BEIJING — For years, 11-year-old Lily suffered cruel corporal punishment at the hands of her mother. She was also deprived of meals, an education and kind words. But after more than two months of work, the Children’s Hope Foundation finally obtained an agreement and signature from her mother to be allowed to help the child. It is one of the rare cases in China when, thanks to the intervention of press and police, a civic organization has been able to rescue a physically abused child.

Lily has a twin sister, who stayed with their mother from birth while Lily was sent to live with her grandparents until she was three years old. Being divorced and under great economic hardship, Lily’s mother became increasingly ill-tempered. Compared with her twin sister, Lily is said to be naughty and capricious, and very often angered her mother, who would punish her by leaving her standing at the doorway, sometimes for the whole day. Too often deprived of meals as she grew older, she had a tendency to run away. Every time the police brought Lily back, they tried preaching good sense to both mother and daughter, but the situation remained unchanged.

Out of mercy, Lily’s neighbors sometimes sent meals for her. But this practice, which went on for years, would only win them verbal abuse from the girl’s mother.

“Had this happened in the West, the neighbors would be the very first to bear the duty of reporting the child’s situation to the welfare agencies,” says Zhang Wen, founder of the Children’s Hope Foundation. But things are different in China. People who discover child abuse often don’t know where to report it, and even if they do report the abuse, it could very well lead nowhere. Before Children's Hope Foundation stepped in, the local women’s federation and the police had all urged Lily’s mother to be kinder, “but that’s all that they could do,” Zhang says.

The media paid attention

It was thanks to a neighbor’s microblogging that Lily’s story came to the attention of the Children’s Hope Foundation, which immediately visited the girl’s home accompanied by the staff of the local women’s federation. The social workers set about helping the mother around the house to obtain her trust.

“In advanced countries, social workers make up a very important part of the child protection system,” Zhang says. “When a child protection agency receives a report, social workers are sent to investigate. This is their right as well as their duty and responsibility. When the social workers consider that a child’s safety is threatened, they’ll immediately put the child in a safe place and even set in motion the procedure for depriving the parents of custody. Most parents will be able to resume their guardianship duty after some training and education. Meanwhile in China, social workers are not even entitled to interfere in cases of child abuse.” Which means that to help a child like Lily, all they can do is try their best to please her mother.

The foundation decided that the best way to help Lily was to provide concrete support to the family. They arranged psychological counselors for both Lily and her mother to improve their relationship, and sent volunteer workers to visit the family regularly. They also registered Lily in school and collected money for her school fees.

Unfortunately, the assistance didn’t develop as the foundation had hoped. In July, two days after a Beijing television station reported Lily’s story, her mother suddenly changed her attitude — perhaps due to the increased social pressure following the broadcast exposure. She refused all contact with the foundation and made it clear that Lily wouldn’t be going back to school. Not only that, but Lily received even more severe punishments and had to resort to searching through the garbage heap for food.

The situation continued until another Beijing newspaper publicized Lily’s case again. The reporter rallied the local police as well as the local education commission. Under pressure, Lily’s mother eventually agreed to let the foundation take care of Lily and return her to school.

A cruel system

In 2010, a baby girl was born at Tianjin Children’s Hospital with congenital anal atresia and several other serious problems. Even if her life was saved, she was doomed to be disabled for life. After much reflection, the baby’s family decided to forego treatment and instead send her to a hospice to die. Volunteers from Beijing heard the news, “stole” the baby girl, and returned her to Beijing with the hope of saving her life. In fact, they nicknamed her “Little Hope.” But eventually, Little Hope’s family traveled to Beijing and insisted on taking her back. The baby died two weeks later.

The Children’s Hope Foundation was one of the organizations that was involved in this very controversial relief action. In the foundation’s and their supporters’ eyes, a child’s life is sacred. But critics believe that the volunteers ignored the will of the family to see their child die in the name of love, broke the law, and brought even more suffering to the poor family.

Whether children are being refused medical treatment by their families or suffering from physical abuse, the biggest obstacle to intervention and assistance in China is the question of custody.

As Zhang Wenjuan, deputy director of the Beijing Youth Legal Aid and Research Center says, China’s Minors Protection Law stipulates that “A minor whose legitimate rights are infringed, he himself, his guardian, or other organizations as well as individuals have the right to complain to the relevant authorities.” It is unclear, though, what the “relevant authorities” are and who should be responsible for taking the cases once abuse is reported.

The law does say that the custody rights of seriously incompetent parents can be revoked after “application by relevant personnel or agencies.” As to who the “relevant” personnel or agencies are, and what the child’s placement is to involve, the law is woefully hazy.

Chinese scholars and social workers have in fact come to a consensus as to the child protection mechanisms that should be developed in China. “The first thing is to establish a clear reporting mechanism,” says Wang Le, director of Save the Children China, an international organization founded in the UK. “Then come the responses of specialized agencies.” According to Wang, it has been internationally accepted that when a child abuse case is discovered, the first step is to report it to child protection agencies. The social workers and law enforcement will then visit the family to assess the situation while the specialized agencies silmultaneously develop a response mechanism.

The greatest predicament now facing China is that problems involving children’s rights are divided among various government departments. And the authority of civil affairs agencies has been limited up to now to providing shelter or subsidies to poor children.

But Zhang Wen says there is no time to waste. “It’s a long process to perfect the legal system, but children cannot wait. Even if the law is still incomplete, as long as everybody reacts, children will be saved.”