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Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.

Slide background

Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.

Slide background

Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.

Slide background

Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.

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Unlike many women who try hard to conceive before choosing adoption, I had always wanted to adopt. I even knew the country I wanted my child to come from. My grandmother's best friend had been a Chinese physician who was like part of our family until her early death from cancer. I went on to study Chinese cultural history in college. I both admired the Chinese for imposing strict population control through the one-child-per-family policy and despaired over the fact that this policy led to selective gender abortion and the abandonment of infant girls.

When I was finally ready to start a family, I found a local agency that specialized in Chinese adoptions. Ten years ago, China was a popular country for American families seeking to adopt for several reasons. Chinese women were unlikely to have the substance abuse problems that sometimes made adopting foster children in the United States problematic. Because abandoning a child in China is illegal, the children were unlikely ever to be reclaimed by their birth parents. And the Chinese were known for making sure that couples received infants in good physical health.

At the initial orientation meeting held by the agency, we learned most of this information. The representative also explained that Chinese babies did not suffer from reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a condition that made it very difficult for adoptive parents to bond with their children. I was pleased to hear that my baby was being nurtured by one special nanny, a process that would help her attach. Without proper attachment, children are at risk for developing personality disorders as well as defiant and oppositional behavior. In extreme cases, kids with RAD are dangerous to themselves and their families.

The first sign that all was not as it seemed was that my daughter in fact had no special nanny. The orphanage director, when questioned by our translator, simply looked confused. Then, shortly after our return to the United States, I heard from one of the other families who adopted a girl from the same institution. She was uncommunicative and unresponsive. "The experts are calling it institutional autism," the girl's mother explained. Failing to get a response to her early needs, the girl had shut down completely.

Such was not the case with our daughter. Despite fine and gross motor delays, "Gigi" was expressive and intelligent. She wanted to communicate with us so badly that she developed her own form of primitive sign language and learned to speak English as quickly as she could. Adopted at 14 months, she was saying two- and three-sentence words in six months, showing linguistic skills that were off the charts.

But she was also a fearful child. We could not leave her alone for an instant. She was ever-vigilant in her bed at night — she became hysterical and tried to harm herself if she was put in a crib — and would bolt awake at the smallest sound. She suffered from night terrors and, later on, insomnia.

One day when she was 4 years old, she threw down the Chinese doll her grandmother had given her and said, "I hate this doll. It was adopted." Something about this strong response made me Google her orphanage. I showed Gigi a photograph of the exterior and asked her, "Do you remember this place?" Her response startled me. "Yes," she said without hesitation. "The elevators were broken, so we had to walk down the stairs."

I did more research. I discovered the blog of a woman who had brought a hidden camera into Gigi's orphanage. My daughter was right: The elevators in the building weren't working. More importantly, the children had no toys. They were left alone in a room with rows of iron cribs. There was no stimulation. There was no one to bond with them.

In spite of the fact that the girls had been inoculated against diseases and were bottle-fed on a regular schedule, they were severely neglected. My daughter's communicative nature is the thing that saved her from developing serious problems, but she is on the attachment disorder continuum. She will always have trouble trusting other people and learning to calm herself. She will always become anxious when she is faced with a situation she can't control.

I do not regret adopting my daughter — not for an instant. But I regret coming into the experience with so much faith in the agencies and governments that brokered the arrangement that brought her into my life. I let myself be lulled into a false sense of security and failed to read the signs of attachment issues when I could have been taking active steps to help Gigi from the moment I first adopted her.

I have since read a lot of studies and literature about attachment disorder. All children who spend time in institutional care are at risk; they need parents who are aware of the issues to help them bond, so they can feel secure. It is not a bad thing. It does not make adoption a bad thing. On the contrary, knowing we can help our children develop into adults who form secure attachments gives us yet one more way to bond with our children, helping them forge a link to the next generation of life.

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