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Abuse Charges Stir Adoptive Parents

Children: The reports pit Americans concerned with human rights in China against those desperate for babies.


SAN FRANCISCO — Joy filled Barbara Langstaff's heart the January day Chinese adoption officials faxed her a photo of the baby girl she and her husband would adopt.

"It was something to hold on to," she says. "I was high for about an hour.

"Then I got a message on the Internet. It said something had been posted that China was closed to adoptions because of the brouhaha. My heart just fell."

The Internet rumor that China had ended foreign adoptions turned out to be false. Eric and Barbara Langstaff are in China this week to get their new daughter.

The "brouhaha" is all too real, pitting Americans concerned with human rights in China against Americans desperate to adopt Chinese babies.

The adoptive parents mobilized after a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch that says thousands of orphans in China's 67 state-operated orphanages die every year from intentional neglect and starvation. In a survey that includes hundreds of medical case studies from a Shanghai orphanage from 1986 to 1992, the group describes rooms where children slowly die of malnutrition, dehydration and neglect, echoing allegations made earlier in a 38-minute British film, "The Dying Rooms."

The study, released in early January, hit like a bomb in the close-knit community of adoptive parents and prospective parents of children from China. Messages of concern and anger flashed across the Internet, where many such parents turn for advice and solace.

"I thought, 'My God, not at this point,' " says Richard Smith, a Monterey rare book dealer who is awaiting a child. "You never know when a country will take offense."

Even though Chinese adoption officials did not react to the report, fear of delays, coupled with the passion to adopt abandoned Chinese infant girls, set off a writing crusade as Americans faxed letters of support to the Chinese government. There were so many faxes that Chinese officials asked the writers to stop, saying the outpouring was clogging fax machines and, ironically, delaying adoptions.

Bitterness about the Human Rights Watch charges, though, hasn't eased. Some parents and adoption officials say the agency's report is limited in scope and possibly outdated. The group, however, says its critics are naive.

"I wish the adoption agencies and parents groups hadn't cranked up such a big campaign for the Chinese," says Holly Burkhalter, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "I have been stunned that the anger and outrage seems to be directed at us, not the perpetrators of the abuse. They are unwittingly taking the heat off China. It's fine to support international adoptions. But international adoptions have nothing to do with the gross human rights [violations] we revealed."

China says its orphanages are overflowing with 100,000 abandoned children, though Western experts speculate the number is much higher. Because most Chinese families are allowed only one child under the government's population policies and the culture highly values boys, some parents abandon infant girls and handicapped children.

The communist government welcomes adoptions from the United States, even as tensions between the two nations escalate. Still, many people who have adopted Chinese children, or hope to do so, worry that China could take punitive action if the issue arises again during the United Nations Human Rights Commission's March meeting in Geneva.

The number of adopted Chinese children in the United States is growing. Between 1990 and 1994, 1,409 visas were issued for adopted Chinese babies. Last year, more than 2,000 Chinese children were adopted by Americans, says Andrea Stawitcke, executive director of Bay Area Adoptive Services. As many as 5,000 children could find homes in America this year, she says.

Chinese adoptions are becoming popular because they are relatively efficient and quick--the entire process can be completed in less than a year. Officials accept single adults and older parents. In fact, applicants must be at least 35. Costs, say adoption officials, are about $15,000, including fees and transportation.

For Smith, 49, China represents his only chance to adopt. The single man has spent four months filling out paperwork.

"When the first report came out, I was panicked," he says. "We're talking about a social welfare system in a country of 1 billion people. It's not an issue of political rights."

"I have found just the opposite of what is described in the report," says Janice Neilson, executive director of World Assn. for Children and Parents, a Seattle-based adoption agency that helps arrange for adoptions in China. She has traveled extensively in China and other developing countries. "We know a child in an institution is at risk in this country and other countries. We don't have to look far to find institutional abuse. For us to point blame at another country is hypocritical."

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