By Aniza Damis
SETTING up a baby hatch is just the first step in dealing with the problem of ensuring that unwanted babies survive being abandoned.
OrphanCARE's baby hatch may provide desperate mothers with an avenue to leave their baby in a safe environment, but what ensures that the very act of dropping the baby into the hatch is legally safe for that mother?
Under Section 317 of the Penal Code, if a parent or person who is responsible for the care of a child under 12 years leaves the child in any place with the intention of wholly abandoning that child, the person can be charged with abandonment and, if found guilty, will be punished with imprisonment up to seven years, or with a fine, or both.
Therefore, legally speaking, dropping a baby into a baby hatch can be construed as abandonment.
This is the reason why parents dropping off a baby into the hatch are strongly encouraged to sign a consent form and leave either a birth certificate or a medical chit of proof of the child's birth.
"If you sign the consent form, then it's not considered abandonment. It's counted as giving your child up for adoption. We don't even have to file a police report," said OrphanCARE president Datuk Adnan Mohd Tahir.
The identity and all details of the parent would be kept confidential, Adnan said, and parents did not have to worry about being persecuted or prosecuted.
"But even if you don't want to sign the form or leave a document, that's all right. Whatever it is, just drop the baby into the hatch. At least make sure your baby survives," Adnan said, adding that the law should be revised to decriminalise abandonment in the context of baby hatches.
Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah said it was crucial that there was a public assurance that there would be no legal repercussions on the mother of the baby.
"People must be assured of no judgment, no punishment. They don't want to be caught and don't want to be punished. If this hatch is to be a success in saving babies' lives, that assurance has to be there."
With that in mind, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, through the Welfare Department, is in discussion with the relevant agencies, like the police, National Registration Department (NRD) and Health Ministry, to come up with standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the operation of baby hatches, and make sure that "everybody understands and wants the same thing", said Welfare Department director-general Datuk Meme Zainal Rashid.
"Our concern is the baby's life. If the baby has been placed in the baby hatch, then we don't consider that as abandonment. We will work with the police to make sure that prosecution is not an issue," she said.
The whole purpose of the baby hatch was to avoid babies being dumped, said Meme. And one of the factors of baby dumping was the fear of prosecution. So, it was imperative to ensure anonymity for anyone dropping off a baby at the hatch.
She said there should also be a cooling-off period in the SOPs so that a mother could come back to the facility and get back her child if she had a change of heart. However, the length of time had yet to be decided.
However, a baby without any documents does present some complications for the future.
If the baby did not have any papers or if the citizenship of the parents was not known, then the child was considered stateless, said family law lawyer Kiran Dhaliwal.
"This makes adoption of the child an issue, because the adoption of the child can then only be done under the Registration of Adoption Act 1952, which does not extinguish the rights of the natural parent and only confers a de facto status upon the adoptive parents.
"Under this process of adoption, the child has no right of inheritance, and the adoption will not confer any citizenship or permanent residence status for the child," added Kiran.
Meme said if the child had no papers, the department would help register the birth of the child to ensure that the baby had a document, but the decision on citizenship rested with the NRD.
She added that the baby hatch was just one aspect of the fight against baby-dumping. Religious education and sexual and reproductive health awareness was crucial, in addition to ensuring that parents are responsible for their children's health.
Ivy concurred, saying that more should be done to give financial help to mothers who cannot afford to care for their children.
Protection and advice also needed to be given to women so that they had a safe and discreet place to give birth, and had a chance to think of what they wanted to do.
"Sixty per cent of the women who come to WAO's shelter keep the baby," Josiah said.
No questions asked
By Shanti Gunaratnam
"Leave your unwanted babies with us and no questions will be asked," said its president, Datuk Adnan Mohd Tahir. He said so far no babies had been dropped off at the hatch since it was set up last week.
The non-governmental organisation launched the country's first baby hatch last Saturday with the support of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. The hatch is placed at OrphanCARE's premises in Kampung Tunku, Petaling Jaya.
"Mothers or fathers who drop off their babies at the hatch can walk away without having to answer any questions," Adnan said.
"However, they can ask about their babies later if they want to, even years after they have dropped them off. They can do so even if their child has been given up for adoption. We will not be the ones asking the questions."
Adnan said those who dropped their babies off at the hatch would not be caught on closed-circuit television.
"The CCTV is placed inside the hatch. So, we are not able to see the faces of those who place the babies there. Only the baby and the person's hands when he or she places the baby inside the hatch can be seen."
A caretaker would be at the premises but not positioned anywhere near the hatch, he added.
OrphanCARE, he stressed, practised a "don't ask, don't tell policy".
"If the biological parents want to see their babies later on, that can be arranged."
The air-conditioned RM15,000 baby hatch is fitted with a CCTV and sensors that will trigger an alarm in the caretaker's room when a baby is being dropped off.
Those dropping off their babies will have to enter a gate, which is unlocked, to place their babies in the hatch. They need to sign consent forms made available near the hatch and provide the medical chit that was issued when the baby was born.
Adnan said once a baby was dropped off at the hatch, OrphanCARE would ensure that the child was given away to adoptive parents "in a matter of days" to enable the baby to bond with the new parents.
OrphanCARE works with the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to help match and place abandoned babies with suitable parents.
"We will take care of the paperwork to have the adoption legalised," said Adnan.
Malaysia is the first Asean country to set up a baby hatch. Countries like Germany, Japan, the United States, Pakistan and Japan have adopted the baby hatch system as a way to support mothers who are unable to care for their children.
"We have a database of more than 200 adoptive parents. To date, we have given up six babies for adoption. These babies were born to students of public universities and foreign workers," said Adnan.
"The students came to us for help when they found out that they were pregnant. We made arrangements to ensure that no one at their university knew of their pregnancies."
The students returned to their studies after giving birth. No one, even their family members, friends or roommates, knew of their pregnancies, added Adnan.
"With the baby hatch plan, we hope to save more lives. We want unwed mothers to come to us instead of abandoning their babies or killing them. Every life that is saved is important for us."
Adnan said some unwed mothers abandoned their babies due to social stigma and legal implications, which were compounded by a sense of hopelessness of not knowing who to turn to for help.