Abandoned children fill Taiwan welfare centres

One stormy night last year, a villager in the central county of Taichung found a seven-month-old baby abandoned in a hut.

The villager told police about the crying boy, and the infant was later handed over to a child welfare centre.

The boy, named Hao Hao by staff, has a serious respiratory problem, which was apparently why he was abandoned.

And he is not alone: 509 children were abandoned by their parents in Taiwan last year.

'On average, 1.4 children were deserted every day by their parents last year, an increase of 40 per cent compared with five years ago,' said Alicea Wang, of the Child Welfare League Foundation.

Ms Wang cited financial problems, birth out of wedlock and disabilities as the major reasons for parents abandoning their children.

'Hao Hao happens to have a disability,' she said. 'When he was first handed over to us by the social workers he had trouble breathing.'

Ms Wang added that his condition had improved in the past six months with the determined efforts of a foundation volunteer. The carer recalled that she had to wake up at least three times a night to care for Hao Hao, who is now learning to walk.

Ms Wang's foundation, one of Taiwan's major child welfare centres, provides short-term care for orphans.

They are placed with volunteer families for around seven months before it is hoped they will be officially adopted.

'But children like Hao Hao will take at least double the time and effort to find someone willing to adopt them,' Ms Wang said.

'Babies born with physical disorders, babies of drug-addicted parents or with darker skin are the 'abandoned of the abandoned'.'

She explained that the offspring of drug addicts developed symptoms such as restlessness or a breathing problem known as dyspnea, which leaves them short of breath, while darker-skinned babies were sometimes unpopular with people who were seeking to adopt because they did not want their children to look 'too different'.

Darker-skinned babies are often born to unmarried foreign domestic helpers or labourers in Taiwan, who if caught with a child would be sent back to their home countries under the terms of their work contracts.

But why are more children being deserted? Ms Wang said financial problems were the main cause of the increase.

'The economy has not been good in the past few years, forcing financially strained parents to give up their children,' she said.

She said changes in sexual behaviour in Taiwan had also resulted in more unmarried mothers.

Some mothers deserted newborn babies because they did not have the money to support a child or feared they would be punished by their parents.

Ms Wang said some unemployed or divorced women also tended to give up their children.

But what most concerns Ms Wang is the dramatic decline in the number of families willing to adopt abandoned children.

That figure had plummeted by 35 per cent in a decade, she said.

The chief reasons for this were changing traditions and in ideas about marriage, as well as altered personal finances, Ms Wang added.

'In the past, most couples wanted to have children,' she said. 'If they could not have their own babies, they would try to adopt children from orphanages. But now more people have chosen not to have children at all.'

In addition, advances in fertilisation technology had given infertile couples a chance of having their own children, Ms Wang said.

She added that the cost of living and education had increased sharply in the past decade.

'This has made it more and more difficult for abandoned children to find families,' she said.

Ms Wang said her foundation was raising NT$10 million (HK$2.4 million) to help support abandoned children still trapped in orphanages and was seeking public donations.