WUHAN, China — Pointing to longtime Chicagoan Lynn Pautler, a Chinese woman tells tiny Meng Lei, “This ... is ... mother. This ... is ... mama.” She pauses, and then repeats in a thick Mandarin accent, “Maaaa . . . ma.”
The 19-month-old girl, abandoned in central China the day she was born, stares blankly at her new mother and cries. She’s too young to understand she soon would be making her home across the ocean with two strange-looking foreigners who don’t speak a word of Chinese.
Within a few hours, however, the girl happily takes a bottle from her new father, Han Schiet, and clutches a Goofy doll — the transition to American child under way. She is now named Thea.
“We’re instant parents,” says Pautler, 45. “It’s amazing how natural it is.”
The girl, one of 13 Chinese children adopted into families from the Chicago area last month, joins a growing number of similar children now making homes in the city and suburbs. The trip to the Far East, set up by the Sunny Ridge Family Center in Wheaton, was the seventh adoption trip arranged by Sunny Ridge in 1999.
Sunny Ridge and several other Chicago area adoption clinics report arranging 920 adoptions of abandoned Chinese children in the last five years. For Illinois families, China is the most popular source of adoptees.
Russia sends more children to the United States (4,348, compared with 4,101 from China in 1999), but China sends more to Illinois — 171 to 153 from Russia in the first 11 months of 1999, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
A support group, Families with Children from China, is rapidly becoming one of the most visible organizations at the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown each February. The group holds a variety of year-round events to acquaint parents and children with each other and Chinese culture.
Pat Kluzik-Stauch of Elgin, who adopted a child from China in 1994 and started the local chapter of FCC in 1995, called the rate of growth of adoptive families “pretty amazing.”
“There is a pretty active adoptive community in Illinois, especially around Chicago,” she said. “For a mixed-race family, it’s pretty easy to blend in. It’s very accepting.”
While most adopting parents have fertility problems and find China the easiest country to work with, some prospective parents head to China for the sole purpose of helping a child in need. The group that visited China in November ranged in age from 34 to 50 and included lawyers, teachers, financial analysts, small-business owners and a former military pilot.
For Pautler and Schiet, who are living temporarily in Paris, and the other dozen families, the trip to China was the culmination of a sometimes-grueling process.
Adopting families must fill out and notarize 59 forms required by the Chinese and U.S. governments, said Bob McNeill, director of intercountry adoption at Sunny Ridge. China wants to ensure it is sending children to good homes, while U.S. officials want to ensure the child won’t become a ward of the state, he said.
The process includes a detailed home study, review of tax returns, letters of reference and a fingerprint check. Applicants must submit results of physical exams and negative HIV tests.
Depending on how long it takes a family to complete the paperwork, the process typically takes 12 to 18 months. Although China is less expensive than some countries, the cost is steep: $16,000 to $22,000.
What’s more, some families battle misperceptions and racism, even within their own families.
Laura Garbacz, 45, a stay-at-home mom from Schaumburg, said her parents were dismayed when she told them of her plan to adopt her first child from China in 1997. But after fertility treatments caused her heart to stop briefly, she and her husband Robert, 48, went ahead with the adoption.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said, adding that most of her friends and family have reacted positively. After the Chinese government changed its laws last spring allowing Chinese and foreign families to adopt a second child, she went back in November.
Six and a half months after submitting the paperwork to the Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs in Beijing, the families received a photo of the child selected for them, attaching a face to the largely bureaucratic process.
Christine Casper, 48, a former teacher from Barrington, said that in no time she “fell in love” with her child’s photo. She taped it to a button and wore it on her jacket.
Before the November trip to get the children, Michael Lauzon, a 38-year-old lawyer from the Northwest Side, said he could barely grasp the magnitude of what he and his wife Janet Vander Kelen were about to do.
“In two weeks, I will be in a world unknown to me, receiving a child that will be a part of my life for the remainder of my life,” he said. “I never imagined nor planned, until we made the decision, to be in this situation.”
The families first flew to Beijing, where they spent a weekend on a whirlwind tour of the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
Then the group headed to Hubei, a province in central China and home to the Yangtze River. Flooding of the river left thousands of people dead and millions homeless in 1998. It was the worst flooding since 1954.
During times of floods or disaster, experts say, the numbers of abandoned children increase. While no one can say with certainty how many children are abandoned or orphaned in China, the government has said it is no more than 100,000. But some Western experts say there are likely several hundred thousand, and the vast majority are girls. Because sons traditionally care for their elderly parents in Chinese society, and most families are only allowed one child, daughters lose out.
“Parents don’t want to abandon their daughters,” said Kay Johnson, an Asian studies professor at Hampshire College in Amherst who has studied abandonment in China. “But given the pressures and given the need to have a son, they had no choice.”
Most parents first see their newborn children in a hospital, but the parents from Chicago are to meet their children on the second floor of the Li Jiang Hotel in the capital of the province,Wuhan(population 7 million). The hotel is also home to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which arranges adoptions in the province.
To meet the needs of new parents, the Li Jiang equips most rooms with baby cribs, sells a milk-yogurt baby drink and offers a baby-sitting service.
The night before the scheduled adoptions, the families fill out yet another form pledging they never will abandon the children.
James and Ting Ting Branit, both 38, of Beverly, said the days before the adoption reminded them of waiting for the birth of their first daughter two years ago. Born with Down syndrome, the girl soon died.
“It’s very similar to giving birth,” James Branit, a lawyer, said. “We have the picture, but we really have no idea what she looks like until we see her. We don’t know what her personality is. It’s a total unknown.”
The next morning, it is overcast and chilly, a typical fall day in China. But inside, emotions run high: Couples who spent many frustrating years trying to start a family realize they soon will be parents.
Shortly before the 8 a.m. scheduled delivery, the families race frantically about the hotel, clutching baby blankets, gifts for the orphanages and briefcases full of documents.
Slowly the children, between 10 months and 33 months old, arrive with their caretakers. They come from eight different orphanages from small cities throughout the province, some an overnight train trip away. Many of the children are with foster parents, signaling an increasing trend in China.
The children appear healthy and well-cared for, if a little frightened. Many have red dye dotted on their foreheads: the color red is considered lucky in China.
When they see the children, the adopting families try to match the children’s faces with the pictures they’ve stared at for three months. Donna Rose, 37, a former special education teacher from Naperville, rushes her husband, Henry, over to a small bundle of a child dressed in a blue and yellow winter outfit.
“I think it’s her,” she says. But they find out it’s a boy who is being adopted by Robert and Marilyn Bernard of the Northwest Side. Undaunted, the Roses continue to search for their daughter-to-be.
In a room with several rows of large gray easy chairs and a Chinese flag in the corner, the tense parents gather with a host of Chinese officials for the adoption ceremony. Tea is served.
Applause erupts after the head of the Ministry of Civil Affairs announces that the government has approved the families’ adoption applications.
As Patrice and Vince Klingler of Naperville go to the front of the room to meet their child, the other families sit on the edge of their seats, multiple video cameras rolling.
The couple sign and fingerprint the adoption decree, which says the new parents must treat the child as their own and “guarantee healthy growth and good education.”
They must agree not to give up the child to anyone else and to allow her freedom of marriage_pledges that aim to dispel rumors that children adopted by foreigners are sold into slavery or marriage_or worse, harvested for their organs.
To seal the deal, the official coats the baby’s foot with ink and presses it against the back of the decree.
Vince Klingler gives the official a plate with an etching of the Chicago skyline, plus $3,000 for the orphanage. That fee goes to orphanages around the province, and experts say it has been crucial toward improving the once-dire conditions at orphanages.
The daughter’s foster mother hands the girl to Patrice. The Klinglers now have legal custody of their second child from China.
“Dreams are unfolding before our eyes,” Donna Rose remarks.
As the day progresses, the orderly process quickly turns into a free-for-all as the children, new parents and foster parents alternate laughing and crying.
Outside the room, in a second-floor lobby, the new parents begin to get to know their children. Through translators, they chat with the children’s caretakers about diets, potty habits and sleep schedules.
The Roses’ daughter, 16-month-old Qi Chun Jie, likes rice, fish and sweets. Donna Rose’s eyes tear up as she strokes her new daughter’s hair; she whispers, “Hi, Elizabeth,” as the girl falls asleep in her arms.
The adoption is bittersweet, however. Sobbing heavily, Chun Jie’s foster mother and caretaker for most of the girl’s life watches the elevator doors close as the girl leaves with her new parents.
“You could see she was loved and so much a part of the family,” Rose said. “You could see the Chinese love their children.”
A law change last April allows Chinese families to adopt even if they aren’t childless, a significant change in China’s one-child policy that will lead to more domestic adoptions. But experts predict it could be a while before more foster parents with their own children are able to adopt.
The goodbye also is hard for the children. Searching for her recently departed foster family, DePaul University Professor Jean Knoll’s new daughter cries continuously. While traumatic, studies show it’s important for children to learn to attach from an early age. Then it will be easier for them to attach again even if the early bond is broken.
“This is as bad as it gets,” the single mother tells 2-year-old Lizhen. “I don’t blame you for screaming. You lost someone precious and got someone very strange.”
As the day and week progresses, the babies warm to their new parents, and begin clutching them when frightened.
“Thirteen families are forming,” Donna Rose says.
The hallway on the seventh floor of the hotel turns into a playroom, with infants crawling and toddlers running its corridors. Crying and laughing noises come from the rooms at all hours of the day and night.
“It’s baby central,” said Sunny Ridge’s McNeill.
The parents spend the week inWuhanwaiting for their children’s Chinese passports before heading to the U.S. Consulate in southern China to receive travel visas. In the United States, the families will apply for citizenship for their children, a process that can take two years.
Throughout the rest of the trip, Chinese onlookers surround the couples, asking questions, taking pictures and referring to the newly adopted children as “lucky babies.”
“You are very nice,” one says to Maureen and Bruce Berkheimer of Tinley Park, who have two boys at home and adopted a girl.
But elderly Chinese don’t hesitate to chide the new parents if the children don’t appear to be dressed warmly enough_no less than three to six layers of clothing will do. And putting a child_even a toddler_in a stroller is unacceptable. In China, a parent must hold a child close to the heart.
As time passes, some parents realize some of the children aren’t as healthy or socially adjusted as the others.
The Branits rushed their daughter to the hospital when she had stomach cramps, likely due to the improved diet they were providing her. Often, because of limited resources at orphanages, babies receive little more than diluted formula and rice gruel. Their 11-month-old daughter weighs just 14 pounds.
“I started to feel sympathy at first,” Ting Ting Branit said. “Later, I felt good because I can help her. If she stayed at the orphanage, she would not survive.”
Doctors say Chinese infants are at risk for anemia, rickets, asthma, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and malnutrition. Most of the problems are corrected once the children come to the United States, where they typically have better nutrition and less exposure to pollution.
For children raised in an institution, just being with a family can have remarkable results. DePaul University graduate student Rebecca Nelson conducted a study of 55 recently adopted Chinese infants and found that 59 percent experienced mental developmental delays and 86 percent experienced motor delays upon their arrival in the United States. Within six months, mental delays were found in only 33 percent of the children, motor delays in 54 percent.
“These are very resilient children,” Nelson said.
Christine Casper, whose daughter never had left the orphanage before traveling toWuhanand may not have been exposed to much light, realizes her daughter will need a healthy dose of socialization.
The girl, now named Claire FuZhen Casper, apparently didn’t have a continuous caretaker or many playmates. The parents watched as the girl played alone with nothing but an unopened bag of crackers. She had yet to smile.
“She doesn’t seem really stimulated,” Christine Casper said. “But what’s in the past doesn’t matter. She’s ours now. She’ll be happy.”
For now, though, there are other things to worry about: Although toilet trained, Claire didn’t know how to tell her new parents she had to go. She urinated while sitting on her father’s lap.
Christine can only laugh at her husband Coy, a new father at age 50.
“Welcome to fatherhood!” she says.