An unregistered, unlicensed "foster home" did not become a prominent issue until six children and one adult died in a fire in central China's Henan Province on Friday.
The selective blindness of the local government and media reports prior to the tragedy has turned out to be more dangerous than the fire itself. And until those with the power to rectify these issues open their eyes, similar tragedies are bound to happen.
The government of Lankao County ignored the fact that the county with a population of nearly 800,000 has no official welfare home for children. Although it is "very necessary" to have such a place for orphaned or abandoned children, Feng Jie, a county government official, reportedly acknowledged, "It is not one of the government's development priorities."
The run-down two-story home where 34 orphaned and abandoned children were living at the time of the accident had been a blind spot for the local government. Their logic seems to follow that because Yuan Lihai, the woman who has been running the "foster home" for over 25 years, was taking care of the children, there were no problems. For them, the orphaned and abandoned children were out of sight and out of mind.
The county government knew that Yuan had been illegally housing children who had nowhere else to go for over two decades, as media reports had made her somewhat of a local celebrity. Lankao police even took children they found on the streets to her.
In defense of their actions, officials with the civil administration department of the Lankao County government said the "strong family ties that have developed among them" meant authorities could not take the children from Yuan and send them to official orphanages in nearby cities.
However, government officials and law enforcement officers should know better than anyone that the law knows no kindness. Those who bent the law "in Yuan's favor," in fact, simply saved themselves the trouble of handling the children.
Moreover, media reports were negligent in reports on Yuan published prior to the fire. They framed Yuan as a philanthropic woman and hailed the 48-year-old former street peddler as the "Mother with a Loving Heart."
Few reports touched on the failures of the local adoption system or questioned whether Yuan was qualified to "adopt" so many children, many of whom were disabled, a few of whom were albino and a couple others who were, in fact, over the age of 18.
Believing that Yuan's heart was in the right place and that her story was a touching one, media failed to distinguish where great maternal love ends and where the law begins.
According to China's Adoption Law, adoptive parents should be "capable of raising and educating the adopted." But the vague article is not further elaborated upon or enforced by specific measures such as an established system to evaluate potential adoptive parents.
When Yuan insisted she could single-handedly care for the 34 children simply through hard work, there was no effective way to assess whether this could be true.
On Friday, the same day the fire occurred, Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, told a meeting in Beijing, "Problems are the voice of the times."
Problems like unregistered welfare homes across the country require acknowledgement and action, not the blind eye of authorities and the public. Endi