Closure of baby savers in Gauteng will lead to more unsafe abandonments and deaths — experts
Baby savers in Gauteng will remain operational despite a directive from the Gauteng Department of Social Development declaring them illegal and ordering their immediate closure.
For every three children who are abandoned, two die.
This is one of the chilling statistics shared by Dr Whitney Rosenberg, the cofounder of Baby Savers South Africa. The national coalition of organisations was founded in 2021 and serves as an advisory body for members who have installed baby savers at their premises. There are 45 members across South Africa who form part of the coalition.
A baby saver, also referred to as a baby box or a baby safe, is a structure built into a wall where mothers can leave their infants. An alarm is triggered once a baby is placed inside the box. This alerts first responders who attend to the baby, who is then taken to a hospital for a check-up.
“We basically give them guidance on how to properly run their baby savers. The steps that they must follow for the safety of the child, the legislative processes [in] assigning a child to a registered social worker, notifying the department that a child has been received through a baby saver, and obtaining a court order to place the child in a child and youth care centre,” said Rosenberg.
Baby savers have made headlines in the past weeks, following a directive issued by the Gauteng Department of Social Development (DSD) on 27 September 2023, that declared baby savers illegal and ordered their immediate closure. The department cited concerns regarding the legal implications in the care and protection of children, and the responsibilities of parents to the child.
How do baby savers work?
A National Adoption Coalition of South Africa study found that, in 2010, at least 3,500 babies had been abandoned.
“Obviously this is outdated and we think this number is much higher now, taking into account the increase in poverty and socioeconomic circumstances,” said Rosenberg.
Baby savers provide a safe alternative to unsafe baby abandonment.
“Currently, the existing system is failing and we realise that we need a replacement. We need something that is going to help these mothers as an extra solution. We always say a baby saver is the last resort, it is not the first resort,” she said.
When a mother comes with a child, members of Baby Savers SA do not encourage her to put the child in the baby saver.
“They counsel her, they provide for her physical needs, and more times, she leaves with her child,” she said. Mothers are also referred to a social worker and provided with the necessary assistance.
“She will not leave a child because now she’s received the assistance that she needed. Sometimes she wants nappies, she wants milk for a child, she wants clothes and blankets,” said Rosenberg.
It is only in a few circumstances that a mother will leave the child.
“It’s only in those very, very desperate situations where she refuses the pregnancy counselling, or she refuses any help, that she then later comes back when nobody’s looking and she’ll leave her child in the baby saver,” she said.
Rosenberg stressed that family preservation and helping the mother were top priorities and baby savers were only used as a last resort.
“We know women are desperate in these times. We know that they’re not getting help from anywhere, and therefore the saver literally saves the life of that child when the mother finds herself in such a desperate situation,” she said.
‘Mythical’ directive, false assumptions
Luke Lamprecht, Advocacy Manager for Women and Men Against Child Abuse, labelled the directive from the department as “mythicial” and based on a set of false assumptions.
The directive issued by the DSD said that baby savers encouraged the abandonment of children, something Rosenberg and Lamprecht categorically refuted.
“We know all of those children [who are abandoned] are simply the face of our completely failed family planning system,” said Lamprecht.
Rosenberg said that if baby savers did encourage abandonment, the numbers of babies received through baby savers would be significantly higher than it is. Between 2020 and 2023, one organisation had 45 intakes of babies from baby savers.
“We know that it’s harder for a mom to get into a taxi and find a baby saver, as opposed to a mom just leaving her baby in a veld, in a dustbin, in a pit latrine or in a dumpster. That’s easier for a mom because then she doesn’t need to actually go to where a physical saver is,” she said.
The directive issued by the department also said that the use of baby savers denied a child their right to a name, family, social, cultural and religious identity. “We are saying without the baby saver, a child left on the side of the road still has no knowledge of their origin and they still don’t know who their family is,” said Rosenberg.
Rosenberg said the department was focused on holding mothers and fathers responsible, as opposed to protecting the child. “Our focus is on the fact that this is happening, and we need to do something to ensure that the child’s right to life is safeguarded because our Constitution gives the child a right to life,” she said.
Instead of focusing on punishment, a solution had to be offered to women who faced this predicament, said Rosenberg.
Currently, the department maintains that the solution is for a mother to give her child to a police officer or to a nurse. However, this is not always possible, says Rosenberg. “We have endless examples where mothers attempt to give their children to a nurse, and a nurse judges this mother and says ‘you have to look after your baby yourself, I am not going to take your child,’ ” she said.
In instances where this has happened, it often results in the mother abandoning her child in a veld or in a pit latrine.
Rosenberg said that mothers were hesitant to hand over the child to police officers because they were fearful they would be arrested, or that the police officers would turn them away – as some social workers turned away mothers.
The department has also claimed that they are unaware of where children who were placed in baby savers were. According to Rosenberg, every single child that has ever been received in a baby saver has been documented and this allegation by the department is untrue.
“Every single child is accounted for, so the allegations by the department that they don’t know where these children are … they must go look in their claims department because every single month our members report these children to the claims department of the Department of Social Development,” she said.
The legal framework
As it stands, baby savers are not legalised in South Africa.
“If baby savers are not legally recognised nationally, then we will have different approaches in different provinces and even in different areas,” said Rosenberg.
“This will not give legal certainty and will not allow us to have this life-saving mechanism in areas where it is needed the most”.
In areas where people did not approve of baby savers, it was not possible to operate one. This resulted in children being unsafely abandoned in that area, said Rosenberg.
In March 2022, Parliament received a presentation on the Children’s Amendment Bill and the inclusion in the Bill of baby savers. “We came out and said we need some legal framework. We are doing things the right way. Our members are all registered with DSD. Our members have been functioning for many years, they are working with registered social workers in child protection offices. They are opening a case at the police station when they receive a baby. They are filling in the necessary forms when they receive a baby. They are doing everything, we just need you to legalise it,” said Rosenberg.
Allowing baby savers to operate and to advertise would allow them to be even more beneficial. “If you can’t advertise where you are, a mother will not be able to locate you which means that when she’s desperate, she is going to leave her child in the dustbin,” she said.
“We need the legislature to recognise us. We need the legislature to say we will help you and we will work alongside you, which is what we said to DSD before they issued this directive.”
The directive from the department said that placing a baby in a baby saver was equivalent to the crime of abandonment, with which Lamprecht disagrees. When the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 was written and abandonment was made a crime, it was not intended to target those who use baby savers. “I was part of writing those laws and I don’t think anybody intended to prosecute people who are trying to give their children a chance at care. They wanted to prosecute the other category of parents who abandon their children to die,” he said.
Baby savers are not unique to South Africa and are present in several countries around the world including Germany, Switzerland, Poland, the US, China, India and Namibia. “Namibia promulgated baby safe haven laws in 2019 after 13 foetuses were found abandoned in one month. South Africa is way above 13 – 13 can come in one week,” said Rosenberg.
Litigation under way and baby savers to remain open
A baby saver located in Johannesburg that Lamprecht is aware of has not closed. “They made a principled decision that they’re not going to close, but they’ve removed the contact details and the addresses from the baby savers’ sites – so unless you know where they are, you will not be able to find them,” he said.
Lamprecht said that for him, the way forward was to lodge a court application and have the Constitutional Court decide on the matter.
“Best interests of the child principle comes first. Children have a right to life, they have a right to dignity, and there’s nothing dignified about being put in a dustbin or being left in a toilet,” he said.
“If you close those baby savers, you will kill more children. Therefore it’s a violation of the best interest of the children and in particular, the right to life.”
Rosenberg said that they had sought legal advice, and would continue to function despite the warnings from the department.
“We will remain operational because we are performing a child protection function. We are there to ensure the right to life of a child, and the right to human dignity,” she said. DM