Treat aban­doned kids with kid gloves

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

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.

LI FENG / CHINA DAILY

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