WATCH: The BabyBox program has been more successful than its creators expected, but they are still seeking to address the underlying social problems that lead to children being abandoned.
PRAGUE -- Babies abandoned in public and exposed to the elements can die from exposure and neglect. But the Czech Republic has implemented a system to ensure an abandoned infant will be kept warm and protected until he can be retrieved by a health-care worker.
There are now 35 "BabyBoxes" throughout the Czech Republic. The 36th box is being opened on June 1, International Children's Day, in the town of Jablonec nad Nisou near the Polish border.
The creator of the BabyBox, Ludvik Hess, says a total of 31 babies have been safely left in the boxes in the past five years.
"Two or three years ago, I don't remember exactly, a Doctor Novak, who was on duty that day, was smoking a cigarette outside the clinic and saw a young man on a bike with a bag pack. A minute later, the alarm from the BabyBox went off," Hess says.
"Doctor Novak rushed to the box and found a newborn baby there and saw the man leaving the place on his bike."
Nurses and doctors on call at the center are able to quickly retrieve an infant from the BabyBoxes once they hear the alarm. From there, the baby is taken to a maternity hospital, and hopefully, within a few weeks, is delivered to an adoptive family.
The first BabyBox was opened on June 1, 2005, at a private medical center in Prague's eastern outskirts.
The BabyBoxes were highly controversial when first introduced to the Czech Republic. Since then, Hess says, many Czechs have come to support the project as a preferable, safe alternative to dealing with abandoned children. Other European countries -- including Austria, Switzerland, and Germany -- have BabyBoxes as well. But the practice is far from widespread.
Information about the Czech Republic's BabyBoxes is published in Czech, Polish, and Ukrainian. Hess says it's impossible to determine the identity of the babies, but suggests that some may come from the country's large population of temporary workers from Ukraine and other countries.
The BabyBox is just one program in the Czech Republic dealing with the problem of abandoned babies. Another is the Fund for Children in Need (FOD).
FOD has worked throughout the country since 1990. Originally founded as an association to help foster families, today they are focused on trying to help neglected, abused, and orphaned children who are growing up without the love and care of their parents.
FOD's "Klokanek" (Kangaroo) program encourages married couples and other adults to volunteer to act as a stand-in temporary family for these children. Alternating on a weekly basis, these volunteers play, cook, and clean with the children, providing them with a semblance of a normal family life.
One Klokanek home in northeastern Prague is caring for 14-year-old David and his 6-year-old sister, Brenda. Their parents abandoned Brenda when she was just a toddler; her brother left home soon afterward because of abuse. Several families have offered to adopt Brenda outright, but she refuses to go anywhere without her brother.
Klokanek is suitable for children of all ages, and the nature of the program allows siblings like Brenda and David to stay together. Children placed in state institutional care are often categorized according to age, meaning brothers and sisters are often separated, depriving them of yet another family bond.
A Klokanek family can care for as many as four children at a time. Children are sometimes accepted into the program with the agreement of their parents. Other times they are placed there by court order or as a result of a request from the children themselves. The Klokanek program is not a permanent solution -- children stay in the homes only until they are able to return home or until a new foster or adoptive family is found for them.
Abandoned By Poverty
There are currently seven Klokanek houses and six dedicated Klokanek families in the Czech Republic. Marie Vodickova, the chairwoman of FOD, says the Klokanek program ensures children feel loved and protected.
"In comparison with infants in children's [institutional] homes, our kids don't cling to every stranger who comes in and follow them everywhere. Our kids won't do that," Vodickova says. "The person who is taking care of them for the week -- day and night -- is giving them emotional protection and love. And this is because Klokanek is similar to real families."
Vodickova says most children are abandoned not because they are unloved, but because their parents are unable to care for them.
"I think our state should provide cheaper housing for families in need. One-fourth of the kids in children's homes are there because their parents are homeless. Families with kids can't live under a bridge. Subsidized housing can sometimes be even more expensive than a regular flat," Vodickova says.
"So there are many children who are sent to homes or to Klokanek not because they're abused, but because their parents are poor."