Visiting Orphanages in China

13 07 2011

Today showed the juxtaposition of what is possible with the orphan situation in China.

In the morning our visiting delegation made up of Joint Council, along with NGO, corporate and government partners took breakfast at the hotel before embarking to visit two orphanage sites in Henan province. Henan province is considered by many to be the heart of China – where most of the great civilizations and historical rulers emerged from in times past. A group of American parents (and grandparents) were there relishing the moment of having just adopted – most with cameras out taking photographs of baby’s “first breakfast,” in a few cases with beaming older adopted Chinese siblings looking on, a picture of happiness and joy. The babies appeared to be well adjusted, sitting in their highchairs with smiles for all and clamoring for more cheerios. These kids were clearly ready to embark on a new life with permanent families to care for them.

We then proceeded to visit our first orphanage of the trip. A large complex with an outdoor courtyard, it was built and converted in 2008 to care for children without parental care. Bursting to the seams, it nonetheless was attempting to create a rich environment for the kids that included age-appropriate activities for both fine and gross motor skill development. This included some Montessori materials, arts and crafts, a bubbly therapy tub, sand play and music. For the small two percent of the population that was developing at a normal rate, there was a library and several children were diligently working on their lessons. Yet many of the babies were lying on mats, despite the bustling activity going on in the rest of the building with the older children. On this particular day too they had a number of volunteers – many of whom were a contingency from Joint Council member Half the Sky’s volunteer program, visible by their branded t-shirts. While it is clear that staffing is an issue, when queried, the administration identified the need for specialists – especially therapists, social workers and counselors for their older children. They clearly have a vision to help these children thrive (we watched one boy proudly show us some steps he could not take even 6 months ago) and move on when possible.

The second visit is harder to write about. While, due to the use of foster care, there is a much smaller number of children in the institution (those with less severe disabilities are sent to live with empty nester couples who are paid by the state), the caregiver to child ratio was higher than what we had seen earlier. In several rooms the television served as the babysitter, although the children were not attentive to it. Many children had special needs yet the range of therapy rooms and equipment witnessed previously did not exist. When asked about their needs, it was clear infant kitchens and bathrooms and a space for drying cloth diapers were priorities. The facility also was part of the older state model of care, hosting children and elderly in the same compound. The facility has one shared kitchen preparing meals for all – the children and the elderly. The elderly were sitting in groups in the heat outside looking despondent and morose and, honestly, the parallel between the young and old, behind these walls, is what touched my heart the most.

The abandonment of the majority of these children was most likely due to their being born with medical needs their birth families could not care for. Clearly though the children we saw have been lucky to be found only to be brought to a minimum level of comfort and care. China is experimenting with its first official “safe haven,” endorsed by the Governor of Hebei. It is hoped that a baby, healthy or not, if must be relinquished for whatever reason, will be dropped in a safe and secure place to be evaluated and placed. Clearly this pilot is controversial but the government’s acknowledgment of the abandonment problem is commendable in its forward-thinking. The orphanages expressed a desire to travel abroad and see how care is provided elsewhere – to learn from the outside. This willingness to learn by observation and enhance training is a sign of better practices for both those children who will remain in custodial care and those waiting to join a family of their own, through fostering or adoption.

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