Shivering 4-year-old sets off alarm bells in neighborhood
It was bitterly cold on the evening of Jan. 8 when a four-year-old girl was found shivering in her pajamas outside a convenience store in Seoul.
Newlyweds Lee Byung-geun, 30, and Hahm Jeong-min, 29, spotted the girl standing between cars outside the store in Gangbuk District, northern Seoul, around 5:40 p.m. They were aware of the tragic case of an adopted 16-month-old girl named Jeong-in who died in October after alleged abuse by her adoptive mother, which was in the headlines after an investigative report aired on television.
When the couple approached her, the girl told them that she had lost her mother. She was shivering and it looked like she had soiled her pajama bottoms, according to the couple.
“We asked her where she lived so we could help her find her home,” Hahm told the JoongAng Ilbo.
The girl led the way, but the door to the building required a passcode, which she did not know.
Lee and Hahm called the police.
Since it was so cold, they returned to the convenience store to wait for the police there.
The owner knew the girl.
“I found her crying outside the store around 6 p.m. last Christmas Eve,” the owner of the store told the JoongAng Ilbo. “When I brought her into the store and asked her what was wrong, she showed me a bracelet that had her mother’s name and phone number written on it. When I called her mom, she showed up in a few minutes, wondering why her daughter was at the store.”
The girl still had the bracelet on.
“We called the number immediately,” Hahm said, “but the phone was switched off. So I left a text message telling her mother that we found the girl outside and that we called the police.”
The police arrived at the store around 5:57 p.m. The girl’s mother hurried into the store five minutes later.
According to the police, the child was home alone that day for nine hours while her mother was at work. It seemed that she had gone outside to look for her mother and couldn't get back in because of the passcode.
Police launched an investigation into the mother. The girl was sent to a relative’s home by the police.
“This was the first time the police received a report about the child,” an officer told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Her mother, a single parent, has told us that the girl is usually sent to day care while she is at work but that the girl was kept at home that day because she didn’t want to go.”
The officer said that the police found no signs of physical abuse on the girl’s body.
“We also didn’t detect any signs of fear on the girl’s part in her interactions with her mother,” the officer said. “The mother seemed quite shocked by what happened and regretful.”
The police are looking into whether the mother neglected the girl before.
“We don’t want to make ungrounded claims about the mother,” Hahm told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We have no idea if the child was abused at home. But what surprised us was how many people simply kept going their way, ignoring her calls for help when we found her outside. The abuse of Jeong-in has been a big scandal in Korea but I hope that instead of pointing fingers, we start with helping out neighbors who are in need.”
A report on the death of 16-month-old Jeong-in was aired on SBS earlier this month. Jeong-in died in a hospital in October 2020, just 271 days after she was adopted. Her body was bruised, many bones were fractured and she had wounds on her head. She suffered three cardiac arrests at the hospital and the doctors could not resuscitate her. The trial of her mother, accused of involuntary manslaughter by child abuse, begins Wednesday.
BY LEE GA-RAM, CHUNG HEE-YUN, ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]