JISHOU, HUNAN — One of my activities while on holiday was to visit an orphanage, but I can’t really say where it was. It seems our visit was somewhat under the official radar, so we were asked to keep it somewhat hush-hush.
In the short time since the visit, I’ve learned that orphan care in China is a touchy subject, rife with a lot of misinformation, alleged corruption and baby-trafficking, and accusations of maltreatment of children under state or private care. There was a big scandal in 2005 involving several orphanages in Hunan, Hubei and Guangdong, among other places, which were adopting out children who were not really orphans in order to collect international adoption fees.
That said, the 30 or so children we met (and whom I photographed with permission) were all well-fed, well-clothed and obviously well-cared for. There were teenaged girls, like the one pictured at right, with no discernible medical conditions, boys of various ages with developmental issues, and toddlers, some with Down’s syndrome and others seemingly normal.
We brought art materials for them draw animals, and everyone, from toddler to a girl maybe 15 years old, joined in the activity. My friends tried to teach them an English song, and showed them photos of exotic animals. Meanwhile, I took lots of photos that sadly may never see the light of day.
My subject here would not smile for the camera, though I did catch her smiling later on. Covering half her face with her picture allows me to print the photo without blurring her features, but as a precaution I removed the background in case sharp eyes can identify the location. [I found her in a 2011 Chinese newspaper story about the same facility, by the way. That photog also caught her smiling and having fun, so maybe she's just camera-shy.]
By all accounts, her facility is a showcase children’s welfare institution (CWI). It was built only a few years ago and could house hundreds of kids comfortably. We saw only a small subset of those residents — some of whom I saw in Chinese news articles, like my girl above — and we were not given a tour of the site.I’ve also visited the CWI in Jishou, and had my photograph taken with the kids there, so I can print that news without qualms. Though the Jishou facility is quite small, with maybe 50 kids altogether, it’s also clean and well-managed. Xiao Fu, my little friend there (though she’s almost 16 and not so little anymore), is happy and well-cared for. She has cerebral palsy and is mostly confined to a wheelchair, but has the spirit, optimism and friendliness that can bring tears to your eyes were you to meet her.
Orphan care in China has generally had a bad press in the past, and deservedly so. With the onset of the one-child policy in 1979, there were reports of infanticide and abandonment of extra children, especially girls, in order to avoid the stiff legal penalties for having more than one child.
In the late 1990s, there were reports of “dying rooms” in several Chinese orphanages, where abandoned infants were left to languish, unfed and uncared for, until they died. International exposure of these horrible conditions prompted reforms of the child welfare system, and the “dying rooms” are apparently only a sad memory.
Then in 2005, there was a big scandal involving several southern China orphanages, who were giving up children for international adoption who were in fact not orphans at all. The roots of this scandal were two-fold: demographic and economic.
While there is still a bias toward having boys, there is no longer a great social stigma against having only daughters. Meanwhile, the standard of living for most Chinese has risen. So, the supply of healthy infants — boy or girl — being given up for adoption has gradually declined. Children in Chinese orphanages now are generally special needs kids. My own anecdotal evidence bears this out.
In fact, I can say confidently that the rumors of families abandoning daughters or giving them up for adoption are just that, rumors. It may have happened in the past, but rarely now.
In 2005 (and perhaps even now), foreigners who wished to adopt Chinese kids typically had to “donate” to the orphanage $2,000 to $3,000. In Chinese money, that is a princely sum. Multiplying it by the number of kids available to be adopted out could really help a CWI’s bottom line.
The Duan family, who were tried and convicted of baby trafficking in the 2005 scandal, created a pipeline for orphanages wanting babies for international adoption. They would visit poor families, offering money for infants and young children for the kids to be relinquished into their care; then they would sell the children to participating orphanages at a profit.
Many of these adopted kids had parents and families who were taking care of them. Investigations showed that the orphanages fabricated records to indicate the children were orphaned or abandoned and had no immediate fmailies to care for them.
The 2005 scandal prompted another set of reforms, but it remains to be seen how strictly the new guidelines are being followed. I have read reports that “relinquishment” is still a problem, whereby a poor couple relinquishes care of a child to an orphanage, or agrees to have the child educated in the orphanage, only to find later that the child was adopted out without their permission or knowledge.
I’m relaying this history to put my visits in some context, as I am far from an expert in such matters. It’s a complex subject, which can easily pull at one’s emotions. When I saw these kids, I wanted to know what their life stories were. How did they end up in the CWI? Are they happy? Has anyone ever wanted to adopt them? What will happen to them when they “age out” and enter society? Will anyone be there to help them out?
I read several articles for background before writing this post. If you want more information, here are the links.
New York Times article from 2011 about adopting families still wrestling with issues involving non-orphaned adoptees.
Article in the China Hush website about adoptees finding their birth parents in China.
A detailed academic anaylsis of the 2005 Hunan baby trafficking scandal (PDF format).
NPR Marketplace report on the 2005 scandal, including interviews with the Duan family.
Research-China.org This is the blog of an agency helping adoptees and adopting families find the birth families of adopted Chinese children. Several blogs focus on the checkered history of China’s adoption policies.
This last source highlighted the activities of a Canadian, Jim Garrow, who has written a book, Pink Pagodas, relating his self-described success in getting tens of thousands of Chinese girls adopted internationally. Garrow, however, seems somewhat flaky, given these two accounts at a Canadian news site and the Daily Kos. Amazon has his book ($8 for the Kindle version, which is way overpriced, IMO). Judging from Research-China’s critique of it, Garrow has a vivid imagination, and I’d rather spend my $8 elsewhere.