Official neglect of orphans a tragedy

Deaths of youngsters in Bijie and now in Henan point to government's failure to provide proper care for the nation's most vulnerable citizens

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 2:20pm

In November, five boys who were all related and ranged in age from nine to 13, died in a trash bin in Bijie, Guizhou province, after they apparently started a charcoal fire to keep warm and succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Understandably, the tragedy caused a nationwide uproar, highlighting the heart-wrenching plight of so-called left-behind children. Their parents, seeking jobs in the bigger cities, had left them in the care of relatives at home.

On Friday, seven children, all aged four or five, perished in a fire at an unlicensed private orphanage near Kaifeng, Henan province. Again, the tragedy touched a raw nerve in the nation, but this time it highlighted the even more terrible predicament of orphans.

Initially, the online outrage was directed at the orphanage's owner Yuan Lihai, who was widely known in the poor county of Lankao for sheltering abandoned children, particularly those with disabilities, in her dilapidated home near a public hospital.

But it soon became clear that Yuan, 48, was a Good Samaritan. Since 1986, the street vendor had adopted more than 100 abandoned children and had 18 in her care at the time of fire, 16 of them handicapped or sick.

Local officials have admitted that Yuan was not considered qualified to look after abandoned children, but they tacitly allowed it and even sent abandoned infants to her, as the county did not have a welfare home for children.

After the fire, local officials moved the surviving children to government-run shelters in Lankao and Kaifeng. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire, but the authorities are expected, quite predictably, to fire a number of local officials so they take the blame and soothe public anger, just as they did in Bijie. Let's hope that will not be the end, as it appears to have been in the earlier case.

Important questions remain unanswered. For instance, will the two tragedies spur the authorities, particularly the central government, to take immediate measures and do a better job of looking after orphans and left-behind children, the most vulnerable group in society?

Sadly, the signs are not encouraging. Since the tragedy, no leader has made a public comment on the case. Neither the minister of civil affairs nor any other senior government official was seen visiting the tragic scene in Henan.

This is a telling indication of what the top officials think of this tragedy. In any other country, such an incident would have prompted top leaders to show compassion publicly and promise immediate measures to right the wrong. According to official data, about 100,000 infants are abandoned nationwide each year, most of them girls and children with disabilities. But government support and welfare homes are woefully inadequate, which has led to the proliferation of unlicensed and underfunded orphanages run by Good Samaritans like Yuan.

Official suspicion of non-governmental organisations also makes it difficult for them to play an active role in alleviating the social burden. To make matters worse, the authorities have done little to encourage adoption of abandoned orphans by childless couples for fear that opening such doors could lead to child trafficking or other forms of child abuse.

As for the tens of millions of "left-behind" children, they do not fare much better. Their parents have left them behind partly because they cannot gain access to education and medical care and other social services in the bigger cities because of the rigid hukou system.

But leaving their children in the care of relatives may be worse, as the custodians could be senile grandparents physically incapable of looking after the children and their hometowns are usually poor places where social services are almost non-existent.

Since the central government can spend billions of yuan to build an aircraft carrier and prepare to send astronauts to the moon, it can surely boost spending on social welfare for poor children to avoid the repetition of tragedies like these.

But government support is not enough. Authorities should also waste no time in pushing for legislation to encourage adoption, allow NGOs to help out, and train more social workers and volunteers to help these poor children.