Child abandonment in China has always been a puzzling reality for me. Several years ago, I walked onto the premises of a state orphanage. I was emotionally struck by the number of toddlers playing on the playground; there must have been at least 20 of them. It hit me that this group of lovely two- and three-year children all had disabilities, and that they had been abandoned by their parents in the past three years—maybe as recent as the last six months.
Child abandonment in China (or anywhere for that matter) remains a disturbing reality. Children need parents. Children with disabilities need their parents even more. They are more vulnerable and need more care. Also, as a Christian, I believe that the Bible teaches quite clearly that every life counts, that every person has been created in God’s image, and that children are gifts from God entrusted to parents to care for. So, how can we understand the phenomenon of abandonment of children with disabilities in China?
Child Abandonment in China
China’s annual number of abandoned children is decreasing. Nonetheless, statistics show us that child abandonment is still a problem. Statistics vary, but a more conservative estimate is that around 10,000 children are abandoned each year in China.1
Over the past decade, the proportion of abandoned children that have disabilities has increased significantly.2 According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, nowadays children with serious health issues and disabilities account for 98% of the total number of abandoned children that are cared for in child-welfare institutions.3 This includes children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or autism, as well as with serious medical conditions, such as congenital heart diseases.
Abandonment of Children with Disabilities
As these figures show, abandonment of children with disabilities is not uncommon in China. Although I cannot back this up with research, I reckon that parents in China who discover that their child has disabilities, would be more likely to consider the question whether or not to keep caring for their child, than parents in a similar situation in the West.
Take for instance a Chinese couple that gives birth to a child with Down syndrome. These days, at least in the cities, Down syndrome can be diagnosed at birth. One mother told me that when her daughter was born, the doctor informed her and her husband that their baby had Down syndrome. The doctor did not give them any information about Down syndrome though, nor about what type of intervention and support services would be available to them. So, this mother started looking for information about Down syndrome on the internet. She told me that she read the most horrific stories about having a child with Down syndrome, and of course the responsibility of having to care for a child with Down syndrome seemed daunting. During the first month of their daughter’s life, while as a mum she was still confined, she and her husband had to decide whether to keep their daughter or not. Thankfully, they decided to keep her, and they are doing very well as a family.
This mother’s story struck me for two reasons. Firstly, it struck me that she had seriously considered abandoning her child as an option, and secondly, that she had received no information or support about caring for a child with Down syndrome. Researchers discovered that parents who decided to abandon their child, had done so without any support by health professionals or state intervention.4 In many cases, the extended family also played a role in the decision whether or not to abandon a baby with disabilities, especially relatives from the father’s side.5
Factors that Contribute to Abandonment
So, abandonment of children with disabilities is still a reality in China. The question that lingers in my mind is, “what are the reasons that cause parents to actually decide to give up their own child?”—assuming that no parent would take such a decision lightly.
Reason 1: Care for Children Is a Family Responsibility
Child and disability welfare in China are regarded as family responsibilities. Whereas in Western countries, governments provide protection and care of children in general, and vulnerable children in particular, in China the state only takes responsibility of a child if there is no family. This has significant implications when it comes to children with disabilities. Providing general care, health care, and rehabilitation/therapy are all the responsibility of the family, and that can be a huge responsibility if a child has disabilities. Moreover, with only a very small number of NGOs caring for children with disabilities, the family will be even more isolated in caring for their child.
So, one reason that explains the abandonment of children with disabilities is the huge responsibility parents experience in caring for their child with disabilities.6 For some parents, abandoning their child means that the state will take on the care for the child. That would normally mean that the child would be placed in a child welfare institution. In certain cases, families see that as the only viable option for their child to receive the medical and therapeutic care their child needs.
Reason 2: Society’s View of Disability
In western countries, having a child with disabilities will mean additional challenges and stress for parents in raising their child. On top of that, Chinese parents are faced with negative views about disability in society. Although in the West some people consider children with disabilities as economic burdens, overall disability is more accepted in society. In China, children with disabilities and their families are stigmatized and discriminated against. For example, in an online article on children with Down syndrome on Weibo, it was stated that in China Down syndrome was “heavily stigmatized.”7 Some people mentioned how siblings or former classmates were bullied at school, and doctors considering babies with Down Syndrome “hopeless.”8 In China, having a child with disabilities is considered a shame for the family. Still many people believe that having a disability is a punishment, caused by bad things done in the past. Although the view of disability has been changing over the past five to ten years or so, we should not underestimate the pressures that negative societal views on parents of children with disabilities. This can place a huge pressure on parents.9
A mom of a boy with cerebral palsy once told me that when her son was born and they found out that he had severe cerebral palsy, her husband and in-laws gave her a lot of pressure to abandon him. But she could not. The little baby boy was still her child. Other parents might not be able to stand such pressure.
Reason 3: Financial Burdens
A third reason for abandonment of children with disabilities by their parents is the great financial burden that parents of children with disabilities face. Rehabilitation and educational services in China are provided mainly by non-governmental organizations. These support systems are not as well developed as in most western countries, and parents do not receive much subsidy for these services.10 Even though in recent years more parents are eligible for financial support from the government, the costs for medical and rehabilitation intervention services are still a heavy burden for many of them.11
With a lack of insurance plans and insufficient state subsidy, parents easily spend all their savings and even get into debt as they seek medical or therapy interventions for their child with disabilities. The abandonment of a 6-month-old baby girl who had epilepsy, shows how financial burdens weigh heavy on parents of children with disabilities.12 In the letter they placed in their daughter’s stroller, the parents explained how they could not bear the financial burden any longer. The parents of this little girl had spent 60,000 Chinese yuan 13 on treatment for her and were unable to continue. Without a cure, and therefore faced with ongoing medical expenses, they concluded they could not keep caring for their baby-girl and abandoned her.
The situation of parents of disabled children in China is undoubtedly complicated, with a variety of factors at play. It is hard to understand at a deeper level what these parents experience when they discover that their child has disabilities and try to navigate life with their child. Dealing with shame, discrimination and stigma, endless bills for medical treatment and intervention, and uncertainty for the future. Although it might be hard to fully grasp how and why parents choose to abandon their child with disabilities, the impact of that decision, for both parent and child, is huge. Children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable children, and even though life in orphanages or foster care families has improved over the last few decades, nothing can replace the love and belonging that family can give.
Avery, Kevin. “Disability and the Three Traditional Chinese Belief Systems: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.” China Source Quarterly 18, no. 1 (March 2016). https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/disability-and-the-three-traditional-chinese-belief-systems
Hernández, Javier C., and Iris Zhao. “‘She’ll Die if She Stays With Us’: A Baby Abandoned in China.” January 24, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/world/asia/china-abandoned-baby.html.
Hui, Li, and Ben Blanchard. “China’s Unwanted Babies Once Mostly Girls, Now Mostly Sick, Disabled.” Reuters, February 3, 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/china-babies-idINDEEA1203420140203.
Koetse, Manya. ‘”The Last Downer’: China and the End of Down Syndrome.” What’s on Weibo, China Health and Science, May 2, 2016. https://www.whatsonweibo.com/china-end-syndrome/.
Raffety, Erin. “Chinese Special Needs Adoption, Demand, and the Global Politics of Disability.” Disabilities Studies Quarterly 39, no. 2 (2019). https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/6662/5249.
Shang, Xiaoyuan, and Karen R. Fisher. Disability Policy in China: Child and Family Experiences. Routledge Contemporary China Series. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Shang, Xiaoyuan, Karen R. Fisher, and Jiawen Xie. “Discrimination against Children with Disability in China.” International Journal of Social Welfare 20, no. 3 (2011): 298-308. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2397.2009.00666.x.
- Xiaoyuan Shang, Karen R. Fisher, and Jiawen Xie, “Discrimination against Children with Disability in China,” International Journal of Social Welfare 20, no. 3 (2011): 298-308. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2397.2009.00666.x. See also the article in the New York Times, which mentions a much higher estimate, “She’ll Die If She Stays with Us: A Baby Abandoned in China.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/world/asia/china-abandoned-baby.html.
- Erin Raffety, “Chinese Special Needs Adoption, Demand, and the Global Politics of Disability,” Disability Studies Quarterly 39, no. 2 (2019). https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/6662/5249.
- 民政部：收养让更多孤儿重获家庭温暖, 中华人民共和国中央人民政府 http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2019-01/27/content_5361483.htm.
- Xiaoyuan Shang, and Karen R. Fisher, Disability Policy in China: Child and Family Experiences (Routledge Contemporary China Series. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015): 59.
- Koetse, Manya. “’The Last Downer’: China and the End of Down Syndrome.” What’s on Weibo, China Health and Science, May 2, 2016. https://www.whatsonweibo.com/china-end-syndrome/.
- Kevin Avery, “Disability and the Three Traditional Chinese Belief Systems: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism” in China Source Quarterly 18, no. 1 (Spring 2016). https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/disability-and-the-three-traditional-chinese-belief-systems.
- Li Hui, and Ben Blanchard, “China’s Unwanted Babies Once Mostly Girls, Now Mostly Sick, Disabled,” Reuters (February 3, 2014). https://www.reuters.com/article/china-babies-idINDEEA1203420140203.
- Xiaoyuan Shang, and Karen R. Fisher, Disability Policy in China: Child and Family Experiences (Routledge Contemporary China Series. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015): 58.
- See the online article “‘She’ll Die if She Stays With Us’: A Baby Abandoned in China.” The little baby girl was abandoned in Dongguan in 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/world/asia/china-abandoned-baby.html.
- Roughly US$ 9,500.
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