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Experts say better child welfare law needed

By Zhou Wenting in Nanjing | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-26 06:49

Deaths of toddlers prompt calls for checks on 'dysfunctional' parents

A system regulating the temporary takeover of custody from parents who fail to fulfill their obligations needs to be established, legal experts said after two toddlers left home alone were found starved to death.

The bodies of the two girls, ages 1 and 3, were discovered in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on Friday. The 22-year-old mother, identified only as Le by police, has been held on suspicion of murder.

"Preliminary investigations showed the children starved to death, but the forensic report for the cause of death hasn't been released," Wang Guijie, director of the publicity office of the public security bureau of Nanjing's Jiangning district, told China Daily on Tuesday.

Le has a history of drug abuse and was sentenced to administrative detention in February last year, but was exempt as she was breastfeeding the younger daughter. The children's father, surnamed Li, was put behind bars in February on charges of providing shelters for drug addicts, according to the police.

"The government should deprive the parents of their custody as early as possible when parents, like this family, have major flaws," said Shen Hengde, a partner at Beijing law firm Zhong Hao Attorneys at Law.

"How can we let kids, who are too young to be able to protect themselves, live in such unpredictable and dangerous conditions?" he asked.

Shen said the civil affairs department should transfer the children to welfare homes, calling it an essential and appropriate use of government power.

Since Li, the father, was jailed, the family received an 800 yuan ($130) monthly subsidy. Community police officer Wang Pingyuan was responsible for handing over the money to the children's mother.

On the morning of June 21, Wang knocked at Le's door. There was no reply, and she had not answered his phone calls the day before. Wang asked a locksmith to open the door and found the two girls dead in a bedroom, lying on the floor.

The bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition, said Wang Guiyin, a resident of the building who saw the bodies.

Le lived on the top floor of a five-story building located in Nanjing's Quanshui neighborhood. The three-bedroom apartment is simply furnished and some stickers of cartoon characters were still on the living-room walls on Tuesday.

China Daily spoke to five residents of the building, all of whom said that they rarely saw the woman and the family seldom had relatives coming to visit.

"I used to see the couple hang out at night. But the woman rarely showed up after the man was detained by police. The last time I saw her was two months ago," said Wang.

Le and Li never got married, and Li is not the elder girl's father, said Shen Jing, a worker at the Quanshui neighborhood committee.

"She has no job and often goes to the police station to request money when she cannot pay for water and gas bills," Shen said.

Chen Chuncai, who lives on the second floor, said he saw Wang, the policeman, coming once every one or two weeks with food. The food was often left at the door because Le was not at home and the door was locked.

One day in March, at 5 am, Chen saw the older girl at the entrance of the residential building, topless. Police later found the 1-year-old girl sitting on the toilet in the apartment, her face covered with excrement.

Wang said he was devastated when he saw what had happened. "The last time I saw the kids was more than a month ago, and I didn't expect this," he said.

The children should have been sent for better care once police knew of the conditions in which the family lived, legal experts said.

Zhu Miao, an official with the juvenile court of the Shanghai High People's Court, said she is writing a proposal to the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress about the legislation of child welfare regulations, which she believes should lay out how to protect children in such environments.

"For children who live with irresponsible parents, the regulation should designate other guardians for foster care, or neighborhood committees or social organizations to provide care," Zhu said, adding that the responsibilities of the temporary guardians should also be clarified in the regulation.

Many Western countries have complete child welfare systems, she said, as well as laws that clearly state the responsibilities of courts, the police, the community and the parents.

Under current Chinese law, children remain in their parents' custody even when both parents are serving jail terms, and civil affairs departments will not intervene because only homeless children are within the scope of their duties.

Cui Lijuan, a professor with the School of Psychology and Cognitive Science of East China Normal University, said there is much to be desired about the level of protection children receive when their parents are released from jail, as many children suffer repeated mistreatment from their parents.

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