Gabriella Wortmann is a Hungarian-American who is fluent in Chinese and studied Chinese literature in college. She and her Chinese-American husband Derek Chin reside in Boston and had their hearts set on adopting a Chinese child. After finishing the preliminary adoption paperwork (needed regardless of the country you want to adopt from), the wait time for a Chinese child increased to seven years from the time China-specific paperwork was submitted. Due to the extended wait, the adoption agency they were using has stopped accepting new applications for China. Since then, the couple widened their search to South Korea. Now, within a year of applying, they are finalizing the adoption of a baby from Seoul.
Like Wortmann, many couples are looking into other options when faced with an average wait of seven to 10 years to be matched with a Chinese baby. Danish parents Jes Christensen and Susanne Svoger Have adopted twice from China from within their native country. They waited 14 months in 2005 for Astrid and eight months in 2009 for
Maria, but they count themselves as lucky. They say that other Danish parents are now considering other options due to an increasingly long wait time for a Chinese adoption.
Intercountry adoption is often tedious and expensive, but these setbacks are often eclipsed by one pressing factor: Time. How long will couples wait to be matched with a child?
It helps if you already live in China. For an American couple that resides in China and has lived here for more than one year, the waiting time for a Chinese baby typically drops to approximately a two-year wait. Expats living in China qualify for the expedited process.
China has an intercountry adoption agreement with 17 countries, but only citizens from the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Italy can adopt as expats in China. Each country has specific guidelines, and the process varies greatly. For instance, Canada was recently added to the list and couples looking to adopt must go through a local adoption agency approved by the Hague Convention Adoption Treaty or the International Social Service in Hong Kong.
Another hurdle for prospective adoptive parents are the adoption requirements. New restrictions from the China Center for Child Welfare and Adoption (CCCWA) came into effect in 2007 and disqualify couples on variables ranging from the size of their bank accounts to the size of their bodies (couples with a body mass index of more than 40 are ineligible).
The Paper Chain
Laura and Dominic Johnson-Hill are long-time China expats who were looking to expand their combined family of three biological children. After deciding to adopt from China, Laura (a Canadian) and Dominic (a UK citizen) discovered that their situation at that time failed to meet three requirements. Two of these obstacles would resolve themselves within one year: Laura was a year shy of 30, the minimum age for adopting, and she and Dominic had only been married for four years. An adoptive couple must be married for at least five years if it is one spouse’s second marriage, which was the case for Dominic.
Back in 2008, neither Canadians nor UK citizens were allowed to adopt from China as expats living in China. But in January 2009, they received good news: British expats living in China were now allowed to adopt from China. The Johnson-Hills began gathering the paperwork, a process that took an entire year.
“You have to go back to your home country to get your criminal record checks. We were married in Hong Kong and had to travel there to pick up our marriage certificate in person and have it authenticated by the Chinese embassy in Hong Kong,” Laura says.
Every document had to be authenticated by Chinese embassies in each country, meaning trips to Canada, the UK, and Hong Kong for the Johnson-Hills. For most families, relatives in their home countries can assist with this process. The Johnson-Hills also needed to obtain their declared income statements, and compile every passport and Chinese visa they had between the two of them. Although they are both fluent in Mandarin, the process was still daunting.
“We didn’t know how to navigate the system. We didn’t know how to get a notarized document authenticated by the Chinese embassy, so we hired lawyers,” explains Laura.
The Johnson-Hills were one of the first British expat families to adopt from China, and adoption experts in Beijing say the process is easier now – very few families need to return to their home country or hire lawyers to complete the process.
The Johnson-Hills applied for a healthy girl who was between 18 months and 3 years of age. After submitting their dossier (a compilation of the required paperwork), they were told that the wait could be up to three years long. Laura frequently called the CCCWA to find out about the status of their application, but also sought information from other couples who were also waiting to be matched with a child from China.
“Yahoo groups exist for every single sub-group of China adoption you can imagine: Toddler Adoption China, China Adoption, etc. I was a member of many! I would jump between groups looking for signs of hope that our referral was close,” Laura says. She also frequented China Adopt Talk forum. But couples should be aware that forums can be rife with misinformation. Seeing other couples being matched with children gave them some perspective on typical waiting times, but the process is far from consistent.
“It’s one of these impossible equations. Before, people were waiting two to three years, but then suddenly we saw people on forums who only had to wait a little more than a year to get their kids. But you just don’t know. You’re continuing to try to do all this research and make sense of what’s going on but there is no sense,” says Dominic.
In March 2011, 13 months after they submitted their paperwork, they found out they were matched with Betsy, a 6-month-old girl from Wuhan province.
After You’re Matched
After couples are matched with a child, families must wait for written permission to travel to the province to pick up their child.
“Once you see that picture of your child, you have to get there. We were just so excited,” says Laura. They flew to Wuhan two weeks after they received the notification.
The Johnson-Hills chose to use the CCCWA facilitation service, Bridge of Love Adoption Service (BLAS), although this is optional. Bridge of Love helped them arrange a pick-up time, book a hotel in Wuhan, get Betsy a passport, and provided them with a list of paperwork to bring. BLAS also gave them details about Betsy’s current situation. The Johnson-Hills speak Mandarin, but BLAS can provide translators for non-Chinese speakers.
“We recommend using a facilitator. It allows you to focus on meeting your new son or daughter, as opposed to making hotel bookings, looking for taxis, going in and out of numerous government offices, arranging paperwork, passports and notarized copies,” Laura says.
There were a few surprises along the way. The Johnson-Hills had expected to be matched with a toddler, but were matched with a 6-month-old girl. Also before their arrival, there is an obligatory donation fee to the orphanage: RMB 35,000. In total, fees amounted to RMB 130,000 (about USD 20,000), which was inclusive of travel to Wuhan (and a week’s stay there), agency fees, the mandatory donation fee, and gathering the paperwork. But families who travel less to chase down paperwork, can expect to pay between USD 13,000-14,000.
A Slowdown in Chinese Adoptions
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, the number of Chinese adoptions from within the US peaked at nearly 8,000 in 2005. Last year, that number dropped by one third to 2,587 adoptions. As a result, waiting times are increasing for both expats adopting from within China and those adopting from their home countries. China Adoption Forecast’s website helps predict the wait time for an adoption; it estimates that couples in the US who apply today will wait at least 10 years before they are matched with a child. Expats typically have shorter wait times, but they are also feeling the lagging rate of matches (also known as referrals).
“A group of 15 couples applied at the same time as us and were matched with children. But there haven’t been any expat adoptions since,” Dominic says. “People who literally submitted their paperwork two weeks after us are still waiting.”
Dr. Rob Blinn, who conducts adoption home studies in Beijing through Beijing United Family Hospital and A Helping Hand Adoption Agency, has also witnessed the trend of longer waits for adoption.
“The authorities are clearly limiting the number of adoptions by foreigners and the clearest indication is that they want more Chinese to adopt domestically,” Dr. Blinn says. CCCWA reports that over 60 percent of adoptions go to local families.
Dr. Blinn says many of the families he works with in Beijing are opting to adopt from other countries, such as Ethiopia, where the wait time for a child is currently less than one year.
But the time lag in China diminishes significantly for foreigners or Chinese citizens willing to adopt a special needs child.
“A lot of expat parents are able to adopt special needs kids and the government moves those along very quickly,” Dr. Blinn says. Many of these special needs children have birth defects that can be corrected through minor surgery, such as cleft palates. In addition, Americans are eligible for the Waiting Children Program, which places children who are over 6 and/or have special needs. The program offers a shorter wait time and a cheaper application fee.
There are different rules for different countries, and while long wait times and bureaucratic red tape may discourage some couples, restrictions in the adoption process can change at any time. In 2008, Dominic and Laura were told that their nationalities prevented them from adopting a Chinese baby; this March they celebrated Betsy’s second birthday in Beijing.
China Center for Child Welfare and Adoption (CCCWA)
China Adopt Talk Forum
China Adoption Forecast
A Helping Hand Adoption Agency
Karen Friedman is a US licensed social worker who has conducted home studies and consulted on adoption dossiers for expats in China since 1999. She works with families from most of the countries that have expat agreements with China. (134 3900 9391, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Guidelines for Chinese Adoptions
Currently, adoptive parents must meet the following requirements:
• Over 30, but under 50 years old (exception for special needs
children and older children, then age limit is 55)
• Married for at least two years (five years if either spouse
has been previously divorced)
• Minimum education: High school certificate
• No more than four children under the age of 18 at home
• Youngest child at home must be older than 12 months
• Steady income of no less than USD 10,000 for each person
in the family including the adopted child. For example, a family
of two must net USD 20,000 per year, while a family of four
must net USD 40,000 per year.
• Net assets of at least USD 80,000
• Body Mass Index (BMI) of under 40
• No criminal record (this includes DUIs)
• No recurring psychiatric or mental health prescriptions
• Expats adopting in China must have lived and worked in
China for at least one year before submitting their dossier