Treat abandoned kids with kid gloves
News of an abandoned children center (known as “baby hatch”) in Guangzhou city being temporarily closed down because its staff couldn’t take care of the large number of babies dropped there has raised public concerns. According toXu Jiu, director of one of Guangzhou’s welfare centers, 262 babies had been handed over to the center since it opened on Jan 28.
The government has opened about 25 baby hatches in 10 provinces across the country since 2011. Baby hatches are places where people (usually mothers) can bring their children, usually newborn, and leave them anonymously to be cared for. These centers have been in existence in one form or another for centuries. The first of its kind, called “foundling wheels”, was opened in Italy in 1198. They were called foundling wheels because a mother had to place her child in a cylinder, turn it around so that it moved inside a church and then ring a bell to alert caretakers to the presence of the child.
Foundling wheels functioned until the late 19th century, when modern baby shelters came into being. The middle of the last century sawthe emergence of the baby hatch (called “baby box” in the Czech Republic and “window of life” in Poland). In its modern form it is used in many countries such as Germany and Pakistan which have about 100 and 300 baby hatches.
In the past, babies were abandoned mainly because they were born out of wedlock. Today, mothers drop their children at baby hatches either because they are born out of wedlock or because the parents are too poor to pay for their medical treatment or their upbringing. In India and Pakistan, baby hatches are used to prevent female infanticide.
Some experts believe that the number of such places, officially known as “baby safety islands” in China, will increase dramatically in the future. Today, almost the same number of girls and boys are left in these places. The opening of such centers has provoked concern, because many people believe that they will encourage more parents to abandon their children, a notion disputed by people such as Yi Fuxian, a population expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In some cases, abandoned children have serious birth defects, and parents are unable to care for them because of the high medical costs involved. An estimated 900,000 children are born with a congenital anomaly in China every year, and government officials say that baby hatches are needed because many of the abandoned children have disabilities and need immediate medical attention.
Although China has in place a birth-defect monitoring system, and prenatal care and neonatal disease screening programs, they are not uniformly used throughout the country. And since pre-marital medical check-up is no longer mandatory, the percentage of people undergoing it fell from 80 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2011 despite being provided free of cost in many cases. So couples take fewer precautions against the possibility of having babies with birth defects.
Although it is not possible to totally eliminate the possibility of birth defects since many of them are due to genetic causes, women can take a series of precautions to lower the chances of having them. For example, they should lead a healthy and active life before becoming pregnant.
Also, if a woman has enough folic acid, which is water-soluble vitamin B9, in her body at least one month before and during pregnancy, it can help prevent major birth defects in her child. Women should also avoid alcohol during pregnancy because it passes on to the baby through the umbilical cord. Pregnant women should not smoke either and avoid using “street” drugs. Besides, they should tell their doctors about all the medication they are taking, and take precautions against infections, maintain a healthy weight, keep diabetes under control and have all the required vaccinations.
Some experts believe the number of abandoned children has increased in China because of deficiencies in its welfare system, particularly for children born with illnesses or disabilities. These experts say the government should have a unified and responsive welfare system which can meet the needs of the entire population.
There should also be a national insurance program to cover children born with birth defects and hereditary conditions, which can prevent mothers from abandoning their children for want of enough money.
In addition, the government could consider relaxing the terms for adopting children, particularly those that are physically challenged. By adopting a wide range of measures for the protection of abandoned children, the government could better address what could quickly become a serious problem. The author is an international medical consultant and co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.