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HONG KONG — No nightmare is more chilling than having one’s child stolen away. But in China, that nightmare becomes real up to 70,000 times a year.

Although little known about it outside the country, child trafficking is epidemic in the People’s Republic. Every year, thousands of young children — typically from poor families — are kidnapped, transported hundreds of miles, and sold for $500 to $5000.

Some end up as prostitutes or slave laborers. Most are bought by people who want to raise the child as their own.

Stymied by poverty and indifferent local police, many birth parents hunt for their children for years and never find them.

Beijing has been trying to combat the problem for years. Police have rescued more than 54,000 children and cracked down on 11,000 traffickers since 2009, according to Xinhua news agency.

China does not release statistics on the overall number of abduction cases reported. “Estimates range from about 10,000 to 70,000 kids per year,” says Charlie Custer, the co-creator of a new documentary on the subject, Living With Dead Hearts. “You can’t put that many kids on a milk carton.”

For sale: Chinese babies and children

Photo by AFP/Getty Images