A Suicidal Nanny, an Underground Industry and 3 Babies Stabbed
By Liz Robbins and Christina Goldbaum ︱October 10, 2018
An attack at a Queens maternity center shined a light on “birth tourism,” private, unregulated nurseries that cater to both Chinese tourists and New Yorke
An open secret in the Flushing community, the center was part of an underground industry catering to a demanding clientele: local mothers resting after childbirth and Chinese visitors coming to have their babies in the United States, a practice known as “birth tourism.”
On Sept. 21, at 3:40 a.m., these dangers collided to near-fatal effect when, the police say, Mrs. Wang stabbed three babies sleeping in bassinets on the first floor — all girls — and two adults. She then turned the knife on her own neck and wrists.
The victims all survived. But the horrific act turned a spotlight on a pocket of immigrant New York, where a loose network of businesses tend to mothers and infants in the crucial, fragile month after childbirth but operate without any government oversight. The center, Mei Xin Care, is one of dozens in the area that vary widely in amenities and quality, leaving workers with few avenues for complaint, and families with little to guide them other than word of mouth, internet advertisements and blind trust.
Stuffy and cramped
The stabbing took place in a three-floor brick apartment house with white metal lattice balconies on the outskirts of Flushing. Its only advertisement existed on the internet, on a Craigslist of sorts for the local Chinese immigrant community.
The centers are an alternative to obtaining visas so family members can fly to the United States, or returning to China, where health care is often less sophisticated. For several thousand dollars, new mothers have access to nannies and cooks 24 hours a day.
A shortcut to U.S. citizenship
After the stabbings, Flushing was in an uproar. At temples, in food courts and on the streets beneath bright signs in Chinese, residents worried that the incident would stir up anti-immigrant attitudes toward their community.
Others decried the center’s second purpose, easing the path for birth tourism. “They should not come through loopholes,” said Catherine Chan, 50, a bar owner in Queens who used to work on Wall Street. She came to the United States from China when she was 6, after a long process involving family sponsorship, she said. “There is no shortcut.”
Birth tourism is a well-known phenomenon. In recent years, it has drawn mostly well-off mothers from China, Korea, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Nigeria to the United States for birthright citizenship, which President Trump has vowed to eliminate.
The police shut down Mei Xin Care after the stabbing, but less than three weeks later, the center seemed to have reopened. Women could be seen through the windows, and a pile of empty diaper boxes sat outside.
She wanted to die
After spending most of her life in poor, southeastern Fujian Province in China, Mrs. Wang, 52, sought a better future. When her husband, Peter, secured an employment visa, he brought his two adult sons and wife to New York in 2010.
There, the Wangs became immersed in a bustling community of Fujianese immigrants. Peter worked in restaurants, as did his two sons. Mrs. Wang began cleaning homes and taking care of children privately for families. About two years later, she began working at Mei Xin Care’s first location near downtown Flushing.
Her husband suffered leg pain that made it too difficult to work, he said, so the burden of providing for their family fell on Mrs. Wang. When she came home after tending newborns, she also took care of her three small grandchildren.
Their son Danny said that about six months ago, the family noticed a change in Mrs. Wang. She kept forgetting her keys and her phone at home. She became unfocused and unable to sleep. She lost a lot of weight.
At a different maternity center where Mrs. Wang briefly worked in June so she could do a day shift, one mother saw her napping on couches when the babies were sleeping, telling infants to drink faster when nursing, and complaining about changing diapers.
“She looked tired, and her impatience also suggested she was very tired,” that mother, Jane, 36, said in an interview. She declined to give her last name because she feared repercussions from the owners.
That center fired Mrs. Wang after just two days, and she returned to the graveyard shift at Mei Xin Care. By then, her mental state had visibly declined, according to her family.
About two or three months ago, Mrs. Wang told her husband that her life had no meaning and she wanted to die, her son said. Peter Wang insisted she take two weeks off. They all knew that her older sister back in China had tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide.
That is when the owners of Mei Xin called her to come back to work on the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift, her family said. She felt obligated, despite the protestations of her husband and sons.
“Fair or not fair, we can’t do anything about it,” Danny said. “It’s just reality.”
Mrs. Wang appeared to live in her own darker reality. Her lawyer, Jean Wang, who is not related to her client, said she intended to pursue an insanity defense. “It was left untreated, and finally it just blew,” the lawyer said. Charged with five counts of attempted murder, Mrs. Wang pleaded not guilty and is under suicide watch at Rikers Island.
In jail, her family and lawyer said, Mrs. Wang has become even more isolated and distraught. She tried to kill herself by smashing her head against the cell. A spokeswoman for the city’s correctional health services said she could not comment on Mrs. Wang’s mental state because of privacy laws.
When that first attempt failed, Mrs. Wang’s lawyer said, she tried to bite her tongue off, a distinctively Chinese form of suicide. She did not succeed.