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By Flor Wang
March 4, 2009 / Taiwan News
Last December, a couple who made their living as scavengers in central Taiwan's Changhua County were accused of trying to sell their baby boy, the youngest of their eight children, for NT$500,000 (US$14,815) on the street.
Although the couple denied having done so to police who rushed to the scene, the baby was placed in a foster family after social workers intervened.
Experts say the case in Changhua was not an isolated incident, but an example of a worrying trend in Taiwan -- parents considering or actually "disposing of" their children in the current economic downturn.
Falling incomes, unstable earnings, joblessness, and debt pressures have hit many households -- leading more parents to think the once unthinkable -- giving up their children.
"The situation has never been so severe, " Ray Lee, project manager in the Resources Planning Department of the Taipei-based Child Welfare League Foundation (CWLF), told the Central News Agency.
The foundation is a nonprofit agency devoted to children's welfare and protection and charged by nine city and county governments with the task of arranging adoptions of unwanted kids. It is the most comprehensive organization of its kind in Taiwan.
According to Lee, the CWLF now receives an average of more than two phone calls per day from parents seeking advice because they are considering putting their children up for adoption. The foundation received 770 such phone calls in 2008, up from 680 in 2007, 619 in 2006 and 583 in 2005.
Those calling for help have generally faced dire economic straits; they account for 80 percent of the calls received by the foundation over the past two years.
But what has changed from previous years is that where single mothers used to comprise the majority of those pondering whether to give up their children for adoption, "since the second half of last year, a larger number of laid-off parents have begun making such calls, " Lee said.
To give up one's child is not easy, but Lee said most of the parents said they would rather let their kids be adopted than have them "suffer" in their birth families.
"If I got a job and could earn some money, I would not let the child in my wife's belly be given away," a 37-year-old jobless worker surnamed Chang, who was considering putting the baby up for adoption once it is born, told CWLF workers.
A single 38-year-old mother identified by her surname Lin told social workers she wanted to put her child up for adoption because she had not had a job for months.
"The child will be hopeless if he stays with me, although I really love him, " she said, according to transcripts of their counseling sessions with her.
A 26-year-old father surnamed Chen, who eked out his living as a temp worker, told CWLF: "I really don't know what to do with the coming fourth baby, cause it is already hard for me to raise the three older kids." To qualify for government-paid welfare in Taiwan, families' incomes must be extremely low, social workers said.
While children given up for adoption in the past have generally been under three years old, parents are now trying to turn over children who are as old as seven or eight, social workers said.
"To parents, it is even more heartbreaking to let older children leave their arms, but it is apparent that the economic crunch has also taken its toll on kids of these ages, " said CWLF researcher Ho Yu-ning.
Statistics of the number of children actually given up for adoption or abandoned in Taiwan have not shown a steady increase, but have gone up and down in recent years.
CWLF gets about 1,200 telephone calls each year from parents inquiring about the possibility of having their children adopted by other families, but Lee pointed out, some of them eventually give up the idea after receiving counselling and economic assistance from the foundation.
Despite the fact that the number of kids actually put up for adoption has not increased, child welfare experts said the fact that so many more parents are pondering doing so is troubling.
At the same time, adoptions has become less common in Taiwan over the past decade because of lack of interest. According to Ministry of the Interior (MOI) figures, the number of children adopted in Taiwan fell seven consecutive years this decade, from 3,988 in 2000 to 2,540 in 2007.
The number rose to 2,889 in 2008 compared to 2007, in part because of more generous government incentives, senior CWLF workers said.
Social workers believe, however, that the long-term trend in Taiwan toward smaller families -- driven by the high costs and amount of time adults need to devote to children -- and today's sluggish economy will conspire to once again reduce the number of adoptions in 2009, leaving Taiwan's abandoned children in an even more precarious state.
Exacerbating the problem is that while the demand for the services of charities that help children are rising, donations have shrunk amid the economic slowdown. The NT$13 million the CWLF raised in 2008 fell NT$2 million short of its budget, and Lee said fund-raising will be a bigger challenge this year.
Also suffering from a funding shortage is the Hsiang Shang Social Welfare Foundation, which operates the Taichung Christian Herald Children's Home and the Daniel A. Poling Memorial Babies' Home in Taichung City in central Taiwan.
Chen Shiu-mei, a supervisor of the Hsiang Shang foundation who has worked over 20 years in this field, expressed worry that the situation, if it continues, would deprive development chances of underprivileged children.
Private donations to the Taichung Christian Herald Children's Home, which rears 64 children now, has plunged by some 30 percent since November last year from the same period a year earlier -- the severest shrinkage in 10 years, Chen said.
"Children grow fast and don't have time to waste, " she said, "but they will be able to alter their fates as long as they are provided with opportunities." Lo Yi-cheng, secretary-general of the Daniel A. Poling Memorial Babies' Home, feared the financial squeeze would directly take a toll on the shelter's children. According to Lo, the babies' home needs NT$1 million per month to maintain its basic operations and take care of the 96 children -- 80 percent of whom are mentally or physically challenged.
"We hope that kindhearted people will continue to support our charitable operations," Lo said.
Government officials meanwhile urged desperate parents to seek assistance and help from the government or private sectors instead of giving up their children.
"Although it is ideal that children can grow under the wings of their parents, it is understandable that some parents want to put their children up for adoption trying to ensure the maximum interests for their kids, " Chen Kun-huang, chief secretary of the Ministry of the Interior's Child Welfare Bureau.
"But it is inhumane and also illegal for parents to abandon their own children," Chen said.