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Friday, September 29, 2023

Ministry orders 'better paperwork' after baby-snatching probe

An investigation into “baby-snatching” allegations at the Lahad Datu Hospital in Sabah has revealed that the claims may have arisen due to outdated documentation procedures.

Following the Women, Family, and Community Development Ministry probe, the District Welfare Office has been instructed to update documentation procedures on the case.

“The Lahad Datu District Welfare Office has also been directed to improve the case files to ensure this child’s case is documented systematically,” the ministry told Malaysiakini.

The investigation conducted by the ministry’s newly established Child Development Department was in response to a Malaysiakini report on stateless Bajau Laut mothers allegedly losing their babies to adoption without consent after being admitted to Lahad Datu Hospital.

The ministry’s response specifically addressed one of the three cases featured in the exclusive report involving a mother known as Aimah.

In 2021, the mother of six lost custody of her premature baby at the hospital, despite her infant not being ready to be discharged.

Aside from the issue of outdated paperwork, the ministry claimed that the child protection officer who handled the case had followed established procedures.

“He was acting in accordance with the Child Regulation (Fit and Proper Persons 2017 amendments),” it said.

The Child Development Department directive was reached as a result of a meeting with the Sabah General Welfare Services Department and the District Welfare Office on Sept 19 to discuss Aimah’s case.

In its prior statement dated Sept 20, the ministry was believed to have been referring to Aimah’s case when it spoke of an “old” incident which was resolved after the mother turned down a custody offer.

The ministry lodged a police report the same day to deny the allegations.

Aimah reunited with toddler

Aimah’s child was not adopted but placed under the custody of foster parents in accordance with the Child Act 2001 (Act 611).

The District Office was also instructed to take additional steps, including compliance with the latest guidelines on the management of child placement with foster parents or appropriate persons who must undergo a psychological personality assessment known as Tajma tests.

Aimah and her daughter during the reunion

In a turn of events, just three days after Malaysiakini highlighted Aimah’s plight, she was reunited with her two-year-old daughter.

However, the Sept 18 reunion was a bittersweet one.

Aimah was forced to part with her child again after learning of her daughter’s congenital heart disease which she would not be able to afford to treat.

“I willingly gave custody of my child to her foster parents because I don't want her to die,” Aimah told Malaysiakini after the reunion.

Aimah officially transferred custody of her daughter to the foster parents during the reunion.

Aimah and her husband along with her daughter’s foster parents during the reunion

On Sept 23, a Child Development Department representative from Putrajaya, accompanied by Lahad Datu Special Branch officers and district welfare officers visited the foster parents and Aimah’s child in Balung, Tawau before visiting Aimah and her family in Lahad Datu.

Ministry claims Aimah knew her baby was ill

On Sept 6, 2021, Aimah’s premature baby weighed 1.1kg when she was admitted into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and the identity of the mother was based on the child's health records comprising the “pink book” and Form 9 issued by the Lahad Datu Hospital.

The baby was allowed to be discharged on Dec 23, 2021, at the age of three months and placed under foster care on Jan 7, 2022.

The ministry claimed that the biological parents learned about the baby’s health condition when they brought the child to the hospital but it declined knowledge of who informed the parents of the high expenses needed for the child’s recovery.

It said that in Aimah’s case, no investigation into the mother's ability to care for the child was carried out as the Welfare Department was contacted because the child's mother could not be located.

It claimed that the officer’s numerous attempts at the initial stage to find Aimah were futile.

After the foster parents cared for the child for two months from the date a temporary order was issued, the ministry said, the magistrate issued a permanent order for a duration of three years starting March 1, 2022.

Aimah and her husband surrendered custody of their child on Sept 18 after verifying a statutory declaration using thumbprints.

Aimah and husband’s statutory declaration surrendering child custody to foster parents

The Health Ministry could not be reached for comments.

Lack of SOP to deem mothers ‘unfit’

The Women’s Ministry has offered no guidance on standard operating procedures (SOP) for separating an infant from the mother or how mothers were deemed incapable of caring for their child.

According to Section 17(C)(i) of Act 611, a child is considered to be in need of protection if the parent or guardian is deemed unfit or has neglected or is incapable of exercising proper supervision and control over the child.

However, the contention surrounding the inexistence of criteria for deeming new mothers in hospitals “unfit” or a defined standard for neglect, which precedes the removal of infants from their biological mothers, has raised significant concerns for potential abuse.

Yayasan Chow Kit founder Hartini Zainuddin told Malaysiakini that the absence of clear procedures for classifying mothers as “unfit” has empowered Welfare Department officers to frequently and arbitrarily assume custody of infants from their mothers, even within hospitals in Peninsular Malaysia. - Mkini

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