OrphanCare: A Safe Haven for Babies

Geetha K

There used to be a time when stories of finding an abandoned baby would grab headlines and shock the nation. They no longer do.

There was also a time when orphanages and children’s homes were few and far between as society somehow managed to find ways to keep the family unit intact. This too is no longer the case, as new homes continue to sprout and most are filled to the brim.

We read or hear about the plight of frightened young mothers disposing of their newborns, just as we read or hear about the various problems and risks associated with children’s homes.

Many of us do whatever we can, as and when the desire or opportunity arise. Others pull up their sleeves and get into the act.

One such kindred soul was the late Dato’ Adnan Mohd Tahir, founder of OrphanCare.

Philanthropy and Adnan went hand in hand. The engineer by training was well-known for his acts of kindness in championing the needs of the disadvantaged, especially children, so when more and more stories surfaced about babies being abandoned in unthinkable places like dumpsites, bushes and public toilets, Adnan, supported by wife Datin Elya, pooled his resources and rallied with like-minded friends to set up OrphanCare in 2008.

In 2010 OrphanCare came under the patronage of Sultanah Hajjah Kalsom of Pahang, a royalty well-known for using her position to further many social causes.

2010 was also the year Malaysia’s first baby hatch to support young women dealing with unplanned pregnancies, opened in OrphanCare in Petaling Jaya. The aim was to provide a safe haven for babies, usually born out of wedlock to young mothers who face social ostracism and rejection.

If they choose to reveal their identity, these young women are given support and privacy, before and after delivery, as they decide what’s best for the child. OrphanCare counsels them as they make critical decisions and also facilitates the adoption process.

Yuzila Yusof is OrphanCare’s Chief Operations Officer who only recently made the major shift from the exciting corporate world to social service.

“I didn’t expect the job to be quite as challenging, to be honest. There are many aspects to managing the day to day affairs of a foundation such as this, and I feel like I’m constantly learning on the job,” says Yuzila, who excuses herself mid-conversation to attend to a staff who needs to make a trip to University Malaya Medical Centre’s pediatric clinic, to settle the medical bill of a young ward that OrphanCare had been sheltering so that she could have a safe delivery, and, prevent a potential baby abandoning.

After giving instructions, Yuzila continues, “There are many factors that push a person to abandon a baby, usually a newborn, in supposedly safe places like suraus or public toilets, where it is assumed someone might find the baby and bring it to safety. Unfortunately, this is not so as most of these babies suffer from exposure and neglect.”

Abandoning a baby in such places is a crime and it is punishable by law. Yet, the sad reality is that such cases continue to rise in Malaysia. It is far safer, more secure and definitely most responsible to leave an unwanted baby in a safe haven such as a baby hatch.

OrphanCare operates three baby hatches in peninsular Malaysia – in Petaling Jaya, Johor Baru and Sungai Petani in Kedah. They also collaborate with KPJ Hospitals that operate another eight baby hatches around the country.

OrphanCare’s hatches follow a German system; they are air-conditioned, safe and have a 24 hour CCTV inside the hatch that notifies the caretaker when a baby is left in the hatch. The camera DOES NOT identify the person who leaves the baby in the hatch.

“All we request is that some form of identity is left with the baby so that it doesn’t become stateless. Name, place of birth, race or religion will be helpful in order for us to find appropriate adoptive parents and also so that the baby does not face problems when starting school,” explains Yuzila.

Yuzila says that the biggest cause of mothers avoiding hatches is the fear of being identified and taken to the police. ”We cannot stress enough that leaving a baby in a hatch is not a crime. We do not catch the person who leaves the baby in our hatch and hand them over to the police. This is the biggest misconception that we are fighting. Malaysians must be made aware that our police say on average 100 babies are abandoned every year, out of which 60%, mostly left in open places such as trash heaps or by rivers, die.”

For such heartbreaking statistics to come to an end, it requires the concerted efforts of policymakers, corporations and civil society, as well as the general public. On this end, following Adnan’s sad demise in 2011, OrphanCare evolved into a Foundation in 2012 and now works closely with government authorities to continue giving unplanned, at-risk newborns the love, care and security of a family.

The other major OrphanCare initiative is deinstitutionalisation (DI).

In 2013, OrphanCare Foundation began advocating DI after studies by UNICEF and others established that institutional care, especially in early life, is detrimental to a child’s development.

Essentially, deinstitutionalisation is the process of reintegrating children raised in institutions back into the care of parents, extended family or the community at large. It is a systematic, policy-driven change.

OrphanCare Foundation took a leaf out of Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s Lumos, a UK based independent non-profit organisation that advises nations on the process and implementation of DI.

Lumos functions on the principle ‘Children belong in families and not orphanages’.

The Lumos collaboration provides OrphanCare access to a tried and proven procedure to reintegrate children and using this, OrphanCare Foundation, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and the Department of Social Welfare (JKM), are working together to enforce the transition from institutional care for children, to a family and community-based system.

According to UNICEF, there are an estimated 400,000 children in various registered institutions such as orphanages and homes in Malaysia. The numbers are increasing due to unregulated, unregistered homes that continue to mushroom.

Whether these care institutions are funded by the government or well-meaning charities, religious bodies, corporations or individuals, the fact is, children may receive shelter, food, a bed, clothes and an education, but they do not receive the love, support and critical sense of identity they would only get from being part of a family.

‘Every child deserves to grow up in a loving family’. This is OrphanCare’s passionate objective and they have launched their first State Action Plan (SAP), which is to implement ‘Institution to Deinstitutionalisation’.

The first SAP is already underway in the southern state of Negeri Sembilan.

Says Yuzila, “It has long been the practice to send unfortunate children, particularly from poverty-stricken families, to institutions. It’s the first thing that comes to most minds as we are conditioned to think institutions are the best option. This, unfortunately, is not true, especially in the long run. Eighty years of research has confirmed that institutionalisation negatively impacts children’s health, development and opportunities in life.”

Statistics for children raised in institutions are simply shocking: 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution as adults, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record, 500 times more likely to commit suicide…

“The fact is, about 90% of children in orphanages are not orphans and have at least one living parent. DI allows children to leave institutions and be reintegrated into suitable families, if not their own. These families, in turn, receive a lot of assistance from us. We are also working with government agencies to tackle root causes so that children can stay with their families,” says Yuzila, while adding that the exception to the situation is only in cases of special needs children or those with severe disabilities, whose parents or guardians cannot manage such children on their own.

While institutionalised children in Malaysia may not be at very high risk of trafficking, exploitation or abuse, the fact remains that there is little real happiness within these children. This is the driving force behind OrphanCare’s commitment towards the DI initiative.

OrphanCare may be far from realising its vision of a Malaysia where children are no longer in institutional care, but they are for certain leading the way towards reaffirming that our children have the right to grow up in a safe and nurturing family environment…in addition to ensuring unplanned, at risk, newborn babies too live to grow up in the care of a loving family.

It appears as if the late Dato’ Adnan continues to spread his magic of love to his hardworking OrphanCare team as they push ahead with his life’s mission of seeking to better the lives of others.

For information on all of OrphanCare’s services, including Deinstitutionalisation, Community Services and Advocacy, or how you may get involved, please refer to orphancare.org.my