Baby boxes remain controversial

President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK

It took years to convince the Czech health ministry to allow the setting up of a baby box which would enable mothers to give up their unwanted child anonymously. After lengthy negotiations the first baby box appeared in Prague just a year ago and a second opened in Brno last November. Three children were placed in the Prague baby box in the past year and although time has shown that they are not being abused, there is still plenty of controversy surrounding the project.

President Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
The setting up of the first baby box was big news and each of the three children who were placed in it were subjected to intense media scrutiny, unlike the dozens of others who are quietly placed in orphanages. The very first discarded baby - little Sonia - was left in the box with her birth certificate and her mother's plight evoked so much public sympathy and offers of help that within weeks she was back home. For some, this was proof that baby boxes were a good idea, for others it was a warning that "a simple solution" could put more children in orphanages.

"I feel that a baby box really is the very last resort. It certainly should not be encouraged because the stigma surrounding single mothers at the beginning of the last century is no longer here and I feel that if a child has to end up in a baby box it is a failure of the whole social system."

On a recent visit to an orphanage in the border town of As, President Klaus advocated a more cautious approach. In response to news that three more baby boxes were to be set up in the Karlovy Vary region, in western Bohemia, the President said that too many boxes could mean too big a temptation. Baby boxes, he said, should remain a last-ditch solution. Michaela Tominova Marksova Head of the Family Policy department of the Social Affairs ministry says that making a baby box available could make a difference between life and death:

"I think that you never know when you establish a baby box whether it will not save a life. If it were to save just one life in ten years then that would make it worthwhile."

Even after a year of service, the institution of baby boxes has not been fully accepted. The police recently said they would search for the parents of children placed in these boxes. Marie Vodickova, head of the Children at Risk Fund said this was ludicrous and warned she'd take the matter to court if they did. The police promptly backed down. But, even those who support baby boxes as such face a dilemma. The idea is for mothers to abandon their children anonymously -so that they could be placed in a new family almost immediately, but that also means that a child's right to knowing who its parents are would never be fulfilled. The authorities admit that their priority is to get a chance to help the child's natural parents or mother - a policy that belies the very character of anonymous baby boxes. Michaela Tominova Marksova again:

"Our line is that we should do everything possible to contact the biological mother and offer to help her because she may be in temporary difficulties which could be resolved."

But the idea of these baby boxes is that children are left there anonymously. And there was considerable concern when the police said that they would try to trace the mothers - would you approve of that?

"I would be very careful about it. I would prefer if social workers tried to find these mothers, but the police that is too much. It might put other mothers off."

Time has shown that accepting the total anonymity of baby boxes is hard both for the authorities and the mothers. Two of the three children placed there had birth certificates attached, which made it easy to find and help the mothers. The results of a public opinion survey indicate that people are happy to leave it that way. 90 percent of respondents said baby boxes should operate on an anonymous basis. If a mother decides to attach the child's birth certificate then all the better, if not then the baby should go to a new family as soon as possible.