China’s Forgotten Children | Short Documentary

The Gladney Center for Adoption makes a series of what they call short documentaries, which are videos covering a wide range of adoption topics from the perspective of people directly involved in the adoption process. And don’t worry—they really mean short. One I viewed a few days ago clocked in at just 5:20. It was an in-depth look at an adoption topic in an easy-to-digest format.

I recently watched one called “China’s Forgotten Children,” and it not only informed me about a little-known struggle of Chinese prospective adoptees, but it also touched my heart.

The video focuses on a Chinese teenager, Michelle Yu, who was adopted. Her opening line is heartbreakingly familiar: “I was abandoned at a police station … when I was 11 days old.” How many adoptees have similar origin stories! Those first words immediately make the audience relate to the video’s subject.

The rest of Michelle’s adoption journey, though, might seem foreign to members of the adoption triad (adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents) in the United States.

Michelle says she grew up in an orphanage among hundreds of other children. While other countries rely on orphanages to care for prospective adoptees, the United States uses the foster system instead. It’s much more common for American adoption candidates to move between a series of foster families, rather than staying in a single institution with a lot of other orphan children.

“I was lucky because I was adopted,” Michelle goes on to say. “I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I had never found a loving family.” She never says how old she was when she was adopted, nor does she share any more information about her adoptive family. Her point is clear: simply having a family that wants you is a rare gift.

She continues to explain that unfortunately hundreds of Chinese children are never adopted and eventually age out of orphanage care without ever having families.

The narrator explains that one reason this is so common in China is because of the country’s one-child policy, which was enacted in 1979 in response to China’s rapid population growth rate. It’s worth noting here that since “China’s Forgotten Children” premiered, China has relaxed its birth allowance to two children, but I would be surprised if the extreme population control measure didn’t still have similar effects on the number of abandoned children.

The demographic makeup of Chinese orphanages is disproportionately girls, the video’s narrator explains. Traditionally, boys have been preferred to take on the family’s surname and to care for the parents as they age, so if a couple gave birth to a girl, it became fairly commonplace to abandon the baby and keep trying for a boy.

But then the narrator adds another shocking statistic about who lives in China’s orphanages.

“Almost all of China’s unwanted children have minor to severe medical needs,” he says, as a montage of children with disabilities scrolls across the screen. Presumably, if a family only gets one child, they want that child to be genetically perfect and able to perform the role tradition expects of him or her.

Michelle Yu, who wrote and directed the short film, reached out to Gladney Center for Adoption Vice President and Executive Director Gongzhan Wu for more information about this phenomenon. Wu grew up in Shanghai, China, and immigrated to the United States in 1987. He manages Gladney’s China Adoption Program.

Wu says that in 1993, most of the children in Chinese orphanages were healthy, but now, many have significant medical needs.

The China Child Welfare Policy Report, the narrator continues, says that 20,000 more children with disabilities are abandoned each year than were in previous decades of China’s history.

Chronic and lifelong special needs make children more difficult to place with adoptive families, the video explains. This is the case in even the best of circumstances, but abandoned Chinese children are particularly vulnerable due to stigmas and limitations on allowed children.

“As they wait, their chances of being adopted diminish,” the narrator says. Because so many adoptive parents are looking for healthy infants, these children in China face terrible odds of ever being adopted.

The video’s crew also checks in with Wendy Stanley, the director of social services for Gladney’s Asia Programs. Stanley explains that China will not allow international adoption of children who are 14 or older. Wu adds that the government also kicks these kids off of socialized welfare at that age.

When I was 14, I had two parents who were trying their best to deal with my teenaged antics. I did not live with any disabilities, and I had everything I needed to be safe and healthy. I can’t imagine myself on my own at that age, with no resources—let alone, adding a disability and abandonment trauma on top of that.

The video’s narrator says that China estimates it has at least 600,000 orphans in the country at any given time. Compared with a national population of over a billion people, that might not seem like a lot, but 600,000 is roughly the population of Denver, Colorado, or Washington, D.C. (as of the 2010 census). A whole metropolis of Chinese children is waiting to find a family.

“For those older kids,” Wu says, “When they [are] getting [close to] 14 years old, they begin [to] worry,” adding that these kids have grown up in an orphanage and watched peers be adopted, while they wait and see if anyone wants them.

When they age out of orphanage care, facilities try to employ these kids if they can, Wu goes on to say.

Michelle Yu recalls one of her orphanage caretakers who was in this position—aged out of the possibility for adoption and got a job at the orphanage. Michelle remembers this caretaker with fondness but always wondered what would have happened if this person had gotten a family or a greater support system.

“If there were someone to advocate for her, her life might have been drastically different,” Michelle surmises.

“What will become of these kids, and what type of future will they have?” the narrator asks rhetorically.

“China’s Forgotten Children” is only five minutes and 20 seconds long, but it packs a punch. Interview footage interspersed with images of the children who are the video’s subject, combined with a poignant piano score playing in the background, tugs at the heartstrings. The short film actually won a number of awards following its release, and it’s easy to see why.

I recommend that you watch the video yourself and see what else stands out to you.

Michelle Yu’s purpose in creating this short documentary seems to be to encourage viewers to advocate for China’s forgotten children. If you feel so inclined, I have researched some ways you can begin advocating.

Share

Sharing information is a great way to start. Feel free to share this article, the short documentary, or both with people in your sphere of influence. You can send the link directly to friends and family or post it to your social media pages. Hopefully, this generates discussion and helps recruit other people to begin advocating as well.

I know sharing and recruiting are intimidating for some people. I thought of a few questions you could ask to get the conversation going:

  • Which line of the video stood out to you the most? I can’t stop thinking about this quote…

  • What information was new to you? I learned…

  • What do you think we can do to help these children?

  • I want to do ______ because of this video. Will you come/do it with me?

Lots of strategies can work. Feel free to share other ideas of conversation starters in the comments below.

Volunteer

There are lots of ways to volunteer your time, energy, and skills for these children. If you are a medical doctor, social worker, or physical therapist, maybe you can look into a volunteer trip to China to help provide medical care for China’s orphans. If you don’t have any of those specific skills, you can still give of yourself by helping to match children with adoptive families. If you have the flexibility and desire, there’s plenty of work to be done on Chinese soil, but you can help from the United States too. For example, you can work with an adoption agency, such as Gladney Center for Adoption, to get to know the children who are available for adoption and tell their stories. These kids aren’t just “older children with disabilities;” they’re robust, complex people with unique interests and thoughts. You could volunteer your time to correspond with children and help build online profiles for them as they seek adoption placement.

Contact Legislators

Although members of the US Congress don’t have direct control over China’s political decisions, the United States and China negotiate on a number of issues that affect both countries. If you want China to change some of the rules that affect orphaned children, let your senators and your House representative know. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees you the right to petition your government representatives about policies you care about. Send them an email or call their offices, and ask what they will do to negotiate with China about international adoption and special needs orphan care. If this issue hadn’t occurred to them, share some information, and explain what you’d like them to do. Name specific changes you’d like to see and ask your Congresspeople to partner with you to generate these changes.

When I petition my representatives, I personally prefer to email because then I’m less likely to forget a point, and I can say things with intention. This method also gives me a paper trail in case I need it later.

If you choose to go this route, and you never hear back from your members of Congress, don’t be discouraged. Keep trying. And know that Congresspeople track how many calls they receive about each issue, so whether you get face-to-face time or not, your communication is being noted.

Donate

Adoption is expensive. Adoptive parents usually bear the brunt of the costs, but adoption agencies also spend money when they do outreach and advocacy, help match kids with families, and ensure they dot every “i” and cross every “t”. A monetary donation helps cover operational costs for an adoption agency or a related organization. Lobbyists and diplomats are already working to influence policy changes in China, but their work costs money too. If you are able, a financial donation could make a bigger difference than you might think.

Adopt

If you’re thinking of adoption, please consider choosing one of China’s forgotten children. You’ll need to weigh whether international adoption, adoption of an older child, special needs adoption, or some combination of the three is right for you. The most important thing is for parents and children to be a good match. If this kind of adoption sounds like it might fit you, Gladney Center for Adoption is prepared to help you find a placement that is suitable for both you and the adoptee.

I hope the impact of this short documentary will eventually stretch across the world and into countless hearts. When I saw the faces of the children depicted in the video, my first thought was that I wanted to hug them all. But I quickly remembered that while hugs are nice, they don’t actually create permanent change. I hope that with combined efforts, individual children can have their lives permanently changed through adoption. Collectively, China’s forgotten children could then no longer be forgotten.

What about you? How did the short documentary make you feel? What will you resolve to do now that you have seen it? What other questions do you have, or what do you need to learn more about?

If you have adopted an older child or a child with disabilities from China, please share what your experience was like, and tell us what your everyday life is like now.