Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Nowhere to call home

Taiwan has thousands of orphans and abandoned children living in homes across the nation, some in relative comfort, others in deplorable conditions. A lack of coordination between public and private assistance leaves a lot undone

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

One morning, some two years ago, a special package was left on the doorstep of St. Anne's Children's Home in Tienmu. It was a baby. He was wrapped in a blanket, placed in a basket and was found snuggling a red envelope filled with NT$100,000.

"We have children left on our doorstep quite a lot," said Sister Petronelli Keulers, who has worked at the home for the past 31 years, "but they are never so rich."

While the child's background would prove to be unique, his present situation is the same as that of thousands of children living cheek by jowl in the nation's homes for orphans and abandoned children. Just how many children is hard say. It's even difficult to give a precise number of how many homes are dedicated to caring for them.

The fact that they have slipped through the seams in the social fabric precludes their numbers from being counted. And the fact that they are children prevents their voices from being heard.

These two variables combine to create a seemingly insolvable equation: How can society systematically care for its neediest when their need is due to the fact that they are no longer a part of the system?

Many children are needy

While the baby left on St. Anne's doorstep came with an endowment bundled in its blanket, others don't have even a blanket. Keulers estimates that of the 47 children living at the home, one third were left on the doorstep by parents who were unable to care for them. Either the parents were too poor, addicted to drugs, unmarried and wary of social stigmas, or had given birth to a child they felt unable -- or were unwilling -- to raise.

Nearly half of the children at St. Anne's are physically or mentally disabled, according to Keulers. "Some people are ashamed to have had this kind of child," she said.

Few of the children in the nation's orphanages are actually orphans. In each of the five children's homes the Taipei Times visited for this report, administrators said some 80 percent of the children in their care had been abandoned. In the regional homes operated under the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), children under 12 are admitted when their family fits any one of five criteria: if their parents have passed away; if they've been taken into custody under the Child and Youth Welfare Law, which protects children against abuse, neglect and vagrancy; if the head of the family suffers a debilitating physical or psychological problem or is in prison; if the family's income is too low to support raising a child; or in the event of an emergency.

The MOI's Central Region Children's Home (內政部中區兒童之家), in Taichung City, houses 180 youngsters from six counties as far north as Miaoli, to Chiayi in the south. The children there live in relative comfort compared with homes that aren't government-supported. "Families" of 11 to 16 kids share 100-ping living quarters in a building that resembles a high school campus. Each has a classroom, two large bedrooms to separate boys and girls, a dining area, a TV room and a bedroom for the social workers that live with the family. Each family has two social workers that stay alternate nights at the home. The youngest group, the newborns, has more social workers.

Touring the home, its director, Ma Chung-hsi (馬崇熙), spoke with quiet confidence of his staff's ability to maintain normal development for the children in their care and reduce their social problems. The facility is well-kept, clean and organized. Trained counselors help the kids with anything from their math homework to their feelings of neglect. Young men performing their alternative military service help out around campus. Buses are available to shuttle groups around town. Middle and high school-aged kids are given up to NT$900 each month for pocket money.

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