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'Baby hatch' scheme for abandoned infants: can they work?

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A baby hatch centre in China has been suspended after it was overwhelmed with abandoned infants, throwing into question the use of this controversial scheme.

The welfare home in Guangzhou, southern China, has received more than 260 children since it opened in January, putting its staff and resources under enormous pressure, its director Xu Jiu said. He added that the team would continue to care for babies already left at the centre.

"I hope everyone understands the difficulties the welfare centre faces," Xu told China's Xinhua news agency this weekend, as he announced the suspension. "We are temporarily closing the centre [to new babies] so that we can properly care for the infants already at the centre."

The home has beds for 1,000 youngsters but currently looks after 1,121 babies and young people, many of whom are suffering from illnesses such as cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and congenital heart disease.

A centre for abandoned babies in Nanjing, China

It is one of 25 centres rolled out by Chinese authorities this year, in order to allow parents to abandon their children in a safe place.

The babies are left anonymously to be found and cared for, with parents placing them in a "hatch" - a warm room with an incubator and cot - and activating a delayed alarm, which staff respond to in five to ten minutes' time.

Abandoning children is illegal in China but staff at the China Center for Children's Welfare and Adoption - which introduced the scheme - believe these hatches give babies a better chance of survival than if they were abandoned on the street.

The problem of abandoned infants is particularly hard-hitting in a country where strict population control policies mean most couples can only have one child. Worry over medical costs means children with illnesses are especially vulnerable.

But it's not just China that uses baby hatches as a way of combating child abandonment; similar schemes are already in place across Europe and Asia.

Baby hatches or boxes were first introduced in Germany in 1999 (it now has around 100 across the country), with Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy following suit.

In Hungary, changes to the law were made to accommodate the creation of baby hatches - meaning that leaving a baby in an official baby box is deemed to be a legal act that is equivalent to consent to adoption (whereas it remains illegal to abandon a child elsewhere in the country).

A woman in Prague shows how a baby hatch works using a doll

Campaigner Alley Lofthouse was abandoned on a doorstep in 1967 and has called for a similar scheme to be launched here in the UK.

Lofthouse, who runs children's charity A Foundling, said that baby hatches set up in hospitals or public spaces across Britain would help avoid putting abandoned babies at risk.

"They are almost like an incubator in that they are heated and the mother can go in and put the baby in a secure and warm, padded incubator and close the door up," said Lofthouse, who spoke out after a baby girl was found abandoned on a park bench in Edinburgh last April. "It sets an alarm off, and on the other side a nurse or a clinician would come and take the baby away.

"The law is outdated and people who abandon their children have a real need and a desperate need to do something like this," she added.

But critics argue that baby hatch schemes encourage parents to abandon their children or worse, runs the risk of new mums being put under pressure to give up their babies by unwilling fathers or even sex traffickers.

"Studies in Hungary show that it's not necessarily mothers who place babies in these boxes - that it's relatives, pimps, step-fathers, fathers," Kevin Browne, a psychologist at Nottingham University, told the BBC.

"Therefore, the big question is: are these baby boxes upholding women's rights, and has the mother of that child consented to the baby being placed in the baby box?

"You also have to ask whether an anonymous drop allows the authorities to check whether there's a chance for the baby to remain with its family in the care of other relatives."

China has rolled out 25 baby hatch schemes for abandoned infants this year

The United Nations has also raised concerns about the use of baby hatches in the past. In 2012, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) indicated that the use of baby drop-offs "contravenes the right of the child to be known and cared for by his or her parents."

Officials even suggested that their implementation are a throwback to the philosophy used to justify so-called "foundling wheels" in the Middle Ages.

"Just like medieval times, in many countries we see people claiming that baby boxes prevent infanticide...," Maria Herczog, a member of the UNCRC committe told the Guardian. "There is no evidence for this."

But German politician Bernd Posselt, Christian Social Union MEP for Munich, claims his country's experience of baby boxes has generally been positive.

"I know also the problems, but for me it is essential to protect and to safeguard the life of children in extreme situations," he said. "All other problems can be solved with good will as long as the child is alive. It is not the decision of an United Nations committee what we are doing to help born or unborn children."

What do you think? Could a baby hatch scheme be introduced in the UK? Do they ever work, wherever they're based? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

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