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Ministry boosts orphan care

By He Dan and Chen Xin in Beijing and Xiang Mingchao in Zhengzhou (China Daily) Updated: 2013-01-11 08:06

Supervision will be strengthened and building standards improved

The Ministry of Civil Affairs vowed to strengthen supervision and support for individuals and private institutions that look after orphans and abandoned children.

The pledge follows a fatal orphanage blaze in Lankao, Henan province, that claimed seven lives, including six children.

The ministry stressed that individuals and private organizations can run centers only if they are jointly managed by local civil affairs departments, a report on the ministry's website said on Thursday.

The ministry also plans to announce building specifications for orphanages and care centers.

For private institutions, civil affairs departments should provide basic subsidies to cover care costs. They should also encourage donations, it added.

There are 615,000 orphaned and abandoned children in China, but less than 18 percent reside in institutions.

The ministry has launched an inspection safety drive, dispatching three working teams to six provinces on Tuesday.

Wu Fuxiang, who heads the child welfare division of the Ministry of Civil Affairs' department of social welfare, said on Thursday that his team in Shanxi province has been working around the clock to check private care centers.

The ministry approved 900,000 yuan ($144,500) to Lankao's civil affairs authorities for the construction of a child care home in December, according to Dong Hui, deputy head of the Henan Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau's social welfare department.

Dong said inspection of unregistered foster families and private care centers for children started on Jan 5.

"We are asking private orphanages to remove potential safety risks in their buildings, to make sure all qualified organizations are under government management and supervision and persuade those who are not qualified to send children to care homes," Dong said.

She admitted that there are not enough public welfare institutions, as only about 20 out of 158 counties have care homes.

There are about 50,000 orphans and abandoned children in Henan but only 5,600 live in institutions, she said.

Lankao county will open its first public home for children in August, and it may mean a role for Yuan Lihai, the owner of the unlicensed orphanage gutted by the blaze.

"Construction on the new orphanage will be completed in June, and it will open in August. It will cover an area of some 1,700 square meters," Bian Heping, deputy director of Lankao Civil Affairs Bureau, said. He declined to give further details when approached by China Daily.

Yuan could work at the new institution, Bian was quoted as saying in a report by Caixin Media.

Six children and an adult paralyzed by polio perished on Jan 4 in the fire at an unlicensed orphanage owned by Yuan, a 48-year-old street vendor.

Yuan has been looking after abandoned children since the 1980s. However, she did not live with the 18 children in the orphanage. Eight of them were left unattended in the two-story apartment when the fire broke out as Yuan took other children to school.

A 10-year-old boy remains in intensive care in a hospital in Kaifeng, which administers Lankao.

"The boy is still in a coma and is on a respirator," a hospital official said.

Wang Yongxi, director of the Kaifeng Social Welfare House, said on Thursday that the 10 children who survived in the fire now are temporarily settled there.

Wang said social workers have provided one-on-one counseling.

"One of our social workers was moved to tears after one child ask her whether he could call his mother," he said.

"Their health is good and they are calm," he said.

"Five of them are attending a nearby primary school."

Children playing with fire caused the blaze, the local government said on Tuesday.

The county's top civil affairs official and other five local officials have been suspended from their posts pending further investigation.

Sun Lisheng, the county government's publicity official, said the investigation "will take time".

"It's still not clear if Yuan will be held legally responsible for the accident," he said.

Yuan was rushed to hospital over the weekend after suffering a heart attack.

"She is still in a serious condition as she is suffering heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes," said Du Peng, Yuan's son.

Du became emotional as he recalled his mother's love for the children. "Her heart is with the dead children," he said.

Du said Yuan hopes that the survivors can live in the new orphanage in Lankao.

"She can apply for a job there so she can see them every day," he said.

Bian said Yuan can keep those children on the condition that she registers her orphanage and follows legal procedures.

Yuan has been taking care of orphans and abandoned children since 1986, raising money by selling snacks, helping local dealers sell construction materials, and receiving allowances from the local government.

Han Yusheng, a law expert at Renmin University of China, said Yuan faces punishment of up to seven years in jail if she is found guilty of death by negligence.

"Regardless of the legal status, she should be responsible for their safety," he said.

Han said Yuan's record of looking after children will be taken into account.

In a related issue, a report on the website of the People's Daily said reporters tried to call the Ministry of Civil Affairs 15 times earlier this week, but failed to get any response.

Wang Laizhu, spokesman for the ministry, went to the newspaper's headquarters in Beijing to explain that many of his colleagues were at a meeting when the phone calls were made to discuss how to cope with the aftermath of the accident.

As a result no one was there to reply to the questions, he said.

The ministry pledged to improve communication with the media by providing training for its staff.

The report on Wednesday criticized the ministry's bureaucratic approach in emergencies and published a list of conversation records between its reporter and the ministry's several departments, including the ministry's publicity office.

The report triggered a public outcry.

Contact the writers at hedan@chinadaily.com.cn

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