The Changing Face of China’s Orphans

With the recent news that Russia has closed its international adoption program, many articles on adoption from other countries have made headlines as well. Several I have read talked about the huge decline in adoptions from China, but most blamed it on more stringent requirements for adoptive families. Few articles touched on the other main reason that adoptions have slowed, which is the changing population of orphaned children.

Over the next few days, I would like to discuss some of the reasons for this shift. Before I continue, I am giving a full disclaimer that I am not a researcher. I do not have a PhD in population studies. I am just a person who has worked with orphaned children for a decade now and who asks a lot of questions about topics I am passionate about. Anything I write is my opinion alone.

So let’s start ten years ago when I first began my work in China. The majority of orphanages looked very similar in their populations, with row after row of baby cribs filled with “healthy” baby girls. This is the image so many people still mistakenly have in their minds today. We all learned that the reason these countless baby girls were there was because families in China could only have one child, and the cultural preference was for a son. Female infant abandonment was known and fairly common, and so almost every baby I would be handed was a girl. This was reflected in international adoptions as well, as 95% of the children finding homes were “non special needs” (NSN) girls.

What a difference a decade makes. Now the majority of international adoptions from China are children with special needs. A critical statistic to understand is that 90-98% of children now being abandoned in China are children with medical needs, depending on which orphanage director you speak with. For gender, it is now an equal number of boys and girls entering institutions. The population of children living in China’s orphanages has changed completely. Chinese institutions today are filled with children with heart defects, cleft lip and palate, cerebral palsy, and every other sort of medical need possible. The “healthy” baby girls are few and far between.

So where have they gone? I receive phone calls from waiting parents and even some adoption agencies who still believe that there is some sort of conspiracy going on in China where they are hiding all the NSN girls to keep the wait to adopt artificially long. People will tell me, “I know they have to be there.”

The reality is that they are not. Over the next few days, we’ll discuss some of the reasons why things have changed, in addition to why I feel international adoption is still so vitally important.

~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer

Tomorrow: Changing Attitudes Towards Girls in China

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12 Comments to “The Changing Face of China’s Orphans”

  1. Sherrie Buscemi 14 January 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    Amy, I read your article about the whys and wherefores of older kids who are close to aging out today. Like many, I too thought there were mostly baby girls a decade ago. But I’m wondering, though, where were the boys 10 years ago that are now 12 and 13?

  2. Leslie 15 January 2013 at 3:09 am #

    The baby girls are not being abandoned as much, but not all of them are being parented either. Technology has given many more Chinese parents another option sadly. OTOH, I do believe more and more families choose to parent their daughters too. From 2008 to our trip in 2012, the face of the sea of people we saw on the streets changed. Many more people had daughters with them: Dads carrying them on their shoulders, Moms with them at their side hand in hand, grandparents watching them in front of a storefront, etc.

  3. Scorr Walters 15 January 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Yes, the tide had turned in favor of the Special Needs children. Our last two (a boy and a girl, non related but received on the same journey) were both special needs, although not severely handicapped at all.

    There have been some changes in China, but I am not sure if some of those are due to having more prenatal testing, and sadly, abortions of baby girls. That would be a shame, and it is something I would not bet against.

  4. Amy 15 January 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Sherrie, that is an excellent question. I will add that to this series and answer in just a few days.

  5. Herbie 16 January 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Hello, Is there any deaf china girl? Thank You.

  6. Linda 16 January 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    What I fail to understand is why I have a healthy 12 year old girl with no special needs. (pre-approval, anyway) She has been raised mostly in a foster home until they ran into financial straights. But with so many more males than female, why would they be willing to adopt out a healthy 12 year old? Thanks!

  7. Janet 16 January 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    If the sea of faces was mostly healthy baby girls 10 years ago… where were the special needs children at that time? Were they there also?

  8. Teri 16 January 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    We would love to adopt 1or2 children from China but our ages are against us being in our middle to late 50’s. Special needs are not a problem . I think it’s sad because we have raised four children and our better equipped now to raise more children.

  9. chinalwb 16 January 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Janet, when I first began working in China, many orphanages had separate facilities for the children with special needs. It was not uncommon for me to visit one orphanage with primarily healthy babies, and then be driven down the road to the orphanage for kids with medical issues. It was also common for orphanages to have separate floors for children with special needs, and so a visitor to the facility might not ever see those rooms or those children, and of course very few children with special needs ever had adoption paperwork filed. In two days I will discuss the rise in birth defects and what that has meant to the orphaned children situation as well.

  10. chinalwb 16 January 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Linda, I am not sure which orphanage your daughter is from, so it could be any number of reasons. Some orphanages have seen their institution numbers plummet over the years, as more and more of their babies have been adopted, and so now they are filing on older children whom they wouldn’t have filed on before. Perhaps as long as she was in foster care, the orphanage was happy to let her stay in China in family care – but if that situation became more unstable, they now want her to have a chance at a permanent family. Every single child’s situation is unique, and so that is why I struggle to ever make blanket statements. I know there is one orphanage we have worked with for years where some of the older girls had said they did NOT want to be adopted, and so paperwork was never done. But then as other older kids were adopted and they started to meet the parents who would visit the orphanage, those girls then decided they wanted a permanent family, too. Hopefully you can get some answers on why when you speak with the officials at her orphanage. I know the unknowns can be very hard at times.

  11. cfl 1 March 2013 at 1:16 am #

    I visited some of my long distance relatives in China, their province allow them to have two if the first child is a girl. In fact, they really want to have a girl first so they could have another. One of the relatives have two boys. But the second one is not reported. Otherwise, they have to pay fine which is as much as 1 year worth of average salary. The very poor ones would have more kids as they won’t be able to pay the fine anyway. So, in the rural area, some families would have more kids. With technology, they could also find out the gender before deciding whether they want an abortion. One Beijing native told me that they and many wealthy business man are now adopting girls. They work with hospital nurses to find out who wants to give up their baby. The nurse and the birth mother would get paid. As people are more educated, they also are more accepted to have only daughter. I think all those are reasons why few babies are abandoned.

  12. Stephen 17 August 2014 at 11:26 am #

    Sorry, this reply is little bit late, but the topic is very interesting.

    My wife and I are Chinese born Canadians (came as teens), and have been trying to have a child for ten years. In the summer of 2013, we used connections to meet child welfare services in two northeast cities: Harbin and Changchun. We used our old, long expired Hukous (ids) for the meetings. We were very surprised to learn that we could easily adopt an infant child in both cities. The maximum waiting period was 3 months.

    Of course, as Canadians, we can’t privately adopt. This was more than curiosity as we seriously considered the possibly of moving back to China to start a family, among other reasons. The staff that we met told me us there are still large numbers of healthy children given up for adoption, but they don’t end up in traditional orphanages. The comment by cfl is probably most correct. They are adopted by wealthier Chinese families.

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