‘Baby box’ scheme that lets parents leave children anonymously sees record year
Posted On July 31, 2020
As rising poverty and food prices begin to bite in Belgium, more and more mothers are making use of Antwerp’s baby-box, an ATM-style hatch where mothers can anonymously leave their new-borns to be cared for.
Katrin Beyer’s smartphone won’t leave her side this Christmas and New Year. She isn’t waiting for holiday greetings from her three children but the alarm that tells the heated box in the wall on a nondescript street close to the Antwerp’s train station has a new visitor.
“In 2017, we have had four babies left in the box,” the charity-worker told The Telegraph, “It is a record year and we don’t know why.”
The baby-box was set up in 2000 by Moeders Voor Moeders or Mothers For Mothers, the food and clothes parcel charity Katrin co-founded with her friend Monique Verdickt. Since 2000, 13 babies have been found and handed over to social services for fostering and adoption.
Local politicians believe a possible explanation for the record year is a growth in poverty and food prices, but the need for anonymity for the mothers makes it hard to say for sure.
For Katrin, the biggest factors are secrecy, fear and the fact that it is legally impossible to give birth anonymously in a Belgian hospital.
“You can have 500 friends on Facebook,” she said, “but you can also have a secret that you cannot tell anyone.”
Women who use the baby box are often forced to give birth at home alone, which can be risky. Katrin still remembers the call from one mother who could have died when her home birth ran into difficulties. She rushed with a doctor to the women and the baby was delivered safely.
The 62-year-old housewife added: “Almost all our babies were born within 24 hours and most were home deliveries. You can tell by the umbilical cord.”
Katrin, who stresses the box is a last resort, has dedicated the last 17 years to offering desperate mothers a way out that takes them away “from the binliners and the bushes”.
That means being on call for counselling 24 hours a day with scared, expectant mothers, even on Christmas and New Year, and being patched into the baby box alarm system.
While the responsibility weighs heavily on her, the rewards can be great. “Today I was sent a photo by one of the mothers of her five-year-old son,” she said.
“She left him but now promises that when he is old enough she will explain what happened and we will meet.”
Antwerp’s baby box is the modern incarnation of the ancient solution to the age-old problem. Baby hatches were installed in city or convent towers in medieval Belgium and across Europe. An example can be found in one of Antwerp’s museums.
In the 18th and 19th century revolving cribs or “foundling wheels” were built into the walls of churches and convents to ensure children could be left anonymously and safely to others’ care.
“In 2000, we decided a baby box was needed in Belgium. We designed it, ordered it and built it but didn’t tell anyone about it, “said Katrin.
“A week before we notified the justice department and they were cool about it,” she said, “There is not a law against it because the old laws allowed it. But we had to earn the authorities’ trust.”
The box is in a small room secreted behind a clouded door, that locks as soon as the "hole in the wall" is opened by pressing a digital code.
On the other side of the wall is the office of Moeders Voor Moeders. Inside the box is a lit, heated crib, a hat, blankets and an envelope that reads “take me ” in Dutch, French, German and English.
In the envelope is half a postcard. The second part of the postcard is kept by Moeders Voor Moeders, which now has 160 volunteers. Should a mother ever wish to identify herself she can present the matching part of the postcard.
Once the hatch is closed, an alarm is sent out to a minimum of four Moeders volunteers, including Katrin. Unless there is someone on duty at the office the baby will be collected in a maximum of 20 minutes.
Although there are frequent false alarms, once a baby is left the charity , which began after the parish priest pestered Mrs Verdickt , a mum of seven, for hand-me-downs, swings into action.
“You can tell when it isn’t a false alarm,” said Katrin, “You can hear the baby crying. When we have one then we begin our processes and things become very intense.”
The baby is cared for and given medical attention for 24 hours before being handed over to social services.
Katrin believes that most of the women using the box are aged between 20 and 30. Some mothers have travelled from Brussels and the French-speaking region of Wallonia to use the box.
The majority of babies have been white Europeans, most likely Belgians, rather than members of Flanders’ Moroccan or Arabic community, she said.
Kathleen Van Brempt is a socialist MEP and a member of Antwerp’s city council. She said it was difficult to say why this year had been a record year.
“One possible explanation could be the fact that, due to a rise in poverty, more people are insecure about the future they can give their child. Another explanation could be that a greater number of people know the initiative and the fantastic work Moeders Voor Moeders does,” she said.
Germany and Switzerland operate baby hatch schemes but such a system would face legal difficulties in Britain where it is against the law to abandon a child. As many as 50 children are abandoned in the UK each year with some dying from exposure.
“It could work in Britain,” said Katrin, who cheerfully admits she will drop all her holiday plans at a moment’s notice if she gets a call, “anything is better than the alternative. So, why not?”