Friday, October 26, 2007
Trees in the Forest III -- Age and Timing
The struggle a birth family goes through before they abandon a child can be inferred from the age of the children in each class we have discussed so far. In previous essays, we have classified the children found and submitted to the CCAA in 2006 into four categories: Boy and girl, healthy and Special Needs. Each classification is dissimilar from the rest when it comes to the average age when they are found.
In general, for example, the average family waited over 8 months (254 days) before abandoning a boy, while only waiting 2 months (60 days) before abandoning a girl. If one looks at the special needs cases, both sexes have similar average ages: 277 days for boys and 251 for girls. It is not hard to understand why: Often special needs, especially those involving unseen problems like heart conditions and mental deficiencies, are undetectable until later. Once detected, the family will seek medical help, only to discover that the costs for surgery or medication are prohibitive. The decision to abandon is made. Additionally, it must be recognized that many families, faced with only having one child, will discard an “imperfect” child in order to conceive and bare another, hopefully healthy, child.
The biggest difference in average ages is between the healthy boy and healthy girls. While the average age for the healthy boy (256 days) approximates the age of the male special needs (277 days), the average for healthy females plummeted from 251 days for special needs girls to 70 days for healthy girls. Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi do not predictably differentiate between healthy and special needs in their finding ads, otherwise it is very likely that the average age for healthy girls would be much lower, almost certainly in the 30-40 day range. Hunan's average for all girls, for example, is only 50 days, while Jiangxi's average falls to 30 days. Guangdong's average for girls is the lowest of all of China's Provinces, coming in at only 22 days.
But the averages mask an important fact about abandonment: The vast majority of children are abandoned quickly. This can be seen from a distribution graph of the ages the children in 2006 were when found.
As can be seen from this graph, the vast majority of children are newborns when found (0-2 days old). Of the 9,800 children that had ages reported in their finding ad, almost 4,600 were less than 3 days old when found (47%). An additional 1,650 were 3 to 7 days old, meaning that 64% of children are abandoned at a week old or less. 15% of children are a week to a month old, while 13% were a month to 6 months old. The rest, children found older than 6 months of age, account for only 8% of the total number of children found.
Thus, it seems apparent that the decision to abandon a child is made very soon after birth, usually within a week. But exceptions do occur, and these exceptions have a big impact on the averages.
How are the ages of the children determined? Once the child has been transferred to the orphanage upon finding, the first step taken by the orphanage is the determination of the age of the child. Often this task is aided by a note left with the child by the birth parents called a birth note.
Most usually written on red paper common in China, the note almost always gives, at a minimum, the child's time and date of birth. Sometimes there are additional words of pleading, such as “Please take care of my child." Birthnotes are fairly commonly found due to the belief in China that knowing one’s birth date is crucial to knowing one’s future. Fortune tellers are frequently consulted prior to important events such as weddings, and a vital piece of information in obtaining these fortune tellings is the time and date of birth. Primarily for this reason, I believe that most birth parents leave a note with their abandoned child giving that information so that their child will be able to obtain guidance from fortune tellers in the future.
Not all of the birth notes make it to the orphanage, however. Often, birth parents wrap the note around a small amount of money. This money is a strong temptation to finders, and the notes are sometimes taken with the money before the police arrive.
In reviewing the finding ads for Guangxi Province for 2006, birth notes were recorded with 200 of the 900 children found, or a little over 20% of the time. This number, however, probably significantly understates the actual number of children that were left with birth notes.
If no note is present, the orphanage will estimate the child’s birth date using the perceived age of the child. If the child is very young, the birth date might be estimated as 1, 2, 3 or 4 days old. Factors such as whether the child is wet (from being recently born), the umbilical cord, etc., assist the orphanage in accurately depicting the child's birthdate if they are under five days of age. Beyond five days, and most children will be estimated as one week, half a month, or a month old. Older children might be estimated to be multiple months or years old.
Should a family assume the birthnote received from the orphanage is authentic? This is a question I receive frequently from families. Many report finding significant similarities between their child's note, and those of other members of the travel group, for example. The handwriting is often compared by traveling families, and occasionally it is discovered that one person wrote all of the notes. Do some orphanages make up birth notes to make families happy?
This is a difficult question to answer definitively, but I can share my experiences in this area. The CCAA prohibits the original birthnotes from being given to adoptive families, a practice I find reprehensible. In my mind, there is no more important artifact a child could have than a note from her birth mother. To keep this from families is an act of information control, and should be changed. In an attempt to satisfy adoptive families, orphanage directors sometimes make copies of the notes by hand. Few realize how interconnected adoptive families are, and thus don't realize that many adoptive families become suspicious of these manufactured notes. This, of course, is an important example of the vast cultural difference between orphanage directors and adoptive families. The directors assume what is important to the adoptive family is the information, not the actual note itself. By not notifying families when a note has been hand-copied, misunderstandings occur.
I don't believe that many directors manufacture birthnotes out of thin air. I do believe that most operate out of a sincere desire to give as much information as they can to families, and sometimes problems of communication occur. Families would do well to communicate this issue to the directors, asking them when copies are received if it is the original note that was copied (xerox copies) or whether the note was reproduced by the orphanage. In this way, a clear understanding is made possible.
One would assume that the abandonment rate of children is fairly constant across the calendar year, but that assumption is incorrect. In fact, a wide-spread cyclical pattern of abandonment can be seen when we look at the dates children are abandoned.
As can be seen, January starts the year off with a bang. But abandonment rates begin to fall in February, bottoming in May, the lowest month for abandonments, and remain fairly flat until October, when the rates increase, peaking in November at the same rate as January. Why is the rate from October through January 46% higher than the rest of the year?
The answer lies in the corresponding conception period. If one counts back nine months from October, you will land on February, the traditional time for Chinese New Years. Danwei describes the Chinese New Year celebration as “the time when the largest human migration takes place when Chinese all around the world return home on Chinese New Year eve to have reunion dinner with their family.” Chinese families live a largely separated family life, with wives and husbands often living and working in different cities, not seeing each other for months at a time. The high traffic load usually begins 15 days before the Lunar New Year, and lasts for around 40 days. This period is also called Spring Festival travel season, or "Chunyun" period. Undoubtedly, these reunions result in higher conception rates.
A similar pattern is seen when one looks at the days of the week. From December 1, 2005 through November 30, 2006, over 7,100 children were found and submitted to the CCAA for international adoption, or an average of 19.6 children every day.
But the actual frequency per day varies significantly from one day to another. Mondays average 22.7 children, a number that falls on each of the following two days (Tuesday averages 20.2 and Wednesday averages 18.9). Thursday sees the average bump back up to 21.7, with Friday falling near the overall average with 19.9 children being found on each day.
The weekend days of Saturday and Sunday both have below average abandonment rates, being 10% and 13% respectively below the daily average.
A clear pattern is visible -- After bottoming on Wednesdays, abandonment rates begin to increase ahead of the weekend. Friday sees an average abandonment rate, but the rates fall on the weekend, when most schools, government offices and other popular finding locations are closed. On Monday, abandonment rates spike 16% above the average, with Tuesday continuing with above average rates. Five of the six highest abandonment days of December 2005 to November 2006 were Fridays or Mondays (1/20/06, 1/23/06, 2/6/06, 2/10/06, 4/3/06). The highest single abandonment date was Thursday, December 29, 2005, when 45 children were found. This day may have been chosen due to its proximity to the Western New Year, although this is purely speculative on my part. January 1, 2006 showed no significant decrease in abandonment rates.
In reviewing individual days in 2006, I saw no convincing trends to suggest any dates were "holy" and thus avoided for abandoning. Holiday dates such as May 1 ("Labor Day"), and April 5 ("Brightness Festival") all exhibited average abandonment numbers (17, 22). January 29 (New Years) and October 1 ("Nation's Day") both fell on a Sunday, so it is hard to determine whether the lower abandonment numbers (14, 11) for those days were due to their being on a Sunday, or because both were important holidays. The entire week of October 1-7, 2006 saw only slightly lower than average abandonment rates, averaging 13.7 per day, only 11% less than the following week's 15.4 daily average (October 8-15, 2006). The week of Chinese New Years was almost perfectly average in abandonments (19.4). Thus, it seems that specific dates have little impact on abandonments.
Although we often think of abandonment as an individual decision, a discernible pattern can be seen when the entire "forest" is viewed collectively. The vast majority of the healthy children are abandoned very soon after birth, usually within one week, with very few (5.3%) being abandoned after one year of age. These children are abandoned at significantly higher rates in the 9-11 months following Chinese New Years. Additionally, in any given week significantly more children are abandoned on the day before and the day after the weekend.
In our next segment, we will turn our attention to where these children are found, and see if this sheds additional light on where these children come from.