Orphanage blaze kills 7, raises questions

Updated: 2013-01-08 07:55

By Xiang Mingchao in Henan, He Na, Peng Yining and Cui Jia in Beijing (China Daily)

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Orphanage blaze kills 7, raises questions 

Yuan Xiaoshi, 10, a survivor of the fire that broke out at an unlicensed orphanage in Henan province on Friday, is still in a critical condition at a hospital in Kaifeng. Xiang Mingchao / China Daily

 Orphanage blaze kills 7, raises questions

The appreciation of the children for orphanage owner Yuan Lihai is apparent in this file photo. Provided to China Daily

Orphanage blaze kills 7, raises questions

 Orphanage blaze kills 7, raises questions

Top: Children from Yuan Lihai's orphanage in Lankao county, Henan province, who have been moved to the county's rescue center. Middle: The scene at Yuan Lihai's orphanage after the fire. Above: An infant with Down's Syndrome is one of 10 children who have now settled down at Kaifeng Welfare Home. Xiang Mingchao / China Daily

Orphanage blaze kills 7, raises questions

Calls for greater State role after the fire that claimed 7 lives, report Xiang Mingchao in Henan, He Na, Peng Yining and Cui Jia in Beijing.

Although four days have passed since the fire that claimed seven lives at a private orphanage in Lankao county, Henan province, the two-story apartment, its blackened walls clearly visible, is still filled with the stench of smoke and burning.

The windows are shattered and the water used to extinguish the blaze is now just a sheet of ice covering a section of the floor. Except for one ruined electric fan, it's difficult to identify the fire-damaged objects scattered around the room.

The blaze that engulfed the house on the morning of Jan 4 killed six children and one adult. A seventh child was severely injured and is currently being treated in a hospital. The children who died were all younger than 6 years old. The youngest was just 6 months old.

The cause of the fire has yet to be established and the investigation is ongoing, according to local government sources.

"From the moment I ran to help put out the fire until the moment the ambulance arrived, I didn't hear any of them cry out," said Li Qinghua, who owns a small electrical appliance store and lives not far from the scene of the tragedy.

"Those children's lives were pitiful. They had already escaped death once after being abandoned by their parents, but destiny was still cruel and they still couldn't escape death," said Li tearfully.

Clothing and quilts, badly burned and blackened by smoke, spilled out on the stairs and over the beds. In one room a bunk bed was almost burned to a cinder.

The house was once home to 18 abandoned children. Most of them had congenital conditions, such as cleft palates and infantile paralysis. Some had been diagnosed with mental health disorders.

The 10 surviving children are now in the care of the welfare department in nearby Kaifeng.

The building is owned by Yuan Lihai, a local woman in her late 40s, and had provided shelter for orphans and abandoned children since 1987. Yuan, who funded the refuge from her own pocket, was not at home when the fire broke out because she was taking some of the children to school.

Yuan Lihai's name is well known to the local media, which have often reported on her acts of kindness. During the past two decades and more, Yuan has played the role of surrogate mother to almost 100 abandoned infants and children, leading some locals to nickname her "Loving Mother". Many of the children she rescued over the years are now adults with families of their own.

Media spotlight

However, this time Yuan's name is in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons. Many local people have expressed sympathy and applauded her example. However, others have spoken of their misgivings about Yuan's "adoptions", muttering darkly that she used the house and the children to make money. Some have even accused her of selling abandoned children for profit

"Yuan generally didn't stay with the children at night. She hired a local person to take charge of their daily lives. She doesn't earn much by selling snacks at the gate of the county hospital, so where does all the money (to run the home) come from?" asked one neighbor, who declined to be named.

Yuan's high blood pressure resulted in her losing consciousness on Sunday morning and she is currently receiving treatment at the hospital.

When local reporters interviewed Yuan's neighbors, most were full of praise: "Although her given name "Lihai" can mean someone that is hard to deal with, she's actually an easygoing person. She speaks to the kids tenderly and greets her neighbors warmly. Many children would have died if not for Yuan's kindness," said one neighbor, Wang Meilian.

"One of the children Yuan adopted is now grown up. She returned with her boyfriend on National Day last year to give Yuan a gift," she added.

Yang Peimin, director of Lankao Civil Affairs Department, said Yuan's adoption of children was admirable, but illegal. "It's not consistent with China's Law of Adoption and the related policies. The local civil affairs department has never provided any adoption references or certificates for her," he said.

Some experts and media reports claimed that the local officials have made Yuan a scapegoat because of the public outcry, which has drawn attention to both the inadequate provisions afforded to orphans and a lack of child welfare.

On Jan 6, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that it will instigate a national campaign to check safety at public institutions and individual homes where children are fostered.

"The Lankao fire is not an isolated incident. Without a functioning child welfare system, tragedies are likely to happen in other places too. In my opinion, the tragedy is partly a result of China's child welfare system," said Wang Zhenyao, a former civil affairs official who is now director of the One Foundation Philanthropic Research Institute at Beijing Normal University.

Child welfare laws and bureaus, long established in other countries, are still not on the agenda in China. They are a fundamental guarantee of child welfare and without them, child welfare is little more than a series of well-meant phrases, he said.

A dearth of legislation is the main problem. "Only when enforceable laws are enacted will the authorities be able to help 'kindness mothers' such as Yuan Lihai", said Wang.

The basis of adoption is not simply being kind-hearted, said Zhang Zhiwei, a lawyer in Beijing, who has followed cases of adoption for more than five years. He attributed the tragedy in Lankao to the lack of a coherent policy. The government should be responsible for the care of orphans, he said.

"Before the tragedy, Yuan's work won great approval from society. She almost wore a halo. But after the fire, everyone pointed the finger of blame at her."

Faced with the pressure of public opinion, Wu Changsheng, vice-governor of Lankao county, issued a press release on Jan 5 in which he admitted that the case highlighted the fact that the relevant local government departments lack supervision and there are loopholes in their working methods and said they bear a heavy responsibility for the tragedy.

Zhang said those who perform charitable acts take huge risks. Critics may accuse them of doing it for money or fame, but their investment in terms of money, emotion and even sometimes their health, is enormous.

"Do you know how much work is involved in raising a child? Now imagine that you have 18 children, or even more," Zhang said. "The authorities have to face the fact that many orphans are still waiting for help, or the Lankao fire won't be the last tragedy."

Zhang said that both central and local governments have limited budgets and that the best solution would be to encourage the development of grassroots adoption organizations.

"Stronger regulations and increased monitoring would allow nongovernmental organizations to do a better job," he said. "They cover a wider area and are more accessible."

At the end of 2010, there were 650,000 orphans nationwide, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Meanwhile, Beijing had 425 orphanages, with 75,000 beds, at the end of 2011, said the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau. Those institutes housed 34,000 children at the end of 2011, an increase of more than 11 percent on the previous year.

In a directive issued last year, the Beijing municipal government pledged to encourage nonprofit organizations to become involved in caring for orphans and raising funds to improve their standards of living.

But large cities, such as Beijing, are the exceptions that prove the rule. In many third- and fourth-tier cities, especially in the vast rural areas, public orphanages are few and far between.

The number of public orphanages is still far too small to meet the demand of able-bodied orphans, let alone those with congenital diseases, said Wang Zhenyao.

"Individual and private child welfare homes are a necessary support for adoption. However, without proper policy support, capital and professional staff, it will be difficult to develop these places, he said.

Complex procedure

In July 2011, the Ministry of Civil Affairs ruled that each orphan being raised by welfare agencies should be provided with a living allowance of at least 1,000 yuan ($160) per month. Children housed by individuals should receive a minimum of 600 yuan per month. Beijing provides the highest allowances, with children in public institutions receiving 1,600 yuan. Those housed with families and individuals get 1,400 yuan.

However, the application procedures are tortuous and often difficult to overcome.

The State Council said there are four accepted channels to help orphans: They can be adopted by relatives; raised by welfare agencies; be placed with foster parents; or adopted by families that hold the relevant permits. All other adoption procedures are illegal.

"The conditions imposed on orphans are stringent. The complicated and time-consuming procedures and the dozens of certificates required for legal adoption just close the door on many orphans," said Wang Zhenyao.

Shi Qinghua, founder of Light Love Family, a grassroots program for orphans in Beijing, has deep experience of the system. His organization has been attempting to gain legal status for almost 10 years, but so far has met with little success.

Shi said the civil administration department approved his work and tried to help him register as a non-government organization. But the task was made more difficult by a lack of detailed regulations, including basic information such as the name of the office to which he should apply to register formally or the department that would provide financial aid.

A number of government departments are involved in the adoption process, including the public security bureau and the civil administration and transportation departments. It is almost impossible to contact all of them and promote a unified approach, said Shi.

He took the hukou, or residents' permit, as an example, saying that 25 percent of the children in the school run by LLF don't have hukou in the areas in which they reside, which is crucial for education and social security, and each hukou takes years to register.

The Lankao tragedy has rung alarm bells for other grassroots orphanages, he said. Since founding the school in 2003, Shi and the other teachers have rotated through three eight-hour shifts every day to ensure the children's safety, but the expense has exerted great pressure on them.

"I feel it's just getting harder and harder, and I'm worried that no one will bother to perform charitable work in the years to come," he said.

Contact the reporters at hena@chinadaily.com.cn, pengyining@chinadaily.com.cn and cuijia@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 01/08/2013 page6)