Text and photo by Carolyn Hong
A young girl walks silently into the compound of the bungalow in a suburban neighbourhood. She lifts the door of a hatch, and gently places her baby inside.
Perhaps, she hesitated and wept as she shut the door, or perhaps she hurried and did not look back. Perhaps, she was alone or perhaps accompanied. No one knows, and no one can know because there are no cameras which can identify her.
She leaves quickly as a shrieking alarm sounds in the house. The caretaker hurries down to view a CCTV camera to ensure that it’s a baby in the hatch, and opens it. The aircon is humming and lights are on, both switched on as the alarm triggered when the baby’s weight presses down on a sensor.
The baby is taken into the home, sent for a medical check-up, and cared for until he or she is adopted, usually within a week.
This is how OrphanCare Foundation’s baby hatch works. Since it opened in 2010, it has received more than 10 babies through this hatch in Petaling Jaya, around 10km from Kuala Lumpur.
It now has two other hatches, in Johor Baru down south and in Sungai Petani up north in Kedah.
The baby hatch is one of the more unconventional initiatives of OrphanCare, a non-profit organisation that works to find loving homes for orphans and unwanted babies.
Set up in 2008 and now led by six volunteer trustees, it has become one of the best-known organisations taking care of the needs of children.
Baby dumping – a catch-all term to refer to unwed mothers literally throwing their babies away – is one of the problems that it has courageously dealt with.
This is often seen as a sensitive issue in conservative Malaysia because it is sometimes misinterpreted as condoning or even encouraging premarital sex by “making it easy” for girls to give away their unwanted babies.
But Noraini Hashim, one of its trustees, said that didn’t make sense.
“Which girl would want to get pregnant, and give birth to give the babies away? Our aim is to save the babies’ lives,” she said, adding that there have been too many heart-wrenching stories of babies found dead or mothers delivering alone in their rooms.
Official statistics are sparse but the latest data from the government shows over 400 cases of baby dumping in the last five years.
The baby hatch received a cautious response initially from the Islamic religious authorities but they now endorse it after they paid OrphanCare a visit and understood its aims.
So far, 18 babies have been left in the hatch. The number is low, and that is actually a good sign. Instead of babies being left in the hatch, more unwed mothers have come personally to the centre which they learnt about from publicity received by the Baby Hatch.
“We were surprised by this, and happy,” Noraini said.
In all, 125 babies have been handed over, an average of two a month. The mothers were aged between 13 and 32.
She said it was better this way because OrphanCare can offer counselling to the mothers, as a result of which around 70 had decided to keep their babies.
Even if the baby was handed over for adoption, knowing the mother’s identity helps in the legal documentation process. All babies will receive a birth certificate but only those with a Malaysian parent will get Malaysian citizenship.
As such, hatch babies are deemed stateless because they come with no papers although many may well be Malaysian.
If the child is deemed stateless or the mother is a foreigner, the Malaysian adoptive family will have to apply for Malaysian citizenship for the baby, and this is no easy process. It can take years. So far, one hatch baby has been granted citizenship.
With nearly 1,000 parents on the waiting list, and as only childless couples aged below 45 who have been married at least three years, are eligible to adopt a baby, Orphancare encourages the others to consider adopting an older child.
It is working with several orphanages to facilitate this. In the last couple of years, it has also begun working with orphanages to get the children reunited with their parents. Not all the children in homes are orphans, some are there because of family poverty, and often have at least a mother.
“The sooner we get them out, the better,” she said.
But that has been a lot harder, said Noraini. Many mothers do want their child back but they may not have proper homes, and have low and unstable incomes.
Orphancare found itself having to help them stabilise their lives, jobs and living spaces first. But it has been very slow going and difficult, to say the least.
Noraini said this effort has just begun, and they hope to step it up in the next few years.
OrphanCare is run entirely on donor funds from corporate sponsors, with the government providing support in terms of advice and help with paperwork.
“Due to sensitivities, the government may not be able to tackle this issue but it supports us,” she said.
Funding is a constant challenge as many corporate sponsors set a three-year time limit before moving onto another organisation. The trustees have to keep up the networking to secure continued funding.
It now has a staff of 14, led by the trustees who put their time and effort in for free.
It is small but its impact on tackling baby dumping has been outsized.
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