BEIJING: An unlicensed Chinese caretaker vowed on Sunday to continue sheltering orphans and other vulnerable children two days after a fire killed seven people staying with her, state media said.
The tragedy in central Henan province has sparked debate about the role of private operators like Yuan Lihai who was looking after 18 people and the government's ability to regulate them or provide such services itself.
"Dozens of children would have died if I had not taken them in," Yuan, 48, told the Xinhua news agency. "I have a clear conscience."
"Do you think I can see a child die from cold and hunger out there on the street?
I will certainly give a hand as long as I am alive."
Yuan, who has taken in more than 100 children over the past 26 years, never went through formal adoption procedures and would not have been legally allowed to do so because she already had children of her own, the Global Times reported.
Yet a local official praised Yuan for her work despite its grey legal status, admitting that the relatively poor county of Lankao, with no orphanages, had allowed her to fill that role.
"Some of our measures failed to meet regulations, and led to de facto recognition of her behaviour and today's tragedy," the deputy county chief Wu Changsheng told the Global Times.
Yuan told Xinhua that local officials sometimes brought food and money for the children and that she applied for government stipends of 5,000 yuan ($800) every three months to provide for them.
She had left the house last Friday to take some adoptees to school when the fire broke out, killing six children and one 20-year-old and leaving one 10-year-old boy in intensive care.
The rest have been sent to a welfare house.
Yuan, who used to earn a living making snacks and now sells building supplies, rejected claims that she had taken anyone in to turn a profit.
"Shoot me if you have evidence that I sold any children," she said.
Child trafficking is a problem in China where the one-child policy and a preference for boys has led to girls being sold or abandoned, with some of the victims ending up in adoption centres.
Last month a police operation netted 355 trafficking suspects, including two government officials, and freed 89 children.
The ministry of civil affairs will carry out an inspection of private orphanages around the country over the coming month, Xinhua reported on Sunday.