Stealing Babies for Adoption

Cindy Lunte of Moore, Idaho, left, and Wendi Roth, of Littleton, Colo., at the White Swan hotel in 1998. The women held their adopted girls.
Cindy Lunte of Moore, Idaho, left, and Wendi Roth, of Littleton, Colo., at the White Swan hotel in 1998. The women held their adopted girls. (Vincent Yu - AP)
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 12, 2006

DONGGUAN, China On a muggy evening in July 2004, on a concrete lane reeking of raw sewage and chemicals from surrounding factories, a stranger leapt from a white van. He yanked 16-month-old Fei Mei from the arms of her 8-year-old cousin and sped away.

All night, her parents searched this industrial city in southern China for their round-faced baby girl.

"We looked everywhere, on every street corner," said her father, Xu Mohu. "We thought maybe the guy wouldn't like a girl and he would abandon her."

That was once a reasonable assumption. For generations, girls in rural China have been left to die in the cold or abandoned on doorsteps while families devote their scant resources to nourishing boys. But over the past decade, a wave of foreigners, mostly Americans, has poured into China with dollars in hand to adopt Chinese babies, 95 percent of them girls.

Last year, the United States issued nearly 8,000 visas to Chinese-born children adopted by American parents. More than 50,000 children have left China for the United States since 1992. And more than 10,000 children have landed in other countries, according to Chinese reports.

The foreign adoption program has matched Chinese babies with foreign families eager for them, while delivering crucial funding to orphanages in this country. But it has also spawned a tragic irony, transforming once-unwanted Chinese girls into valuable commodities worth stealing.

The morning after Fei Mei was taken, her parents made a report at the local police station, where they learned that on the same night, another baby girl had been taken in Dongguan.

The prevalence of the problem has become clearer in recent weeks with the prosecution of a child-trafficking ring in the neighboring province of Hunan. Last November, police arrested 27 members of a ring that since 2002 had abducted or purchased as many as 1,000 children here in Guangdong province and sold them to orphanages in Hunan for $400 to $538, according to reports in Chinese state media and interviews with sources familiar with the case, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because provincial officials have ordered a media blackout. The orphanages placed most of those children in homes with unwitting foreign families, many of them Americans, in exchange for mandatory contributions of $3,000 per baby -- a sum nearly twice the average annual Chinese income -- according to sources familiar with the prosecution.

Last month, a court in Hunan sentenced three of those baby traffickers to 15 years in prison and imposed terms of three to 13 years on six others, the official New China News Agency reported. Twenty-three local government officials in Hengyang, the city at the center of the case, have been fired. Attorneys for those sentenced said the babies involved were abandoned and then sold to orphanages, but not abducted. They plan appeals.

On the lane where Fei Mei vanished, her parents still wonder what happened to their daughter.

"We think of her all the time," Xu said. "But chances are, we'll never see her again."

On the other side of the world, in Jenison, Mich., Susan and Gordon Toering tuck their daughter in to bed and wonder where she really came from. They adopted Stacie in August 2005 from an orphanage in Hengyang. The paperwork from the adoption agency said she had been found abandoned. But the sources familiar with the prosecution and two defense attorneys said orphanage directors faked reports to make it seem that the babies they bought had been abandoned, allowing them to gain government clearance for foreign adoptions.

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