SHANGHAI — During the past decade, China has been the top foreign destination for Americans seeking to adopt children. As China has prospered and government restrictions have increased, however, the number of U.S. couples being allowed to adopt there has dropped sharply, and experts say there's little reason to believe the trend will reverse.
Part of the reason for the decline is competition from a growing number of Chinese families that want to adopt.
"With the growth of China economically, families without children can afford to adopt and take care of a child, while in the past they were less certain they could," said Xu Anqi, a sociologist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
In 1996, about 19,000 Chinese couples sought to adopt; by 2008, that number had jumped to 42,000. There are, however, restrictions on Chinese families, as well. Chinese couples have to be married, 35 or older, have no other children and be financially stable to be approved by the government, Xu said.
In 2007, new regulations for adoptions by foreigners allowed only heterosexual, married couples to adopt. The couples must be between the ages of 30 and 50, married for at least two years and with no history of a divorce by either spouse. They also must prove that they have at least at $80,000 in assets. If one spouse has been divorced, then the couple has to have been married for at least five years, and no more than two divorces are allowed.
The new restrictions have begun to show. American families adopted just over 3,000 Chinese children in 2009, down more than 60 percent from 2005, according to the State Department.
Andrea Jones, a teacher from Minnesota, has taught since 1994 in places such as Kuwait, Pakistan and South Africa. When she moved to China in 2006, she realized that she finally was ready to add to her family of one.
She was almost out of time, however.
In 2001, the China Center for Adoption Affairs sharply reduced the number of single parents it would allow to adopt to 5 percent of the total from 30 percent. Finally in 2007, the agency cut off all adoptions by single parents.
Jones rushed to get her request in so she could begin the process before the restrictions went into place. It took two years for all the paperwork to be approved and for her to be matched with a baby, Lin Xin Rong. She named the child Ava Lin Xin Rong Jones.
Since Jones' adoption, the waiting time has increased to 40 months before a family can take a child home. The reason is a consistent demand for healthy children and a shrinking supply.
"The wait is horrible, it is probably the worst part but it was worth every painful day I had to wait," said Jones, a first grade teacher at the Shanghai American School.
It's commonly thought that Chinese orphanages are filled with girls as a result of the traditional Chinese preference for boys, combined with population control policies that limit families to one child. However, Yuan Valen, vice director of the Shanghai Children's home, said the split among the 650 abandoned children at his orphanage is surprising.
"Nowadays, more boys than girls. Most of them have some problem, mentally or physically," Yuan said.
Xu said the problem of abandoned children predates the One Child policy China adopted in 1979.
"It is a deep-rooted problem, even before China established itself. It already existed because parents have disabled children, they can't take care of them, so they just send them to the orphanage," Xu said.
The adoption agency eases the paperwork, and has a quicker process and fewer restrictions on families that adopt a child with special needs. A family can become a part of the Waiting Child program and within a year can get a match with a special needs child.
Along with the increased waiting time, costs for foreigners could rise. U.S. families now must make a mandatory $3,000 donation to the orphanages.
Despite the expense, the extended wait and the endless paperwork, the ability to adopt a child makes the effort worthwhile.
"People tell me that Ava and I were a perfect personality match for each other. Every day spent with her makes up for every day I waited to get her." Jones said.
(Reed, a student at Penn State University, reported this story from Shanghai, China, for a class in international journalism.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010