A baby hatch or baby box is a place where people (typically mothers) can bring babies, usually newborn, and abandon them anonymously in a safe place to be found and cared for. This kind of arrangement was common in the Middle Ages and in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the device was known as a foundling wheel. Foundling wheels were taken out of use in the late 19th century but a modern form, the baby hatch, began to be introduced again from 1952 and since 2000 has come into use in many countries, notably in Germany where there are around 100 hatches and in Pakistan where there are more than 300 presently.
- Reasons for using baby hatches
- Legal aspects
- Czech Republic
- United Kingdom
- International situation
The hatch is known in German-speaking countries as a Babyklappe (baby hatch or flap), Babyfenster (baby window) or Babywiege (baby cradle); in Italian as Culla per la vita (life cradle); in Sicilian as la ruota (the wheel); in Japanese as Akachan posuto (赤ちゃんポスト, baby post box); in Mandarin Chinese as 婴儿安全岛 (pinyin: Yīng'ér ānquándǎo; literally: "baby safety island") and in Polish as Okno życia (window of life) and in South Africa originally known as "the hole in the wall" by Door of Hope Children's Mission. The hatches are usually in hospitals, social centres, or churches, and consist of a door or flap in an outside wall which opens onto a soft bed, heated or at least insulated. Sensors in the bed nowadays alert carers when a baby has been put in it so that they can come and take care of the child. In Germany, babies are first looked after for eight weeks during which the mother can return and claim her child without any legal repercussions. If this does not happen, after eight weeks the child is put up for adoption.
Baby hatches have existed in one form or another for centuries. The system was quite common in medieval times. From 1198 the first foundling wheels (ruota dei trovatelli) were used in Italy; Pope Innocent III decreed that these should be installed in homes for foundlings so that women could leave their child in secret instead of killing them, a practice clearly evident from the numerous drowned infants found in the Tiber River. A foundling wheel was a cylinder set upright in the outside wall of the building, rather like a revolving door. Mothers placed the child in the cylinder, turned it around so that the baby was inside the church, and then rang a bell to alert caretakers. One example of this type which can still be seen today is in the Santo Spirito hospital at the Vatican City; this wheel was installed in medieval times and used until the 19th century.
In Hamburg, Germany, a Dutch merchant set up a wheel (Drehladen) in an orphanage in 1709. It closed after only five years in 1714 as the number of babies left there was too high for the orphanage to cope with financially. Other wheels are known to have existed in Kassel (1764) and Mainz (1811).
In France, foundling wheels (tours d'abandon, abandonment wheel) were introduced by Saint Vincent de Paul who built the first foundling home in 1638 in Paris. Foundling wheels were legalised in an imperial decree of January 19, 1811, and at their height there were 251 in France, according to author Anne Martin-Fugier. They were in hospitals such as the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés (Hospital for Foundling Children) in Paris. However, the number of children left there rose into the tens of thousands per year, as a result of the desperate economic situation at the time, and in 1863 they were closed down and replaced by "admissions offices" where mothers could give up their child anonymously but could also receive advice. The tours d'abandon were officially abolished in a law of June 27, 1904. Today in France, women are allowed to give birth anonymously in hospitals (accouchement sous X) and leave their baby there.
In Brazil and Portugal, foundling wheels (roda dos expostos , literally "wheel for exposed ones") were also used after Queen Mary I proclaimed on May 24, 1783 that all towns should have a foundling hospital. One example was the wheel installed at the Santa Casa de Misericordia hospital in São Paulo on July 2, 1825. This was taken out of use on June 5, 1949, declared incompatible with the modern social system after five years' debate. A Brazilian film on this subject, Roda Dos Expostos, directed by Maria Emília de Azevedo, won an award for "Best Photography" at the Festival de Gramado in 2001.
In Britain and Ireland, foundlings were brought up in orphanages financed by the Poor Tax. The home for foundlings in London was established in 1741; in Dublin the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse installed a foundling wheel in 1730, as this excerpt from the Minute Book of the Court of Governors of that year shows:"Hu (Boulter) Armach, Primate of All-Ireland, being in the chair, ordered that a turning-wheel, or conveniency for taking in children, be provided near the gate of the workhouse; that at any time, by day or by night, a child may be layd in it, to be taken in by the officers of the said house."
The foundling wheel in Dublin was taken out of use in 1826 when the Dublin hospital was closed because of the high death rate of children there.
The first modern baby hatch was in South Africa in July 1999 and was installed by Door of Hope Children's Mission(Hole in the Wall) at a small mission church in Berea in Johannesburg. In 1999 the pastor, Cheryl Allen, and deacons learned with deep distress that a high number of newly born infants were abandoned. Pastor Allen realised that many of those desperate women and girls may well have acted differently if there had been an alternative. The church made a hole in their wall and a "baby bin" was installed allowing for mothers to leave their babies any time, day or night. The moment a baby is placed in the "baby bin" care workers on duty receive an electronic signal alerting them. The baby is taken in and the anonymity of the "donor" ensured. Baby M was the first baby that came through the "baby bin", arriving on 3 October 1999. To date (2013) Door of Hope has received over 1300 babies. 148 have come through the "baby bin" but most come from hospitals, police or community members and some babies have even been brought personally by the mothers.
The second modern baby hatch in Germany was installed in the Altona district of Hamburg on 11th of April 2000, after a series of cases in 1999 where children were abandoned and found dead from exposure. It consisted of a warm bed in which the child could be placed from outside the building. After a short delay to allow the person who left the child to leave anonymously, a silent alarm was set off which alerted staff. By 2010, 38 babies had been left in the "Findelbaby" baby hatch in Hamburg, 14 of whom were later reclaimed by their mothers.
Reasons for using baby hatches
One reason many babies have been abandoned, especially in the past, was that they were born out of wedlock. Today, baby hatches are more often intended to be used by mothers who are unable to cope with looking after their own child and do not wish to divulge their identity. In some countries, it is not legal for mothers to give birth anonymously in a hospital, and the baby hatch is the only way they can safely and secretly leave their child to be cared for by others. In India and Pakistan, the purpose of baby hatches is mainly to provide an alternative to female infanticide, which occurs due to socio-economic factors including the high cost of dowries.
Some legal problems with baby hatches are connected to children's right to know their own identity, as guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child's Article 8. But this presupposes their inherent right to life guaranteed by Article 6. Baby hatches also deprive the father of his right to find out what has happened to his child, though DNA testing of foundlings would seem to offer a partial solution.
In Austria, the law treats babies found in baby hatches as foundlings. The local social services office for children and young people (Jugendwohlfahrt) takes care of the child for the first six months and then it is given up for adoption. Women have had the right to give birth anonymously since 2001.
In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Social Affairs confirmed in 2006 that baby hatches are legal under Czech law. In contradiction to this, in March 2006, Colonel Anna Piskova, a police officer, said on Czech television that the police would look for the mothers of abandoned children. The head of the Czech baby hatch organization Statim, Ludvik Hess, complained about this statement and was officially supported by the Save the Children Foundation. As of September 2013, there are 57 baby hatches in the country, mostly in major cities. So far, they have helped to save 92 children. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has questioned the legality of baby boxes, criticizing the high number of children's group homes and claiming the boxes violate children's rights. Czech internet news server novinky.cz has reported that United Nations wants to ban baby hatches in the Czech Republic.
In France, the Vichy government adopted the Legislative Decree of 2 September 1941 on the Protection of Births allowing children to be born anonymously. This law, somewhat modified, became the modern right to anonymous birth (accouchement sous X) set down in the French Social Action and Families Code (Art. 222-6). It covers children up to one year of age. In 2003, the European Court of Human Rights upheld this law, ruling that it did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
In Germany, the baby hatch system only just borders on the legal; normally a mother who abandons her child is committing a criminal act. However, according to the German social laws, parents are allowed to leave their child in the charge of a third party for up to eight weeks, for example if the parents need to go into hospital. After eight weeks, however, the youth welfare office must be called in.
German law considers babies left in the baby hatch as if they have been left in the charge of a third party. This loophole is extremely controversial as there have been some cases in Germany where the baby hatches have been used to abandon disabled children or babies already three months old. Several attempts have been made to clear up the legal basis for baby hatches and how to treat the children left in them, but as yet the situation is still not clearly regulated.
In Japan, abandoning a baby is normally punished with up to five years in prison. In 2006 officials at Jikei Hospital applied to Kumamoto Prefecture government, Kumamoto city and other offices before opening a baby hatch were told that it would not count as abandonment, as the baby is under the hospital's protection. However, the Japanese ministry of health, labour and welfare would not comment on the issue, apart from saying that there was no precedent.
In Belgium the legal framework is absent, and abandoning babies is illegal, but in practice the babies are placed in foster care and become available for adoption after a few months.
The Belgium hatch operates in a legal vacuum under Belgian law. Even spreading the information is considered "Promoting child abandonment" and those responsible for the existence of the baby Hatch (babyschuif) sensu stricto remain punishable under Belgium law.
Since 2011, ten baby hatches or so-called baby boxes have come into use in Russia. In less than one year of activity the boxes helped to save three children.
The charity fund The Cradle of Hope (Колыбель надежды, www.babyboxrf.ru) established in Perm is the main project organizer. Along with installing and setting up baby hatches, the organization works to prevent infanticide, and helps families cope with crisis situations.
The baby hatches are installed in hospitals and run by the wardship and guardianship authority. The law treats babies found in baby boxes as foundlings, who are raised by the State while going through the legal process of adoption.
Senator Elena Mizulina proposed a law to ban baby boxes. In September 2016 it was approved by the Russian government stating that the special places for anonymous abandoning the newborns violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In the United Kingdom there are no baby hatches, as they are illegal: under section 27 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 the law states that any mother who abandons a child less than two years of age is a criminal and can face up to five years' imprisonment. In practice, such prosecutions are extremely rare and would only occur if the circumstances of child abandonment showed actual malice, i.e. appeared deliberately intended to result in the death of the child. A mother who wishes to have her newborn baby adopted can do so. Counseling is designed to ensure that giving up the baby is her genuine, irrevocable wish.