By KAYLA WEBLEY / HONG KONG Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2009
Becky Freer says adopting a 10-month-old girl from China was the best thing she ever did. So when Freer, 44, recently decided to further expand her Austin, Texas – based family by adopting another daughter, she thought China was the obvious choice. She soon discovered however, that as a single woman, she is no longer eligible. "Three years ago I was an acceptable parent, and now I'm not," she says. "It seems unfair." While Freer has since been approved to adopt a daughter from Ethiopia, she is one of a growing number of prospective parents who are unable to adopt from China under new laws Beijing put in place in May 2007.
International adoptions in the U.S. gained momentum during the 1990s as families reached out to orphans in poorer corners of the world. China's international adoption program, which opened in 1992, has become particularly popular due to its transparency and efficiency. But the stricter guidelines, intended to limit an overwhelming number of applicants, are proving effective. Adoptions of Chinese children by U.S. citizens have dropped 50% in three years, from 7,906 children in 2005 to 3,909 in 2008, according to the U.S. State Department. Among the new regulations, adoptive parents are required to meet certain educational and financial requirements, and must be married, be under 50, not be clinically obese, not have taken antidepressant medication in the past two years and not have any facial deformities. (See pictures of American children up for adoption.)
Even before the new regulations, adopting a child from China was never simple. The state-run China Center for Adoption Affairs requires U.S. applicants to submit a long list of documents, including home studies completed by social workers and federal background checks. Fees and expenses can amount to upward of $20,000, and the wait can be long. China has a backlog of approved international applicants and is only now placing children into the homes of families who were approved for adoption more than three years ago. Some families that don't want to wait that long look to China's "waiting child" list of children with special needs — a national database where prospective parents can read about orphans with disabilities. (Read "Cleaning Up International Adoptions.")
The new laws are only part of the reason why fewer Chinese children are being adopted by American families. While the Chinese government does not release domestic-adoption figures, U.S.-based adoption agencies say more Chinese children are being adopted in the mainland. (Adopting a second child is one of the few exceptions to China's one-child policy.) "More and more people can not only afford to adopt a child, but culturally it's also more accepted," says Cory Barron, director of the St. Louis, Missouri – based adoption agency Children's Hope International.
A change in gender perception may also be a factor. While girls still make up 95% of children at orphanages, Josh Zhong, director of Chinese Children Adoption International in Centennial, Colorado, says that, too, has shifted. "People's attitude toward having girls is changing dramatically," Zhong says. "I have friends [in China] who have girls, and they are just so excited." It's part of a shift that, for the visible future, is keeping more of China's children closer to home.