Despite strict regulations, adopting Chinese children is attracting more American parents.
Three-year-old Hannah Robertson spins around and tosses her sweater to her mother. She anxiously adjusts her Minnie Mouse dress and grabs her friend Kiana’s hand. Smiling ear to ear, the girls are like any other best friends meeting Minnie Mouse for the first time. Where and how the girls met each other, however, is what makes this day all the more special.
The parents of Hannah and Kiana, who declined to provide her last name because of privacy concerns, both adopted them from China in 2005. Part of the same group organized by Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), a nonprofit adoption agency based in Denver that helps coordinate adoptions from China, to adopt their children in China, the girls’ parents say they remember anxiously waiting to meet their daughters just as their daughters now wait to meet Minnie Mouse, forming relationships along the way.
“We made lifelong friends,” said Hannah’s father, Graham Robertson. “We know the girls will be lifelong friends, too.”
Over 120,000 children are adopted in the United States every year. In 2006, 6,520 of them came from China, joining more than 56,000 previous adoptees from China.
Though the number of foreign children adopted into American families has risen substantially since the 1950s, international adoption has grown exponentially in recent years, with Chinese children by far the largest group. In 2005, Chinese children accounted for 7,939 of the 22,710 international adoptees, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Robertson said he and his wife Nancy first learned about Chinese adoption opportunities from a colleague who invited the couple to a CCAI reunion picnic for 80 girls adopted from China. Seeing so many happy children running around motivated Robertson and his wife to complete the large stack of necessary adoption paperwork, he said.
Despite the costs of travel, the extensive paperwork, and the lengthy wait involved, international adoption has become an appealing option for some families who want a child. With increased use of birth control and abortions in the United States, unwanted pregnancy rates are decreasing and fewer American children are available for adoption, according to a 1998 study by S. K. Henshaw published in the journal Family Planning Perspectives.
Many families choose Chinese adoption programs because they are comparatively well regulated and ethical, and the children are generally healthy, Leigh Anna Graf, Client Service and Relations Director at Texas-based Great Wall China Adoption, wrote in an email. Great Wall China is one of the most well-known adoption agencies specializing in Chinese adoptions, and averages 300 to 500 adoptions a year.
The ability for an adoption to be finalized in China with parents immediately given their child along with the relatively young age of the adoptees also prove attractive for many families. Last year, almost half of the children adopted from China were under a year old, and only 250 children were over the age of four years old. Adoptions from China have become so commonplace they even inspired an episode of FOX’s animated comedy The Simpsons in 2005.
Other families have cultural or other personal ties to China that lead them to consider Chinese adoption, Graf said. Joel Klammer, a teacher at Concordia International School in Shanghai, said he was led to China by such connections.
After years of working with his wife in orphanages in China and Vietnam, Klammer reconsidered adoption and brought home Aaron, who is now two years old, in 2006.
“We never planned on adopting a child,” he said, “but after seeing so many children in need, we knew that we had room in our family for at least one adopted child.”.
Anna Hu, also a teacher at the Concordia International School, cited cultural ties of a different kind in her choice to adopt a Chinese daughter. “My main reason [for adopting in China] is my ethnicity,” she said. “I am Chinese-American.”
While Chinese adoption is by far the most popular international option, it remains restricted by the Chinese government. Regulations are tighter than in the United States, where adoptions are bound mostly by state law and agency-specific policies, and occasionally, the will of the birthparent.
For Americans adopting domestically, it is generally easier to adopt when a couple has been married for at least three years, though single parents are also legally permitted to adopt. The minimum and maximum age of the adoptive parents also vary by state from 18 to 40 years old, although there are exceptions. A drug-free lifestyle is universally required, and private agencies can also show preference toward other lifestyle choices, including religious beliefs.
Chinese regulations, however, are stricter, and have recently become more so, with the China Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA), an agency within China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, issuing new regulations effective for all applications received after May 1 last year. Parents must now be married for a minimum of two years, and couples in which one or both partners who have been divorced are subject to longer time constraints. Both parents must be between the ages of 30 and 50 years old, and demonstrate the physical and mental capability to raise a child. Many diseases or disabilities are immediate grounds for ineligibility, including obesity, facial deformations and blindness in one eye. Educational, financial and criminal histories are also considered, as well as present family size (a family with more than five children may not adopt).
Some adoptive parents say they are glad they are not subject to these new restrictions. Hu, who is single and turning 50 years old this year, considered adopting another child before the new restrictions eliminated the possibility.
“I feel so blessed that I made the decision to adopt before this new law,” Hu said.
Though restrictions are strict, the paperwork necessary for an adoption is more problematic for many families.
“At this point, the primary issue for parents is the extended wait time from registering their paperwork with the CCAA to receiving a referral for a child,” Graf said. “This has gone up steadily over the last year and a half. It is now at 23 months.”
Aside from all of the paperwork, the bureaucracy can be even worse.
“My wife ended up getting fingerprinted three times at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai because they were either smudged or lost before reaching their destination,” Klammer said. “It finally came down to us having a local notary sign a letter indicating that we were employed and sane!”
Still, Robertson said the trouble was worth it. “Sometimes I can’t even remember the paperwork needed now that we have our daughter,” Robertson said.
The number of Chinese infant girls available for adoption is directly related to cultural and political issues in China.
The influence of China’s one-child policy remains a driving force for sending children overseas. 95 percent of adopted Chinese children are girls, reflecting the cultural preference for boys when many families are permitted only one child. Because sons are expected to care for parents in old age and daughters for their parents-in-law, the lack of a son can be terrifying to a couple. When allowed only one child, some parents feel forced to abandon baby girls.
But for those who cannot have children at all, these baby girls are welcomed. “She was just perfect and is still the perfect blessing for me,” says Hu. “I picked her up on December 26th, 2005–my best ever Christmas present.”
The lack of domestic adoption in China also contributes to overcrowded orphanages.
Chinese culture has traditionally placed an emphasis on blood ties, and has, according to some scholars, therefore discouraged the adoption of a stranger’s child. Indeed, the first legislation regarding adoption in modern China’s history was not passed until 1992. While it is not unheard of, and is becoming more and more socially acceptable in China, domestic adoption remains uncommon.
Still, a recent USA Today article reports that increasing domestic adoptions may also lessen the number of Chinese children adopted by U.S. families in the future.
Financial considerations are also not to be overlooked. In her 2002 article in Law and Society Review, scholar Kay Ann Johnson noted that U.S.-based agencies generally estimate the cost of international adoptions at over ten thousand dollars, not including travel expenses to China as required by the Chinese government. The government and the orphanages themselves can net up to five thousand dollars per child, which has led some scholars, including Johnson, to see adopted children as an export. The money, however, is often much-needed in China’s orphanage system, and there has been a marked improvement in the facilities and care of children since international adoptions increased.
The money, it seems, is worth it for some families, though. Robertson said he cannot imagine life without Hannah.
“I love when we’re sitting on the floor reading and she puts her head on my chest,” Robertson said. “Or picking her up at preschool, when she runs over as fast as she can and grabs my leg, yelling, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ Just making that connection with her is amazing.”
Great Wall China Adoption: http://www.gwca.org/
Chinese Children Adoption International: http://www.chinesechildren.org
China Center for Adoption Affairs: http://www.chinaccaa.org/frames/index_unlogin_en.jsp
Kaelyn Forde Eckenrode is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism and international relations at the University of Southern California. Chelsea Mason is pursuing a Master’s in East Asian Studies at the University of Southern California.