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.

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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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