A new industry is booming, the international adoption market and its surrounding currents.
The only man-made structure visible from space, the Great Wall of China snakes across the Asian superpower, unchanged since its construction 2,000 years ago during the Chin dynasty. Once an emblem of the country’s determination to repel the outside world and thrive in a culture devoid of foreign influence, today it often serves a different purpose. Here is where hundreds of adoptive parents bring their Chinese infants, newly bundled into BabyBjörn slings, sporting pink leather Robeez booties and fuzzy Baby Gap sweaters, to bid goodbye to their country of birth. Unlike the farmers who plow the nearby fields and the wives who failed to bear them a son, they’ve been given a new destiny: to grow up as children of the West. Seven-year-old Sabrina Hampson, daughter of Jamie and Bruce Hampson, doesn’t remember her visit to the Wall. But her mother does. It was a couple of days after she and her now ex-husband had been handed their new daughter, and they had some time to explore Sabrina’s birthplace. They didn’t exactly stand out. At the Great Wall, “all you see are Europeans, Canadians and Americans with babies,” says Jamie. The 44-year-old VP of sales for Babylicious, a baby accessory company, is sitting in the living room of the West Vancouver home she shares with her two daughters. She leafs through a photo album documenting the voyage she took with Bruce to collect Sabrina as part of a group of 11 other couples. They stayed in ChangSha, capital of Hunan province. “Our hotel was full of people adopting babies. It was fantastic. They provide cribs and they make sure you have a kettle in your room so you can boil water to make formula. They give you anything you need.” Thanks to images of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt traipsing across the globe with their rainbow brood in tow and reports of other adopting celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Ewan McGregor, who recently welcomed daughters from China and Mongolia respectively, international adoption is in the spotlight like never before. Although many will recoil from the idea of babies as a hot commodity, the reality is that international adoption is on the rise, giving birth to a global industry in which infants are shuttled across the globe into the arms of waiting families. Local adoption agencies are scrambling to fill an ever-growing demand for babies. The non-profit groups are adopting business strategies to stay a step ahead of other agencies, including advertising on buses and developing niche markets by specializing in adoptions from certain countries. Commuters may have seen ads for Victoria-based Choices Adoption & Counselling Services on the back of TransLink buses. They feature a happy Asian baby held up by a smiling Caucasian woman and the caption, “Thinking about Adoption?” in bold letters. The same ad has appeared in the Georgia Straight. The B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development has paid for similar ads on buses and SkyTrains for “B.C.’s waiting children” – kids in foster care – urging people to call 1-877-ADOPT-07. Clearly there’s a target market out there. Nobody’s talking about selling babies. Agencies collect money to cover their legal fees and expenses, as well as those incurred in the child’s birth country. “Money does change hands in adoption,” notes Deborah Spar, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the author of The Baby Business, published in February of this year, which examines the fertility and adoption industries in the U.S. and abroad. “People know that. People have always known that… [It’s] Economics 101. You have demand, you have supply, and there’s a price at which they come together.” Several factors are driving up the rate of international adoption in B.C. and most Western countries. Fertility in the West is plummeting. Rising rates of obesity and sexually transmitted diseases, along with a population waiting longer to begin having children, mean more couples are finding it difficult or impossible to conceive. The future doesn’t hold much hope for Western wombs: At England’s Sheffield University, ob-gyn professor Bill Ledger predicts that as many as one in three couples in the world’s richest, most industrialized nations will experience fertility problems in the next decade. Current estimates range from one in six to one in 10 couples. And despite the hype surrounding fertility drugs and procedures, medical intervention is hardly the miracle-baby-producing technology it’s often hyped to be. In vitro fertilization (IVF), for example, offers an average rate of success for women aged 34 and younger of just 35 per cent. With age, the chances of conceiving using this method only grow slimmer; among women 43 and older undergoing IVF, only four per cent will eventually deliver a child. Some same-sex couples and single women choose to adopt, but for the most part, adoptive parents are heterosexual couples who have exhausted all means of having a biological child. Many find local adoption to be overly complex and difficult. There are several reasons why fewer local infants are available than in past generations: many have been exposed to drugs or alcohol in the womb, birth mothers can now choose the child’s adoptive parents and have 30 days to change their minds after the child is born, and new legislation favours ¬placing aboriginal children with aboriginal family or community members. Little wonder infertile couples desperate for a baby are increasingly turning to international adoption, with China the ¬No. 1 source of infants. But are they ¬prepared for the cost? Doug Chalke is the director and founder of Sunrise Family Services Society in West Vancouver. Soft-spoken, tall and burly, he’s the kind of man you might hear described as a teddy bear. He exudes an aura of warmth and consideration as he describes the fulfillment that comes from helping childless couples build families. Propped on his desk is a flyer for the agency’s Asia program, which features a snapshot of his 11-year-old biological daughter surrounded by a half-dozen Korean babies, infants who were stranded with the Chalke family in transit to Toronto and Montreal on September 11, 2001 (babies from Korea are sometimes chaperoned and delivered directly to their adoptive parents). It’s an odd image, and you can’t help but smile at the sight of all these spiky-haired infants. But there’s an uncomfortable subtext here for cynics: “We’ve got babies on order. Come and get ’em!” “When you look at China, almost all of the risks [associated with inter-country adoption] are eliminated,” says Chalke. “Relatively speaking, China is a very predictable program for people. On some level, it’s like getting on a train at one end and getting off the train at the other end with a child... You can basically say that from today, in about 18 months, you’ll be home with a child.” Chalke says that with fees amounting to approximately $18,000 in total (including mandatory fees paid to the B.C. agency handling the case, plus additional fees paid to the appropriate Chinese agency, intermediary and government office), China offers one of the most affordable inter- country options available. B.C. parents are required by law to use a B.C. adoption agency to oversee their cases, and while there is no set fee structure for adoption agencies in B.C., all fees must be approved by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. For inter-country adoptions, Victoria-based Choices Adoption & Counselling Services charges a non-refundable registration fee of $350, $1,200 for planning and pre-placement, and $925 to $2,775 for placement and post-placement. These service fees vary depending on country, type of adoption and use of a facilitator. The fees do not include travel costs, couriers, notary, translation, orphanage donation, post-placement reports required by law or legal fees. Then there are additional and sometimes government-mandated services to be covered, which can include yearly post-placement reports and home-study updates: $300 here, $500 there. That’s not including GST. All in all, it makes for an expensive and confusing undertaking. Expense and red tape notwithstanding, more than 65,000 Chinese girls have been adopted since China opened its orphanage doors in 1991, largely by Caucasian families in North America. In the U.S., there has been an annual 10-per-cent increase in international adoptions; last year, 7,905 children from China joined American families. In Canada, over the past decade, the number of annual Chinese adoptees has remained steady at around 1,000 (about half the total number of inter-country adoptions registered in this country), but agencies say they are receiving increasing calls and requests for information. [pagebreak] Adoption fees vary from agency to agency, depending on how many intermediaries are involved between the B.C. agency and the orphanage or agency overseas. And the costs vary widely depending on the adopted child’s country of birth: eastern Europe and Russia top the list at approximately $33,000 to $45,000; adoptions from the U.S. and Korea hover in the middle around $20,000 to $30,000; China, the Philippines and Ethiopia are at the low end, starting at $15,000. Some countries, China for one, appear to run a very smooth and efficient operation. Others such as Romania (which recently closed its doors) are much less predictable. And some regions, like South America, are rife with corruption. But it’s not just the predictability of China adoptions that makes it the country of choice for Canadian parents; it’s also what one might callously term the “quality of the product.” As Chalke ¬explains, “Generally speaking, women in China take care of themselves when they’re pregnant because, of course, this could be a boy. That’s what they want.” He also notes that the ¬majority of adoptive parents request girls; given China’s large numbers of ¬unwanted females, it seems a perfect fit. Like most adoptive parents, Jamie and Bruce Hampson only turned to adoption after numerous attempts at in vitro fertilization – at $2,000 to $5,000 per attempt – failed. They adopted Natasha, now 11, through a local adoption, but it was a trying experience they were not keen to repeat. Before they adopted Natasha, “there was a birth mother in Vernon that was interested in our profile,” Jamie Hampson hesitantly recalls. “After she had the baby, we went to Vernon and looked after the baby in the hospital every day, bathing her, feeding her, everything. After about a week, the birth mother started to waffle.” The 16-year-old placed her baby in foster care for three weeks, then decided to keep her. At that time, birth mothers had 10 days to change their minds about an adoption; they now have a month. “There are lots of stories where [adoptive parents] have had to give the baby up on the 28th or 29th day, which is extremely difficult,” says Hampson. Eight months after the failed Vernon adoption, the Hampsons successfully adopted blonde, blue-eyed Natasha. When Natasha began asking for a sister, adopting from China just made sense. “Part of me felt that it would be nice to adopt a child from another country that was truly in need,” Hampson explains. “We think that people in Canada are living below the poverty level, but that’s nothing compared to where Sabrina came from. It was a combination of not wanting to deal with the whole Canadian structure, but also wanting to help a child who was in a bad situation.” Early pictures of Sabrina, taken hours after her adoption, show a thin, slightly malnourished child who was unable to hold her head up at 10 months of age. Today, that same girl is a spirited Grade 2 student who takes part in gymnastics and soccer, loves experimenting with her long hair (she proudly displays the waves left over from a head full of braids) and teases her older sister about a budding crush. She certainly isn’t short on motherly love; Hampson clearly dotes on both her girls. “All of ’Brina’s delays just disappeared,” she says proudly. “She has a lot of focus and she’s very organized and disci¬plined. She’s just an awesome kid. I never have to ask her to do anything, ever. She’s like the Mother Teresa of seven-year-olds.” The West Vancouver mom insists that the adoption process “didn’t ever feel like you were buying a baby” – she silently mouths the word “buying” to avoid being overheard by her daughter – a charge often lobbed by critics of inter-country adoption. But there’s no denying that adopting children from overseas costs thousands upon thousands of dollars. And it has some parents wondering, despite the joys that adoption has brought them, about where exactly that money is going. Sylvia Smith (not her real name) is the 52-year-old mother of two adopted sons aged eight and 11 from the southern U.S. She has concerns about what she sees as the lack of transparency in the B.C. adoption system. “It just seemed like [the local adoption agency] always had their hand out saying, ‘Well, this is going to cost you this much money, and this is now going to cost you this much.’ $500 here, $700 there, adding, adding, adding. It didn’t seem ethical. I didn’t think it was handled very well. I really didn’t.” Smith and her husband, who live in North Vancouver, adopted their first child before the B.C. government introduced the Adoption Act in 1995. Prior to the Act, all adoptions were handled privately; parents worked with lawyers, social workers or doctors who helped facilitate the adoption. (It was Doug Chalke, coincidentally, who facilitated Smith’s first adoption before he founded Sunrise in 1996.) Since 1995, every adoption of a child in B.C., locally or from another country, must be administered through an accredited, registered agency. By the time Smith adopted her second child, she could no longer deal directly with the private adoption agency in Georgia that had matched her with her first son, and was ¬instead forced to go through an intermediary. “I just found that they were well-meaning but obstructive,” she says of the Kelowna agency involved. “Having been through it before, we knew what we were doing. With [our second son], we found that they just had a lot of hoops to run through that we didn’t think were necessary.” The adoption of her first son cost approximately US$8,000, while the second adoption cost thousands more (she claims not to remember how much). “If the [B.C.] government is going to get into the agency business – and it was the government that said that these agencies had to open up, it’s not a private business – they should ¬[enforce] a very simple, clear fee structure,” asserts Smith. “I’m not saying it should be free. It can’t be free, I know that. But don’t just tell me that to put forth this piece of paper it’s going to cost me $500, because that doesn’t make sense to me, and that doesn’t seem right.” Chalke acknowledges that adoptions did become more complicated and bureaucratic after the act was passed. “Since the agency ¬system was set up, there are more layers of fees,” he says. “That was the government’s ¬intent. They wanted to protect parents and children, and they said they were going to set up a system with a lot of rules and layers of ¬regulations, but they were not going to put money into it. They decided they would require agencies to be self-financing. Essentially, it’s the government contracting out the service. Back in the old days, when there were no rules or requirements, it did cost less.” Despite the increased costs and complications of their second adoption, the Smiths were matched to an infant within weeks of applying. In B.C., if you want a newborn, you either have one yourself, find a B.C. resident who is pregnant and considering giving up her child for adoption, or cast your net across the border. Compared to adopting a newborn locally, which can sometimes take years, the U.S. offered a fast track to parenthood for Smith and her husband. The reasons for the ease and relative affordability of their adoptions are not hard to pinpoint: both infants were male – and black. That race relations in the U.S. are strained is a given, but perhaps nowhere is the division between white and black more starkly illustrated than in the fees associated with adoption in the country. “In the U.S., fees for Caucasian children are high; the fees for biracial or Latino children are slightly lower; and the fees are lowest of all for black children,” admits Sandra Scarth, executive director of Choices Adoption & Counselling Services. “It’s a sliding scale and I find it very repugnant.” It’s worth pointing out, however, that Choices does facilitate U.S. adoptions, since B.C. agencies are required to provide a full range of services and access to programs in different countries. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adoption fees for healthy Caucasian babies can be as high as US$40,000. For biracial babies the cost, on average, is US$18,000. For African-American newborns, fees start at US$12,000. The website adoption.tk/situations, which reads like a series of classified ads from adoption facilitators and includes banner ads for “safe adoption investigators” and adoption agencies, makes no attempt to disguise the race-related sliding fee scale. One ad lists “a full AA [African-American] baby, gender unknown but will be having an ultrasound to find out. Birth father is aware of her pregnacy [sic] and is consenting. No drugs or alcohol. She has Medicaid. Total fees approx. $11,000, not including travel or finalization.” Another advertises a “3/4AA and 1/4 Cauc baby girl. No drugs or alcohol... Total fees approx. $12,500 includes finalization, not travel.” And one ad, for a full Caucasian baby delivered to a drug- and alcohol-free birth mother, is listed at fees of “approximately $30,000 to $33,000, which includes everything except travel.” Harvard’s Deborah Spar says she doesn’t believe the current system is necessarily unethical but adds: “I do think that everybody is better off, the children involved, the parents involved and probably even the reputable agencies involved, if we acknowledge what these monies look like. Then you can start to draw the line and say, ‘Wait a minute, this case is fine, but this other case ¬actually consists of baby-selling.’ Because at the moment the lines are really, really ¬blurry.” Case in point: many of the ads listed on ¬adoption.tk/situations also mention fees for “birthmother expenses,” but none outlines exactly what these expenses might be. Spar, who adopted a six-year-old girl from Russia three years ago with her husband, stresses that she is not critical of the institution of adoption. “I think we can definitely allow money to change hands in a legal, reputable adoption and prohibit baby-selling, because the two are different.” She adds that the sliding scale of fees associated with children of different races is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, if it is getting more kids adopted. Neither, she says, is the marketing of children available for adoption cause for serious concern. [pagebreak] Still, the blatant commodification of children on websites such as RainbowKids.com can be jarring. RainbowKids is an online, U.S.-based international adoption publication that provides a searchable database of children in orphanages and foster homes around the globe. When sorted by birth date, endless pages of babies are displayed with photos, ¬including one eastern European infant with the following write-up: “Hi there! I’m a healthy baby boy longing for a mama! I need lots of love and cuddling as soon as possible! I was born on time on January 7th and am right on target in every way. I love to smile, and I warm the hearts of the people around me when I do. My caretakers tell me I’m a cutie pie. I was left in a maternity house and then was moved to a baby house. But what I really need is a family to love me to pieces. Are you my mama?” Another infant in Latin America, born December 15, 2005, has a cleft palate. His description notes, “a slight reduction in fees has been made available.” Such websites have yet to crop up in Canada, but the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development does use the Internet to highlight its “waiting children.” Visitors to the site can read individual profiles of adoptable children, including a description of six First Nations siblings ranging in age from eight to 17 who are seeking a permanent family. The write-up states: “An ideal family for this sibling group is one who keeps them all together and who is accepting of their limitations. A small community would suit these children well, and they would also like to have pets in their new home.” What is the ministry’s and the adoption agencies’ rationale for buying ads on buses and in newspapers? They insist it’s merely to make people aware of their services. But could it also be to actively market babies and children to approved adults wealthy enough to afford them? Scarth says, “In the past, advertising wasn’t seen as something that agencies should do... But I think one of the agencies started advertising early on and the other agencies said ‘Okay, if they can do it so can we.’ So we all advertise now as a matter of course.” Chalke acknowledges that Sunrise, too, spends money on advertising, particularly in parenting magazines. The amount agencies spend on marketing their services is far from negligible. According to publicly accessible Registered Charity Information Returns, Sunrise spent $84,000 on advertising and promotion in 2005, and $72,000 in 2004. The agency’s total revenues were $1.15 million for 2005 and $817,000 for 2004, with expenditures of $1.2 million and $785,000 respectively. Choices, whose 2005 returns were not available at the time this article went to press, spent $18,000 on advertising and promotion in 2004. In that year it logged revenues of $596,000 and expenditures of $552,000. This is well in line with the corporate rule of spending between five and 15 per cent of net revenues on marketing. Scarth admits: “Sure, it’s a business. But it’s a non-profit business. We’re not scooping a lot of money.” Mike and Isabel Morena, a Port Coquitlam couple who worked with Choices to adopt their six-year-old son Anthony from Romania at 10 months and eight-month-old daughter Julianna from the U.S. at birth, agree the road to adoption is paved with financial burdens. “It’s like, ‘Leave your wallet at the door, we’ll let you know when we’re finished with it,’ ” jokes Mike. He and Isabel estimate that the fees for Anthony’s adoption amounted to close to $40,000, as did the fees for Julianna (who is one-quarter Hispanic). “Even just to apply, you have to pay,” notes Isabel. “If you don’t get a baby, you don’t get any of it back.” She and Mike had initially applied to the Romania program for their second child. When Romania closed its doors to adoption, the Morenas turned to the U.S., where a Utah agency said they would “guarantee” them a child within nine months. “That’s if you don’t want a healthy baby,” says Isabel. “They don’t tell you that.” After turning down numerous infants with drug or alcohol exposure in the womb, the couple was matched with Julianna’s birth mother a year after they began working with the American agency. But the adoption bills didn’t end when Julianna was placed in their arms, notes Mike. Finalizing the adoption in June required another $1,500 in legal and agency fees. Local agencies emphasize that they are not in the business of making money. In fact, Scarth says Choices posted a $2,000 deficit in 2005. She and Chalke do, however, acknowledge that agencies compete with one another for potential adoptive parents. “A collaborative/competitive relationship” is how Chalke describes it. “We all need to stay in place and the only way to do that is to have clients.” To maintain their stake in the market, many agencies differentiate themselves by focusing on one type of adoption. Scarth, for example, boasts that for a long time Choices was the “only accredited agency in Canada for Russia,” and is the only one currently working in Nepal. Chalke claims Sunrise charges less than other agencies for its China program because it is directly linked to an orphanage there. “Everybody else in the province uses a consultant. We’re $3,000 or $4,000 less than anybody else.” Scarth insists that she and her staff are not earning huge salaries. “We keep our fees as low as we physically can so that we don’t make a profit. We pay our staff and we pay them reasonably well. But we don’t pay them exorbitantly... My fee [at the agency is] is half what it would be if I was out doing consulting work.” Choices’ 2004 Charity Information Returns list three employees at Choices as falling in the salary range of $1 to $39,999 and two in the range of $40,000 to $79,999. At Sunrise, in 2005, one employee’s salary fell in the lowest range, three in the middle and one in the top range of $80,000 to $119,999. For all the substantial costs involved in adopting a child from overseas, getting prospective adopters in the door has not been a big issue. “Our intake has almost doubled in the last three years,” says Scarth. Adds Chalke: “We’re getting more calls. There’s definitely a growing acceptance of adoption in our society as well as a growing interest.” The real challenge, they say, is keeping up with the demand in a changing global market. “Most of the world is shutting down to adoption because of nationalism,” says Chalke. As nationalism grows, he explains, governments face mounting pressure to keep their children at home. With the introduction of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption – an international agreement in which countries commit to certain standards of practice governing adoption, including the establishment of a central authority – the power to say yea or nay to inter-country adoption can rest with a single individual. “If you put somebody in charge who is of the anti-adoption belief, it comes to a halt,” notes Chalke. Overseas adoptions from specific countries are also periodically shut down when corruption or baby trafficking is uncovered. The B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development has moratoriums in place for adoptions from Cambodia, Guatemala and Azerbaijan. The ministry’s website also posts alerts about countries that have disallowed foreign adoptions such as Sarawak, the Republic of Georgia and Romania. Recently, the international adoption world received a jolt when a baby-trafficking ring was busted in China. In February, a Chinese orphanage director and nine others were handed jail sentences of 13-plus years for buying infants in Guangdong province and selling them to six orphanages in Hunan province for up to $615 each. Another 22 officials in Hunan were sacked for their part in the ring, which ran from 2002 to 2005; last year 78 abducted children were purchased by orphanages. B.C. agencies and the Adoption Council of Canada, however, insist that they still feel ¬secure about Chinese adoptions. “People are a little concerned and they’ll be checking into who got children from where,” says Scarth, “but on the whole, I think China is still a very reputable, well-run program.” Certainly Jamie Hampson never had any qualms about her experiences in China. “It was all extremely above-board,” she says. “The Chinese administrated everything 10 times better than the Canadian government. They’re more efficient.” As for the cost, she says she didn’t feel that she and her husband were taken advantage of. “Nobody’s making any money at it. It’s just a really great thing that everybody’s doing. I mean, you grease a few palms over in China, but we’re not talking about huge amounts of money.” Jamie and other parents may be thrilled with their China adoption experiences, but Scarth and Chalke agree that one thing is inevitable: the country will, one day, close its orphanage doors to Westerners. “When you’re a First World country, the rest of the world starts to put pressure on you to not let your children be adopted overseas,” says Chalke. And it’s not just Chinese officials who will be shutting out adoptive parents from the West, he adds. “In Korea, the government is working to change societal norms and values to make it culturally acceptable to adopt [locally]. That will lead to the end of the Korea ¬program.” With the clamour for babies sure to continue unabated in the West, agencies will be forced to seek out new programs and countries that can meet the seemingly endless demand for infants. It’s something Chalke actively pursues, travelling the globe in search of reputable, reliable adoption links. So what’s next? “There’s a growing interest in parents adopting from Africa,” he says. The faces of the children being brought to our shores will change, but the law of supply and demand will not. The cost of adoption, like the price of oil, will likely escalate as the collision of sperm and egg in the West ¬becomes ever more elusive. With its mixture of commerce, international ¬relations and human emotion, the practice of inter-country adoption will no doubt continue to provoke uneasy questions for the parents who want to adopt out of love and a desperate desire for ¬family, and the facilitators they pay to make it ¬happen.