Black-Market Babies: Broken Families in China, Confused Children in the U.S.

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Corruption at Chinese adoption agencies has resulted in children being stolen from their families and sold internationally for steep prices and under false pretenses

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Children playing outside their home in the village of Lang Shi Cun in Hunan Province / Deborah Jian Lee

HUNAN PROVINCE, China -- This spring, the business magazine Caixin made headlines around the world when it uncovered corruption at Chinese adoption agencies involving children stolen from their families in Hunan Province and sold for steep prices in the international adoption arena. The news hit hard in the United States, which is home to about 60,000 children adopted from China, mostly girls.

For years, even social scientists have supported a widely held belief that Chinese orphanages are overrun with girls abandoned by their birth families. Two decades ago, when the gender ratio first started to skew sharply toward boys, many assumed these official figures were distorted by millions of unreported newborn girls. The country's strict one-child policy, they reasoned, prompted a widespread number of parents to conceal their additional children to avoid harsh penalties. Because of an enduring preference for boys, they surmised, many parents hid their girls or simply abandoned them.

In recent years, that theory has been increasingly challenged. "The more we look at the data, the more we realize the hidden children, they are not there," says Yong Cai, a sociologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They have never been born or they have simply been aborted." While some do conceal their children or abandon them, sex-selective abortion and poor health care for baby girls account for most of the sex ratio disparity for very young children, which now stands at about 120 males for every 100 females, Cai says.

While we don't yet know the scale of China's stolen-children problem, let alone understand its implications for the adoptive parents (and prospective adoptive parents) of Chinese-born children in the U.S. and around the world, it's been life-altering, even traumatic, for the families it's touched directly. Here, we tell the stories of two such families, one on each side of the adoption scandal -- an adoptive mother in the United States who discovered her daughter's adoption papers were forged and a Chinese father whose baby was taken from him. We have not used real names to protect the identity of the American woman's adopted daughter and for the Chinese parent's safety.

A Mother's Story (as told to Sushma Subramanian and Deborah Jian Lee)

Late one night, my then 4-year-old daughter, whom I'll call Cathy, was having trouble sleeping. With tears in her eyes, she said something that shocked me -- "I miss my birth mom." "Of course you do," I replied. I sat down and cried with her. "What would you like to tell her?" I asked. "I love her. And I miss her," she said. A few months later, she asked me to find her biological mother. Since then, it's become my mission, but I never guessed what it would lead me to discover.

I adopted my daughter in 2005 from an orphanage in Guangdong Province. The director took me into a room full of little girls and introduced me to Cathy. At 39, I really wanted a child and I was set on helping a little girl who was likely abandoned by her family. I wanted to bring her up to know that as a woman, she is absolutely valued. I believed the fee of $7,000 would go to the orphanage. I took Cathy into my arms, and the director gave me a bag of soil from her homeland so she would always know where she was from.

I've always talked to her openly about her adoption. I read her stories like "I Love You Like Crazy Cakes" about a girl who was adopted from China. We host play dates with several other neighboring families with children from China. For the Autumn Moon Festival, the kids write letters to their birth moms and send them up into the sky in helium balloons.

While a few of the other kids have also started asking about their biological parents, I'm the only parent I know searching for them. I contacted a man named Brian Stuy, who founded Research-China.org, which helps adoptive families look for the birthplaces of their children. When I told him about Cathy, he said she could have been involved in a scandal like the one in Hunan, where orphanages bought babies and placed them with foreign families. Recent stories show that many children were kidnapped and sold into adoption.

After that discovery, I spent many nights sobbing at my computer. I felt so guilty, like I was part of a crime. How was I going to tell my daughter? The information made me double my effort to find her birth parents.

I hired Stuy's wife to travel with me to Guangdong. According to orphanage papers, a man found two-day-old Cathy in a public place, abandoned, and took her to the orphanage. I tracked down this man, a director of civil affairs. He confessed the story had been made up. He was a friend of the orphanage director. Over Skype, I had to tell my daughter that I wouldn't be able to find her birth mom. "So China tells lies," Cathy said.

Cathy started telling her group of adopted friends about "China's lies" and one of their mothers told me that the girls might have to stop spending time together. Other parents I've encountered in online forums admit that they feel scared and believe their kids are better off in the United States. I told Cathy there are some people who wouldn't understand her desire to find her birth mom and she probably shouldn't talk about it with them. We've patched things up with her friend's family.

Today, at seven, Cathy is an outgoing girl who enjoys jazz dance and excels in her Mandarin classes. I still haven't told her the whole story. I'll wait until she's older. I've hit a dead end on my search, but I'm not going to stop trying. If I ever find her birth mother, I'd want to help Cathy get to know her, if that's what she wants. There are thousands of adopted Chinese children living in the United States, and it's their human right to know where they come from. Good or bad, we all deserve to know our history.

A Father's Story (as told to Sushma Subramanian and Deborah Jian Lee)

I have a family picture of my daughter from my last trip home, and it might be the very last image I'll ever see of her. As a migrant worker, government restrictions prevented me from raising my daughter in the city where I work, so I left her behind in my village with her grandparents. Because of the great distance between us and my limited vacation, I couldn't visit home regularly. I couldn't call often either because the phone connection doesn't always work. In fact, I didn't hear that the government took my baby girl until weeks after it happened.

I'm from a rural town deep in the mountains, and my family is very poor. Our house is so old the walls and ceiling are cracked, and we worry the bricks might fall when the wind blows hard. The villagers survive on growing rice and vegetables and raising children, ducks, pigs and cows. I knew I could provide better for my family by moving to a big city for factory work. So just half a year after my daughter, my first child, was born in July 2004, my wife and I had to leave for Shenzhen to find jobs. In the city, our days are long and hard, and we live in a small dorm, not the kind of environment to bring up children.

The next spring, the local family planning officials stormed my parents' house and took my baby away. They said the child was illegal, but gave no further explanation. At the time, I was in my thirties, but my wife was just shy of 20 years old, the legal marrying age for women. When my wife gave birth, we decided to register the child after my wife turned 20. Many people in our village had done this before.

I called a few weeks later, and my parents gave me the terrible news. I rushed home. We went to a nearby village, where a government official said that we had to pay 6,000 RMB (about $940) to get our daughter back. My monthly salary is just 2,000 RMB, which is usually enough to pay rent and other living expenses for me and my wife and to send a little back home, so we had only 4,000 RMB saved. A few days later, when I returned with the money, the official balked, saying even if I paid 1 million RMB, I would never get my daughter back. She had already been given away to an orphanage.

He tried to cut me a deal, giving me permission to have another child, more than the one-child policy allows. I was furious. I tracked down the orphanage, but by the time I got there, she was gone. As I talked to more people about what happened to my daughter, I discovered that other families had also had their children taken from them. If I speak up, I don't know if the government would help me find my girl, or try to shut me up or detain me.

Now, years later, I continue to live as a migrant worker, making backpacks in a small factory and sleeping in a dorm with roommates. I have a 6-year-old son who attends kindergarten in my hometown, and my parents watch over him. I wish I could see him more often than I do. If I ever find my daughter, I would tell her how badly I've longed for her. I want to let her know that I didn't give her up for adoption. She was stolen from me.



This article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an Atlantic partner site.The article has also been updated to clarify our understanding of the relationship between the scandal in Hunan Province and the broader question of China's gender imbalance.

* Update:

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Presented by

Sushma Subramanian & Deborah Jian Lee

Deborah Jian Lee is a freelance journalist and independent radio producer. Sushma Subramanian is a freelance health and science journalist. Both are based in New York.

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