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Baby Hatch Programs Struggle to Cope With Number of Infants With Birth Defects

State Facilities Set Quickly Overwhelmed

Giving birth to her first baby granted Zheng Yuling no happiness, but instead brought pain and sadness. The seriously ill girl died hours after birth, and Zheng's husband, Chen Dafu, was arrested on suspicion he abandoned the newborn.

Their baby was found dead at the door of the Guangzhou Baby Safety Island around noon on February 23. It was the first dead baby received by the experimental service, which was provided by the southern city to consist of a baby hatch operated by an orphanage called the Guangzhou Social Welfare Institute. But the experiment proved to be short lived.

The orphanage abandoned the initiative after receiving 262 babies, all with serious health problems, in just 48 days.

"The workload is excessive to the extreme," the Social Welfare Institute said. "We can't possibly continue."

The baby hatches were part of program implemented in 2013 by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which called for baby refuges in dozens of cities as a way to better protect the country's large number of abandoned infants.

The program was widely applauded for its humanitarian spirit. But in practice, many of the participating cities, Guangzhou included, quickly abandoned it due to the overwhelming number of babies they received. Other facilities adopted stricter rules to dissuade parents from giving their infants away.

The number of China's babies with congenital defects has soared over the past decade, with nearly 900,000 such cases reported each year, according to a 2012 report from the Ministry of Health. In addition, a report from the Ministry of Civil Affairs shows that at least 100,000 children are abandoned each year. Most are disabled and many are girls.

A Heartbreaking Decision

Zheng and her husband decided about 11 hours after birth to place their girl in Guangzhou's baby hatch in 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 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 idea. Keeping the child in hospital would cost between US$ 500 to US$ 650 per day, an impossible amount of money for a couple that can barely afford the US$ 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 take the child there.

After dealing with the baby's discharge procedure and informing the hospital of their decision, the child was taken off the breathing tube and wrapped in a new blanket. She was hidden in a big shopping bag and taken by Chen and his mother-in-law to the Guangzhou orphanage's baby hatch.

Finding nobody at the door, Chen placed the bag in front of the facility's doorway and got back in the taxi. The father was there less than two minutes. In his haste, he did not even get a clear look at the place.

The baby refuge, which started pilot operations on January 28, 2014, was open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. During those hours, whenever a baby was sent to the hatch, staff would handle the reception procedure according to the rules. During off hours, security guards looked after the office.

On the day Chen left his baby girl at the refuge, the guard did not have time to intervene. By the time the guard reached the baby, its face was already black. Doctors arrived soon after and pronounced the newborn dead.

'That is Illegal'

The death, the first since the baby hatch opened less than a month earlier, put a heavy burden on the orphanage, which had to prove that it was not responsible.

The next day Chen was arrested on suspicion of the crime of abandonment, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

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 near the hatch. Xu also tried to make it clear that the orphanage is unable to provide good 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 facility. Many of them are like Zheng and Chen and feel unable to afford raising the children.

One father came with a baby daughter who had been born with a cleft lip and palate and shortened lower limbs. He cried when the baby hatch tried to turn him away.

"Sending her here is the only glimmer of hope left," he said. "If she stays with us, she will definitely die."

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. And one-third of the children sent to the hatch are older than one.

Overwhelmed, on March 16 Guangzhou authorities announced they would suspend the program. According to media reports, the orphanage now has twice as many babies as beds.

Struggling to Cope

The fate of Guangzhou's baby refuge is by no means an isolated case in China, even though the Ministry of Civil Affairs has tried to downplay the problems. It reported in June that the various baby hatches it helped set up around the country are "operating steadily without any significant surge of abandoned babies." The ministry said the 32 pilot facilities in 16 provinces have received a total of 1,400 abandoned children.

Events on the ground, however, tell a different story. Media reports show that in large cities, in particular, the number of babies being abandoned has risen dramatically since the hatches first opened. Less than a month after Guangzhou suspended its baby refuge, the eastern city of Xiamen followed suit.

Tianjin, in the north, and the eastern city of Jinan have taken measures to control the number of abandoned babies by rearranging the opening hours of their centers. Nanjing, in the east, installed surveillance cameras and assigned police officers to deter abandonment. Xi'an, in the northwest, has done the same. In the meantime, a number of cities that originally planned to open up hatches are either hesitating or postponing their plans.

In early April, Chen was jailed for 36 days before being released on bail. The court decided not to prosecute him, ruling his offense was minor.

The Criminal Law says that people who fail in their obligations to care for family members who cannot live independently can be imprisoned for up to five years. In practice, however, courts tend to take into account economic difficulties and are reluctant to punish people to the highest degree.

Zheng Ziyin, a lawyer who has followed the issue of protecting minors, said that China offers neither benefits nor any sort of protection policy for children suffering from serious illnesses. This means children who are not admitted into an orphanage "are almost totally excluded from social security," he said.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs is trying to address the problem. In June, it announced plans to offer a basic living allowance and medical rehabilitation subsidies 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.