One of our CAS families sat down recently with a reporter from their local newspaper, The Roanoke Times. Pursuing their second China adoption, the family shares their personal adoption journey along with poignant thoughts on many factors involved in the international adoption process. We would like to thank the Roanoke Times and writer, Tonia Moxley.
BLACKSBURG — At 3 years old, Lili Trent knew she wanted a little brother.
“I have a lot of love to give,” she told her mother.
Abandoned at 7 months old in Hangzhou province by a biological father in a desperate situation, Lili, now 5, lives with her adoptive parents, Tiffany and Andrew.
If all goes as planned, the family hopes this spring to bring home a 2-year-old boy from another Chinese province. His future big sister has cherished his photo, sometimes keeping it by her bed. For a while, she kissed it good morning every day.
“It was all mostly motivated by her,” Tiffany said of the family’s second overseas adoption. “She really just wanted to have a sibling, desperately.”
Before her parents decided to embark on another two-year-long, $40,000 process, Lili already had her brother fixed in her mind. At the Blacksburg Chinese School, where she learns about her birth country’s language and traditions, Lili “started to draw our family. She drew all of us — and him.”
The Trents say they don’t know what lodged the desire for a sibling in Lili’s mind, except maybe an early memory of a companion.
“She had a dear little friend in the orphanage, who, they told us he was her husband,” Tiffany said. “And he said goodbye, and he … gave her a little gift before we left.”
At first unsure about a second adoption, at a friend’s suggestion the Trents offered Lili a puppy. She was not placated.
“I don’t want a puppy,” she told them. “I want a little brother.”
It’s been difficult for Lili to wait so long to meet him, and her parents have gone through an arduous process to make that dream a reality. They’ve raised money via crowdsourcing, saved funds by living in a smaller house, chased stacks of documents and dealt with at least five levels of agency and governmental approvals.
Now that they are on the cusp of completing their family, the Trents say they are uneasy that in some quarters of their own country immigration is seen as a threat.
“It’s just an ugly, icky feeling towards immigrants,” Andrew said.
Political tensions have brought about upheavals in international adoption before, and that possibility can weigh heavily on the minds of adoptive parents in the middle of a complex process.
In 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin closed American adoption from his country after two high-profile events. In 2010, “an American woman sparked outrage after she sent her adopted son back to Russia alone on a one-way flight, saying the boy, then 7, had violent episodes that made her family fear for its safety,” The New York Times reported. The following year, the U.S. imposed travel and financial restrictions on human rights abusers in Russia, spurring Putin to retaliate.
His ban blocked the departure of 46 children whose adoptions by American parents were nearly completed, according to the Times. U.S. adoption agency officials said at the time that about 200 to 250 sets of parents who had already identified children they planned to adopt would also be affected, according to reports. The ban remains in place today, and those families remain in limbo.
Tiffany Trent said she has had moments of anxiety, wondering if tensions between China and President Donald Trump might affect her family and their young son. And she was not alone.
“It’s certainly something that’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” said Allie Smith, director of programs for Carolina Adoption Services, a nonprofit agency that facilitates American adoptions from six countries. “We’re getting a lot of questions about it, especially from families that are preparing to travel.”
The Trents have worked with Carolina, a 23-year-old agency, on both of their adoptions. Its staff of 10 does 40 to 60 placements a year, Smith said. The agency is licensed to work with families in Virginia and North and South Carolina to facilitate adoptions from Armenia, Bulgaria, China, Haiti, South Korea and Uganda, she said.
Immigration debates flared during the 2016 U.S. presidential race and have continued with Trump’s executive order on immigration. That order, recently blocked in federal court, focused mostly on Middle Eastern refugees and visa holders. It hinges on fears that terrorists will infiltrate the system to do harm to America. Trump and some of his supporters also have called to extend the wall between the U.S. and Mexico to stem drug trafficking and the flow of illegal migrants in search of work.
Foreign adoptions so far have not been part of these discussions, and agencies are optimistic that its effects, if there are any, will be minimal.
“I don’t expect anything that’s happening right now to have a significant impact on adoption, except perhaps in the countries where there … has been that travel ban,” Smith said.
While the tensions are unlikely to affect the Trents directly, the debates have caused them to reflect on citizenship and engendered a feeling of kinship with immigrants. Lili was sworn in as an American citizen before the family left China. Tiffany recalled that day — Dec. 3, 2013 — at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou.
“You can see this giant line of people trying to immigrate. And as adopted families, you go straight in. You bypass all that stuff,” she said. “I feel guilty, but I also think about how we take our citizenship so much for granted, and there are so many people who would give anything, who are giving everything, just to try to be in this place they have heard is so great.
“As parents of immigrants, we are heartbroken that so many children and families are not finding the safe haven in America they have often worked years to achieve. Immigrants are vital to the culture, economy and diversity of this nation,” she added by email.
With the exception of American Indians, every U.S. citizen is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants, Tiffany wrote. “Radical acts of compassion are required now to bring peace to the world, not closing ourselves off and denying aid to those in need.”
And the need is great. Reliable estimates of the number of children worldwide waiting to be adopted are hard to come by. Some are orphaned by war or disease outbreaks. Some families suffer crushing poverty and see adoption as the only chance for their child’s future. Others abandon some children with disabilities for fear of community stigma, or in hopes the children will get help from adopted families.
Since 2009, China has been the leading country for U.S. international adoption. American households have adopted 76,026 children from China since 1999.
“In China at any given time, there are more than 1,000 children waiting to be paired with families, so the need is significant,” said Smith, of Carolina Adoption Services. “At the China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption, they are adding children to their listing of waiting children almost every single day.”
Often expensive medical needs force Chinese parents to abandon their children. In Lili’s case, her family could not afford surgery to fix a heart defect. Risking imprisonment, the Trents said, the father left her at a children’s hospital with a note.
“My precious baby,” he wrote. “I hope some kind-hearted soul will cure your illness.”
The Chinese government health system pays for medical care for abandoned children put into the adoption system, but sometimes will not pay for the same care to keep a child with its birth family, the Trents said. Lili’s story illustrates the myths around overseas adoption and highlights its importance.
“It is very clear that he loved her,” Tiffany said. “He did the best that he could for her. This story we’re told is that these people don’t care about their children … and they give them up on a whim. They don’t; it’s devastating,” she said. “More compassion for the situation these people are in is warranted, and I think that’s where international adoption continues to be important.”
Lili got her surgery in China after her abandonment, and her Roanoke cardiologist has assured the Trents that it was a success, Andrew said. Their son, whom they cannot name until he is formally adopted, also has a medical condition, but, Andrew said, they won’t know the extent of it until they meet him later this year. Lili will fly back to China with them to bring her little brother home.
There are critics of overseas adoption. Smith, of Carolina Adoption Services, said she hears it often: “Why don’t these families adopt an American child?”
Certainly there are needy children in the U.S., she said. American families turn to international adoption for a number of reasons. Some have been unable to adopt domestically, she said. Other families want a closed adoption to avoid the complications of having a relationship with the birth family. Still others, like the Trents, have a special connection to a particular country or culture and “want to blend their family that way,” Smith said.
Tiffany Trent, a published author of young adult novels, and Andrew Trent, a wildlife biologist who has studied Asian bears, have together spent a total of about five years living and working in different parts of China. At 16, Andrew traveled from Botetourt County to China to study martial arts. Soon after his return to the states, he met Tiffany, then 14, at Shaolin Dragons Martial Arts Academy in Roanoke, where she was a student and he, an instructor. They started dating two years later and married in 1995.
Even as teenagers, they talked about having children. The plan, Tiffany said, was to have one biological child, and one child adopted from China. In the end, the couple couldn’t have a biological child, but, for them adoption was never a second choice, she said.
Andrew had a connection to China from an early age.
“I started into martial arts when I was, like, 10,” he said. “I spent a lot of my personal time within the Chinese culture,” which he described as very similar to the Appalachian culture in which he grew up.
“When I went to Sichuan province, it was like here, only the mountains were steeper,” Andrew said. “I could just fit in, sometimes better, with the Chinese culture.”
And he knew early on that someday he would have a daughter. On that first trip to China in 1987, a 16-year-old Andrew bought an outfit for a little girl at the Beijing Friendship Store. He kept it for 26 years, and Lili wore it to her first Lunar New Year celebration in the U.S.
“We always tell her she’s our dream come true,” Tiffany said.
Overall, international adoptions have decreased significantly since 2004, when 22,989 foreign-born children were brought to the U.S., according to State Department figures. In 2015, the most recent year available, the number had dropped to 5,647 adoptions, with 2,354 of them from China.
Smith said the decrease can be attributed to a number of factors. Some countries, like Russia, have closed foreign adoption for political reasons. But in other places there’s a more positive trend.
“Many countries now are doing a wonderful job — as they should — of advocating for domestic adoption for children,” Smith said. “It’s becoming more culturally acceptable in some countries for children to be adopted domestically, and that’s certainly in their best interest to remain in their country of birth whenever possible.”