The Changing Face of China Adoptions

If you’ve followed international news from China in the last six months, you’ve probably heard of the baby hatch. These small buildings, translated “baby safety islands” in Chinese, were created by the Chinese government in 2011 to help curb infant abandonment in the country. In safety and anonymity, parents can leave their new baby at a local baby hatch, a small warm shelter with a cradle and incubator. A bell sounds after the parent exits, and a welfare worker comes to care for the child. In a country where approximately 10,000 children are abandoned each year, the baby hatch is a complex, heart-rending solution.

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Today, while visiting one of our orphanages in southern China, I got to see a baby hatch, one that has made the news because its high intake volumes forced its closure a few months ago. 262 babies were deposited here in the first three months the hatch was open, so overwhelming the local orphanages that they could not continue to service it. Orphanage officials here tell me that 99 percent of the babies who arrived in the baby hatch were very, very sick – serious diagnoses like cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, and congenital heart disease, and unusual birth defects and incurable diseases. Orphanage officials had hoped to offer parents a way to safely abandon their babies, since it is illegal to abandon children in China, but, they tell me, they weren’t expecting so many sick children.

In the last two decades, families adopting from China expected to be quickly matched with a healthy baby girl under the age of three. Today, families might wait five to six years for a match like this. China’s current birth rate is exceedingly low, and the country has seen a rise in domestic adoption placements, making fewer and fewer healthy children available for international adoption. These two factors, combined with the reality of the growing need for baby hatches across the country, are clear signals. It is time for us to acknowledge plainly: China adoptions are changing. If the face of China adoptions in the 1990s was a healthy baby girl, today, it is the face of a child with special needs. More boldly we must assert – these children need families too.

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On Tuesday we saw children from three orphanages in southern China. It was a whirlwind day of picture taking and videotaping, snuggling and playing. We met more than 100 children, loved them and heard their stories. Almost all of these children have complicated diagnoses. They are learning to live life without a limb, with a heart condition, with a life-altering disability. Most heart-breaking, they are doing this alone — in an institution, not a family. They are growing up without the fierce love of a parent who will advocate for them, without the supportive nurture that will provide them with a foundation of hope and strength to step boldly into the future.

As I look into the beautiful faces of these little children, my heart aches to think that they are waiting. They are waiting for our assumptions about China adoptions to change. They are waiting for families who will welcome them, regardless of their special need. It is my most ardent hope and prayer that someday all of China’s children will find the security of unconditional love in the warm embrace of a family.

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