DUBAI // A new law on the protection of children of unknown parentage is on the cards, and could coincide with the country's first federal shelter for abandoned children. According to recent figures compiled by the Ministry of Social Affairs, a total of 44 children were found across the UAE in 2007, up from 20 the previous year. In the first eight months of 2008, 17 babies were found abandoned.
Some of the babies may have been abandoned because they have disabilities, are born out of wedlock, or are the result of an unwanted pregnancy. On March 2, two baby boys were found abandoned in a mosque in Sharjah, becoming the third and fourth such cases recorded in the Northern Emirates this year. To cope with the growing numbers, the ministry is planning to open a shelter which would be known as Tala, meaning palm-tree sapling. It would be able to care for up to 200 children found anywhere in the UAE, according to Moza al Shoomi, the director of the ministry's child department and the manager of the project.
"The idea is how to take these children and to help them for their future," she said. "We want those small palm trees to grow and to give good things." The shelter has already been designed by a local architect and will be built on land in Umm al Qaiwain donated by the Government of the emirate. Currently, there are only two local government-run centres for abandoned, neglected or orphaned children - one in Sharjah and the other in Abu Dhabi.
In Dubai, children are cared for in a dedicated ward at Al Wasl Hospital. There are no facilities available in Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman or Umm al Qaiwain, according to Ms al Shoomi. In Sharjah, children found in the emirate are looked after at the Social Care Centre for Children, which is run by the Department of Social Services. Currently, around 20 children are staying at the shelter, including the two boys abandoned this month. According to the department, 21 children were found abandoned in the emirate over the past two years.
The ministry is looking for sponsors to finance the Dh20 million (US$5.4m) Tala project, in order to start construction by 2012. The planned shelter is part of wider government plans to organise the system that cares for children found abandoned. The Government is considering a draft law on the protection of children of unknown parentage which would create a streamlined system for foster care across the nation.
According to Ms al Shoomi, the aim is to develop a "united, federal system" to protect vulnerable children, including those who have been abandoned. "The idea is to create a system which makes everything clear," she said. Among the areas outlined in the draft law are the criteria and process by which foster families will be chosen. Those applying to foster abandoned children would undergo a thorough evaluation overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs to ensure that they have the necessary attributes to be competent parents.
Once the system is introduced, the ministry would have a database of potential families ready to take an abandoned child into their home. Currently, Emiratis can apply to local government authorities to become foster families. All children abandoned in the UAE are eligible for Emirati citizenship. Abandoned and orphaned children occupy a special place in Islamic tradition. Caring for laqeet, abandoned children, is considered a pious act. Yateem - orphans - are children of known parentage whose father or both parents are deceased.
According to Ms al Shoomi, traditionally many of the larger, wealthier families would absorb abandoned or orphaned children into their homes. But now, she said, some families have fostered children to receive the monthly financial support from the government. Under the system being proposed, if a suitable family was not immediately found, in the interim the children would stay at the Tala shelter, where infants to children up to 18 years old would be cared for - orphans, abandoned children and neglected children.
Ms al Shoomi and her team started the Tala project in 2008, and have since visited the UAE's existing facilities, as well as those in countries including Saudi Arabia and Singapore, to develop their ideal model. "I saw some orphanages that were like a jail," she said. "We don't want that, we want it to be more like a hotel, or a home with a family." The plans for the shelter depict a series of connected units, in which groups of children live together, cared for by supervisors - "aunties" and "uncles".
Infants would be looked after in a nursery environment, while the school-age children would attend local schools. "It will be like a family - the older girls, for example will look after their younger sisters," Ms al Shoomi said. "Before this used to be a very sensitive subject," she said. "But we have to deal with it because the cases are continuing." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org