"Lost Daughter"

Declining a referral is never easy. Here, one mother shares her story of the daughter that almost was.

A nature scene in China, representing the mixed emotions of declining a referral in adoption

I’ve hesitated about telling this story, but I think it does need telling. A few years ago, my husband and I received a referral from China of a 13-month-old girl named Wen Ying. Our adoption trip to China was a very emotional one because, sadly, Wen Ying was not the child we brought home.

When we received Wen Ying’s referral picture, we noticed a droopy eyelid. The medical report, however, indicated that she was normal and healthy, was sitting unaided and turning over. From the growth data included, we knew she was small, but not alarmingly so. Our doctor reviewed the referral information and said that a droopy eyelid could indicate nothing more serious than ptosis, an easily corrected muscle condition. To follow up, our adoption agency requested further medical information from the orphanage about a possible eye condition, and we were assured again that the child was fine. We happily accepted Wen Ying’s referral, and began to plan our trip.

Several months later, a family traveling just before us to the same city graciously agreed to carry some small gifts for Wen Ying, and to bring back new pictures of her. When the pictures arrived, we were alarmed again. Not only did her eyelid droop, but she appeared to have a wandering eye, or strabismus, a condition that sometimes indicates cerebral palsy. Also, it seemed clear from the pictures that, at 13 months old, Wen Ying was not standing or walking.

We became even more alarmed when we learned that our agency had received a call from its representative in China, after she had met Wen Ying with the earlier travel group. The representative, knowing that we would travel to China with our five-year-old daughter, Julie, was concerned about the impact on Julie should we decide, once we were in China, to turn down the referral. What did she mean?

By the time we were due to travel, we were convinced that Wen Ying had serious medical problems. However, we had accepted her referral, and we had to meet her. We were very, very concerned about protecting Julie. How would she feel if she met a little sister, only to watch us leave her behind? We decided that Joe and I would meet Wen Ying one at a time, without telling Julie that she was in our agency representative’s room. Joe would go first, while I stayed with Julie. After Joe’s return, I would go. We would, we decided, make our decision right there.

The child we met exhibited all the classic signs of cerebral palsy, including a wandering eye, protruding forehead, and inability to focus. Her fists were clenched, and one side of her body was markedly stronger than the other. She couldn’t sit up on her own. The orphanage director and doctor were quite upset by our reaction. They clearly cared very much for Wen Ying, and felt that going to a family would be her best opportunity for care. They left immediately to take Wen Ying for evaluation to a local children’s hospital, where pediatricians confirmed the diagnosis of serious mental delays.

Although we were not surprised by this news, it was devastating to have our assessment confirmed. With great sadness, we composed a letter to the authorities declining Wen Ying’s referral. It was very difficult to watch our travel mates with their children, knowing that the child we had expected to join our family wouldn’t be coming home with us. We told Julie only that her sister was “not ready” yet. Julie was anxious and asked repeatedly about “her baby.”

We could have decided at this point to return home, but, under Chinese adoption procedures at that time, if a doctor declared a child unhealthy, prospective parents could request a second referral. The next day, we were referred a little girl named Chun Jiang who had just turned one year old in a nearby city. We drove off to meet her, and found her healthy and chubby. It was a joyous moment for Julie, and very bittersweet for Joe and me.

We went through the paperwork process with heavy hearts. What if the orphanage officials, who knew Wen Jing best, had been right about her? Did she really have cerebral palsy? It’s usually not diagnosed at such an early age. Would Wen Jing improve in foster care? Would she receive the occupational or physical therapy she needed? Would someone else adopt her?

As we got to know Chun Jiang (whom we decided to name Sarah — the name we had chosen for Wen Ying — to avoid confusing Julie), we talked to our agency representative about our wish to care for Wen Ying. We asked whether the orphanage would allow us to sponsor her for medical treatment and foster care. The orphanage accepted our offer, and we were able to arrange this through the auspices of Families with Children from China-New York and the Amity Foundation, a local organization that provides assistance to children in orphanages. As we left China, I felt as if I were leaving a daughter behind.

Even though we have been home for some time, and all is well — we love Sarah Chun Jiang and she is thriving — I often find myself thinking about Wen Ying. Each time Sarah flashes her adorable smile or reaches another milestone, I think of Wen Ying, and wonder if she is smiling too, if she will ever reach the same milestones.

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