On March 23, 2009 at 2:54 pm a woman who had just given birth to a baby boy sent the following text message to a help line: “Please, is there any possibility of passing on this baby anonymously? The baby box is too far away. I need advice and I hope I can trust you.”
When the organization Fund for Endangered Children (Fond Ohrožených Dětí) called her back, the mother explained that she could not take care of her newborn. The mother told the social workers she would rather wait until it was dark. At 9 p.m. she handed the baby over to them. Soon after, he was placed in the state facility for newborns (kojenecký ústav) by the court, then adopted only three weeks later. While this story has a happy ending, some are asking what would have happened if this distressed mother was either unable to find a baby box or was not capable of contacting a help line?
The mother’s request for anonymity reinforces the need for baby boxes – a last resort for desperate parents who cannot care for their newborn – even if she didn’t use one at the time. The controversy over their implementation, though, has plagued not just the Czech government, but the international community for several years.
The devices were introduced in the Czech Republic in 2005 by Ludvik Hess – who coined the term “baby box” – and the Statim foundation for abandoned children. The program is funded exclusively by private donors. Hess is neither a doctor nor a social worker. He is a journalist, poet and horse breeder. In a 2009 interview with online women’s magazine OnaDnes.cz, Hess invoked the Biblical story of baby Moses, who floated down the Nile river in a cradle lined with straw, to illustrate his inspiration. The difference he points out, is that today baby boxes are heated and ventilated.
Can a box really save lives?
Besides a concern for humanity, what also prompted Hess to bring the project to the Czech Republic was the increasing number of reports of children abandoned in parks. Hess may be the driving force behind the baby boxes, but, as he points out, his partner Michal Čumpelík is the engineer.
The prototypical baby box is a metal incubator, 100 cm wide, 60 cm high and 50 cm deep. There are instructions in Czech, Slovak, English, Russian and Polish on the outside, depending on where it’s installed. When the handle is pulled and the baby placed inside, sensors are triggered, the temperature inside rises to 30 degrees Celsius, and an electronic message is sent to doctors at the nearest hospital, unless the box isn’t actually attached to a hospital.
According to Marie Vodičková, president of the Czech Fund for Endangered Children, “baby boxes are needed in the Czech Republic.” In 2011, she says, "22 children were saved, many of which otherwise would have ended up much worse - such as in the garbage or abused and neglected in their families.” A total of 65 children have been placed into 48 baby boxes throughout the Czech Republic since the launch of the scheme, and were thus saved.
Legally free children
Jana Černochová, former mayor of Prague 2, says she supported the baby box project while she was in office and oversaw the installation of one on Náměstí Míru square. “What prompted me was the discovery of these small and helpless newborn girls in the bushes in the Karlovo náměstí park," she recalls. "I told myself this can no longer take place, so I contacted the organization Babybox for Abandoned Children - Statim."
She says it doesn’t take long for such babies to find a home because they are legally free children, meaning they have no personal documents and no legal guardian. As a result, the adoption trial is much easier and the babies do not have to spend a long period in the newborn facilities system, where abandoned babies up to age 3 are kept.
If children in the facilities are not adopted by the time of their third birthday, they are placed in an orphanage. According to Czech law, if a legally identified mother "expresses interest" in taking back her baby, even if she never does so, it keeps such children in legal limbo. The babies cannot be adopted and remain in state care. Children placed in baby boxes do not have a birth certificate with parents’ names, and can avoid years of uncertainty stuck in institutional care.
An old idea
The need for a safe and anonymous shelter for newborn babies is not new. Centuries ago, church walls featured a foundling wheel, a revolving cylinder crib for orphaned infants. After placing her baby inside, the mother would turn the opening to face the chapel and ring a bell to alert the nuns. Throughout history there are countless other examples, and today modern baby boxes function in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Latvia and 13 other countries.
One of the latest European countries to start setting up Baby Boxes is Latvia, where the first boxes were set up in late 2009. According to the developers, Edīte Kaņepāja-Vanaga and Laura Zvirbule, "The work done in the first two years has contributed to public debate and most importantly has managed to save 12 babies who can live in loving families now.” Unlike in the Czech Republic, Vanaga and Zvirbule say, the project is supported by the Ministries of Interior, Welfare and Health.
Some have argued that baby boxes will promote child abandonment and put a strain on state resources. The quick adoption rate seems to disprove at least the latter argument, says Černochová, who cites the instance of a baby girl left in 2008 in a hospital box in Ústí nad Orlicí. She was given to foster parents after four days.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child (CRC) caused a slight panic in the Czech Republic when they urged the country to ban the boxes, arguing that anonymously abandoning children violates a child’s right to know its identity.
Hess, though, is still confident in his project. “Our goal is to save lives and for abandoned children a baby box is their hope to live. The life of each baby is our priority.”
The UN report also criticized the Czech state for failing to resolve the issue of the increasingly alarming number of children in institutional case - at present estimated at 22,000.
Health Ministry Objects
Even though the Czech Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs confirmed in 2006 that baby boxes are legal, the Health Ministry remains opposed to the scheme. Last October, the ministry’s spokesman, Vlastimil Sršeň, said baby boxes do not reduce the number of newborn deaths. Without offering any concrete evidence, he cited the example of an 18-month-old – not a newborn – placed into a box last year. That event had given fuel to critics who claim baby boxes are rife for abuse by parents who want to shirk their responsibilities. Czech law does not state an age limit for babies placed in baby boxes, but cases such as this are extremely rare.
The Health Ministry argues that boxes located in municipal areas, not in hospitals, are a risk, because a child can end up in a life-threatening situation if left without medical care. So far, no such problems have been reported.
The ministry has also used more creative arguments against baby boxes in the past. Former Health Minister Milada Emmerová, removed in August 2005 following unpopular reforms in health care finances, was fighting the baby box idea even then. In an article in the Mlada fronta Dnes daily in April 2005, during the launch of the project, her spokesman Vaclav Šebor said, "It can be assumed that baby boxes would be exploited mainly for storing children of foreigners and physically handicapped children, requiring costly health care." Šebor’s arguments did not cause major upheavals in a country where such rhetoric is hardly unusual even among the political elite. More than six years on, the threat has still not come to fruition.
Prevention in the long-run
Despite criticism, Hess plans to continue helping others. He now wants to focus on single mothers and old people - a group of people that is also commonly institutionalized in the Czech Republic.
Statim is preparing a special project to build a common asylum center for both groups - one that would allow single mothers to be sheltered with their babies instead of having to give them up. As the controversy continues, Czech public officials and citizens seem to be growing closer together in support for the baby box project. A poll by STEM/Mark in August indicated that 96 percent of Czechs consider baby boxes beneficial for abandoned children.
The issue facing the Czech government and public is not just the cause of baby abandonment, but determining the best options for the abandoned - state care, adoptive parents or bushes in a park.
At least one former health minister, Zuzana Roithová, says, “As long as the babies' cries are heard from the boxes, their existence is justified. The network of baby boxes must be supported and expanded.”
Though critics point to baby boxes as a potential contributing factor to the increasing number of institutionalized children, the baby box project does not actually encourage parents to abandon their children but is rather meant to be a part of the social safety net and, due to its anonymous nature, may in fact speed up the process of finding abandoned children a safe home.
Deana Kjuka is a student of journalism and communications at Anglo-American University in Prague. She is also an intern at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Communications department.
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