Kathy and David Pijor adopted a baby girl from China two years ago, and planned to take in another this year so their daughter Lili would have a sister from her homeland. But China's decision to "adopt" new rules for what kind of foreigners it will accept as parents of its orphans effectively derailed the Pijor family's plans.
According to proposed Chinese regulations set to go into effect in May, people who are older, obese, single or facially deformed can no longer become adoptive parents of Chinese babies, with some exceptions made for those agreeing to take in children classified as "special needs."
Kathy Pijor is 44, but her 54-year-old husband David has now been deemed too old to adopt from China. The cutoff age for either parent will be 50, or 55 with harder-to-place special-needs orphans (the minimum age is still 30).
Instead, the northern Virginia couple — who in addition to Lili have two college-aged children and a 6-year-old daughter — decided to bypass China entirely. They're trying to adopt a newborn girl named Sara from Guatemala instead.
"With the new requirements coming out, I said, that's not the way for us," Kathy Pijor explained. "I'm disappointed that we were not able to go back to China. I would have liked to have continued that heritage."
The Pijors are among the many parents hoping to adopt a child from China who will directly or indirectly be affected by the proposed new regulations.
Many adoption officials predict, however, that they will be revised or relaxed, and they are working hard to get some of them modified before they become law May 1.
Among the suggested updates to be enacted by the China Center of Adoption Affairs (CCAA):
• a requirement that the adopting parent be married to someone of the opposite sex (homosexual parents and couples are already barred from adopting from China in the existing laws) for at least two years if it's the first marriage and at least five years if there's been a divorce in either parent's history;
• a body mass index (BMI) of no more than 40 for each parent;
• no severe facial deformities for either parent;
• two parents who are between the ages of 30 and 50 (55 for special needs children);
• two parents who, at minimum, have graduated from high school;
• two parents who are free of serious physical and mental diseases and deformities;
• a requirement that parents must not be taking medication of any kind for more than two years for "severe mental disorders, such as depression, mania or anxiety neurosis";
• stable employment on the part of at least one parent, with an annual income of $10,000 per family member in the household and $80,000 in family assets.
"I can understand all of them. They're not outrageous," Pijor said. "But my opinion, and it's simply my opinion, is that they need to adopt more, not make the rules stricter. But that's their choice."
Minnesota resident Karla Bormes had been gathering her paperwork together to get her first child from China when her agency, Children's Home Society & Family Services, informed her of the new rules. That was when Bormes, who is single, learned she wouldn't be able to adopt from China.
But only days later, she got another call explaining there were a handful of openings left for singles to get an orphan from China before the rules took effect, and she could take one of those slots if she wanted. Bormes — who is in her mid-40s and says she hasn't found the right man yet — jumped at the chance.
"I'm really happy," said Bormes, who lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and works in the hotel industry. "China was where I've always thought of doing this. I've traveled to Asia a lot and to China several times. I feel like I have a great affinity for China. I really love the country and the heart of the people."
What the pending change in laws has meant for Bormes is that she had to fast-track the process of getting her application to the CCAA for review, condensing the usual six-month project into just three months and sending her dossier off earlier this month.
Now, she will just have to wait — presumably for the year-and-a-half it currently takes — to be matched with a child.
Bormes said that while she was initially disappointed about the proposed laws that would restrict singles from adopting many Chinese babies, she's not outraged because she knows the volume of applicants from prospective adoptive parents has mounted in China.
"I don't think I'm angry about it," Bormes said. "They don't have the system set up to be able to handle all that ... There are so many places where children need to have families and people can adopt."
A 45-year-old mom named Sheryl — who asked that her last name not be used — would be in a bind on two fronts if she were adopting her 5-year-old Chinese daughter Lauren now or had decided to take a non-special-needs baby as her second, younger child. (Instead, she opted for an 18-month-old special-needs girl from China whom she'll pick up in April.) Sheryl is both single and taking antidepressants.
The D.C.-area mother said she finds the rule about medications "extremely worrying."
"It's somewhat unfair to create another barrier, and something like this encourages people to be less forthcoming on their applications," she said.
Ditto for the regulation limiting the ability of single men and women to adopt a Chinese child, especially for those like her who are taking in a second baby.
"Singles who have already adopted have a proven track record," Sheryl said.
Adoption officials and agency executives in the United States say that the proposed updates to Chinese law have been expected for a while and are likely to change again.
"They've been hinting at changes in the system for many years," said Chuck Johnson of the National Council for Adoption. "China has been pretty consistent. They're not prone to change the rules. Some countries would say 'effective yesterday.' China did give many, many months."
China is among the countries to regularly update and re-evaluate its adoption regulations and — in spite of all the red tape — remains among the countries most receptive to foreign adoptions, which it has allowed since the early 1990s.
"China is simply doing what any country should be doing — they're reassessing criteria to determine if a family is appropriate," said Thomas DiFilipo, president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services.
"The fact that they have gotten restrictive ... if you saw what laws we're working with in sub-Sahara Africa, China is really an open door compared to other countries."
Many, for instance, either don't have an open international adoption policy at all or have stiff rules requiring, for example, that parents live in the country where the child is from for a period of six months to two years, according to DiFilipo.
Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia and Nigeria are the only African nations that are fully amenable to overseas adoptions, he said. South America is restrictive, and countries including Cambodia are totally closed to international adoptions.
Guatemala and other Central American nations are willing to adopt to foreign parents but aren't regulated in line with the Hague Convention Treaty, which includes guidelines for adoptions across country borders.
Even the United States isn't sending out a lot of its children to other nations, according to DiFilipo, with only about 200 to 600 American children being adopted annually to parents out of the country — in Canada, France and Mexico, among other places.
"I wouldn't use the word 'strict' for the China system," he said. "There are certain regulations we would hope our colleagues will re-evaluate. ... But overall, we applaud what China comprehensively has been doing, promoting international adoption. They still place children internationally in spite of cultural pressure."
Still, some American adoptive parents see the Chinese government's crackdown as crossing the line a bit.
"Of course, it's discriminatory — it is," Pijor said. "But if they truly have a reduced number of babies, it's probably not such a bad thing. ... What I would be angry about is if they made the decision to reduce adoptions while they're letting children sit in orphanages."
There has been speculation that the likely law changes are political, since China has one of the world's largest pools of orphans adopted internationally.
"They probably don't want to be seen as the world's baby brokers," Pijor said. "The Chinese are very concerned about how they look."
And there's even been a rumor that the country is tightening its rules because of the 2008 Olympics it's hosting. During the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, a sportscaster apparently made a derogatory comment about the number of Korean orphans being sent to foreign parents.
"I have a concern that there's a political reason for these changes," Sheryl said. "I have a feeling that after the Olympics are over in 2008, we'll see a change. China doesn't like any kind of controversy."
But one American adoption agency founder doesn't buy that buzz.
"I don't believe that whatsoever," said Joshua Zhong, who co-founded the Denver-based Chinese Children Adoption International, the largest China-focused agency in the U.S.
"They have been thinking about these things for over two years. The economy is doing well. The government is starting to be more flexible. This has nothing to do with the Olympics."
The one-child-per-family quota and the historic desire for male heirs have led to the abandonment of many babies in the past, particularly girls. But that, said Zhong, is changing.
China, which provides more than 7,000 children a year for adoption to the U.S. and about 15,000 around the world, has seen an influx in demand both here and abroad. Its official orphan numbers are about 500,000 — the same number as in the U.S., according to the National Council for Adoption.
But the country wants to encourage more domestic adoptions and keep the number of orphans sent to overseas families steady. There have also been concerns about adopted kids being abused, according to Zhong.
"There are so many people adopting from China, and our law is really too liberal. We need to control that and find better families for children," he said.
Yet some insiders say the true number of Chinese orphans needing homes could be as high as 2 million, though there is no way to confirm it since the country's reporting system is uneven and some orphanages won't allow government officials in.
Most parents, agency heads and adoption officials in the U.S. are taking a wait-and-see approach on the new rules and trying to temper the hype that sprouted up when they were announced at the end of last year.
Bormes, for her part, is grateful for the chance to adopt a child, period, even if something falls through and she winds up not being able to get a baby from China.
"I'm excited to have gotten all the paperwork done and excited about the whole process," she said. "But I'm trying not to get overly manic about it. It could be quite a ways away."