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June 20, 2016

Societies can't resist doing stupid and tragic things. That's why history is more interesting than reality TV.

Until last year in China, a dim-bulb idea had been clicked on to limit each family to one child to reduce that nation's population. Well, it's one bureaucratic program that worked. Millions of baby girls were aborted, given up as orphans or abandoned for this simple(ton) reason: They weren't boys.

(The consequence for China has been a minority of very picky women and a big surplus of horny men.)

So many baby girls were discarded that mobile patrols drove the streets to pick them up.

Government policies are normally examined with impersonal analytical detachment, but the human effect they have is lived by individuals, one by one.

In the South China city of Guangzhou, there likely is a woman who sometimes interrupts her day to grieve for a baby. The days-old girl she surrendered or had torn from her arms on a December day 17 years ago. The baby was placed on a park bench to be found or to die.

That newborn was found - and is doing just fine now as Hannah Flagg, a college-bound, superior student with a great future tucked among the books in her backpack.


Hannah is a petite, cute girl with a toothy smile and none of the social hesitancy of many teens. Her manner is matter-of-fact, but when she talks of the beast that also lived in her San Marcos home, her eyes rim with red.

The evil presence in that household made Hannah an orphan a second time.

In the fall, Hannah will matriculate at UCLA on full-ride scholarships where she will study the sciences. She calculates she will have about $1,000 to $2,000 left over for the entire school year to pay for everything beyond fees, housing and books. That's in expensive Westwood. The guy who takes her on a date better be ready to pick up the tab.

However, if that guy has the curiosity to ask and the patience to listen, he will hear a story of childhood heartache and gritty perseverance that will be educational beyond hamburger chit-chat and a movie.


Hannah was adopted along with another, unrelated Chinese girl a year older who was found on a street corner and also rescued by Peter and Donna Flagg of San Marcos. Hannah remembers them as kind, loving parents to the girls, and painfully loving to each other. It could have been a storybook family - love conquering distance and culture - except for one thing.

One nasty, irreparable, unconquerable thing: alcoholism, raging and uncontrollable.

"We had what seemed like a normal family: nice house, nice neighborhood, nice school," Hannah remembers. "Mom was a stay-at-home mom, involved in PTA and what not. It wasn't until I was maybe 7 that I kind of started to realize that things weren't normal. I knew they drank, but I didn't know the consequences of it. My mom would be hiding alcohol in a closet, and me and my sister would be finding it."

The girls' father was a former salesman who in 2004 opened a sandwich and bagel shop in San Marcos. It went under in 2008. He didn't work thereafter. The family lived on welfare and a grandmother's assistance. Slim living, especially when booze is atop the shopping list, above milk and eggs.

"My dad was what people would call a functioning alcoholic. He could drink and drink, and be drunk and you wouldn't notice because he was still able to do his job."

Ah, but what the girls had to witness day and night: "They would fight. They would never touch us girls, but there were a lot of nights when my mom would drink, and she would get really, really drunk. My dad would also be drinking, but it was less noticeable.

"My mom, when she would drink, she would turn violent. She would go after my dad and start screaming at him and punching him. He would push her away, and because she was so out of it, she would fall down and have bruises on her. They would be screaming at each other, throwing things.

"I remember, distinctly, one night she threw a hot iron at my dad, and he had an iron burn on his arm. Sometimes police would show up. It wasn't uncommon for Child Protective Services to come and kind of ask us questions. We always covered up because we didn't want to be taken away.

"There was this one night, it got so bad that my dad took me and my sister out of the house. He just grabbed sleeping bags from our garage. We slept in a parking lot because we couldn't be in the house."

Let's perhaps soften our judgment somewhat as we remember this was a couple that reached all the way to China for two tiny abandoned humans whose lives would have been otherwise hopeless.

These two, Peter and Donna, they had their dreams, and they had love, and they did their best for their daughters. Of course, that alcohol sickness had to be taken care of first. That's what it requires. It's a nasty, demanding house guest that won't go home.

Peter and Donna must have done a lot right because they took two babies still almost warm from the womb and turned them into admirable young women.

Hannah says she has no curiosity about her birth parents. She doesn't think about them or about the mystery of her beginnings. She is grateful to be where she is and with her life as it is.

Hannah has a flash in her black eyes that's all business, but a caring, compassionate side takes over when she talks of the parents who made her a prisoner-witness to two adults' world of pain and rage.

"I loved them very much. Very much. They had all these problems, but they were still my parents. You know, honestly, even after all that, they were still the best parents I could ask for. I wouldn't change anything, because I wouldn't be the person I am without them."

Were they apologetic and remorseful?

"Yes. I know that neither of them wanted to drink. My mom had been to rehab several times. My dad would go to meetings and stuff. It's not like they wanted to do it, but once you get set on that track, it's hard to stop.

"They tried hard. They had been doing it for so long that their bodies had just become dependent on it, and it's hard to stop that. My dad would get seizures when he didn't drink."

The inevitable happened in 2010 when Donna, age 52, was admitted to the hospital: cirrhosis of the liver. Hanna was only 11, so it was all a mystery to her. Her mother was rarely conscious, so there was no chance for a mother-daughter talk.

When death came, "I didn't believe it at first. Yeah. I was reading a book, because we all were just sitting there. My mom wasn't conscious. All of a sudden, all her machines just started beeping. All these doctors came in. My thought was: What's going on?

"Then, all of a sudden, they were like, ‘Oh, she's dead. She's gone.' I think both my sister and I were just like, ‘What just happened?' We hadn't even known she was really dying.

"It was kind of like, ‘What do you mean she's gone? She was just here.' I just saw her heart thing going up and down. Then they started disconnecting all the machines. I was crying."

Then the long trip home: two young girls and a drunken father.

"My dad, he tried really hard. He continued to drink even worse because he fell into pretty heavy depression. He was taking pills for it. I know that the only thing keeping him together was my sister and me. He tried as hard as he could. He was trying to go to meetings. He was trying to stop, but he couldn't."

Last year, the disease came for Peter. Admitted to the hospital with liver failure one day, he was dead the next morning. He was also 52.


Life for the young has a strong bounce-back. Hannah and her sister, Cassie, became wards of an uncle in Long Beach, where Cassie is now in college. Hannah is living with godparents locally as she wraps up her senior year.

Hannah continued her pursuit of excellence,which for her was not a hard catch.

"School is very easy," she says with typical candor. "I honestly don't have to try. I don't have to do the homework or study. I don't think I've really ever studied for a test or anything."

That's about to change at UCLA, Hannah.

She will graduate on Wednesday from Mission Hills High School in San Marcos with a GPA higher than straight-A.

She augmented her average by taking Advanced Placement classes and with community service. She served for three years on the San Marcos Youth Commission and was active as a Red Cross volunteer.

Right now, there's no June gloom for Hannah. If bad things continue to just leave her alone, we can expect in a few years to see a woman of accomplishment who will give to society far more than she could ever take. Don't be surprised to someday see "Hannah Flagg, M.D." She wouldn't be.

To that guilt-ridden woman in China, I wish I could say: Your baby is doing quite well. I'm sorry you won't see what she will become.

Fred Dickey's home page is He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at
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