Would-be adopters nervous about news on China Allegations of abuse in orphanages are termed out of date

cutoff feared

January 15, 1996|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Barb Buhai groaned when she read the latest news reports about allegations of abuse and neglect in Chinese orphanages.

Not because the report released this month by Human Rights Watch-Asia detailing systematic starvation of infant foundlings surprised her or her husband. Rather, it was the fear that any bad news about China could derail the couple's adoption of their soon-to-be daughter, Lily Alexandra Jiang.

"When these kinds of articles come out, they just anger the Chinese government," said Ms. Buhai of Barrington, Ill., already skittish about the adoption after three months of delays.

"The [reports] do a lot to inform people. But it also hurts the families who are in limbo waiting for their children."

It's a reaction that's familiar to the agencies that arrange a growing number of Chinese adoptions -- an option that has become so popular with American parents that the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou (Canton), China, is now handling 500 applications a month.

The caseworkers know that although such stories arouse great sympathy and interest in Chinese orphans, they also threaten what has always been a fragile link between the two countries.

"I think the Chinese government is very sensitive to world opinion," said Richard Pearlman, executive director of Family Resource Center, a Chicago agency that arranged 25 Chinese adoptions in 1995 and expects to handle three times that many this year.

"If there's enough criticism, they might just tuck in their wings and say 'Who needs this?' We have to be sensitive to the cross-cultural issues and not burn any bridges," he said.

The well-documented report that provoked the recent furor was based in large part on testimony and files provided by a Chinese doctor who worked in a Shanghai orphanage from 1988 to 1993.

The 331-page report alleges that the orphanages have a practice of starving infants to death to make room for new ones and that mortality rates at some orphanages topped 72 percent in 1989. It concludes that treatment follows a "pattern of cruelty, abuse and malign neglect."

Chinese officials have denied the allegations and conducted tours of the Shanghai orphanage named in the report.

Parents considering adoption often are inspired rather than discouraged by these reports of neglect.

The appeal is great for those frustrated by domestic adoptions: The Chinese process takes months instead of years; there are no worries about a birth parent returning; and China's policy welcomes older couples and single parents.

Like other prospective parents, Liz Hanzel of Elk Grove Village, Ill., has mixed feelings about stories of mistreatment and malnutrition in state-run orphanages.

She felt sick watching excerpts of a British documentary this summer about an orphanage that tied some babies to potty chairs, while sentencing others to starve in a "dying room" -- publicity that prompted the Chinese government to ban foreigners' visits to orphanages.

She's confident her daughter won't be mistreated because she knows the babies chosen for adoption receive extra attention, medical care and food in the orphanages or foster homes. But after five years of trying to conceive a child, the Hanzels are afraid of another disappointment.

A number of caseworkers here as well as a consultant who visits China frequently said the report is dated and does not reflect the improvements made since China reopened its doors to foreign adoptions in 1993.

They noted that every adopting parent pays $3,000 as a donation to an orphanage, money generally used to improve conditions -- adding staff, installing heaters or air conditioners, buying more food and toys for the babies.

Ms. Buhai said she was amazed at the difference a few months made in the Jiangsu orphanage where the infant she plans to adopt is waiting. The first picture of Lily scared her. The baby looked "emaciated" and her hair had fallen out in odd-sized patches. The second photo showed a chubby-faced baby being cuddled and grasping a set of plastic keys. In the background, there is an air conditioner.

As much as bad publicity embarrasses the Chinese, Kenneth Lubowich, president of China Adoption Consultants of Skokie, Ill., doesn't foresee the government pulling the plug on American adoptions.

In fact, the government is opening adoptions to more European countries.

Foreign adoptions won't solve China's problems with abandoned infants, the experts say. The estimates range from an official 150,000 to as many as 1 million a year, and that won't stop unless the country of 1.2 billion decides to abandon its population-control laws.

But the money generated by adoption fees and tourism may allow the Chinese government to expand the foster-care system and continue to improve state-run orphanages, which number 900 or more nationwide.

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