Opinionista Robyn Wolfson Vorster 18 October 2016

Home Affairs names and shames SA’s abandoned children

Child abandonment is a scourge in South Africa. As numbers soar, the battle is on to ensure that abandonment does not permanently define the lives of survivors. But those efforts are being severely hampered by the Department of Home Affairs’ decision to disclose to the public the abandonment status of some children. As a practice, it is shockingly callous, largely inaccurate and probably indefensible, so why is the department seemingly impervious to all of the concern?

There seems to be no end in sight to the abandonment crisis in South Africa. And, in the absence of long-term policy solutions, child protection practitioners aim at least to make it survivable, both physically and – for those who do stay alive – in its emotional aftermath.

To this end, they have dedicated huge amounts of time and skill to researching strategies for protecting children from the consequences of what may be the first event of their lives. While these solutions are complex, they are all predicated on maintaining the privacy of the child’s story until they are ready to face it and relate it to others.

Clearly these thinkers did not reckon on the Department of Home Affairs though. Like a school yard bully, the department seems determined to humiliate these vulnerable children by including an endorsement on their official identity document that broadcasts to the world in general that the child was “ABANDONED”.

Of course it is possible that there was no intent at all, and that the department was simply absent on sensitivity training day. But the crass use of such a loaded term on a public document still beggars belief.

And, as they say in the classics, that’s not all. It also appears that the department has a somewhat loose definition of what it means to be “abandoned” (certainly not in keeping with either the Children’s Act or common usage). As a result, it has included the endorsement on the birth certificates of children who patently weren’t abandoned. Yet, despite the fairly obvious fallout, the department appears to be both unrepentant, and even a bit bemused by all of the fuss.

When I held my daughter’s unabridged birth certificate for the first time, I was overwhelmed with relief: relief that the details were correct, and that it had taken less than a year for the Department of Home Affairs to produce it (both minor miracles for adoptive families who routinely wait several years for their children’s birth certificates, only to discover that the details are wrong). I was so relieved that I didn’t notice an obscure field at the bottom of the document labelled: ENDORSEMENTS. As it happens, I have since checked (when you read the article you will understand why), and my daughter’s birth certificate doesn’t have any “endorsements”, but other children’s do – shocking ones.

The worst that I have encountered contains that one word: “ABANDONED”.

Abandoned, it is a word that has a very specific meaning in the Children’s Act and in common usage. In the act, abandoned refers to “a child who has obviously been deserted by the parent, guardian or caregiver or has, for no apparent reason, had no contact with the parent, guardian, or caregiver for a period of at least three months”.

In terms of everyday use, the definition is “having been left or deserted”. Synonyms include forsaken, cast aside, rejected or neglected. Yet when questioned about the endorsement, the Department of Home Affairs explained that when used on a birth certificate, the term abandoned “does not strictly mean so in the common use of the word”. Instead, the endorsement is used when, for whatever reason (often because of a court order – such as an adoption order – or because the parents are unknown), the birth is registered by someone other than a biological parent (often a social worker whose ID number may also be listed on the birth certificate).

These are cases where this authority is not vested with the parents or family so the intention for this endorsement is to establish “authority” (which may include guardianship) for the child.

In short, the term has come to encompass a category of children who were ultimately not registered by their parents, but does not necessarily mean that the child has been “outright abandoned”. In the department’s defence, establishing legal responsibility for a child is an important issue, so the need for endorsements is entirely plausible. Or at least it would be if it weren’t for the truly disturbing and pejorative choice of term.

According to Luke Lamprecht, the convener of the Shaken, Abused and Abandoned Baby Initiative, the use of the term is problematic because as a society we have a common understanding that the word means cast aside, rejected or discarded.

Lamprecht argues that since parents are the scaffolding of our personality genetically (nature), and in child rearing (nurture), if you begin your life on a scaffold of being “abandoned”, the core of your identity is put in question. Further, because the child cannot contact the parent to understand the reasons for the abandonment, they internalise that they were “unwanted” and as a result in some way responsible for being “dumped”.

In addition, says Lamprecht, an identity document is the first right of children under Section 28 of the Bill of Rights under which the child is entitled to a “name and nationality from birth”.

So, if the country labels the child “abandoned” on their identity document, it is a grave injustice: certainly not in the best interests of the child and a regression in the achievement of children’s rights which are in place to allow for optimal development and participation in society.

Finally, this is a public document required for schooling, medical care, social grants, travel (anywhere outside of the country and sometimes internally too), and any formal identification. The implication is that a child’s private pain is being shared with a myriad strangers, none of whom have the right or need to know their story. Apart from the obvious violation of the child’s rights, the risk is that they will be shamed by one of those strangers or that someone will reveal the child’s story before he or she is ready to share it, or even to hear it.

This is Katlego’s* fear. She was the first person to notify me about the “abandoned” endorsement. A mom of four – two biological and two adopted children – she has plenty of experience with unabridged birth certificates. So she was completely unprepared for the endorsement on her new baby son’s identity document.

Her shock was compounded by the fact that her son was not abandoned, far from it. His biological mother consented to an adoption when he was born, and followed every aspect of the law to ensure that her child had the best possible future. But because she didn’t register his birth (it was registered by a social worker), he was deemed by Home Affairs to be “abandoned” and his birth certificate was endorsed accordingly.

Despite his birth mother’s best efforts, his future might be compromised. Already struggling with some developmental difficulties, this tiny boy now has something else to overcome – an ongoing and flagrantly inaccurate label. It seems cruel. It is cruel.

But it is the fact that this endorsement generally appears on the birth certificates of children placed for adoption that seems to make the department most unconcerned. And maybe one could argue that if the affected children are generally adopted, the label is only a temporary one – the initial unabridged birth certificate would at some point be replaced by one with a new name and identity number.

Again it is a plausible argument except for some important complications.

First, the department takes so long to issue new birth certificates for adopted children that the child could potentially be exposed to years of judgement and hostility in the interim.

Second, even if the child is unaffected now, the original birth certificate would remain on their file.

So at 18 they could conceivably be confronted with the wounding claim (factual or erroneous) that they had been abandoned. And with adoption numbers so low, some of these children may be stuck with this unabridged birth certificate and its endorsement for life.

Finally, in at least one appalling instance, the endorsement was carried over into the child’s post-adoptive birth certificate, inexplicably (given that the child now has a legal guardian), and in violation of the legal adoption order which states that the child is now the adoptive parents’ child, as if born to them.

As it happens, this latter endorsement (at least in intent) echoes a similar and equally scandalous endorsement, also found on some children’s post-adoption birth certificates which states: “child registered by adoptive parents”. Again, this violates the adoption order, reveals confidential information and exposes the child’s adoption status to anyone who can access the document (from school administrators to hospital personnel to government officials processing grant applications).

Perhaps we can sympathise with the Department of Home Affairs’ need to indicate that a child lacks a guardian. But the choice of term seems indefensible when a code or another more appropriate word could have achieved the same outcome – without any negative connotations – as is its seemingly random use of this and other endorsements.

And despite the department’s willingness to answer questions, and indications that it may change the term “abandoned” in future (as it happens, not out of concern about the implications of its use, but in order to comply with new visa and travel legislation), two questions remain.

First, should the Department of Home Affairs be required to amend existing birth certificates to remove or change these endorsements, and second, should it be held accountable for possible pain and suffering resulting from these endorsements?

The emotional well-being and right to privacy of many children depend on what happens next. Does the department care though? Personally, I’m not convinced. DM

* Not her real name

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