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.


Anonymous said...

Is there a website that will calculate the day of the week of any date? I know one of my daughters was left 1 1/2 months after her birth. My belief is the parents waited until the weather was warmer before leaving her, although I will probably never know for sure. She was healthy and wrapped warmly with a bottle and note. I don't know what day of the week she was left, though.
I was fortunate enough to get the original note, not a copy, but this was from an SWI new to IA. I am guessing they no longer give out the originals.

rmc said...


Fascinating research as usual. I have one question about the age at abandonment figures. Do the "average" age numbers you report represent means or medians?

With so many kids in the 0-2 day range, it seems like medians might be the best way to indicate typical ages. However, the large number of cases you seem to have would probably keep the effects of extreme data points from distorting mean values much. Just curious. Thanks.


Research-China.Org said...


It is the mean average, which is susceptible to distortion by extreme high ages. For that reason, I broke out the data into spectrum of ages, so that the high ages could be isolated.

I utilized Microsoft Excel for the number crunching, which allows you to enter a date and getting the day of the week. I'm sure many websites might be able to do the same thing, including the time and date function on most computers.


JoAnn Stringer said...

This is a fascinating series, thank you very much. My second daughter was probably abandoned just as you suggested: she had cataracts and was abandoned at the hospital at 2.5 months of age. I have always thought she was diagnosed by the doctor and the family could not afford the treatment and left her there hoping the hospital would help her.

rmc said...

Thanks, Brian. That bar graph of age groupings does make it the distribution easier to grasp.

Anonymous said...

I have a question not directly related to this post but related to this series of posts. Where are the children that are being adopted domestically coming from? If there are no orphanages full of children not involved in the IA program, then where do these children come from? According to the Chinese gov't. the number of children adopted domestically is very high - I'm pretty sure I read higher than IA. Are these children that are being abandoned? Is there any way to account for them because it would seem to really throw off the numbers you have. I am not saying that I do not believe that the number of children adopted domestically has not risen dramatically as is being said. But my husband and I are both Chinese and we know from our parents how entrenched the ideas are in China about adoption. I'm just wondering if anyone can verify that these high numbers of domestic adoptions are truly happening.

Research-China.Org said...

I don't know what "high" numbers are, but most orphanage directors report a 50% or so domestic adoption rate. The children adopted domestically from the orphanages come from the same place IA children come from -- abandoned and brought to the orphanage. Most domestic adoptions occur before the child is 2 months old.

Adoption attitudes are changing, but still are viewed somewhat negatively by most Chinese. However, when faced with the prospect of having no children otherwise, Chinese couples are willing to consider adoption. There is a significant segment of the population that considers adoption once their bio child is grown. Most orphanages report the mix to be about even between childless couples and second children.

I'm not clear what you mean about throwing my numbers off, since we are focusing on those children adopted internationally.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Brian, for this research. My daughter was abandoned the day after she was born (DOB June 15), and left on the steps of the FuZhou No. 2 Hospital in Jiangxi province. You make an interesting connection to the Spring Festival - one that I had not considered... could it also be possible that the peaks in abandonment for October through February are related to seasonal change? The weather is colder, more is spent on heating, not enough money for food, etc.

Research-China.Org said...


It is possible, of course, but the pattern is seen from Guangzhou north to Mongolia, so it seems to be something other that heating concerns.


Anonymous said...

Brian, thanks again for the response. Ah, the joys of Spring!



Anonymous said...

Fascinating information. My daughter's estimated age at finding was about 6 weeks old. She was not SN, and we have always wondered what happened--why was she abandoned relatively late?

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. My younger daughter was abandoned on day one or two of her life, but had already suffered a serious burn (perhaps in the process of being cleaned after birth?). I often wonder if she was abandoned because her parents couldn't afford the medical treatment necessary for the wound.

Donna said...

Interesting. I always imagined that abandonment rates would decline during the coldest months of the year because birth parents would have too much compassion to leave a baby alone in such inhospitable (freezing) weather.

Also, those left in the colder months would die and not be part of the 'finding ad' statistics - where I'm assuming you draw most of your conclusions. Sadly, it looks like I was wrong (again).

My daughters were abandoned in late July 2004 (three days apart). One was a month old. The other was found on the day of her birth (a tiny four pound preemie). Lucky for them they weren't born six months earlier or they might have died of exposure before being rescued by a passer-by.

I have to confess that I was happier believing that most babies were abandoned in the warmer, summer, months. It's easy to stick our head in the sand about such things. I guess I just don't want to believe that parents are capable of subjecting their infants to such incredible risk. I want to believe that they really do care more than that.


Christy said...

Brian, what would be some of the reasons that a family would abandon a girl that is three years old with no major sn? And why would that same child be weak and malnurished? Could it be because the family had another baby? Or just poverty?

Research-China.Org said...

It could be many things. I feel tremendous anger at the birth parents that give up children at that age. There are a few circumstances where it might be required, but overall I thyink it is a very selfish act.


Anonymous said...

my son was found 18 july on the street i Jingzhou 2006. How come one leaves a healthy boy like this and the keep him in orphanage for 1year? I find it strange that no other adopted him before. We are very happy to have the best China could offer to us (our lovely son)!

Unknown said...

When I was a baby I was left under a bridge with a note on my basket. I was only 8 months old. Now I am 18 and all I want to do is find my birth parents. I have so many questions and would love more than anything to meet them. The problem is I don't even know where to begin. I would give anything to have the chance to meet the people who gave me a second chance at life.