In China, the most pressing child welfare issue is arguably no longer how to care for children without families — but what to do about children experiencing abuse and neglect within their families. As child welfare officials in China work to address this problem, Holt is providing guidance and support — advocating for systemic change that will ultimately affect hundreds of thousands of children.
by Robin Munro, Managing Editor
A few weeks ago, we shared the story of a little girl in China who we called “Hong.” Alongside the story we posted a picture of Hong, chubby-cheeked and smiling, her shiny black hair swept across her forehead. The story was about foster care — how in her foster mother’s care, Hong overcame a bad skin infection that caused her face to become red and swollen. Her foster mother took her to the doctor and ensured she received the medicine she needed. She mothered Hong back to health, with nourishing food and attentive, loving care. Praised for her devoted care, Hong’s foster mother brushed it off. “It’s nothing to be a show-off about,” she said. “I just do what a mom would do for her child.”
Twenty years ago, foster care was an alien concept in China. If their parents died or were unable to support them, children would customarily be taken in by relatives. For children who truly had nowhere else to go, China provided housing and care through an extensive network of social welfare institutes spread out across the country. These orphanages provided a last resort for orphaned and abandoned children, and before the 1990s, few children came into care.
Then, in the late 1980s, China instituted a one-child-per-family policy — resulting in one very unfortunate and unintended outcome. Facing extreme consequences if they failed to comply, parents began to abandon their children, primarily those who would not in time be able to support the family.
By the time Holt began working in China — in the early 1990s — China’s social welfare institutes were in a state of crisis. With children coming in at a rate of sometimes five per day — most of them infant girls — caregivers became overwhelmed. To properly care for the growing number of children in care, China’s orphanages needed a solution more immediate than adoption.
By this late date, Holt had already developed an alternative model of care for children — a model that would give children the attentive, nurturing care that, despite their best efforts, orphanage caregivers simply don’t have the time or resources to provide. In South Korea, India, Thailand, the Philippines and other countries, Holt had already introduced this model with great success. After some convincing, the Chinese government began partnering with Holt to develop foster care for the country’s orphaned and abandoned children. Today, thousands of children in China live with foster families while they wait to join permanent adoptive families in China or overseas. Thousands of children are being nurtured back to health, achieving critical developmental milestones, and thriving in their foster parents’ care.
While moving, the story of little Hong is also very common in China today.
“One thing I’ve always appreciated about China is that they’re very practical,” says Phil Littleton, Holt president and CEO, reflecting on China’s efforts to strengthen their child welfare system. “They ask, ‘What is the best solution?’ And they look at how the U.S. and other countries handle it.”
Over the past 20 years in China, foster care and adoption have proven tremendously successful as short and long-term solutions for orphaned and abandoned children. In compliance with the one-child policy, families are also having fewer children — causing overall rates of abandonment to decline. As a result, the most pressing child welfare issue is no longer how to care for children without families — but what to do about children experiencing abuse and neglect within their families.
China does not have a system for protecting children from mental, physical and sexual abuse by family members. Until recent years, the government saw little need for one. “In traditional farmer families, extended family members would step in to care for children,” explains Jian Chen, Holt’s VP of China programs. “But today, because of drug use and migration, there’s no protection for children.” The rapid shift from an agrarian to industrial society has disrupted these strong family structures in China. More and more, adults are migrating from rural to urban areas in search of work, causing separation and strife within the family. Unable to support them, some parents leave their children in the countryside with elderly grandparents or relatives. Other children move with their parents to larger cities, where they are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“There are so many neglected children,” says Jian. “There are some 600,000 children whose parents are working in the city. Many parents have drug problems. China will need to address this problem eventually.”
Recently, China began taking the first steps toward developing a way to protect children experiencing abuse and neglect in their families. And once again, the government is taking a practical approach by looking at child protection systems in the U.S. and other countries. In October, a special delegation of child welfare officials traveled from China to the U.S. with the goal of learning more about the U.S. child welfare system. Led by Zhang Shifeng, then Director-General of the China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption (CCCWA), the delegation visited several agencies across the U.S. For their last stop at Holt’s headquarters in Eugene, Oregon, our staff prepared two full days of activities including a visit to the Lane County Department of Human Services, as well as the local courthouse for an overview of the related legal procedures.
Upon arrival in Eugene, the delegation first visited Holt, where they met our staff and toured the office. Phil Littleton expressed how honored we are to have worked with the CCCWA since the early 1990s. “I believe the CCCWA and Holt’s goals are the same,” he said. “We want all children under all circumstances to achieve their full potential. It’s a goal I know we share.”
Director Zhang shared how excited he is to finally meet the many Holt staff members dedicated to caring for children. “In the past, all I see is Jian,” he quipped. Recognizing a long and great history of cooperation, he expressed his hopes for the next phase of our partnership. “In the next few days,” he said, “I hope we can learn a lot and be inspired to do something new.”
After the office tour, the delegation sat down for an introductory presentation by social services coordinator Jania Hatfield and social worker Eileen Nittler, as well as CEO Phil Littleton. To start off, Jania shared about mandatory reporting, the role of DHS and the steps taken to determine who should take custody of the child. After Jania’s presentation, Phil shared a bit about the U.S. foster care system — a system China already knows well, but only in the context of caring for orphaned and abandoned children. In the U.S., foster care is an integral part of the child protection system — providing a temporary refuge for children removed from abusive homes.
“In the U.S., about 400,000 children are in foster care, and only 100,000 are on track for adoption,” Phil explained to the delegation. Most of the child welfare cases are drug-related, and many children will ultimately be reunited with their families. The state social worker assigned to the case works with the family to help them receive treatment and work toward a place where they can continue caring for their children. The approach is similar to how Holt works with many families in countries overseas; before pursuing adoption for a child, we first strive to strengthen and preserve the child’s birth family.
As Holt’s president and CEO, Phil has a solid understanding of child welfare and foster care systems in the U.S. and abroad. As a former foster parent, he also offers a more personal perspective to our visitors.
“My family fostered for eight years,” he shared. “We had lots of children. Our last child we ended up adopting from foster care. She’s now 6.”
Caring for orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children has been a special calling in Phil and his wife, Julene’s, lives. Phil and Julene adopted their sons, Luke and Jordan, domestically at birth. For ten years, Julene also worked for an organization in L.A. County that recruited and supported foster families. “We always said, at some time we wanted to become foster parents,” Phil says.
Over eight years, they fostered about the same number of children. In every case but one — that of their adopted daughter, Chloe — the children ultimately returned to their birth parents.
“One set of siblings were in our care for two years,” Phil says. “We thought we would be adopting them, but they went back with their birth family.” As with most children who end up in foster homes in the U.S., the parents of these 2 and 5-year-old siblings were battling drug addiction. “The state tried to get the parents on a plan to get them off drugs,” Phil shared with the delegation. “For [nearly] two years, the parents didn’t get on a plan. In the last three or four months, the family learned they were going to lose their children.” The parents got off drugs, found jobs and reunited with their children. Sadly, the parents later fell back into addiction — sending their children back into the foster care system. After four years of jumping from foster home to foster home, the girls now live with their grandmother.
While foster care plays a vital role in child protection in the U.S., Phil also acknowledged to our visitors that the system is flawed. “There are two main problems with the U.S. foster care system,” he said. “First, some families are not good foster families. They do it for the subsidy, not for the children. Second, sometimes kids stay too long in the system.”
Given these problems, it might seem misguided for China to look to the U.S. as a model for developing their country’s child protection system. But that would miss the forest for the trees. “It’s not a perfect system,” Phil says, “but it’s one of the best systems in the world today. Many of the countries I travel to have no existing system like this.”
Contrary to popular belief, Phil is confident that the majority of foster families have good intentions. The few foster families who get into it for the wrong reasons give the system a bad name. “From my history of meeting foster parents and families, very few are taking advantage of the system,” he says. The challenge now is to convince more families in the U.S. of the need for foster families — and for families to adopt from foster care.
This is a challenge that Holt will likely take on in coming years. With international adoption on the decline, Holt is now exploring the possibility of placing children through U.S. foster care. “Why wouldn’t we look at what more we can do?” Phil says. “I’m excited.”
Toward the end of the presentation, the delegation members asked a few questions. Director Zhang wanted to know if someone sees a child abandoned, if they can take the child in. Holt social worker Eileen Nittler clarified that in the U.S., that would be considered kidnapping. “It’s common in China for families to do this and later try to adopt the child,” Director Zhang responded. “I would like to change this.”
Since the delegation’s visit in October, the CCCWA has begun working with the Ministry of Civil Affairs to develop a pilot system for addressing child abuse. Impressed by Holt’s presentation, they have invited Jian Chen, Holt’s VP of China programs, to participate in the pilot project. “The delegation felt really good about the info,” says Jian. “Holt has a responsibility as an agency working in child welfare to introduce these new concepts and practices to China and encourage the government to start prioritizing a child protection system.”
Before they can begin implementing a system, however, the government needs to gain public buy-in. “They need to go public with it because they need to change people’s minds about the need for a system,” Jian explains. “They are taking child protection out of the family and into the realm of government oversight.” To that end, the delegation will translate and publish in Chinese what they learned about child protection in the U.S.
For Holt’s part, our role will continue to be an educational and supportive one. Although tangential to Holt’s family strengthening, international adoption and other work overseas, helping to bring systemic change to child welfare systems has always been at the heart of our mission. “Holt always focuses on what’s best for children,” says Jian. “Family strengthening and foster care just help a handful of children. Now we are advocating for change to the whole system.”