Tragedy sparks calls to protect children's rights

Updated: 2013-01-07 07:41

By Xinhua (China Daily)

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The two-story home, with its charred outer walls, shattered windows and stinging odor, was evidence of a catastrophic fire.

The blaze killed seven people on Friday.

The makeshift "foster home" was at the end of a narrow lane in the center of Lankao, Central China's Henan province.

Yuan Lihai, a woman who never received a formal education, had nursed more than 100 abandoned children there since 1986. Most of the children suffered congenital diseases, ranging from cleft lips, infantile paralysis and albinism to mental disorders.

Yuan, 48, who was not injured in the fire but has since suffered a heart attack, was seen as a good Samaritan by her neighbors.

"Many of the children would have died if she had not taken them in," a neighbor told Xinhua News Agency. Others also praised her.

Du Peng, Yuan's son, described his mother as a woman with a warm, outgoing personality. "Everyone knew she took in abandoned children. Some sent over ill babies, while others just left them on her doorstep in the middle of the night."

Not all members of Yuan's family supported what she was doing, and it caused her to separate from her husband.

Friday's deadly fire has put Yuan under investigation.

While the cause of the fire remains unclear, some were blaming Yuan because her shelter for abandoned children was unlicensed and therefore considered "illegal".

However, the local government apparently turned a blind eye, according to Fu Ping, a Shanghai-based specialist on the protection of children's rights.

Lankao, with a population of 760,000, is among the poorest counties in the underdeveloped central province of Henan.

The county doesn't have an orphanage. A plan for a 1-million-yuan ($160,477) welfare home was approved last week by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

"Yuan never went through official procedures for adoption, but she certainly helped the local government tremendously by taking care of so many children," Fu said.

"It's high time to enact laws on minors' welfare to ensure children's rights are duly protected. Parents who abandon their children must be penalized according to law."

Meanwhile, he said it was necessary to designate a government agency to take care of homeless children. "The role is now divided among too many government agencies, including civil affairs department, women's federation, public security authorities and many more. So in some cases, every party tries to evade responsibility."

Wang Zhenyao, a former civil affairs official and now an academic at Beijing Normal University, said the government was "lagging too far behind in the protection of children's welfare".

He said individual families should be encouraged to adopt orphans, as "foster homes often provide a better environment than welfare homes".

However, foster parents need adequate training and sometimes financial aid from the government to ensure adopted children are cared for, he said.

(China Daily 01/07/2013 page5)