It’s Christmas, a time for giving, and a time for children. Across South Africa, the Christmas trees at Child and Youth Care Centres (which, despite the vanilla name, range from nurturing home-based care to old-school institutions reminiscent of Oliver Twist or Annie), are bulging with presents for children in care.
But strict confidentiality laws mean that we are seldom able to find out who these children are, or why they are in care this Christmas.
Conventional wisdom says that they are orphans (after all, we have 3-million of those); and many are. But UNICEF has indicated that almost 60% of the children in care are the vulnerable children listed on Part A of South Africa’s Child Protection Register (a register that, while incomplete, already includes 34,500 children who were either abandoned, neglected or removed from their families due to abuse ). Today we get to meet five of these children – perhaps one of them received a Christmas gift from you.
We find Themba* in the garden at his Child and Youth Care Centre. A shy and sweet child, he is happiest outdoors, so the football he was given as a Christmas gift is the best present possible. Themba is an orphan, but not a stereotypical one – his father is still alive. Instead, he is one of over half a million maternal orphans in South Africa who are so classified because UNICEF considers them to be particularly vulnerable. He can’t remember his mother; she passed away when he was only six months old. He also can’t remember a time before the home.
His father brought him here just after his mother died. The last thing his father did was sign consent for Themba to be adopted. He has not seen him since, or any other members of the family. At first, there was talk of adoption. His social worker must have looked for a while. But as he grew older, his file sunk deeper and deeper into her pile of open cases. Eventually, she probably filed it away, believing (not without evidence) that an HIV+ boy over the age of three would never find a family.
That was seven years ago, and this will be his 10th Christmas in the home. Although a “lifer” in the institution, he isn’t neglected. The caregivers are strict but kind, just overworked and under-resourced. As one of the oldest of 45 children in their care, he worked out quickly that the younger, more demanding children got the most attention. It is why he spends his days outside.
It is supper time and the children pile indoors. Themba carefully places his treasured football on a makeshift shelf at the end of his bed. After bedtime prayers, we ask what he wants for Christmas. He smiles – all he wants is a sunny day so he can play with his ball and that the little ones won’t pop it (at least not yet).
If he ever thought about a family, he doesn’t any more.
Across the country, little Sindisiwe* lies on a baby dinghy and kicks her legs. Already seven months old, she is a warm and affectionate child who loves to be held, and is adored by her caregivers. But her happy demeanour belies the tragic start that she had to life. As the head of her nursery cuddles her and places her gently in her cot next to the crocheted Teddy bear she was given for Christmas, she tells me about how Sindi was abandoned in an open field in late autumn, and how hard she fought to stay alive. But she did; mercifully wrapped in a blanket, she was found quickly, before hypothermia had a chance to set in. When she was strong enough, she was placed in temporary safe care while her social worker tried to find her family. The search proved futile, opening the door to adoption. Yet at an age where she could already be in an adoptive family, she is spending her first Christmas in care.
The reason, says her formidable social worker, is shocking. When they went to register her birth, the Department of Home Affairs – for reasons that are still not clear – decided that she was foreign. Instead of issuing her with an unabridged birth certificate, she was given a hand-written one without an ID number. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad – “foreign” children have been adopted in South Africa in the past. But, this year, the Department of Home Affairs issued an instruction that the Department of Social Development may under no circumstances approve the adoption of a child without proper documentation.
The fact that Sindisiwe was unilaterally declared to be foreign is of no consequence. Her social worker is perplexed and angry. Without adoption as an option, the department normally suggests that such children be repatriated to their “country of origin”. But since no one has found a link to any family (to prove that she is local, or give her a place to return to and a family to care for her), that is impossible. Equally, without an ID she cannot receive grants, go to school or even receive state-sponsored medical care. Unless the Department of Home Affairs corrects its error, not only will Sindisiwe grow up in an institution without a family, but she will also be stateless.
Mercifully, for now, this little girl is oblivious to the possible future awaiting her. Today, she will sleep peacefully, cuddling her Christmas bear and sucking her thumb.
Far away, in a rudimentary children’s home in a huge dusty township, Lulama* lies patiently in her metal cot waiting for her caregiver to arrive. Too young to share in the Christmas sweets that were given to the other children in this large and desperately poor home, she did not get a gift on this, her first Christmas. She saw them though, the colourful sweeties which the 11 other children sharing her room came to show her, and which made her face light up. Like them, her skin is grey and flaky from lack of moisture, and her nose is runny. But she has bright eyes, a huge and ready smile, and a quiet assured intelligence.
She is already showing the signs of insecure attachment though, and like the other 33 children in the home, is eager for affection from any visitor who comes, whether she knows them or not. So, when her social worker arrives, surrounded by a needy group of children holding on to her skirts and clawing for her attention, Lulama lifts up her little arms to her, desperate for a cuddle. As she clings to her, the social worker explains that Lulama should already have been in a family this Christmas. Her mother has signed consent for her to be adopted, and her father failed to respond to any notifications to come and claim her; she is fully adoptable. But her birth mother missed the 30-day cut off for the registration of Lulama’s birth (and there is no longer any grace period for late registrations – it ceased in December 2015). The result is that her application is now being treated as a late birth registration and she is one of the growing backlog of cases awaiting processing.
More than eight months later, she is still waiting for Home Affairs to issue her with her birth certificate. It is the only thing standing between her and adoption.
Her social worker is hopeful that it will happen, eventually. But she worries about the damage being done in the interim as Lulama spends more and more of her crucial first thousand days in care. She also worries about how securely she will attach when she is finally placed. As her social worker leaves, Lulama starts to cry, her sweet face creasing in distress. Then she is once again distracted by her loud roommates, the shiny papers and the smell of sweeties and chocolate.
Back inland, the quiet of the afternoon is broken by a loud “BEE-BAW” and a flurry of giggles as Sipho* threads his Christmas fire truck through a crowd of toddlers on his way to “put out a fire”. At two-and-a-half (the half being very important to him), he is one of the big boys at his Place of Safety, and takes his role as big brother very seriously. A favourite since he arrived in the nursery at only seven months old, Sipho is a ray of sunshine whose smile lights up a room. Since then, social workers have been trying to reunite him with his birth mother who drove over 800km to place him in care. She is resistant, but also unwilling to see him placed in foster care. Over the years, she has consistently expressed that she doesn’t want him, but has missed every appointment set for her to consent to his adoption.
The nursery manager is frustrated. “First prize is that he grows up with his mother,” she says, “but, if she doesn’t want to raise him, we could place him tomorrow. All we need is for her to sign consent.” The big fear is that Sipho will age out of the nurturing home in which he now lives. There is even talk about them raising their upper age limit to four so they can accommodate children like him who are “stuck” in care. They are also fund-raising to build a second home for older kids. But the contingency route will always be Plan B; they are desperate for this delightful, clever boy to have a family.
Outside her office, the wild giggles subside, prompting the nursery manager to go and look for her mischievous toddler. As she walks into the playroom, she sees the ladder of the big red fire-engine sticking out from a pile of cushions. She walks in closer, “wondering aloud” where Sipho could be and then beams in joy when he emerges tousled, rosy-cheeked and loud with glee to “surprise her”.
In a much quieter part of the nursery, away from the busy babies and toddlers, lies the tiniest of our children. Zanele* is three months old but today could have been her birthday. She was born 11 weeks early when her mother (then seven months pregnant) took pills to abort her. Horrified when little Zanele (who was only 1.1kg) was born alive, she took her to hospital where the child was admitted to ICU after suffering an intra-ventricular haemorrhage. Her mother, who confessed to the late abortion, was adamant that she didn’t want Zanele, and that she specifically didn’t want the father of her four other children (or Zanele’s brothers and sisters) to know about her. She disappeared shortly after Zanele was placed in care at the age of six weeks. No one knows her whereabouts and she has not yet signed consent for Zanele to be adopted.
A caregiver walks into the special care unit where Zanele spends her days. She takes a moment to check whether the child is asleep, lulled by the soft music that is piped through the room all day. But, although she is lying quietly, Zanele’s eyes are open. The caregiver carefully picks her up and places her in a kangaroo pouch, close to her skin, and covers her with the soft blanket she was given for Christmas. She isn’t their first premature baby, nor their first aborted one, so they know exactly what to do. But, despite the constant care, it is too soon to tell the extent of the damage that her premature birth (and how it occurred) has caused.
In the next few months, they will assess her eyes and ears and take a cranial sonar. And, like all their premature babies born under 1.6 kg, she will be assessed by an occupational therapist at six months. They will also monitor her for cerebral palsy, a common complication in their aborted babies. Seeing my face when she mentions cerebral palsy, the nursery manager is quick to comfort me: “It is heartbreaking, but there are families for these children, especially overseas.” As we watch Zanele listening to the sound of her caregiver’s heartbeat from inside the pouch, we are both struck by the fact that she survived. Regardless of what happens next, she is already more fortunate than many others.
Administrative delays, resistance to family reunification on the part of our children’s families, parents absconding without signing consent for an adoption, and both the intransigence and xenophobic policies of Home Affairs, mean that many of these children are destined for another year in care (at a minimum).
But this is Christmas, so it seems fitting that at least one of these stories ends happily. To our surprise (we had no idea when we chose their stories), two of our children have experienced their own Christmas miracles this year. The most astonishing is Sindi, whose social worker has succeeded in motivating the normally immovable Home Affairs to reissue her birth certificate. While children born in South Africa with one or more foreign parent may remain in limbo indefinitely, she now has a valid birth certificate and ID number. Next year, she will be adopted.
And, for our oldest child, there was something even more special in store. The day after Themba’s 10th birthday (a day he is proud to celebrate so close to Christmas), he received an unexpected visit from his long-lost social worker. She took him on one side and told him gently that a social worker from another city had found him a family: a mommy and daddy who are desperate for him to be their son, and a brother and sister who can’t wait to meet him. She showed him pictures and watched the breathless moment as he tried to take in the news. She explained that because he was a big boy of 10 now, he could decide if he wanted to be adopted. His fierce nodding and the expression of joy stopped her mid-sentence, in the middle of explaining that it would still take a while, but soon, he would have a family. A smile creasing her tired face, his social worker left him practising his signature so that he could sign the consent forms.
For thousands of children in care, 2016 will be a year best forgotten, a year of stress and hardship, a year of pain. But this Christmas, one little boy is receiving the best gift imaginable: a family. In 2017, Themba (whose name fittingly means “full of faith and hope”) will no longer be an orphan, he will be a son. DM
* Details obscured to protect the children’s identities