Kindness or colonialism?

I adopted two children from China after having several
miscarriages. The process was nerve-wracking and traumatic for me
and my husband and for the two girls, but they have now settled
(see panel).

But inter-country adoption (ICA) polarises professionals and
society. Advocates argue that to be taken into a loving family is
in the interests of abandoned or orphaned children, who may not
have any hope of being adopted in their country of origin.
Opponents say it is a form of colonialism, the worst form of human
exploitation masquerading as kindness, in which the privileged are
taking the children of the world’s most exploited people and
depriving them of their racial and cultural communities. As is so
often the case, there is truth on both sides of the debate, but
what seems to be missing from UK legislation is a coherent
framework to balance the positives and dangers of ICA.

In Britain, opponents of ICA have had a much greater impact on
policy than their American or mainland European counterparts. This
is only too obvious in the annual figures. Britain falls well
behind other Western countries with about 300 overseas adoptions a
year. This compares with more than 20,000 to the US. In 2003, the
UK had just 0.5 ICAs a 100,000 population, while France had 6.6,
The Netherlands 7.15, Sweden 11.8 and Norway 15.8.

Elizabeth Bartholet, a law professor at Harvard University, has
written about the legal pitfalls of ICA. She states: “There is, of
course, a need for law to ensure that children are not improperly
taken from their birth parents or transferred to situations in
which they will be mistreated or exploited. But the law should also
guarantee children the fundamental right to grow up in a nurturing
environment. By focusing exclusively on the negative potential of
international adoption, the law fails in its overall obligation to
serve children’s best interests.”(1)

Consultations are already under way over the regulations for the
Adoption and Children Act 2002, which is due to come into force at
the end of the year. Whether the act will make ICA any easier is

One subject being discussed is charging families for the legal
services they must go through in some cases on their return from
abroad. On top of the already significant and rising costs of the
home study by social services and the costs in the country they are
adopting from, the likely result would be to ensure ICA remains a
middle class preserve.

Currently, the government has weak control of ICA. Potential
adopters are left in the hands of a postcode lottery, with some
local authorities being supportive and others ideologically
opposed. Some applicants are told that their local authority
“disapproves” of ICA. The Children (Contact) and Adoption Bill,
which was in the Queen’s Speech, is intended to improve the

Stevan Whitehead, chair of the Overseas Adoption Support and
Information Service, says that the Department for Education and
Skills is failing in its obligation to ensure those administering
ICA procedures do so fairly and efficiently. Yet earlier this year
the ICA casework team at the DfES was cut from eight people to
four, despite assurances from the then minister that waiting times
for ICA adopters would be reduced. The time delay between the
arrival of the relevant papers at DfES and the sending them abroad
has now risen to 23 weeks.

Adoption from China appears reasonably well controlled, although
its procedures are not open to inspection to the outside world.
China is a “designated” country, meaning that once adopters arrive
back with their child there are no further legal requirements or
re-approval-type processes. Officials from the China Centre of
Adoption Affairs visited the DfES at the end of last year, and both
sides seemed happy with their relationship.

As for corruption, the government has clamped down on malpractice
but it is impossible to rule it out. The main questions surround
how the obligatory $3,000 donation to the orphanage is spent. But
evidence on the ground suggests that most of this goes on financing
foster care and refurbishing the children’s homes for those
children left behind.

Over the past few years, research has been conducted by the Anhui
Academy of Social Sciences on attitudes in rural China towards ICA.
It concluded that there was widespread ignorance of it and that it
was not seen as a reason for children to be abandoned. Women still
faced immense family pressures to abandon their girls and assumed
they would be adopted by other rural Chinese families.
Monitoring how attitudes develop remains vital to ensure that
domestic adoption continues to grow and that the ICA system does
not become corrupted.

(1) E Bartholet, “International adoption: propriety, prospects
and pragmatics”, Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial
Lawyers Vol 13 (2), 1996

‘The handover was overwhelming’ 

I married at 38 with hopes of having children, but after several
miscarriages, we turned to the idea of adoption. We knew we would
be low priority for a very young child from within Britain, and we
didn’t feel up to the extra challenges of adopting an older child.
For us, China seemed the obvious destination. 

My sister had already adopted a little girl from China and we felt
there was a genuine need for overseas adopters, given the pressure
on families to abandon baby girls, and with domestic adoption of
these infants made difficult by the government’s strict population
control policy.

I was very nervous of making the first phone call to social
services – I had read about the problems many potential adopters
face. But luckily we were given a sympathetic social worker.

The home study took four months, with a three-hour visit to our
flat every two weeks. We had to discuss our lives in huge detail.
It was particularly difficult for me to talk about my childhood, as
my mother had committed suicide when I was nine. 

In the end we were passed, and our papers were processed by the
Department of Health, and sent to China. We waited another year
before we received our referral from the China Centre of Adoption
Affairs in Beijing – a photograph of our daughter Jade who was then
11 months old and in foster care. A few weeks later we travelled to
Xi’an in Shaanxi Province to meet her. 

The handover in our hotel was overwhelming. It was wonderful to
hold Jade for the first time, but it was also very abrupt. There
had been no meetings beforehand for us to get to know each other,
and it must have been traumatic for her as she had been taken from
adoring foster parents whom we were not allowed to meet. She also
had a foster sister who was adopted by a British couple around the
same time, but we didn’t manage to find them until several years
later. But in spite of the sudden changes Jade adapted well and
quickly bonded with us.  

Two and a half years later we were in China again adopting another
little girl, Rose. 

Jade is now nearly five years old, enjoying school and overcoming
earlier difficulties with speaking. Rose is two and a real live
wire. Every Sunday morning I take the girls to a Mandarin class and
at the same time we parents have a lesson too. I hope that through
links made at the school and via the charity The Mothers’ Bridge of
Love, which works to help adoptive families bridge the cultural
gaps, we will be able to build more friendships with Chinese

  • Emily Buchanan has written an account of her experiences: From
    China With Love – A Long Road to Motherhood, published by John
    Wiley & Sons

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