Church offers 'baby bin' for desperate women

Johannesburg, South Africa - In a dodgy part of Johannesburg, a worn-out sign next to a hole in a wall reads: "Place your newborn baby in the door of hope. Any time day or night. We will care for your baby."

Inside is a square steel container with a colourful teddy bear blanket, ready for the next arrival.

This is South Africa's "baby bin", where mothers can drop off their unwanted babies, knowing the Berea Baptist Church will take them in without asking questions.

"Life is precious," says Pastor Cheryl Allen, who has saved 400 babies from abandonment since coming up with the idea of a "baby bin" in August 1999.

"To have a baby gasping away his life in some garbage bin... we just didn't want that. We wanted to create an alternative to that," she told reporters.

While there are no hard statistics on the abandonment of babies, social workers estimate that hundreds are left in garbage bins, toilet pits and open fields every year in poor communities across South Africa.

Last week's arrivals at the orphanage included four-day-old twins, a boy and a girl, wrapped in blue and orange bathroom towels.

Funded through private donations, the Door of Hope orphanage is situated next to the church building in a busy street in Berea, a crime-ridden area in north-eastern Johannesburg.

Even the doorbell is protected with burglar bars while the orphanage is protected by a high wall with barbed wire and electric fencing.

From the street, a flap-door made of corrugated iron covers the opening to the bin, where a system of motion and weight sensors triggers an alarm inside the premises once a baby has been dropped off.

"When I hear the alarm at night, my mind just thinks how quick I must react," says Asaph Mpete, who is usually on "baby bin stand-by" at night.

A sign on the wall conveys the message that there is an alternative to dropping a baby in a garbage bin.

It features a big red cross over a black garbage can, while a second illustration shows how to cut a baby's umbilical cord next to a third picture of a baby placed safely inside the container.

"We suspect one of the great reasons for abandonment is poverty," says Kay McCrindle, manager of the child and family unit at the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society.

"Often women come from rural areas, looking for a job. They're basically on the street. Illness is obviously also a big reason, many of these mothers are HIV-positive."

Allen says 10 percent of babies arriving at Door of Hope orphanage are HIV-positive.

While many of the babies are adopted, those with HIV have little prospect of finding a home and end up staying at the orphanage.

McCrindle said between 20 and 70 small children were left with the welfare society every month while public hospitals in Johannesburg's Gauteng province reported 185 abandoned newborn babies in 2003/2004.

Cape Town social worker Ina Vermeulen said she saw about one abandoned baby a month while a welfare agency in the eastern port city of Durban estimated that it had come across 40 abandoned babies since January this year.

"As much as the baby bin sounds very controversial, I don't think one would say it is encouraging abandonment as such," Durban social worker Jasu Jagjivan said.

"At least we know the babies are safe. Anyway, if the mother wants to abandon the baby, she's going to do it," she said.