Becky Freer says adopting a 10-month-old girl from China was the best thing she ever did. So when Freer, a 44-year-old resident of Austin, Texas, recently decided to further expand her family by adopting a sister for her now 3½-year-old daughter, she thought China was the obvious choice. But as a single woman, Freer is no longer eligible. “Three years ago I was an acceptable parent, and now I’m not,” she says. “It seems kind of unfair.”
While her daughter will have a new sister Freer has since been approved to adopt a child from Ethiopia Freer is one of a growing number of prospective parents who are unable to adopt from China under new laws Beijing put in place in May 2007. The stricter guidelines, intended to limit the overwhelming number of applicants to China’s well-regarded adoption program, have been effective adoptions of Chinese children by U.S. citizens have dropped 50%, according to the U.S. State Department. The new regulations require, among other things, that adoptive parents be married, under 50, not classified as clinically obese, not have taken antidepressant medications in the past two years, not have facial deformities and meet certain educational and economic requirements. In 2005, U.S. citizens adopted 7,906 children through the state-run China Center for Adoption Affairs . In 2008, that number fell to 3,909 kids.
But the new laws are only part of the reason that fewer Chinese children are being adopted by families in the U.S. While the Chinese government does not release domestic adoption figures, U.S.-based adoption agencies say more Chinese children are being adopted in China. “You have this cultural shift along with the economic shift, where more and more people cannot only afford to adopt a child, but culturally it’s more accepted,” says Cory Barron, foundation director at Children’s Hope International. Historically, adoption was neither socially acceptable nor a viable economic option for many families in China. But orphanages were getting crowded, prompting the government to open up to international adoptions in 1992. Josh Zhong, founder and director of Chinese Children Adoption International in Colorado, remembers what it was like in China just 10 years ago. “You would see hundreds of thousands of children,” he says. “Orphanages begging you to come in, saying, ‘Please help us. These children need to go home.’ ” A slow shift in gender perception may also be playing a role. While girls still make up 95% of children at orphanages, Zhong says that, too, has shifted. “People’s attitude toward having girls is changing dramatically,” Zhong says. “I have friends [in China] who have girls, and they are just so excited.”
With fewer children being put up for adoption and foreign demand remaining strong, China can afford to be more selective. “I think they are saying, You know what We have fewer children now and so we are looking for better parents,” Zhong says. His organization has experienced a drop from 1,152 China adoptions in 2005 to 422 in 2008. And while Beijing’s new standards may sound harsh to Americans with their hearts set on a baby, they have little influence in the matter. “These are China’s children, and they can set the requirement to what they deem is best,” says Barron.
International adoptions in the U.S. gained popularity in the 1990s as families reached out to poorer corners of the world to adopt a child in need. Adoptions increased not only in countries like China, which has always had a trustworthy system, but also in countries that didn’t have a good system of checks and balances. By 2006, the U.S. began implementing some provisions from the 1994 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a treaty intended to crack down on the abduction, exploitation, sale and trafficking of children. The U.S. went on to fully adopt the regulations in April 2008, and has since stopped processing adoptions from Vietnam, Guatemala, Liberia and Kyrgyzstan until those countries meet the convention’s standards. At the same time, China tightened its own laws, resulting in a worldwide drop in international adoption from a peak of 22,884 adoptions in 2004 to 17,438 last year.
Adopting a child from the CCAA has never been a simple task. After submitting a long list of required documents, including home studies completed by social workers and federal background checks, applicants’ paperwork is approved by the CCAA and the wait begins. Fees and expenses can amount to upwards of $20,000 before families are cleared to take home their new child. And the wait can be long. Today, China has a backlog of approved applicants from around the world and is just now placing children into the homes of families who were approved for adoption in March 2006.
For some families, that’s too long, and so they look to China’s “waiting child” list of children with special needs, ranging from cleft lips or deafness to more severe physical and mental disabilities. Prospective parents can read about a child’s disability in a national database and decide if it is something they can take on. “Kids who would probably never be adopted in China and maybe wouldn’t have been adopted in the U.S. are now getting homes,” Barron says. Lee Ann Laune, 37, a director of special-education programs in Missouri, says she probably looked at more than 100 children over the course of 2½ years before finding her daughter Hope. “When we first got into this, there was a six-to-nine-month wait,” she says. As time passed, Laune and her husband Paul would look at the “waiting child” list to see if they came across a child who was meant for them. In April, the Launes were approved to adopt Hope, a 4½-year-old deaf girl from Hunan province. “When we looked into her eyes, it was an automatic for us. It was ‘We can handle this,’ ” she says. “It’s unbelievable to know we are going to be that saving grace for her.”
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