of a young child. But at four years old, Erica began saying that she missed her birth mother. Then she asked, "Can you find her?" Candis genuinely didn't know, so she started looking online, and found an organization called Research-China.org that helps parents look into the origins of their adopted Chinese children.
Brian H. Stuy, a father of three adopted daughters and the founder of Research China, looked at Erica's documentation and gave Candis bad news: there seemed to be a good chance that Erica's adoption was connected to a kidnapping scandal in Hunan province. The story rocked the U.S. adoption community in November 2005 when Chinese journalists reported that infants from Hunan and several other provinces were being sold to several major orphanages in China, and that the orphanages then lied about the children's origins to adoptive parents. Looking at the numbers of adoptions coming from Erica's orphanage, the Qujiang Social Welfare Institute, in Shaoguan's Qujiang district, Stuy saw that adoptions dropped precipitously after news of the scandal broke and the government moved in to shut the trafficking down -- a sign that the orphanage had been involved. He sent Candis a link to a news story about it. "I started freaking," she said.
Most parents, Stuy says, stop there. But Candis wasn't willing to give up: "I needed to know," she told me. So she kept searching. She hired a researcher in China to put up posters in the area surrounding her daughter's orphanage asking for information. Nothing came back, but Candis couldn't stop. "I just kept calling Brian and Lan (Stuy's wife and Research China's researcher) every month," she told me, laughing in retrospect at how single-minded she must have seemed. After nearly two years of persistence, Lan agreed to travel with Candis to China to see what they could dig up about Erica's origin.