From China with Love: Kids Join New Families

Fellows Fall 1999

By Dave Newbart

June 08, 2009

WUHAN, China, Fall 1999-- Pointing to longtime Chicagoan Lynn Pautler, a Chinese woman tells tiny Meng Lei, "This . . . is . . . Mother. This . . . is . . . Mama." She pauses, and then repeats in a thick Mandarin accent, "Maaaa . . . ma."

The 19-month-old girl, abandoned in central China the day she was born, stares blankly at her new mother and cries. She's too young to understand she soon would be making her home across the ocean with two strange-looking foreigners who don't speak a word of Chinese.

Within a few hours, however, the girl happily takes a bottle from her new father, Han Schiet, and clutches a Goofy doll--the transition to American child under way. She is now named Thea.

"We're instant parents," says Pautler, 45. "It's amazing how natural it is."

The girl, one of 13 Chinese children adopted into families from the Chicago area last month, joins a growing number of similar children now making homes in Chicago and the suburbs. The trip to the Far East, set up by the Sunny Ridge Family Center in Wheaton, was the seventh adoption trip arranged by Sunny Ridge in 1999.

Sunny Ridge and several other Chicago area adoption clinics report arranging 920 adoptions of abandoned Chinese children in the last five years. For Illinois families, China is the most popular source of adoptees.

Russia sends more children to the United States (4,348, compared with 4,101 from China in 1999), but China sends more to Illinois--171 to 153 from Russia in the first 11 months of 1999, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

A support group, Families with Children from China, is rapidly becoming one of the most visible organizations at the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown each February. The group holds a variety of year-round events to acquaint parents and children with each other and Chinese culture.

Pat Kluzik-Stauch of Elgin, who adopted a child from China in 1994 and started the local chapter of FCC in 1995, called the rate of growth of adoptive families "pretty amazing."

"There is a pretty active adoptive community in Illinois, especially around Chicago," she said. "For a mixed-race family, it's pretty easy to blend in. It's very accepting."

While most adopting parents have fertility problems and find China the easiest country to work with, some prospective parents head to China for the sole purpose of helping a child in need. The group that visited China in November ranged in age from 34 to 50 and included lawyers, teachers, financial analysts, small-business owners and a former military pilot.

For Pautler and Schiet, who are living temporarily in Paris, and the other dozen families, the trip to China was the culmination of a sometimes-grueling process.

Adopting families must fill out and notarize 59 forms required by the Chinese and U.S. governments, said Bob McNeill, director of intercountry adoption at Sunny Ridge. China wants to ensure it is sending children to good homes, while U.S. officials want to ensure the child won't become a ward of the state, he said.

The process includes a detailed home study, review of tax returns, letters of reference and a fingerprint check. Applicants must submit results of physical exams and negative HIV tests.

Depending on how long it takes a family to complete the paperwork, the process typically takes 12 to 18 months. Although China is less expensive than some countries, the cost is steep: $16,000 to $22,000.

What's more, some families battle misperceptions and racism, even within their own families.

Laura Garbacz, 45, a stay-at-home mom from Schaumburg, said her parents were dismayed when she told them of her plan to adopt her first child from China in 1997. But after fertility treatments caused her heart to stop briefly, she and her husband Robert, 48, went ahead with the adoption.

"It's been wonderful," she said, adding that most of her friends and family have reacted positively. After the Chinese government changed its laws last spring allowing Chinese and foreign families to adopt a second child, she went back in November.

Six and a half months after submitting the paperwork to the Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs in Beijing, the families received a photo of the child selected for them, attaching a face to the largely bureaucratic process.

Christine Casper, 48, a former teacher from Barrington, said that in no time she "fell in love" with her child's photo. She taped it to a button and wore it on her jacket.

Before the November trip to get the children, Michael Lauzon, a 38-year-old lawyer from the Northwest Side, said he could barely grasp the magnitude of what he and his wife Janet Vander Kelen were about to do.

"In two weeks, I will be in a world unknown to me, receiving a child that will be a part of my life for the remainder of my life," he said. "I never imagined nor planned, until we made the decision, to be in this situation."

The families first flew to Beijing, where they spent a weekend on a whirlwind tour of the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

Then the group headed to Hubei, a province in central China and home to the Yangtze River. Flooding of the river left thousands of people dead and millions homeless in 1998. It was the worst flooding since 1954.

During times of floods or disaster, experts say, the numbers of abandoned children increase. While no one can say with certainty how many children are abandoned or orphaned in China, the government has said it is no more than 100,000. But some Western experts say there are likely several hundred thousand, and the vast majority are girls. Because sons traditionally care for their elderly parents in Chinese society, and most families are only allowed one child, daughters lose out.

"Parents don't want to abandon their daughters," said Kay Johnson, an Asian studies professor at Hampshire College in Amherst who has studied abandonment in China. "But given the pressures and given the need to have a son, they had no choice."

Most parents first see their newborn children in a hospital, but the parents from Chicago are to meet their children on the second floor of the Li Jiang Hotel in the capital of the province, Wuhan (population 7 million). The hotel is also home to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which arranges adoptions in the province.

To meet the needs of new parents, the Li Jiang equips most rooms with baby cribs, sells a milk-yogurt baby drink and offers a baby-sitting service.

The night before the scheduled adoptions, the families fill out yet another form pledging they never will abandon the children.

James and Ting Ting Branit, both 38, of Beverly, said the days before the adoption reminded them of waiting for the birth of their first daughter two years ago. Born with Down syndrome, the girl soon died.

"It's very similar to giving birth," James Branit, a lawyer, said. "We have the picture, but we really have no idea what she looks like until we see her. We don't know what her personality is. It's a total unknown."

The next morning, it is overcast and chilly, a typical fall day in China. But inside, emotions run high: Couples who spent many frustrating years trying to start a family realize they soon will be parents.

Shortly before the 8 a.m. scheduled delivery, the families race frantically about the hotel, clutching baby blankets, gifts for the orphanages and briefcases full of documents.

Slowly the children, between 10 months and 33 months old, arrive with their caretakers. They come from eight different orphanages from small cities throughout the province, some an overnight train trip away. Many of the children are with foster parents, signaling an increasing trend in China.

The children appear healthy and well-cared for, if a little frightened. Many have red dye dotted on their foreheads: the color red is considered lucky in China.

When they see the children, the adopting families try to match the children's faces with the pictures they've stared at for three months. Donna Rose, 37, a former special education teacher from Naperville, rushes her husband, Henry, over to a small bundle of a child dressed in a blue and yellow winter outfit.

"I think it's her," she says. But they find out it's a boy who is being adopted by Robert and Marilyn Bernard of the Northwest Side. Undaunted, the Roses continue to search for their daughter-to-be.

In a room with several rows of large gray easy chairs and a Chinese flag in the corner, the tense parents gather with a host of Chinese officials for the adoption ceremony. Tea is served.

Applause erupts after the head of the Ministry of Civil Affairs announces that the government has approved the families' adoption applications.

As Patrice and Vince Klingler of Naperville go to the front of the room to meet their child, the other families sit on the edge of their seats, multiple video cameras rolling.

The couple sign and fingerprint the adoption decree, which says the new parents must treat the child as their own and "guarantee healthy growth and good education."

They must agree not to give up the child to anyone else and to allow her freedom of marriage--pledges that aim to dispel rumors that children adopted by foreigners are sold into slavery or marriage--or worse, harvested for their organs.

To seal the deal, the official coats the baby's foot with ink and presses it against the back of the decree.

Vince Klingler gives the official a plate with an etching of the Chicago skyline, plus $3,000 for the orphanage. That fee goes to orphanages around the province, and experts say it has been crucial toward improving the once-dire conditions at orphanages.

The daughter's foster mother hands the girl to Patrice. The Klinglers now have legal custody of their second child from China.

"Dreams are unfolding before our eyes," Donna Rose remarks.

As the day progresses, the orderly process quickly turns into a free-for-all as the children, new parents and foster parents alternate laughing and crying.

Outside the room, in a second-floor lobby, the new parents begin to get to know their children. Through translators, they chat with the children's caretakers about diets, potty habits and sleep schedules.

The Roses' daughter, 16-month-old Qi Chun Jie, likes rice, fish and sweets. Donna Rose's eyes tear up as she strokes her new daughter's hair; she whispers, "Hi, Elizabeth," as the girl falls asleep in her arms.

The adoption is bittersweet, however. Sobbing heavily, Chun Jie's foster mother and caretaker for most of the girl's life watches the elevator doors close as the girl leaves with her new parents.

"You could see she was loved and so much a part of the family," Rose said. "You could see the Chinese love their children."

A law change last April allows Chinese families to adopt even if they aren't childless, a significant change in China's one-child policy that will lead to more domestic adoptions. But experts predict it could be a while before more foster parents with their own children are able to adopt.

The goodbye also is hard for the children. Searching for her recently departed foster family, DePaul University Professor Jean Knoll's new daughter cries continuously. While traumatic, studies show it's important for children to learn to attach from an early age. Then it will be easier for them to attach again even if the early bond is broken.

"This is as bad as it gets," the single mother tells 2-year-old Lizhen. "I don't blame you for screaming. You lost someone precious and got someone very strange."

As the day and week progresses, the babies warm to their new parents, and begin clutching them when frightened.

"Thirteen families are forming," Donna Rose says.

The hallway on the seventh floor of the hotel turns into a playroom, with infants crawling and toddlers running its corridors. Crying and laughing noises come from the rooms at all hours of the day and night.

"It's baby central," said Sunny Ridge's McNeill.

The parents spend the week in Wuhan waiting for their children's Chinese passports before heading to the U.S. Consulate in southern China to receive travel visas. In the United States, the families will apply for citizenship for their children, a process that can take two years.

Throughout the rest of the trip, Chinese onlookers surround the couples, asking questions, taking pictures and referring to the newly adopted children as "lucky babies."

"You are very nice," one says to Maureen and Bruce Berkheimer of Tinley Park, who have two boys at home and adopted a girl.

But elderly Chinese don't hesitate to chide the new parents if the children don't appear to be dressed warmly enough--no less than three to six layers of clothing will do. And putting a child--even a toddler--in a stroller is unacceptable. In China, a parent must hold a child close to the heart.

As time passes, some parents realize some of the children aren't as healthy or socially adjusted as the others.

The Branits rushed their daughter to the hospital when she had stomach cramps, likely due to the improved diet they were providing her. Often, because of limited resources at orphanages, babies receive little more than diluted formula and rice gruel. Their 11-month-old daughter weighs just 14 pounds.

"I started to feel sympathy at first," Ting Ting Branit said. "Later, I felt good because I can help her. If she stayed at the orphanage, she would not survive."

Doctors say Chinese infants are at risk for anemia, rickets, asthma, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and malnutrition. Most of the problems are corrected once the children come to the United States, where they typically have better nutrition and less exposure to pollution.

For children raised in an institution, just being with a family can have remarkable results. DePaul University graduate student Rebecca Nelson conducted a study of 55 recently adopted Chinese infants and found that 59 percent experienced mental developmental delays and 86 percent experienced motor delays upon their arrival in the United States. Within six months, mental delays were found in only 33 percent of the children, motor delays in 54 percent.

"These are very resilient children," Nelson said.

Christine Casper, whose daughter never had left the orphanage before traveling to Wuhan and may not have been exposed to much light, realizes her daughter will need a healthy dose of socialization.

The girl, now named Claire FuZhen Casper, apparently didn't have a continuous caretaker or many playmates. The parents watched as the girl played alone with nothing but an unopened bag of crackers. She had yet to smile.

"She doesn't seem really stimulated," Christine Casper said. "But what's in the past doesn't matter. She's ours now. She'll be happy."

For now, though, there are other things to worry about: Although toilet trained, Claire didn't know how to tell her new parents she had to go. She urinated while sitting on her father's lap.

Christine can only laugh at her husband Coy, a new father at age 50.

"Welcome to fatherhood!" she says.


Parents try adoptions in China for many reasons

Why do adopting parents head to China?

Adoption clinicians and prospective parents cite a host of reasons.

Chief on the list is cost and availability: Adoptions in China, although expensive, typically cost less and are processed faster than adoptions in the United States, largely because there are many more children available.

Highly publicized court battles in which birth parents attempt to regain custody of children scare many parents away from adopting domestically. Although the bulk of domestic adoptions never are contested, Illinois parents need look no further than Baby Richard or Baby T, both highly publicized court battles between birth parents and couples who adopt.

Because domestic birth mothers typically play a role in selecting the child's adoptive family, older couples can be considered less desirable than a healthy young mother and father.

In contrast, China, which values age, until last April required applicants to be older than 35. The age is now 30. In addition, unlike some countries, China also is open to single people who want to adopt.

Adoptive parents say the Chinese process, which has been run through a central agency in Beijing since 1996, is straightforward and reassuring. There are no last-minute rule changes or under-the-table payments, common in some East European countries.

In addition, while the children have some medical problems, they tend to be less severe in nature. There are very few cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, HIV infection or other illnesses associated with drug abuse by a mother.

And because studies show the majority of adopting parents in the United States request girls, China is a perfect match. More than 90 percent of healthy children available for adoption are girls.

Still other parents simply hope to help a child in need.

Ted Sanchez, 34, a former Coast Guard pilot from Wheaton, said that after years of international travel, he and his wife decided to rescue a child from life in an orphanage. They traveled to central China in November to adopt 1-year-old Huang Yang Tian, who had been abandoned at birth.

"We wanted to make a difference for a child," he said. "We said, `Let's help a kid.' So we did."


Conditions in many orphanages improve with international Funds

China's orphanages, some of which once had death rates as high as 90 percent, have vastly improved with an influx of foreign money, Chinese and U.S. experts say.

But because China tightly restricts access to most of its orphanages, it is difficult to determine if the improvements are universal.

Four years ago, conditions at China's orphanages were condemned in a British documentary and a report by Human Rights Watch. The Chinese government was accused of having a deliberate policy of fatal neglect, leading to the death of as many as nine out of 10 resident children in some orphanages.

The Chinese government denied the accusations and said most of the children in its care had severe medical problems. Orphanage workers complained they had few resources to care for the children.

But the fire storm of attention--which actually followed a strong internal movement to improve orphanages--has in many cases resulted in dramatic improvements.

"I've seen a huge change," said a Chinese native who now arranges adoptions in the United States and consults with the Chinese government. "The first time I walked into an orphanage, I was shocked."

Experts now estimate survival rates in some orphanages are as high as 90 percent, and they attribute the turnaround to the money generated by the fee of $3,000 per child for international adoptions, increased international donations and new funding from the Chinese government. The money, one expert said, is seen in China as "electric money" that local government officials can't touch.

The money has gone toward new buildings, better sanitation, smaller baby-staff ratios and wood floors that babies can crawl on.

Dana Johnson, a neonatologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the leading experts on international adoption medicine, called the two orphanages he visited in China in 1998 "quite exceptional, the best I've seen outside the U.S."

Still, Johnson acknowledges that it is difficult to say if the improvements are across the board.

One province that has improved its facilities is Hubei in central China, where the 13 Chicago families went to adopt children in November. The Foundation for Chinese Orphanages in Massachusetts has donated $120,000 to the province.

"It has gotten much better," said the foundation's founder, Shanti Fry, who visited several Hubei orphanages in 1998.

But with the improvements another problem has surfaced: caring for older children raised without family support.

"Before, they died," one adoption worker said. "Now you have a whole bunch of children growing up in institutions, and a lot of them have problems."


WHOM TO CONTACT

For help arranging adoptions from China, contact:

 

Sunny Ridge Family Center
Placements from China: 320
Cost: $17,000
Phone: (630) 668-5117
Web site: www.sunnyridge.org

 

Lifelink
Bensenville
Placements from China: 225
Cost: $16,000-$18,0000
Phone: (630) 521-8281
Web site: http://www.lifelink.org

 

Family Counseling Clinic
Grayslake
Placements from China: 149
Cost: $16,000-$17,000
Phone: (847) 223-8108
Web site: http://www.rainbowkids.com/familycounseling.htm

 

Family Resource Center
Chicago
Placements from China: 137
Cost: $17,000-$22,000
Phone: (773) 334-2300
Web site: www.f-r-c.org

 

The Cradle
Evanston
Placements from China: 34
Cost: $16,000-$19,000
Phone: (847) 475-5800
Web site: www.cradle.org

 


How to Help

Want to help? The following organizations make donations to Chinese orphanages and provide information:

 

* Families with Children from China-Chicago, 1284 Brookline Ct., Naperville 60563. Information line (312) 409-0457. Web site: pattersongray.com/fcc

* Families with Children from China, Orphanage Assistance Appeal 1999-2000, P.O. Box 237065, Ansonia Station, New York, N.Y. 10023. Web site: www.fwcc.org

* The Foundation for Chinese Orphanages, 8 Berkeley St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138-3464. Web site: www.thefco.org

 


Children taught about background, Chinese culture

Eight-year-old Miya Thalmann of Naperville doesn't act much differently from other girls her age: She likes listening to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys and plays computer games.

But she also has learned much about China.

"It's very big, and there are lots of bicycles there," she said.

Abandoned in China at birth, Miya was adopted in 1992 by Jerry and Judy Thalmann shortly after China began allowing foreign adoptions. She was one of the first few hundred Chinese children adopted by American parents.

Since then, more than 19,000 Chinese children have been adopted into U.S. families.

"We were among the pioneers," said Jerry Thalmann, an associate accounting professor at North Central College.

Miya is from Changsha, Hunnan province. There, years before the Chinese set up a central agency to handle all adoptions, the Thalmanns visited their daughter's orphanage over a five-day period before taking her home. Because the orphanage had concrete floors, she hadn't been allowed to crawl and needed to be rocked to sleep each night.

Just over 7 years later, Miya has had few problems adjusting to life in the United States, and very few health problems, Thalmann said. She learned English easily and is mentally and physically on target for her age, he said.

The Thalmanns went back to adopt a second child from China in 1994. Other than a chronic ear infection, 5-year-old Carrisa also is doing well.

Both daughters have been told about their background and have gone to a "culture camp" to learn about China and other countries.

Other parents said it is best to be upfront with children about their backgrounds from a young age.

Kiri Li, 7, of Elgin, knows "her entire adoption story," said Tom Stauch, a music professor at Harper College.

Stauch's wife, Pat Kluzik-Stauch, founded the Chicago chapter of Families with Children from China after the couple returned from China with Kiri Li in 1994. The group now has nearly 500 families.

"My daughter has asked the very typical questions," Tom Stauch said. " `Who is my birth mommy? Why isn't she here? How come you are my mommy and daddy now?' She is aware of everything."

Other than frequent stares--largely out of curiosity--most families report few problems.

"Let's face it," Stauch said. "These are kids from Asia. Racism will rear its ugly head as it does for anyone who is not Caucasian. But we really haven't had to deal with any of those issues. We are very, very happy."

So happy, they are in the process of adopting a second child from China.

Thalmann said he can't imagine not having taken the risk and gone to China. "They've made as much difference in our lives as we have in theirs," he said. "We are as much the beneficiaries as they are."