More than 1,500 unwanted babies saved by Rev Lee’s ‘baby box’
The clergyman heads the Joosarang church, where in addition to babies, mothers leave letters with “heart-breaking stories”. Since it was opened, the baby hatch has been controversial. After new adoption legislation was passed in 2012, the number of foundlings has shot up. In a proposal to the government, the clergyman wants women with unwanted pregnancies to be protected.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – In 2009, the Joosarang Community Church, in south Seoul, installed a ‘baby box’ for abandoned children. Since then, a total of 1,526 newborns have been left in it.
The small hatch, equipped to allow unwanted children to be placed inside, was the first of its kind in South Korea, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
Most mothers who leave babies are unwed or victims of sexual violence. More than half of them are 20-year-olds or younger.
"Moms usually leave a letter that carries heart-breaking stories and resolute pledges to return someday. They are mostly in desperate circumstances, having nowhere to go and nobody to turn to," said Rev Lee Jong-rak, 64, quoted in South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
In such cases, police investigate the case. Following some administrative procedures, the babies are then placed in an orphanage or a foster home.
Since its opened, the baby box has been controversial. Critics argue that it encourages people to take the easy way out of their parental responsibilities.
For years, the government has called for its removal, telling Lee that he could face criminal charges for aiding and abetting child abandonment.
The pastor has refused to install security cameras and regularly wipes away fingerprints from the box to prevent the parents from being identified and prosecuted.
When the hatch door is opened it triggers a bell inside the church. The pastor, or a staff member, go after the parents to dissuade them from leaving their child behind.
"Some 95 per cent of those had at least brief talks with me, and 17 parents ended up changing their minds," he said.
The church takes care of children for up to six months. Single moms who decide to raise their child receive various forms of support, including some money and counselling.
Since a Special Adoption Law was adopted in 2012, the Joosarang church has seen a surge in the number of abandoned babies: 22 in 2011, 79 in 2012, 220 in 2013, and 248 in 2014.
Under this law, parents are required to register their children with their names if they want to have them adopted.
Last year, in order to protect mothers and children in case of unwanted pregnancies, Rev Lee presented a bill to the parliament that allows women to give birth in secret.
Under the proposal, mothers who wish to give birth anonymously can hand over their newborn to the state whilst keeping their identity in sealed documents at a state agency.
Children will have the right to know the identity of their biological parents when they reach the age of 16 and after the approval of a court.