' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Kidnapping and Corruption in Chinese Adoptions

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kidnapping and Corruption in Chinese Adoptions

China, long thought to be squeaky clean in international adoptions turns out to have a history of corruption, according to David Smolin, one of the world's leading experts on international adoption scandals. According to Smolin, the decline in the number of Chinese infants arriving on U.S. shores since the Nineties as adoptees was largely due to the Chinese government’s curtailment of baby buying--not by adoptive parents directly, but by the orphanages, which profited from the huge numbers of children they exported to the U.S.

How did this happen? In November of 2005, Chinese news agencies reported that orphanages paid intermediaries--let's call them what they are, child traffickers--a little more than $300 per infant, usually girls. Some of the children truly had been abandoned. But others were kidnapped; and some confiscated by population-control officials in adherence with the one-child-per-family policy, in an effort to control population growth. 

Chinese law requires foreign adopters to pay orphanages $3,000 per child, so the margin of profit between cost per child and processing her for adoption was around $2,500--enough to encourage kidnapping and child trafficking. Additionally, adoption agencies and adoptive parents were encouraged to donate additional money to the orphanages, creating a strong financial incentive for orphanages to process as many children as they could. We shouldn’t be surprised by this exchange of bucks for babies. As long as Americans are willing to pay big bucks ($30,000+) for healthy infants, traffickers will supply them no matter how much misery they cause as long as regulators look the other way.

By 2006, reports of the kidnapping began to surface, and the government began prosecuting traffickers. At the same time, the government reduced the amount orphanages were permitted to pay intermediaries for children to between $62.50 and $125. The result was far fewer "abandoned" infants arriving at orphanages.  

Thumbnail for version as of 17:43, 5 February 2007
David Smolin
Smolin, professor of law at Cumberland School of Law, Samford University, and the father of two girls adopted from India, reported on the situation in the Cumberland Law Review: The Missing Girls of China: Population, Policy, Culture, Gender, Abortion, Abandonment, and Adoption in East-Asian Perspective. (January 2011). Smolin became an advocate of curtailing international adoption when after an arduous six-year search he located his both his daughters' parents in India, and discovered they had been stolen and trafficked.

Origins of Asian adoption
 From the end of the Korean War until the late 1980’s, South Korea was the major supplier of babies and children for the international market. It is widely thought that much of South Korea's recovery is due to the influx of cash into that country due to international adoptions of their children. In 1988, the Korean government began curtailing adoptions as a result of Korea being dubbed “A baby-exporting nation” by the media during its coverage of the Olympics in Seoul that year. 

Adoption agencies turned their eyes westward and discovered baby-rich China. According to folk lore passed on by these agencies, China’s one-child policy, and its preference for male children resulted in untold number of infant girls abandoned by roadsides or in railway waiting rooms. The lucky ones were rescued and taken to orphanages where these agencies arranged for western families to adopt them. Approximately two-thirds of the girls came to the United States. Chinese girls seemed like the perfect product: smart, well-behaved, attractive; clearly meant for the likes of NPR weekend host and author of Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption, Scott Simon, and his wife, Caroline Richard. 

China takes the lead in baby exporting
China became the number one supplier of children to the U.S. market. The number of Chinese infants arriving on U.S. shores increased from 61 in 1991 to a peak of 7,903 in 2005. Then adoptions began to decline, and in 2009, only 3,001 arrived. Correspondingly, the wait for healthy babies or toddlers increased from less than nine months to nearly two years. 

In addition to China, other major suppliers of children to the U.S. adoption market have cut the supply. Ethiopia reduced its adoptions by 90 percent because of systemic and rampant corruption. Russia curtailed adoptions because of the abuse and murder of Russian children by adoptive parents here, and Russia’s desire to keep its children within its borders in face of its own shrinking population. Reformers in South Korea are working to help single mothers keep their children rather than relinquish them for adoption to western families. The U.S. government stopped processing applications from Cambodia and Guatemala because of corruption. For the same reasons, Vietnam shut down most international adoptions in 2008.

Overall, international adoptions in the U.S. have declined from a high of 22,884 in 2004 to 12,782 in 2009. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, ratified by 81 countries including the United States, has made it more difficult for international adoption agencies to find fertile sources of children. 

We at First Mother Forum are hopeful that wide scale foreign adoptions have run their course. With the exception of children who are disabled to the point that they cannot receive the care they need, it is better for children to be raised in their own countries. Dollars spent on international adoption are better spent on helping poor families. With increasingly available reproductive technologies, Americans may decide that buying American is best.
We recommend The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka for understanding the issues and questions that young adult adoptees will eventually ask their families and themselves.


  1. Good recommendations that you make!!

    Long before the media disclosed the rash of illegalities, fraud and corruption with these adoptions most family preservationists could see this disaster before it even began.

    Any time you have secrecy, money and babies in the mix it is asking for trouble.

    North America exploited a horrendous situation in China, made it worse, bought their babies and gave them no incentive to decrease their tyranny upon the Chinese people; instead they created a baby factory out of the whole thing.

    Adopters are 100% just as guilty as the brokers, in this day and age they should know better than to be buying babies in the first place. Adopters are not the victims they are the perpetrators of this just as much.

    All International adoption should be stopped across the board, it is nothing more than a baby trade and it is unethical, evil and patently wrong.

    I hope those kidnapped and used to satisfy adopters will find their way home one day, and that all countries who have participated in this vile experiment will apologize and take ownership of this whole thing.

    Finally, kudos to the media as well for exposing this vast thicket of child trafficking.

  2. Also great statistics and information about this.

  3. I have a few bones to pick with your analysis. There was plenty of folklore being passed around by agencies in the early years (like that no one in China would adopt anyone) but the mass abandonment of infant girls was not one of them. There was a crisis, there was an orphanage crisis--addressed in independent reports like Death by Default (Human Rights Watch, 1996)--and China opened the international program to take the pressure off institutions overwhelmed with caring for so many kids. Did they make money off the process? Absolutely, deciding to overhaul the whole SWI system using money from adopters (the "compulsory" orphanage donation)and corruption soon followed. However, to be fair, there were very few takers (adopters) in the early years. Once the program got going, though, it was certainly popular.

    Another thing Smollin tries to do is lay to rest the oft-repeated assertion by staunch family preservationsists that the international adoption program has any bearing on the one-child policy. This is untrue--int'l adoption represents only a fraction of the missing girl population in China. He writes:

    "China's intercountry adoption program, even at its 2005 peak
    of approximately 8,000 annual adoptions to the United States and approximately 14,500 total annual adoptions can account for only a small fraction of China’s abandoned or missing girls.
    While China has sent slightly over 100,000 children abroad for intercountry adoption since the intercountry adoption program was
    started in the early 1990s,223 this number, in relationship to the tens of millions of missing girls in China’s population over that same period, is too small to be of much statistical significance."

    Anne's 4th paragraph is just righteous overkill.

  4. One other thing to note: Smollin's thesis that sex-selective abortion has dried up the baby supply in China. He gives a lot of weight to this theory in the article but it was not addressed here.

  5. Arsenic Unicorn? Since you know the facts, why be adverse to letting us know who you are?

  6. @Lorraine - Arsenic Unicorn has posted her/his brand of "truth" on my blog and when asked to be specific and not rude, she/he failed to respond. It is my understanding that she/he is an adopter and maybe an adoptee... I am not sure at all. As far as her information, I would be careful bothering with it. Misinformation and judgmental attitude with regard to mothers is very prevalent in almost everything that she/he writes.

  7. A reader suggested that sex-selective abortions may have caused the decline in intercountry adoptions. Prof Smolin disputes this, reporting that: “China did not significantly open its intercountry adoption program until more than a decade after imposition of the one-child policy caused sharp increases in abandoned girls. By the time that the intercountry adoption program really accelerated in the mid-1990s, ultrasound machines had become widely available in China, causing a sharp trend toward sex-selective abortions.... Yet, for the next decade, intercountry adoptions rose significantly as sex ratios (and presumably the practice of sex-selective abortions) grew even worse, rising until at least 2000 and perhaps even to this present day.”

    Prof Smolin also reports that the number of healthy children in Chinese orphanages actually declined. Domestic adoptions did not increase after 2005
    While incomes increased during this period, making it easier for families to raise children, the one child policy did not change and the preference for male children did not change.

    Prof Smolin concludes: “The most persuasive explanation for the decline in intercountry adoptions … builds on the increasing evidence that orphanages have systematically provided financial incentives to obtain children, including baby girls, since at least 2000.”

  8. http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/

    David Smolin's article, "The Missing Girls of China: Population, Policy, Culture, Gender, Abortion, Abandonment, and Adoption in East-Asian Perspective," will be published in the next issue of theCumberland Law Review (Volume 41, Issue 1). Smolin analyzes the increasing gender imbalance of China's population, including steep declines in international adoptions from China – from 7,903 in
    2005 to 3,001 in 2009. He attributes the drop primarily to increased sex-selective abortions and increased enforcement of anti-trafficking policies
    following a 2005 scandal. The scandal uncovered problematic practices by some Chinese orphanages, including the buying of children through the work of intermediaries and other inducements.
    To download the article, go to: http://bit.ly/eT2Res.

  9. Smolin's article, which actually quotes from my old blog in several spots, does address sex-selective abortion as a factor. But overwhelmingly, he seems to be suggesting that it's a web of factors that led to the current situation. He writes:

    "Once these facts related to child trafficking are connected to
    the available information on sex-selective abortion and domestic
    adoption, a coherent time-line can be discerned. Sex-selective
    abortions would have reduced the number of abandoned, healthy
    baby girls significantly by 2000, substituting sex-selective abortions for the prior sex-selective abandonments. In the meantime, a widespread practice developed not only of unofficial adoptions, but also the frequent use of intermediaries . . . "

    I can't remember if he says this--he certainly does go into some cultural analysis at the top of the article--but there is also the thought that abandonments went done for economic reasons and because of shifts in cultural attitudes.

    Whatever the reason, there are good reasons to consider the non-special-needs program as having outlived its purpose at this point. Brain Stuy, also quoted, feels the SN program has a high potential of becoming corrupt, though.

  10. Sqeaky Clean? China - the place that executes prisons for "body" displays? Really? Did they ever play by any rules with regard to making money selling babies?

    This is a joke? right?

  11. My article on China is a very long attempt to answer a few simple questions, among them the question of why intercountry adoptions from China have gone down so fast. China is of course a somewhat unique story, particularly given the large role of China’s population control policies. Since I cite a number of different factors and tell a somewhat complex story about China, it is apparently easy enough to pick out one thing and say and use it to make a rhetorical or argumentative point. I believe there are a lot of factors in the sharp rise and recent declines in adoptions from China, including population control policies, related governmental policies that have to various degrees suppressed domestic adoption while opening to intercountry adoption, cultural factors, sex-selective abandonment, sex-selective abortion, trafficking, and government responses to international press coverage of trafficking.

    Of course much of my work has been about documenting child laundering/child trafficking. I do think that this kind of misconduct is an important part of the story in China, but in a more complex way than in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal, India, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Guatemala. At least that is what my research indicates.

    Of course I think “first Mothers” and first families (or original families---the term I often use) should have a very important voice in adoption discourse, and so I’m glad to hear from you. I’m glad to hear my work has been of some interest to you.

  12. If you spend much time on Chinese IA sites, you'll find a generally accepted theory - by both agencies and many adoptive parents - that China decided that it no longer wanted to be known as an exporter of healthy babies and began a deliberate slowdown of international adoption after 2004. If you graph the number of children released for IA from China, there is a steady decline beginning in 2005, prior to implementation of Hague. If China were in it for the money, you'd still see baby girls adopted in droves from China, but you don't.

    Most in IA believe that the CCAA deliberately chose to limit the number of non-special needs children available for adoption each year. The result is that the wait for a NSN infant or toddler is now almost five years, and growing longer by the day. China is pushing special needs adoptions, and each year, the SN program grows while the NSN program continues to shrink.

    As for adopters paying $30,000+ for a baby, not all of that goes to China. There is a mandatory orphanage fee that was $3K, but is now, I think, $5K. There are a handful of smaller fees that are paid when the adoptive parents' dossier is received in China and again when the child is adopted in China. The bulk of the 30K or so spent on an adoption is spent on US adoption agency fees, homestudies and homestudy updates, FBI fingerprinting and CIS clearance to adopt internationally, document fees charged by various government agencies, fees paid to translate documents into Chinese, and then the costs associated with flying to China, staying in hotels, traveling in country, paying a translator in China, etc. The Chinese government, orphanages included, sees no more than 25% of that total. I have heard the argument that the orphanage fees go to reimburse the orphanage for care provided for the child prior to adoption and for care provided to children who will not be made available for IA for whatever reason. I don't know how accurate that is, as I haven't studied the finances of Chinese orphanages, but that's what I've heard.

    As far as IA goes, I wouldn't call China "squeaky clean", but in many ways, it is more above-board and open than many other IA programs are or were. Parents are told exactly what the fees are and where they are in line to adopt. You don't get preferential treatment if you can spend more- everyone takes a number and waits in line. You aren't expected to show up with expensive gifts or bribes for anyone and everyone as was common in Russia.

    Honestly though, if you know anything about China IA, you wouldn't say that "North American exploited a horrendous situation in China, made it worse, bought their babies and gave them no incentive to decrease their tyranny upon the Chinese people". You'd be more apt to say that China exploited a Western desire for relatively healthy babies and used IA as a way to make money while simultaneously offloading babies that on the whole were not wanted or not permitted by population control rules. You could also say that China also decided that appearances mattered more than continuing the program and the money it brings in from IA, and that's a huge part of why they have chosen to slow the NSN program and make their IA program predominately for special needs adoption. China wants to keep most of her healthy girls and boys in-country, and that's certainly her right.

  13. The decrease in adoptions in 2006 is almost solely related to CCAA instituting new rules of who can and can not adopt.

    And as far as letting the children stay in their own country because it is better for them...Really? So it is better to let the children languish emotionally, socially cognitively and educationally? And, depending on the orphanage, at the age 14 the child could be sold, put onto the streets, denied further education and never knowing the love and nurturing of a family or to realize any possible dreams for a future. I have adopted 3 teens from China with SN, I know what their life would have been without a family.

  14. Anon,
    You claim that the children you adopted from China are better off. In truth, you have no idea what their lives would have been since you know nothing about their origins. Tragically, they will likely never be able to learn about their origins.

    You parrot socio-babble and make assumptions about their "would have been life" because it makes you feel good. It was comforting to believe the agency when it told you were saving children.

    In fact China is not a poor country (it owns trillions in US debt) and it could care for its children. You would do far more for Chinese children if you joined the folks I mentioned in my post to end corruption in adoption and demand countries help their own children.



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