China and the US share a unique adoption history

By Siyi Huo


In 1992, China opened its gates to international adoption.

Under the Adoption Law implemented in April 1992, foreigners were allowed to adopt children from China, provided that they were childless and at least 35 years old. They also could adopt only one child at a time.

In that year, 206 children were adopted to the United States, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs.


Why adopting from China?

From 1992 to 2005, the number of Chinese adopted by Americans steadily increased to its peak of 7,906 in 2005.  In 1992, fewer Chinese adoptees came to the U.S. than those from other countries like Colombia and India, and far less than the 1,840 South Korean children.  In 1995, Chinese adoptees totalled 2,130, surpassing South Korea and Russia, becoming the country with the most children adopted in the U.S.

Kay Johnson, a professor on Asian studies and China policies, said, “the one-child birth policy was joined by the one-child adoption policy, which prohibited Chinese parents in rural China from circulating children to adoption in order to hide the birth. And because they made it difficult for Chinese adoption, they turned to international adoption.”

The domestic adoption policy under China’s Adoption Law of 1992, which was slightly amended in 1999, stated qualified adoptive parents have to be over 30 years old, childless, have the ability to nurture children,  and be free of certain diseases. One parent can only adopt one child.

Aside from these restrictions, many local orphanages even charged extra fee for prospective Chinese parents to adopt a child, in light of the adoption fee for foreigners, which could be up to $5,385,  according to a Chinese media investigation.

At the same time, China’s central adoption authority, China Center of Adoption Affairs (CCAA), regulated that applications from foreigners had first priority for processing.

In 2005, it was the first time in China that the number of children adopted by foreign parents was larger than those adopted by domestic parents. The international adoption took up 58 percent of the total with 14,000 children adopted while domestic adoption occupied 42 percent with 10,000 children.

Additionally, U.S. parents found China an attractive choice for adoption.  Molly Minervino, mother of two girls adopted from China recalled her decision to choose China. “My girlfriend has talked about China and how it is very easy,” she said. “You could go and they will hand your child and that’s your child, you get a little referral photo at the beginning and there weren’t any running around and around.” 

“At the time, the adoption process in China was organized and patterned and standardized for the most part. People thought, O’K here is the process I can follow and I know that if I do everything correctly, the likelihood in the end that I will have a child as part of family,'” said Linda Seligman, the author of book Broken Links, Enduring Ties: American Adoption across Race, Class, and Nation.” The book chronicles her   interviews with many American adoptive families.

“There was a stereotype about Chinese girls, like they were cute, they were adorable,they would be bright,” Seligman said.

Moreover, China, in the late 20th century and early 21st century, was among the few countries that accepted adoptive parents who were over 50 years old.

“”I have spoken to many of my friends, who adopted from Russia, South America,” said Minervino, “Russia, a lot of alcohol problems, alcoholism. South America seemed like, they had to go down to South America and see their child and they’d leave and then they have to come back later and to do the paperwork. To me, I know that I could never go, see my child and then leave it. I just can’t do that.”

As for domestic adoption, Seligman said racism and high risk of adoption failure may have turned more American parents to Chinese children.

“A lot of these children,” said Seligman who was talking about prospective U.S. adoptees in the state welfare system and private adoption agencies, “had, whether formally or informally, relatives or kin who really didn’t want them to be adopted. So there was always concerns that as the adoption proceeded, either a birth parent or birth relative, would eventually come and reclaim the child. This has happened in a number of cases.”

Furthermore, Seligman said racism was “an undercurrent that affects people’s decisions of not adopting African-American children, especially if they (the parents) were white. But if you go to the state welfare system, there are predominantly African-American children.”

“In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers claimed that interracial adoption by white parents (of) black children was a kind of cultural genocide. They were worried that the white parents wouldn’t give them their own culture and everything else,” said Seligman. “People who might want to adopt an African-American child were reluctant to do it because of the social sanction or social critique. And as far as private adoption, there weren’t many African-American children. It was mainly white children, and the figures could mount to hundred thousands of dollars. That was also an obstacle.”

Thus, in this way, within just a few years, China’s healthy infant and toddler girls were in a huge demand in the U.S. According to the report “Totals of IR−3 and IR−4 Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans” published annually by the U.S. Department of State, China remained the top country for most adoptees in the US from 2000 to 2007. After 2005, China’s intercountry adoption started to swiftly shrink with a decrease from 7,906 in 2005 to 3,001 in 2009 and the decline continues.

A decline of interconutry adoption 

Iris Chin Ponte, a China adoption researcher, who adopted a special-needs boy from China when he was 18 months old said, “parents have to wait for a healthy children for 8 to 10 years and maybe now in 2016, not even a chance anymore.”

Along with the reduced numbers, the structure has also transformed from a “more girl-less boy” mode to a nearly “half girl-half boy.” Most of them are special-needs children under the Waiting Children Program. China also gradually tightened its foreign adoption policy, which results in fewer U.S. parents qualified to adopt a child from China.

gender structure of Chinese in 2009. adoptees in
Source: Data published on Intercountry Adoption of U.S. Department of State
gender structure of Chinese in 2015.
Source: Data published on Intercountry Adoption of U.S. Department of State

In 2007, China began restricting applicants for its children by marital status, age, mental and physical health, weight, income, education, family size, and more. Many people who had previously been hoping to adopt from China became ineligible because they were single, gay, married too often, too fat, too young or old, took antidepressants or were in Alcoholics Anonymous or exhibited other characteristics that might not have been considered major concerns in their native countries. 

At the same time, China’s stricter policy follows the global trend of against intercountry adoption.

Source: Data published on Intercountry Adoption of U.S. Department of State

The chart above includes all countries of origin of U.S. adoptees, and it shows that the total number has decreased since 2004. Countries like Russia and Guatemala have closed their gates to international adoption. Vietnam also halted its intercountry adoption in 2008 because of allegations of  fraud and baby-selling and restarted in 2014.

The trend against intercountry adoption comes amid criticism on child trafficking and corruption in this global network. Nevertheless, Sara A. Dillon, a Suffolk University law professor and an expert on international law admits that there can be fraud in terms of intercountry adoption but most of all, she said, “every child should be parented. Countries and governments cannot raise children, only families can raise children, Human beings have to raise other human beings.”




About Siyi Huo 3 Articles

Siyi Huo is a multimedia journalist with experience in video and photography. She previously interned as a video journalist with the Boston Herald and a director assistant of Northern Light Productions. She wants to be a documentary film director and has special interests in investigation reporting.