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.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Trees in the Forest II -- Gender and Health

We all are aware of the abandonment stories of our respective children. Each of our children represents, as it were, a single tree in the overall forest of China's abandonment problem. In these essays I will attempt to elevate our view from the individual trees to the broad landscape in order that we might better understand how each of our children fall into the bigger picture. The essay that follows examines the gender ratios of the children abandoned, as well as their health status.

It was the cry that first caught the attention of Yang Ming Zhu as she walked to work. Gazing down, she saw a two-day old infant girl crying in a box. Pinned to her red outfit was a note, stating the child’s birth date. An empty bottle lay by her side, along with 30 yuan. Picking up the child, she walked into the Civil Affairs Bureau and called the police.

The child found that morning by Yang Ming Zhu was to become my oldest daughter Meikina.

Meikina's finding story is as a single tree in the proverbial forest of finding stories occurring every day across China. She is a girl, found in July, two days old and healthy. Is her story common? Is her finding location at the gate of the Civil Affairs Bureau similar or different from her adoption sisters and brothers?

Meikina’s story is played out in similar fashion over ten thousand times a year, and these children end up with adoptive families in such countries as the Netherlands, U.S., Canada, Spain, Belgium, Australia, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, France, and others. In 2006, nearly 12,000 children were submitted to the CCAA for adoption outside China.

This number do not include the tens of thousands of children that are adopted domestically inside China each year, and the possibly hundred thousand or more that are adopted informally by the families who find them, and which are never reported to the orphanage.

Who are these children, and who are their birth families? The answers to these questions vary from Province to Province, and those differences present interesting puzzles. But in this series of essays, I will attempt to illuminate the trees of the forest of over 10,000 children reported to the CCAA in 2006. The result, I hope, will be a glimpse of the larger forest, the cultural context in which our children can be placed.

So, who are the children being abandoned? I will be analyzing demographic information compiled from the 2006 adoption submissions to the CCAA, as detailed in the Provincial finding ads. Finding ads are the first step an orphanage goes through to submit a child for international adoption. I have analyzed the ads from all the Provinces in China that submitted more than 100 children for international adoption in 2006. Eighteen Provinces are in our study:

Anhui, Chongqing, Fujian, Gansu, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Liaoning, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Zhejiang.

Collectively, these eighteen Provinces submitted over 10,600 children for international adoption, representing over 88% of all the children submitted across China. In 2006, 376 orphanages in these eighteen provinces submitted files for children in the international adoption program.

Of the 10,621 children that were submitted to the CCAA, there were at least 42 known twin sets: 40 of the sets were female twins, one mixed twin set of a boy and a girl, and one boy twin set. There was also one set of triplet girls. In actuality, the number of twins was probably much higher, since some birth parents abandon the twins in different locations around the city thinking it will be more likely they will be adopted. Orphanages always classify these as non-twins.

The Gender of the Children Submitted for International Adoption in 2006

We will begin our study by looking at an obvious demographic characteristic of the children -- their gender. In 2006, 1,648 boys were submitted for adoption, or 15% of the total. The balance, 8,973 (85%) were for female children.

A word of caution with our sampling. We are studying data taken from international adoption submissions, which by definition is ignorant (except in a few cases we will look at) of the domestic adoption rates and percentages. It is possible that domestic adoption accounts for a significant number of boys being adopted, draining them from the international adoption pool. How much is unknown, but we can’t make assumptions as to the percentage of boys verses girls there exists at the abandonment level. Our data only applies to those submitted for international adoption. Evidence does exist, however, that shows that these percentages hold across the board. A glimpse into domestic adoption rates can be seen in two Provinces: Chongqing and Zhejiang. In 2006, these two areas registered almost 300 domestic adoptions, compared with 951 international adoptions. Of the 300 domestic adoptions, forty-three (15%) of them were boys, all but four of whom were healthy. The rest were for girls, all of whom were healthy. These two samples seem to confirm that the ratios remain constant across the domestic and international adoption programs.

The “forest” in this regard is not consistent across China. In fact, large differences in ratios exist from one Province to another. The smallest ratios of boys to girls (in other words, the areas where the most girls are abandoned) are the three largest Provinces for international adoption – Guangdong, Hunan, and Jiangxi.

Guangdong = 8% boys
Hunan = 8% boys
Jiangxi = 4% boys

These three Provinces provide just over half of all the children adopted from China. These three Provinces also have a boy to girl ratio of less than 10%, meaning that for every boy adopted there are at least 10 girls adopted, and in the case of Jiangxi, 25 girls are adopted for every boy.

As we move out from these three core Provinces, an interesting trend emerges. The farther away you go, the more boys are found relative to girls.

Moving out from the high ratio of girls to boys in Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi Provinces, the ratio falls to 5-1 in Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei and Anhui Provinces. Moving further out still, this ratio drops further to a 2-1 ratio (2 girls for every boy) in Yunnan, Gansu, Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces. The ratio reaches parity (equal number of boys to girls) in Sichuan, Shaanxi, Henan and Jiangsu Provinces. Finally, in the northern-most area, the ratio inverts, with more boys being submitted than girls in Shanxi, Liaoning and Inner Mongolia.

What forces -- cultural, environmental, financial -- are at play to create this disparity among the southern and northern provinces? The answer is tied to another characteristic of the children when found -- whether they are healthy or special needs.

Health of the Children Submitted for International Adoption

Closely related to the ratio of boys verses girls is how many of these children are “Healthy” verses “Special Needs”. Intuitively, most of us would assume that the ratio of special needs to healthy children would be higher among boys than girls, and this is indeed the case. Of the 1,648 boys submitted to the CCAA for international adoption, 731 (or 44%) had some special need. These special needs range from an extra finger, a cleft lip, a large birthmark or scar, to serious special needs like missing limbs, blindness, heart defects, and mental retardation. This figure of 44% is a very conservative figure, and is likely much higher since many orphanages don’t indicate the health of the child in their finding ads. It is safe to say that the actual rate is 60% or higher.

For the same time period, the 376 orphanages submitted over 8,900 files for girls to the CCAA. Of this number, 619 were for special needs girls, or 7%.

Although the ratio is much lower for girls, the actual number of special needs children of either sex was comparable: 731 boys and 619 girls. When we look at healthy children, the ratio of boys to girls submitted was nearly 10 to 1: 900 healthy boys to over 8,500 healthy girls. Clearly there is a male bias in China among a segment of her population.

Like the data respecting gender, there are demographic anomalies from Province to Province. Again starting with the core Provinces of Guangdong, Jiangxi and Hunan, the ratio of Special Needs to Healthy children increases as one moves out.
What is going on in these outlying Provinces? Not only do they not track with the Southern Provinces as far as the ratio of boys to girls, they also have dissimilar health rates.

The northern Provinces report few healthy children, boys or girls, for primarily one reason: Most of the healthy children are sold or “transferred” to other families. Many readers are familiar with the myriad reports of child-trafficking regularly occurring in China. Most of these stories report incidents of children being taken from the South (Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan) where healthy children are plentiful (and thus of little value) to the north (where adoptable healthy children are scarce).

Infant Trafficking in China

Stories of infant trafficking are common in China, and although the government appears to be treating this issue seriously, there is no evidence that the problem is lessening. Recent examples of trafficking include the following:

One large trafficking gang sold kidnapped and purchased children. Most of the baby boys were kidnapped, but the girls were from mountain villages, willingly sold to traffickers. The girls were purchased for 300-2,000 yuan, and later resold for 8-9,000. The boys were sold for 20,000-30,000 yuan. The children were from Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan, and were sold in Guangdong, Henan, Hebei, Shanxi and Shangdong Provinces.

Another case involved trafficking from Guiyang (Guizhou) to Beijing – five children destined for Henan Province, two girls and three boys. Girls sold for 1,500 yuan to poor families wanting wives for their sons. Another group purchased the children in Yunnan for 250 yuan, to be sold for 1,700 in Henan Province.

Another example is from Mongolia. A small, rural private clinic involved in the delivery of babies would quiz the birth parents if they wanted to keep the child. If they indicated they didn't want the child, the hospital would contact the traffickers, who would come pick up the baby and pay the family 1,000 yuan. The family was required, however, to pay the doctors 800 yuan for making the referral. Seventy-six children were thus trafficked in Huhehaote, one of the main cities in Mongolia involved in international adoptions.

The most brazen example of the intrinsic value of healthy infants in these rural Provinces took place in Yunnan Province. Here a recent article states that 40 children were sold by their birth parents for 5,000 yuan each. The women of Yongkang Village simply stated: “If you want to make money, simply have a baby. Having a baby is faster than feeding a pig.” The 40 children were transported to cities in Fujian, Sichuan, and Chongqing, where they were sold to families for 11,000 yuan. (Yunnan Legal Daily, 7/28/04).

Stories like these are very common in China, and the vast majority of cases never go reported. Many involve children that have been kidnapped, but most involve children willingly given up by their birth parents for free or a small sum of money. The common method of making connections is by contacting doctors or other employees that work in the hospitals. These individuals talk with the birth parents, either while still in the hospital or soon thereafter. Usually, the traffickers have "adoptive" families that are interested in purchasing these children. The families doing the adopting are usually childless, poor, and desperate for a child.

It is paradoxical for us in the West to see a country that on the one hand abandons children by the thousands also having problems with the kidnapping and trafficking of children. It is in every sense of the word a commodity-driven market, with some families having too many children for their needs, while others having too few.

It goes without saying that China's international adoption program plays a role in this market. Western adoptive families were shocked when the Hunan Scandal broke in late 2005, but for anyone aware of the demand for healthy children in China, the question isn't how the Hunan story happened, but why it doesn't happen more often.

The farther one moves from the economically prosperous south to the west and north, fewer healthy children are simply abandoned. Instead, the majority of children are left for family friends to adopt or sold to traffickers. It is the high demand for healthy children in these remote areas that explains both the high SN ratios of the children found, as well as the low ratio of boys verses girls found. Most of the boys and girls found in Provinces such as Shaanxi, Henan, Shanxi, Liaoning, and Inner Mongolia are abandoned because they represent little economic value due to their special needs. Healthy children of either gender, however, are easily transferred to other families, or sold to traffickers, and thus are seldom simply left in a public place to be found.

In our next essay, we will look at the age of the children when found, as well as the impact of the Chinese calendar on abandonment rates.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Why Wait Times Will Continue to Increase

There has been much discussion on A-P-C and various other boards as to what will happen to wait times in the next year or so. One widely read rumor board speculates that the "ceiling/quota is going to be higher next year", further perpetuating the myth that the orphanages have children to adopt, but the CCAA is restricting these adoptions. Although theories abound, most are based on speculation, conjecture, and emotion, and provide little factual analysis to the discussion. What follows are some facts to support the conclusion that wait times will increase over the next 12-18 months.

The wait time is simply an indicator of the balance (or imbalance) between the number of children available for adoption and the number of families seeking to adopt. We can discuss whether there is a quota on the total number of adoptions being ALLOWED by the Chinese Government (theoretically possible, but no evidence that such is the case at this time), or whether measures are being taken ahead of the Olympics (see above). At the end of the day, the wait times are increasing due to too many families seeking to adopt too few children.

In September 2006 I speculated that wait times would stabilize in the following months. In April 2007 I reassessed that position, and concluded that there is no foreseeable reason to maintain that wait times would be going down. My primary reasons for expecting a decrease in wait times in September 2006 was the resuming of adoption referrals from Hunan. I expected the backlog of held files to relieve the pressure on falling supply, but this proved to be incorrect. It seems that many of the children that had been held were adopted domestically, rather than being held for international adoption. Thus, the wait continued to climb.

Over the next 6 months families who submitted their paperwork in December 2005 and January 2006 will be referred children. Since it seems likely that the attrition rate of these groups has been fairly low, we must look to an increase in supply to bring wait times down. It must be remembered that from month to month the "demand" equation can vary somewhat, but in order for the wait time to decrease, the equation must change to the point where the CCAA refers more than one month's worth of dossier submissions in a given monthly referral batch.

Changing Supply Figures
A lot has been made of "new " orphanages being added to the IA program, but although some new orphanages have been added, none are bringing a significant supply of children to the program. This can be seen by the orphanage submissions for Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hunan, and Guangxi, for example, which collectively supply 60% of the children for international adoption.

For 2006, Guangdong submitted on average 161 children per month. So far in 2007, the entire Province of Guangdong is submitting 124 per month (January through June 2007). Jiangxi submitted 200 children per month in 2006, and is down slightly to 192 so far in 2007. Guangxi submitted 75 per month in 2006, a number which has fallen to only 39 per month in 2007. Hunan has also seen substantial declines, falling from an average of 79 per month in 2006 to only 36 per month so far this year. Collectively, that means the last six months of referrals from these four Provinces was about 516 per month; in the next six months we can anticipate that rate falling to 390 children per month, a 24% decrease.

It should be obvious to families that these numbers don't bode well for a substantial increase of adoptable children becoming available in the short-term. In fact, it seems likely that the number of healthy children will not EVER increase, given the increasing domestic adoption rates, falling abandonment rates, and improved economic circumstances of millions of Chinese families.

Therefore, given the falling supply and the steady demand equation for the next 6 months, wait times will only be increasing.

Given the rate of increase, it is highly likely that the wait time will hit 36 months or higher in 2008. Unless something dramatically alters the supply-demand equation as is now seen, no other conclusion is tenable.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Trees in the Forest of China's Abandonments I

Over the next several months, I will be posting essays taken from an in-depth study presented this month in the Netherlands. This first segment sets the stage for our analysis of the children submitted for international adoption by the majority of orphanages in 2006. The next segment will be posted October 21st.

All of us are familiar with the finding histories of our own children. We see, as it were, a single tree in a large forest. One of my daughters was found at two days old in front of a government building. Is that common? We don't usually know how the stories of our children compares with the thousands of others unless we get above the forest and look down from above. That is what we will do in the following essays. We will look at the gender, health and age of all of the children submitted for international adoption in 2006. We will also look at where they were found, discovering which locations are the most common. Does the calendar play a role in child abandonment? The answer may surprise you. At the conclusion of our study we will have a very good idea of where birth families abandon their children, at what age, and what role the sex of the child plays in abandonment.

For this study, I have calculated the number of files submitted by each Province involved in the international adoption program for 2006 to provide families with an idea of which areas submit the majority of children. In order of files submissions (highest to lowest), here is the listing for 2006:

Jiangxi = 2,401
Guangdong = 1,935
Hunan - 955
Guangxi 901
Chongqing = 838
Hubei = 665
Anhui = 468
Yunnan = 346
Jiangsu = 337
Liaoning = 293
Shanxi = 249
Henan = 196
Shaanxi = 193
Guizhou = 184
Gansu = 177
Fujian = 161
Sichuan = 114
Zhejiang = 113
Mongolia = 95

Unmentioned Provinces (Xinjiang, Shandong, Ningxia, etc.) submitted less than 100 children for international adoption, and are not tracked.

The Provinces listed above submitted a total of 10,621 files to the CCAA in 2006, over 95% of the total submitted for all of China. This sampling will give us an extremely accurate view of what is happening in China.

Next: Sex & Health ratios of children submitted in each Province