It started with a baby that was left in the doorway of a hospital bathroom. Yuan Lihai took in the girl with a cleft lip while working at a Henan province hospital in 1989. At the department of gynecology and obstetrics, she was paid 20 yuan for every infant she buried. This was also where she discovered the second child she would adopt—a baby boy who had supposedly died after induced labor. When she went to bury the infant, she discovered he was breathing.
Rescued by Yuan Lihai, the two children are now both grown and married. Her makeshift orphanage for abandoned children, many of whom were disabled, would grow in reputation among residents of Lankao County, near Kaifeng city.
There were stories that she sold children, that the children were mistreated and starved in a house that would be called “The Garden.” Other residents said she was known as the “Kind Woman” who never refused shelter to an abandoned child.
But on January 4, a fire that started with unsupervised children engulfed the home of Yuan Lihai and killed seven, ending decades of foster care that many say the government never stepped in to provide. She appeared much older than her forty-eight years while lying on a hospital bed, as she recovered from the trauma of the fire.
Nowhere Else to Go?
Yuan Lihai estimated she took in around one hundred children over the decades. A neighbor said Yuan Lihai initially didn’t even have a proper home for the children. She put up a plastic shack near the hospital and arranged a bed where she would sleep next to the children. Only several years ago did her relatives build two homes on an empty space near the hospital. The children with more severe disabilities were moved to one called “The Garden.”
People left their children in the area, expecting neighbors to bring them to Yuan Lihai. Her daughter Du Juan said that even the police would sometimes bring abandoned children to her. The official explanation from the Lankao County government is that the government unofficially permitted Yuan Lihai’s adoptions because Lankao has no orphanage and the capacity of the nearby Kaifeng orphanage is limited.
But there was never enough money and she often had to borrow from acquaintances to maintain the home. She operated a food stall outside the hospital and she collected from twenty separate poverty allowance accounts. But the government funds only provided 72 yuan per month, around 2 yuan per day—far too little to cover the costs of the eighteen children that were living with her when the fire broke out.
Kaifeng Prefectural Orphanage Director Wang Yongxi told the media that he spent years attempting to persuade Yuan Lihai to give the children up. He traveled to Lankao at least ten times since becoming the head of the state orphanage and brought Yuan Lihai back to the orphanage. But she was reluctant to send the children away.
At a state orphanage, each child is provided his or her own bed and trained caregivers are assigned to watch the children. Some said Yuan Lihai lied for welfare allowance and sold children. Yuan Lihai’s adopted son Yuan Song, who helped her care for children, firmly denied the rumors.
“Selling children is too ridiculous. I saw myself that when others came to discuss adopting the children, she wouldn’t take the money they offered. They only sent over some new house supplies,” said Yuan Song.
But at the end of August 2011, local media reported in detail on the conditions of Yuan Lihai’s home. Stories that the house was overcrowded and filthy, filled with stinking piles of unwashed clothes and poorly fed children, led authorities to launch an investigation into the status of the children. One month later, local authorities asked Yuan Lihai to send the children to a state orphanage.
The dilapidated building of “The Garden” was demolished. She found a new place. Eventually, five younger children were sent to an orphanage.
Staff from the orphanage recalled that one boy with congenital heart disease, who could not stand because he had not been cared for properly, was carried away, crying all the way. Later, when he heard it was time to eat, he immediately stopped crying. A staff at the scene could not help but note, “It looked like with his foster mother, he didn’t have enough to eat.”
However, many of Yuan’s family members said that the government should accept responsibility for the conditions of the abandoned children.
Yuan Song told Caixin that he had nothing to eat as a child and would go door to door asking neighbors for food. His clothes were all given to him by others or picked out of the trash. Even so, he argued that the government knew of the conditions in Yuan Lihai’s home and never offered assistance or helped her with paperwork to make the adoptions official.
A Horrific Tragedy in the Home
The morning of the fire, Yuan Shen, a young man suffering from polio, was designated caretaker while Yuan Lihai accompanied a group of children to school. The children left at home were all under ten years old.
To the left of Lankao County People’s Hospital is a crowded residential area of low, single-story buildings built by local residents. The home where Yuan Lihai was caring for eighteen adopted children sits at the end of an alley in this area.
The home is small. One wing extends into a narrow courtyard and serves as a kitchen. The main building is two stories, each made up of three rooms: a living room, a bedroom, and a small room for storage or living.
Yuan Lihai’s next-door neighbor told Caixin that at around 8 a.m. on January 4, he heard the sound of loud, crackling explosions near his home. He looked into the courtyard and saw flames. The furniture in Yuan Lihai’s home was all made of wood and the flames of the fire licked through the house.
At the same time, Yuan Lihai’s son-in-law Guo Haiyang also saw the fire as he returned from taking another group of children to school. Guo soaked a blanket in the courtyard with water and rushed into courtyard. In the heavy smoke, he could see very little. Many of the children on the first floor suffered from disabilities and could not speak. Without cries of help to guide him, Guo could only pat the beds several times before choking on the smoke and rushing out of the building.
Yuan Song was selling food near the hospital at the time. After being alerted to the fire, he rushed to the scene and rescued a child from the kitchen. Another child ran out by himself.
Yuan Shen at this time was on the second floor. Suffocating from the smoke, he was unable to escape. The other six deceased were all young children, the oldest being five years old and the youngest only seven months.
The Lankao government officially announced its findings on the evening of January 8, stating that investigations identified children playing with fire as the cause of the blaze.
After the fire, Lankao officials announced Yuan Lihai was not “completely qualified to adopt,” and had “adopted children illegally.” They later revised their assessment of her actions to “adopting without permission.” The ten adopted children who escaped the fire were sent to an orphanage in Kaifeng.
“Yuan Lihai already had children and did not have the means to care for such a large group of adoptees. According to the provisions of the Adoption Act, she was not eligible to adopt,” Yang Peimin, director of the Lankao County Civil Affairs Bureau, told reporters on the evening of January 4.
The statement ignited criticism from the public. Many argued that the government had failed to fulfill its responsibility to rescue and care for the abandoned children.
Cowed by public rancor, the government revised its assessment. The Lankao County Deputy Magistrate Wu Changsheng said at a press conference the next day, “The current situation is related to ineffective oversight from the relevant departments, which cannot shirk responsibility.”
That evening, six officials connected to child welfare policies were suspended from their positions in the wake of the accident. The Lankao Civil Affairs Bureau announced that it would establish a county welfare organization within half a year, and the government would officially assume responsibility for local orphans.
The State of Foster Care
Yuan Lihai was known to never say no, despite her meager ability to support the children. “She began to form the habit of sleeping with her day clothes on. For one thing, she’s penniless. She lived in a simple shack, and it was cold. For another, it was convenient. She could get up at any time to care for the children,” said Wang Ran, a doctor at the Lankao People’s hospital who is also a friend of Yuan Lihai.
Today, more than a dozen children raised by Yuan Lihai have moved out to work. Most of them have finished middle school, and some even made it to college. Neighbors say the children are all very sensible and refrain from bad habits such as smoking and gambling.
Henan province, with a population of roughly 100 million, has only nine provincial-level child welfare institutions. There are 333 on the prefectural level and sixty-four on the county level. Most counties do not have dedicated child welfare institutions. However, Lankao Civil Affairs Bureau Deputy Director Bian Heping told Caixin that a 10,000-square-meter county orphanage will be completed this June and go into operation in August. The first phase will have more than 300 beds, enough to admit all of Lankao’s orphans.
Bian said that parents should be the first to bear responsibility for the problem of abandoned babies. But after a child has been abandoned, the child should come under the care of the government.
The decades of adoptions did not come without a cost to Yuan Lihai’s own family. Her biological son Du Ming said that his mother treated the abandoned children better than her own. The strained relationship between mother and son led Du Ming to seldom call her “mother.” Yuan Lihai’s husband separated from her, protesting against her adoptions.
The ten children who survived the fire have been resettled in the Kaifeng orphanage. But Yuan Lihai fears that that the government will not let her see the children again.
When asked if she would continue to raise children, Yuan Lihai said that if she saw a child thrown into the streets, she’d still have no hesitation in taking the child in. “With whatever I have, I’d use it all,” said Yuan Lihai.