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Deaths of orphans in China spark debate
Publication Date : 19-01-2013
China has about 615,000 orphans. Less than 20 per cent of them are in state homes.
More than eight in 10 orphans are in rural areas, Only 64 out of China's 2,853 counties have a state children's home.
Orphans in China can get 180 yuan (US$28.94) to 360 yuan a month, according to a State Council plan passed in 2010.
Madam Yuan Lihai, 47, has looked after more than 100 orphans in the last 27 years in the impoverished town of Lankao, Henan province, in the heart of China.
She is not a legal foster parent. It all started when she began picking up babies left behind at the entrance of the local hospital, where she used to run a stall.
But she may now be jailed for criminal negligence, after six children and a disabled 20-year-old died from a blaze at her home for orphans on January 4.
Officials across China are stepping up checks on such homes after the deaths sparked impassioned discussions about whether China is doing enough to protect orphans. "China can send people to space, but it can't take care of its orphans?" many netizens have asked on microblogs.
China has about 615,000 orphans. Less than 20 per cent of them are in state homes. Foster parents, legal or illegal, and non-governmental groups take care of the rest, said the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
In reality, the numbers in state institutions may be even lower. Social welfare officials in Jieyang, Guangdong province, tried to "borrow" orphans from a temple to con higher-level officials planning checks after the Lankao fire, because they were not running a children's home as they were supposed to, local media reported on Tuesday.
The likes of Madam Yuan help plug gaps in China's safety net for parentless children, but they may also be ill-equipped to take care of them. Some reports noted that the apartment she used to shelter the children was messy and dirty.
Local Lankao officials knew about her but turned a blind eye as she was providing a needed service, said Beijing Normal University child welfare expert Wang Zhenyao. "Their tacit recognition reflects a kind of helplessness," he told state broadcaster China Central TV.
For a long time, little state funding was allotted to orphans, he noted. It was only in the last few years that the central government started giving some aid to these children, albeit at rather low rates, said Professor Wang, a former civil affairs official.
They can get 180 yuan to 360 yuan a month, according to a State Council plan passed in 2010.
The Lankao tragedy, coupled with the death in November of five homeless boys in Guizhou who had taken shelter in a rubbish dump, has highlighted the lack of protection for children in China.
"The biggest problem is that the country has no children's welfare law," said Prof Wang.
There is also a lack of trained personnel, he added, noting that New York City alone has about 10,000 children's welfare workers, the same as all of China.
Both state and private orphanages lack trained staff, noted scholars Liu Meng and Zhu Kai of the China Women's University in a paper on orphan care.
More than eight in 10 orphans are in rural areas, with populous Henan having the most. But only 64 out of China's 2,853 counties have a state children's home.
While likely to face prosecution for negligence, Madam Yuan has also won wide support.
"Yuan Lihai was motivated by a good heart. She didn't mean to hurt the kids. I feel sorry for her," said Madam Zhou Fenggui, 60, the head of a church welfare home in Nanyang, Henan, that takes in senior citizens and abandoned children.
Like Madam Yuan, she may have to say goodbye to the 20 children and youngsters at her centre, as officials plan to move them to a state home.
"I can't bear to part with them," she told The Straits Times.
From a legal standpoint, Madam Yuan may be wrong, but she is taking on the responsibilities of social institutions, said Professor Liu.
The government needs to find out who are the people taking care of orphans on their own initiative and see what can be done to help them, she told The Straits Times.
If Madam Yuan had been given more resources and support to register her children's home legally, perhaps the seven orphans would not have died, she added.
"You can't penalise people who have a sense of responsibility, kindness and a spirit of self-sacrifice - these are very important to Chinese society now," she said.
With additional reporting by Lina Miao.