GUANGZHOU — It has been three days since Zheng Yuling gave birth. Her breasts are as hard as stone and she is in great pain. She wishes she could breastfeed her baby. But the child is no longer there. And her husband, Chen Dafu, was arrested the day before for the crime of abandoning the newborn.
Zheng's was the first baby to die at the Guangzhou "Baby Safety Island," an experimental service provided by the municipality consisting of a baby hatch operated by an orphanage called the Guangzhou Social Welfare Institute. The experiment proved to be short lived. The orphanage abandoned the initiative after receiving 262 babies, all with serious health problems, in the span of just 48 days. "The workload is excessive to the extreme. We can't possibly continue," the Social Welfare Institute stated.
The baby hatches was part of program implemented in 2013 by China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, which called for baby refuges in 30 pilot cities as a way to better protect China's massive number of freely abandoned babies.
The measure was widely applauded for its humanitarian spirit. But as this newspaper discovered, many of the participating cities, Guangzhou included, quickly abandoned the program due to the overwhelming number of babies they received. Other facilities adopted stricter rules as a way to dissuade parents from giving their babies away.
The number of Chinese babies with congenital defects has soared over the past decade, with upwards of 900,000 such cases reported each year, according to the China Birth Defects Prevention Report (2012). In addition, as the China Child Welfare Policy Report showed, at least 100,000 children are abandoned each year. Most are either disabled and many are girls.
A heartbreaking decision
Zheng Yuling and her husband decided about 11 hours after the birth to place the baby girl in Guangzhou's baby hatch the hope that "she'd live a little bit longer."
Doctors discovered that the child's trachea and esophagus were not fully developed. After consulting with the hospital's other specialists, the obstetrician informed the parents that the baby, who was being kept alive with a ventilator, "is incurable."
Zheng's first thought was to keep the child on life support while she and her husband consulted other specialists. But she very quickly gave up this unrealistic hope. Keeping the child in hospital would cost between $500-650 per day, an impossible amount of money for a couple that can barely afford the $125 they pay every month to rent a 215 square-foot apartment in the city. That's when she thought of Guangzhou's baby refuge and asked her husband to send the baby there.
After dealing with the baby's discharge procedure and informing the hospital of their decision, the baby was taken off the breathing tube and wrapped in a brand-new blanket. She was then hidden in a big shopping bag and taken by Chen and his mother-in-law to the Guangzhou orphanage's baby hatch at approximately 11 a.m.
Avoiding being seen or stopped by anybody, Chen quickly placed the bag in front of the island's doorway, which was shut, before getting back into a taxi. The father was there for less than two minutes. In his panicked state he didn't even have a clear look at the place.
Next to the baby refuge was a sign indicating that the island was on 24 hour duty. But it wasn't actually open. The island only operated between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. During those hours, staff were on hand to respond within three minutes every time a child was delivered. During off hours, the only person present was a security guard, stationed at a booth more than 50 yards away, who was in charge of dissuading parents from abandoning their babies there.
On the day Chen left his baby girl at the refuge, the guard didn't even have time to intervene. By the time the guard reached the baby, its face was already black. The Guangzhou Emergency Center's staff arrived soon after and pronounced the newborn dead.
"Abandoning babies is illegal"
The death, the first since the refuge opened less than a month before, placed a heavy burden on the orphanage, which then had to prove that it wasn't responsible for the tragedy.
The next day Chen was arrested on suspicion of the crime of abandonment. Xu Jiu, the director of the Guangzhou orphanage, was quick to condemn the father's "vicious act," stating that "the intention of creating a baby hatch is life first." The goal of the program is "to protect the abandoned baby's vulnerable life, not to encourage abandonment," he said. "We have always emphasized that abandoning a child is an illegal act."
A sign reading "Abandoning babies is illegal" was soon put up at the nearby junction. Xu Jiu also tried to make it clear that the orphanage is not equipped to provide medical care. "If the hospitals can't cure the children neither can the orphanage," he said. And yet parents continued to send their babies to the refuge. Standoffs between families and the security guards trying to dissuade them escalated.
One month after the baby refuge was set up it had already received 200 children, as many as the orphanage would normally have received in six months. Overwhelmed, Guangzhou authorities announced they would suspend the refuge program. According to some reports, the orphanage now has twice as many babies as available beds. The number of babies under each staff member's care has also doubled.
The same night the baby refuge was shut down one father came with a baby daughter who had been born with a cleft lip and palate as well as shortened lower limbs. When the refuge tried to turn him away, he got down on his knees and cried. "Sending her here is the only glimmer of hope left," he said. "If she stays with us she will definitely die."
Struggling to cope
The fate of Guangzhou's baby refuge is by no means an isolated case in China. The Ministry of Civil Affairs has tried to downplay the problems. It reported in a June press conference that the various baby hatches it helped set around the country are "operating steadily without any significant surge of abandoned babies." The Ministry said the facilities have received a combined total of 1,400 abandoned babies and toddlers. Events on the ground, however, tell a different story. In large cities, in particular, the number of babies being abandoned has risen dramatically since the refuges first opened. Less than a month after Guangzhou suspended its baby refuge, Xiamen followed suit.
The cities of Nanjing and Jinan have taken measures to control the number of abandoned babies by rearranging the opening hours of their centers. Nanjing also installed surveillance cameras and assigned police officers to deter baby abandonment. Xi'an has done the same. In the meantime, a number of cities that originally planned to open up refuges are now either hesitating or are postponing the implementation. When this newspaper phoned up a number of orphanages they all refused to be interviewed fearing that "once we are reported on many parents will send their babies here."
On the day the Guangzhou orphanage shut down its baby hatch, Zheng Yuling came to place a bouquet of flowers on the spot where her baby daughter had been left. Her husband Chen was jailed for 36 days before being released on bail. The court decided not to prosecute him judging that his offense was minor.
On paper, China's Criminal Law stipulates that people who fail in their obligations to care for family members who cannot live independently can be subject to imprisonment of up to five years. In practice, however, courts tend to take into account families' economic difficulties and are thus reluctant to punish people to that degree.
Zheng Ziyin, a lawyer who has long been attentive to the protection of minors issue, points out that China has no benefit and protection policy specially addressed to children suffering from serious illnesses. As such children who are not admitted into an orphanage "are almost totally excluded from social security," he says.
China's Ministry of Civil Affairs is currently trying to address the problem. In its press conference in June the ministry announced plans to set up a basic living allowance and medical rehabilitation subsidy system for severely disabled children so that "the issue of baby abandonment is solved at the root."
For now, though, no clear timetable is set as to when the system will become universal. In the meantime, Chinese babies born with congenital defects are arriving in this world at a rate of one every 30 seconds.