Thursday, August 04, 2011

China: 89 Children Rescued from Child Traffickers July 2011

As top headlines in China and around the world proclaimed in July 2011, 89 infants and children were recovered from child traffickers within China during this month.

The 89 children were recovered in two separate operations.

The first, on July 15, recovered 8 infants from a Chinese-Vietnamese cross-border trafficking network.

The second, on July 20, recovered 81 children of various ages from a trafficking network entirely within Chinese borders.

First Recovery Action: July 15, 2011

A Joint Action between China and Vietnam Recovering 8 Trafficked Infants

Earlier reports of children being trafficked to Dongxing City in Guangxi initiated an investigation by local and Chinese central authorities.

Because this investigation centered on cross-border criminal activity, in February 2011, a joint task force was set up between Chinese and Vietnamese officials. This joint task force culminated in a law enforcement campaign (involving more than 300 law enforcement officers) that began on July 15, 2011 with the arrests of 39 child abduction/trafficking suspects and the recovery of 8 trafficked infants.

This joint Chinese-Vietnamese law enforcement campaign, concerned with cross border crime involving the abduction and trafficking of children, is scheduled to continue through September 15, 2011.

Indeed, since the first news report detailing the rescue of these 8 children, further investigation has already revealed that the same trafficking network had smuggled a total of 21 abducted infants from Vietnam to China during the period between June 2, 2011 and the July 15, 2011 raid. This is an additional 13 children beyond the 8 reported as recovered.

Though the 8 recovered infants were first reported to have been ages 7 days to 10 months, subsequent reports have stated that the youngest two, with umbilical cords still attached, were under a week old. Most of the babies were boys.

Details of the elaborate reported abduction, smuggling, and trafficking scheme have since been enumerated by an Liu Ancheng, deputy director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau (of ???). It goes like this:

Vietnamese infants were reportedly abducted in Vietnam by Vietnamese nationals. Allegedly drugged so that they would not cry and call attention to themselves, the infants were then reportedly smuggled across the Beilun River (and the Vietnamese-Chinese border) on bamboo rafts. Subsequently, so as to avoid the border checkpoints, the babies were then reportedly transported by bicycle through the fields bordering the Beilun River and on into nearby Chinese towns. Upon arrival in Dongxing or Fangchenggang, the drugged infants then allegedly continued their journey by bus, arriving first in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Shuang region, and then in the final leg of their journeys, in either Shanewei or Jieyang in Guangdong. The children’s journeys took an average of 20 hours.

A later article alleged that an obstetrician helped care for the babies while they were awaiting sale. (The report did not say where the obstetrician was located.)

Some news reports put the selling price of the trafficked babies at several thousand yuan to tens of thousands of yuan apiece. However, other news reports put the selling price of the trafficked infants at a reported 40,000 yuan each (about US $6,215).

News reports imply that some of these children had already been sold to Chinese families. There are two clues in the news report that imply that this is so. First, Chinese officials’ commentaries state that the Chinese families who bought these babies will not be allowed to keep them. This clearly implies that at least some recovered children were no longer in transit, nor were they awaiting sale, but that they had already been sold. Secondly, at least one news report includes criticism of removing (at least some? of) these infants from their “adopted famil[es].”

“Separating them from their adopted family may be a second blow to their young minds” (Chen Shiqu)

Obviously, you cannot remove a child from an adopted family and worry about the effect of that removal on the child if the child is not yet with the adoptive family.

(Some readers may object to the use of the word “adoptive” here to describe families who bought trafficked children--especially when those children landed in families through channels that were not sanctioned by the government (not legal). However, I am simply reporting the terminology used by the articles themselves. And after all, to the child, who knows nothing of how he/she came to be with the only family he/she has ever consciously known and to whom he/she has bonded, what is the difference? It is the same conscious experience for the child either way. In fact, this is exactly the point that those who criticized removing the children from the adoptive families, were making. Of course, this kind of point is exactly that often made by adoptive families fighting to retain custody of adoptive children when that custody is challenged by original parents seeking the return of their children. But this argument of not disturbing children who are settled can cut both ways. The same adoptive families who argue that they should retain possession of adoptive children for the sake of continuity for the child (when their own custody is being challenged), do not seem to worry about continuity for the child when it comes to the child’s loss of foster families, first families, etc. with whom the child had bonded--often as the only family he/she had ever known--when the child loses that previous family because an adoption is taking places and the child is to be placed in the adoptive family's arms….. So methinks there is here somewhat of a double standard of worry about the effects on a child of loss of family, and that that double standard has almost everything to do with the adults’ interests in the situation. It is easy to imagine what the best interest of a child is when you as an adult stand to benefit from this decision coming out in your favor. But this is another discussion for another post, and, alas, I have digressed… And within the context of this story, that is not point. It's just that I find it ironic that that idea should pop up here where many might find it objectionable. The world's a funny place, no?)

Upon recovery from traffickers and adoptive families, the 8 infants were taken to local hospitals and health centers for observation. At least one news report asserted that five of the eight children were found to have “serious health issues.” Whether these “health issues” were immediate and temporary and due to transport (for example, the effects of having been drugged) or the stresses of recovery (tiny babies have to be fed regularly to avoid dehydration and other ills) or whether they were suffering from more serious long term issues (for any number of reasons), was not stated.

Officials state that efforts will be made to reunite the infants with their Vietnamese parents, and that DNA testing will be utilized to facilitate this. If, however, officials are unable to properly identify the infants, and efforts to reunite them with their parents are ultimately unsuccessful, the infants, according to current Chinese law, because they lack proper verifiable identification, will NOT be eligible for adoption. Unidentified children not ultimately returned to their original parents, will therefore, at least according to current law, grow up in orphanages. Officials quoted in the article seem to understand that this is a disturbing prospect to many.

In fact, Ji Gang, director of Domestic Adoption of the Chinese Welfare and Adoption Center, is quoted as saying that the possibility of ‘conditional adoption’ (which would allow "children whose parents cannot be found within a specified period of time" to be adopted) is being discussed. (Note that this is the director of Chinese DOMESTIC adoption director speaking and that therefore, he is likely implying that children who can not be properly identified and whose parents are not found, would likely become available for DOMESTIC adoption within China.) This idea is of not letting unidentified children get caught in an institutional limbo where they would be ineligible for adoption is echoed in a quote from Chen Shiqu, Director of the Human Trafficking Office in the Ministry of Public Security:

“We are negotiating with civil affairs departments to improve the laws to allow unidentified children to be adopted”

Second Recovery Action: July 20, 2011

Involving 14 Provinces within China, Recovering 81 Trafficked Children

The second recovery action on July 20 was a much more massive affair, involving more than 2,600 law enforcement officers from no less than 14 Chinese provinces, and resulting in more than 330 arrests. The area involved extends from southwestern China’s province of Fujian to northern China’s province of Hebei.

Although some reports say that the two operations together resulted in the “rescue” of “89 infants,” details in the same reports and others imply that the rescued included, not only infants, but also children well beyond infancy. Indeed, at least one photo shows two of the rescued children; these children are clearly not only not infants, but are beyond puberty; indeed, one of the girls, though relatively young, clearly appears to be pregnant.

Some locations involved the July 20th action, do indeed appear to involved the recovery of nothing but infants. One photo taken in the city of Handan shows a line of smiling policewomen carrying 13 “rescued” infants to safety. Most of the recovered infants in the July 20th action are girls, and they are very young, ranging in age from 10 days to 4 months. Of those infants who had not yet been sold to families, some had been in the care of the traffickers for up to two months. At least one report alleged that those infants found in the traffickers’ care had been being fed low-quality milk powder and had been kept in squalid conditions.

It’s not immediately apparent where the July 20th recovered children came from. News reports note both that abductions by child traffickers of children within China are fairly common, but also note that some Chinese families, especially within rural areas, who prefer sons over daughters, have also been known to sell their infant daughters to traffickers so as to be able to try again for a son. One report states that all of the “rescued” children had been abducted. But all in all, considering all the reports, it remains unclear as to exactly where the children had come from. Given the short period of time that had elapsed since the children were recovered, it is possible that investigators themselves may not have yet known where the children came from.

These children, like the infants rescued earlier on July 15th, were given medical exams and then taken to orphanages where to be cared for during the process of identification (using DNA and other clues) and attempted reunion with their parents (if they can be found).

That some parent child reunions were already taking place just a few days after the children were recovered is clear from some news report photos. That these reunions could also be emotionally difficult and complicated is also evident. In one photo, a father is shown to have found his twin girls, abducted six years earlier. As I mentioned earlier, though the twins look fairly young, it is also obvious that they are already through puberty, as one of the girls appears to be in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Sadly, the photo caption states that the father was “reluctant” to take his twin girls home again because he “couldn’t accept what [they] had become.” Readers are left to wonder about the father's decision. Did he take his adolescent daughters home or not? One can only begin to imagine the drama of this family's story. Fault--if it was appropriate to assign any--for “what [the girls] had become” in the time they were away from their original family was not almost certainly not their own. How therefore could these girls be rejected by their own father? On the other hand, one has also to identify with the difficulty of the father's situation. The task of rehabilitating adolescents who may have been trafficked for un-named purposes, but purposes that we have to wonder about, would surely not be easy. And the outcome of that rehabilitation, uncertain. The father might very well be taking home virtual strangers whose values might very well differ from his own and his community's, and yet he would become immediately responsible for these adolescents and what happened to them from that time forward. An extremely difficult and complicated assignment for any parent.

Such is one of the problems of older child abduction. Children continue to grow and mature. They become different people than they’d have originally have been if they had never been taken from their families. The abducted children have in some very real sense, ceased to exist; likewise, from the children's point of view the parents have also become odd and foreign to the people they've become. In this way, the harm done to the victims by traffickers who steal children is inestimable. Time which is lost cannot be recovered, but more than that, that which is done can not be undone, influence/culture lost can't be recovered, and influence/culture hijacked by others can't be erased.

What Does This Mean for Supposed “Surplus” of Children Within China and for International Adoption from China?

Speculation is that this, China’s highly publicized and widespread crackdown on child trafficking in July (and for the few months previous to July) is a deliberate move on the part of the Chinese government to convince Chinese citizens, outraged at the government’s past lack of responsiveness to the “growing tide of child kidnapping” and child trafficking within China, that they do indeed care and are taking effective, concrete action.

This growing public outrage is no accident. News reports credit the growing displeasure of citizens with both the rising tide of child abductions and the government’s inaction in regard to them, with the most recent campaign by parents of kidnapped children to raise public awareness and outrage. In particular, a recent Chinese micro-blog campaign by parents of abducted and trafficked children complained about government officials who ignored and hindered parents from finding their abducted children. Parents complained that some law enforcement agencies refused to file reports of missing children, and that law enforcement agencies, even when they did file reports, often failed to act on leads given by parents. The campaign therefore encouraged Chinese citizens to help parents of abducted children recover their missing children by taking photos of children on the street to help facilitate identification of kidnapped children.

The parents of kidnapped and abducted children have, after years of struggle, finally won the attention of not only Chinese citizens, but also of the Chinese state media and the Chinese government officials. The reality of the widespread problem of child abduction and child trafficking within China is now openly acknowledged by both the state media and the government.

Indeed, the state media itself now openly estimates that up to 20,000 children a year are abducted and/or trafficked in China. According to Chen Shinqu, director of the Human Trafficking Office of the Ministry of Public Security:

“Child abductions have entered a phase of high-frequency.”

According to China Daily, Chen sees the "main cause of human trafficking crimes" to be the “existence of a buyer’s market.”

Indeed, many of us who have followed international adoption corruption for a long time, have come to believe that where there is high demand for human children and there is the money to back this demand, entrepreneurs, criminals, and others will arise to ensure that that market demand is met. To believe that it is otherwise is to be naïve.

China's one-child policy is frequently blamed as the cause of this demand for children within China. Under the one child policy most families were allowed only one child. Combined with a cultural and economic preference for sons, in the early years of the one-child policy, this led to the abandonment of many baby girls as families held out for a son. More recently, as the one-child policy has perhaps relaxed somewhat, and the availability of ultrasound machines has proliferated, sex-selective abortion has eliminated baby girls before birth, leading to a highly publicized gender imbalance within China in the younger generations. As the population has grown lop-sided with boys, families have begun to worry about procuring wives for their sons in future years. Some families solve this future problem by buying girl babies, “child brides,” when their sons are young and raising them to be future wives and daughters-in-law.

The shortage of girls has not raised the status of women; instead, girls have become one more rare commodity within a market ready and willing to buy them. Speculation is that far from raising the status of women, a shortage of marriageable women will lead—and indeed may already have led--to greater levels of trafficking of both children and women for sexual purposes and prostitution.

Likewise, as families have been willing to buy a girl child for future purposes, families who desire a son (but are unable to produce one for various reasons) have also become willing to buy one.

Indeed, children, as their numbers have shrunken within Chinese society, are in short supply generally, and so they have become rare commodities capable of fetching high sums.

And as stated before, where the market demands and is willing to pay high prices, suppliers eager to make good money inevitably eventually step in. Thus, child traffickers have increasingly been abducting and trafficking children.

What does all this mean in the international adoption arena? After all, isn’t this a blog primarily about international adoption and international adoption corruption?

Well, perhaps it means that the story peddled for the last twenty years or so by adoption agencies and the popular media, and the story that adoptive parents still hoping to adopt from China—which I STILL hear from acquaintances on the street—tell about China having so many unwanted baby girls that they’re simply there for the picking, (and indeed, we all ought to be lining up to adopt one of them if we were good Christians and cared about children) while it may once have been true, is no longer true. The situation has changed. China may well still have SOME children in need of adoption, but in China, as elsewhere, these children are likely to be seriously handicapped children and much older children. (The advisability of international adoption of much older children will be the subject of other posts.)

China’s domestic demand for healthy, young children—even girls (maybe especially girls)—may well be strong enough to absorb whatever healthy, young children are available.

It also means that the idea that Chinese adoption is, compared to other countries, squeaky clean, is probably also dead. Can we honestly believe that international adoption could remain squeaky clean in a country where child abduction and child trafficking is rampant, where orphanages have been documented to pay people for supplying adoptable young children (yes, this has been documented), where officials have been documented to have forcibly removed children (in excess of the family planning quota) from their parents in order to send them to orphanages, where orphanages gain money for every child they place, and where children are such rare, valuable commodities?

If you believe that one, I know a few other fairy tales that someone would like to tell you, and a few telemarketers and scammers out there that would love to have your name and email address.


“China Rescues Dozens of Infants from Human Traffickers” Beijing Newsroom, edited by Alex Richardson and Sui-Lee Wee, Reuters, 27 July 2011

“Human Trafficking Ring Busted” Zheng Caixong and Zhang Yan, China Daily, 27 July 2011

“Chinese police rescue 89 children in two major human trafficking cases” by Chen Zhi, Xinhua News Agency,, 27 July 2011

“Authorities to Place Stolen Babies in Care” by Zhang Yan, China Daily, 29 July 2011

“Doctor Helped in Selling of Children to Chinese Families” Financial Times of London (source: Shanghai Daily), 8 August 2011

“China Cracks Down on Child Kidnappings” by Patti Waldmeir, Shanghai, Financial Times of London, 27 July 2011

“Children as young as 10 DAYS old among 89 rescued from clutches of Chinese people traffickers” Daily Mail Online, 27 July 2011

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Intercountry Adoption Accountability Project (Part II---Comment and Response)

NOTE: Fleasbiting is having technical issues. Blogspot is malfunctioning and refusing to encode a comment button on our blog--despite our following instructions for fixing the problem. So please know know that is not that we don't want your comments--we do--and not that we don't want to interact with our readers--we do. We hope to have this issue resolved soon. In the meantime, feel free to send your comments to us via email or else save them up until we get this problem fixed. Our apologies.

The following is a comment I received on e-mail; with permission, I am including it here, and will respond immediately below.

Wow what a terrible story. I am sorry for your experience and do not discount it but you seem to be painting all adoptions with the same brush. Our children were not stolen. There is no need to steal children for adoption because there are thousands waiting. We have seen the two orphanages and several others in the country that our children were adopted from and we know that our children were starved for affection and had been that way for some time. It is horrible that someone would steal children for money.
We are the truth. And there are thousands of families who have legitimate stories and legitimate orphans and there are many more waiting. Do not damage their chances of getting out of a hell on earth.

Rebecca Schwindeman (adoptive parent of a child from Russia)

Rebecca’s comments represent, in my view, a common viewpoint, and I appreciate the opportunity to respond. While I will disagree with much of what Rebecca has said, please keep in mind there is nothing personal in this. My response is designed to respond as much to the many people in the adoption community who think in a manner similar to Rebecca, rather than just to Rebecca herself.

First: I have always acknowledged that there are many children adopted who are not stolen children. I would further acknowledge that the problem of stolen/laundered children is not the major problem in Russian adoptions (the country from which Rebecca adopted).

Child laundering has been a serious problem in many sending nations, including Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Samoa, and Vietnam. Further, the reactions to such misconduct have caused many sending nations to sharply reduce, close, or never open to intercountry adoption, including much of Latin America (based on trafficking documented in the 1980s), Cambodia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and most of sub-Saharan Africa (which has never opened to IA, in significant part due to concerns with trafficking, corruption, and scandals.)

This is where the blame game comes in. Rebecca asks me not to “damage” the chances of children to be adopted. Since I am an academic, writer, and blogger with no power to directly impact IA or its rules, the implication is that I need to self-censor. I have seen this implied and stated repeatedly---that somehow talking about the things that go wrong is what destroys IA.

My response:

Ignoring abusive adoption practices ensures that the adoption system will never reform; for a system that covers up its mistakes has no incentive to learn from them. Such silence breeds impunity: an impunity which has made IA impervious to reform.

Such an approach would be like running an air traffic system by covering up plane crashes, rather than investigating them and using the information derived to avoid future crashes.

Such an approach also fails to account for the full scope and harm of such abusive adoption practices. Adoption systems in which large numbers of children moved became infected with large-scale and systematic abusive practices impacting substantial numbers of adoptions. Within those systems, even the children who were properly adopted are damaged, because they and their adoptive families must live with the uncertainty about whether or not they were stolen---an uncertainty that is very difficult to resolve. Thus, most adoptive parents and adoptees who were adopted from affected countries have no way of knowing whether their adoptions were tainted by child laundering or other abusive practices. This includes, for example, the 25,000 or so children adopted from Guatemala between 2002 and 2008; the approximately 1500 children adopted from Cambodia between 1997 and 2002; the tens of thousands of children adopted from China between 2002 and 2009; the more than 9,000 children adopted from Ethiopia from 2005 to the present; the more than two thousand children adopted from Vietnam between 2006 and 2009; the more than 300 children adopted from Nepal from 2003 to 2010; and so on….

Systems this seriously broken will eventually break down if not fixed. And they are not fixed in large part because the “don’t talk about it” approach provides a sense of impunity for adoption agencies, facilitators, and government officials. Instead of the adoption community lobbying and pushing to fix broken systems, they lobby to keep broken systems going and open. This leads to a self-replicating cycle of abuse which unfortunately has not yet ended.

Another fundamental point: full orphanages do not mean that adoptions are legitimate or needed. The question is how children got to those orphanages, and whether the children are actually orphans. Illicit child trafficking sucks children out of families and into orphanages. Orphanages in many nations are a kind of boarding school and social safety net for the poor. Thus, the mere existence of large numbers of children in orphanages does not indicate a legitimate need for IA.

What, then, of Russia, where a longstanding practice of institutionalization has victimized large numbers of children? As I have said repeatedly, I agree that child laundering generally is NOT the issue there. I agree (and have said repeatedly in the past) that children held in poor quality institutional care, such as has been the case often in Russia, constitute a serious harm in need of urgent remedy. However, what I said in my first “Accountability Project” post applies specifically to Russian adoptions:

[I]ntercountry adoption has all too often approached the delicate task of transplanting deeply traumatized special needs children across families, languages and cultures with all of the skill, competence and care of a drunk teenager high-jacking a car for a joyride. Consequently, intercountry adoption has also produced a significant degree of wreckage amongst adoptive families.

My rhetoric is deliberately strong; but the underlying realities are worse. The wreckage of the Masha Allen case, the fourteen or more Russian adoptees killed by their adoptive parents, and the Hansen’s family act of returning their seven year old adoptive son to Russia on a plane, are symptoms of the extreme stresses and difficulties in Russian adoptions. Such were finally brought to light to some degree in the popular press by the June 2010 Time Magazine article, “When the Adopted Can’t Adapt; see,9171,1997439,00.html. As the article documents, a significant percentage of Russian adoptees arrive with severe difficulties for which adoptive parents are poorly prepared; furthermore, there is in practice often very little in the way of practical assistance post-adoption. The harms done to children and families by the low standards of adoption practice are incalculable and severe.

The official announcement of the July 2011 agreement between the United States and Russia in July 2011 notes new provisions “designed to improve post-adoption reporting and monitoring and to ensure that prospective adoptive parents receive more complete information about adoptive children’s social and medical histories and anticipated needs.” See This has only occurred, however, after the international incident of the Hansen case, after more than 40,000 children have come to the United States under the prior, deficient system, and after adoptions from Russia have decreased by more than 80% (from 5862 in 2004 to 1079 in 2010). Unfortunately, this latest reform comes very, very late.

Somehow, though, in pointing out such difficulties, I am labeled an enemy of adoption. This “shoot the messenger” mentality creates impunity rather than accountability. We need a better accountability system, where the persons responsible for the harm are held accountable, instead of the messenger who brings news of such harms being the one blamed when adoption systems are closed, limited, decline, or break down.

Unfortunately, we probably won’t get the accountability system we need until adoption advocates like Rebecca demand it. So long as the adoption community minimizes the problems and seeks to silence the messengers, we will have impunity instead of reform. And without reform, adoption systems will continue to break down, again and again and again….


Sunday, July 31, 2011

An Accountability Project for Intercountry Adoption--Part I

If intercountry adoption were viewed as an industry (a controversial supposition), it would be a declining industry losing market share to higher tech alternatives. The numbers of children coming into the US are down from the 2004 high of almost 23,000, to 11,000 to 12,000 children last year (depending on whether you count the 1,000 or so children paroled in from Haiti). Consequently, the number of U.S. adoption agencies is declining. Adoptions to most other receiving nations are also declining in numbers, so that global intercountry adoptions are down considerably from the high of approximately 45,000 reached around 2004. Some of this “lost market share” is presumably going to various assisted reproductive technologies, the more “tech” orientated competition. (More on these high tech alternatives in later posts….)

If intercountry adoption were viewed as a humanitarian practice (a controversial supposition), it would be one of many such interventions that become mired in unintended consequences, incompetent execution, and ideological controversy. The humanitarian premise of the intercountry adoption movement has been one of providing families for orphans. The reality has too often been one of manufacturing orphans; needlessly separating children from families. Consequently, intercountry adoption has left a trail of needlessly destroyed and separated families sprinkled throughout the developing world. Further, intercountry adoption has all too often approached the delicate task of transplanting deeply traumatized special needs children across families, languages and cultures with all of the skill, competence and care of a drunk teenager high-jacking a car for a joyride. Consequently, intercountry adoption has also produced a significant degree of wreckage amongst adoptive families.

It is important to make the link between the disastrous record of intercountry adoption as a humanitarian intervention, and the declining numbers. A humanitarian intervention (or industry) with a deserved reputation for corruption, incompetence, and scandal will eventually decline.

Amidst these declining numbers and this unnecessary human wreckage, I think it is past time to start an accountability project. Intercountry adoption agencies and “advocates” have for too long gotten away with shifting the blame and maligning the messenger. Yet, it is precisely the adoption agencies and advocates—and the governments that have all too often capitulated to them—that are responsible both for the declining numbers and for this unnecessary human wreckage.

The obstacles to such an accountability project are clear. If you name names, you may get sued. If you name names, you may leave the mistaken impression that the problem is a few bad actors. Because of these limitations, my own work has not been about naming names, but rather about identifying systemic problems with the intercountry adoption system.

Nonetheless, without concentrating on individuals, I think it is essential to lay the blame squarely where it belongs. The worst enemy of the intercountry adoption system has been—and continues to be—the intercountry adoption system itself. Like a spoiled child that has manipulated his/her parents into allowing him/her to eat only sweets with the predictable result of rotten teeth and stunted growth, the adoption industry has been allowed to grow into an indulged, cosseted, undisciplined, and darling, yet self-defeating monster that only succeeds in destroying and harming itself by getting what it wants.

My intent is to never let the people and institutions responsible forget the harm they have done and are doing! And I hope that many of you will continue to join me in this accountability project!

David Smolin