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‘Don’t make use of us’: Operators of children’s shelters in Malaysia lament some parents who leave kids behind

KUALA LUMPUR: The House of Love children’s home in Klang has cared for more than 100 kids since it opened more than a decade ago.

Many enter the home at a young age – usually below eight years old – and stay there for years, barely knowing their biological parents and without the kind of love and care only provided in familial settings.

About a decade ago, House of Love took in a three-year-old girl after her mother ran into some relationship problems and neglected the child. The mother has remarried four times. The girl, now 13, is still living in the children’s home.

“Five years ago, the mother moved to the UK, but she dumped her child in Malaysia,” House of Love founder and director Joseph Pang told CNA.

“We don’t charge any fees, but the way some people look at us is like we should help them because we get public support. It’s that kind of attitude. It’s really bad.”

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Orphanages in Malaysia are seeing more children in their care – some by as much as 20 to 30 per cent – as parents, struggling with losing their jobs or spouse during the COVID-19 pandemic, feel they cannot afford to care for their kids, shelter operators and child experts said.

But these observers also question what they perceive as some troubled parents being too willing to send their kids to homes, calling it a “selfish” attitude that prioritises other needs over their own children.

They stressed that a child should always be given a chance to grow up in their own families and homes, citing how life in an institution could hamper their development and well-being.

Mdm Che Asmah Ibrahim, the former chief executive officer of OrphanCare – an organisation that promotes family-based care of children – told CNA that this readiness to commit children to a home has become a societal problem.

OrphanCare estimates there are 64,000 children living in childcare institutions in Malaysia, including in registered and unregistered government and private orphanages. 

“I always advocate that no matter the problems between husband and wife, the welfare of their children must be a priority,” said Mdm Che Asmah.

“Nowadays, this parenting responsibility is increasingly being taken lightly. This contributes to the social problems that we are having today.”

MONEY NOT THE MAIN ISSUE

Back at House of Love, Dr Pang said the home currently cares for 29 children, a 30 per cent increase since last year.

Some of the new arrivals are due to financial problems, he said, where the father is out of the picture for reasons like drug addiction or incarceration, and the single mother has to work and is unable to support the child.

But a majority, Dr Pang said, is due to what he felt are parents who just do not seem keen on continuing to raise their child. This included those who remarry and neglect their child until they become spoilt or uncontrollable, then use this as a reason to send them away to homes.

“Money is one issue, but it is not the main issue. The main issue is that the world is sick now. Everybody is so selfish with no sense of responsibility,” he said.

Dr Pang believes that parents with the right attitude will not send their kids to a home and instead try their best no matter the difficulties, noting that charities like food banks stand ready to help needy families with the costs of raising children.

“But some parents (would) rather dump their children in a home so they can enjoy their alone time,” he said.

Mr V Girithren, president of Rumah Kebajikan Seri Cahaya in Penang, said some parents “find it easy” to send their children to a home.

“Last time, one house could have 10 children, but the mum could still take care of them. But nowadays, it’s like everything, ‘We can just send to a home; we can do other work,’” he told CNA.

While he has not seen an increase in children at his home, Mr Girithren said the number of children’s homes in Penang that has more than doubled in the last few years shows more kids are being institutionalised.

He noted that he has rejected five applications to send children to his home since last year, similarly pointing out that he interviews the parents first.

“We will ask questions like what happened to the child, all this while how do they go to school, what are the earnings? If let’s say there are drugs or unhealthy issues like child abuse, we have to help already,” he said.

“Other than that, sometimes they say they can’t find work. In Malaysia if you say you can’t find work, I’m not sure.”

Mr Girithren said he will instead help the parent find a job through welfare organisations that Rumah Kebajikan Seri Cahaya works with. The most important thing is the parent must put in effort to care for their kid at home, he said.

“A home is not a place to wash your hands of your children. It’s not the right thing to do. Of course, we are here to help, but don’t make use of us,” he said.

“To be frank, children who stay with their own parents versus children who stay in a home are surely different. Of course, we try to give them as much care as we can.”

CHILDREN IN SHELTERS CAN DEVELOP LONG-TERM ISSUES

Child rights advocate Hartini Zainudin said stable and supportive family environments are crucial for children’s healthy development.

“Firstly, children may experience emotional distress and trauma from being separated from their families. This separation can undermine their sense of security and stability, leading to potential long-term emotional and psychological issues,” she said.

“Moreover, children in institutions may lack the individualised care and attention that they would receive in a family setting. This can affect their cognitive development, emotional regulation and social skills.”

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