Opinionista Robyn Wolfson Vorster 24 December 2017

All children want for Christmas

“Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” This quote by Urie Bronfenbrenner captures the battle of children in care, especially at Christmas time. Last year we met five such children, made vulnerable by poverty, disease, bureaucracy and invidious decisions made by their biological parents. Where are they this Christmas? And for those whose desire for a family has been fulfilled, what will become of the children who have taken their place?

It has been a year since we first met Lulama* in a poorly equipped Child and Youth Care Centre (CYCC) in a dusty township. She was eight months old when she celebrated her first Christmas alongside the 33 other children at the Home. She was placed there while she waited for the Department of Home Affairs to issue her with a birth certificate after her birth mother failed to register her birth in the mandatory 30 days. Her birth mother had signed consent for her to be adopted, so the only thing keeping her in care was the backlog at Home Affairs, and its spectacular lack of urgency and empathy. Last year, desperate for affection and to share in the Christmas sweeties distributed by caring volunteers, she was unaware of her plight.

We caught up with her this Christmas and found a different child. Still bright and sweet natured, she is now an energetic toddler. Her once flaky skin is glowing, and her cheeks are plump and ruddy. She is wreathed in giggles as she toddles after the long-suffering family dog. As the dog disappears down the passage, she collapses in a heap on the floor underneath the family Christmas tree, clapping her hands with delight at the shining lights and colourful ornaments. This year, she will be celebrating her first Christmas with her adoptive family. Despite her social worker’s fears about the length of time spent in the CYCC, she has attached well to her new parents, and like Themba* and Sindisiwe*, who were also adopted during 2017, she is thriving in the care of her new family.

Lulama is one of the fortunate ones. She had an excellent social worker and after nine months of follow up, ten visits to the local Home Affairs offices, and the endless provision of new copies of requested documents, the department finally reviewed her case and issued her with the precious birth certificate. But sadly, for many other children without documentation, the situation has become even more challenging. Nine months now seems to be a quick turnaround time. It is the reason why one Child and Youth Care Centre in another province has 12 children “celebrating” Christmas in their care this year. Although many have already been waiting years, none of these children have been issued with birth certificates.

Grace* is one of those children. We find her lying on a baby dinghy playing with a stuffed giraffe, already a much loved Christmas present. Her calm and gentle spirit belies her awful start in life. This brave little foundling was moments away from death when she was rescued from a pit latrine. Despite efforts to trace her mother, she remains unknown. In the absence of a mother, Grace’s social worker would normally be mandated to obtain her birth certificate. But, bewilderingly, the Department of Home Affairs in this region will not allow social workers to apply for birth certificates for abandoned babies without a court order instructing the department to issue the certificate. Grace has already been waiting months for the court order which will begin the process. In the meantime, she is getting older in care.

Not far away, Mpho* is painting a picture in the corner of the nursery. This petite little girl with big eyes and a ready grin is making good use of the paints she got for Christmas, carefully painting herself and the walls around her along with the paper. Again, her lovely face does not reveal the sadness of her story. Her birth mother abandoned her in a hospital, and when the Department of Development Social worker assigned to her case was finally able to register her birth, Home Affairs made an error when they captured her gender. It is not uncommon, birth certificates are often issued with errors in gender, dates and other key information. But the impact on this child has been extreme. Although her social worker follows up from time to time, she has already spent an extra two years in care waiting for the mistake to be fixed.

Close to her sits Khanye*, a boisterous 10 month old, banging his new wooden hammer onto a big play table and a tin pot. He is also waiting for a birth certificate. Although he was born in a hospital, his birth mother, who desperately wanted him but could not raise him, lost his clinic card before placing him in care. The local hospital will not provide him with a new one and Home Affairs will not issue his birth certificate without a clinic card. Other children in the home are in a similar position. Many of the children were born outside of hospitals or are older than a month, so the hospital will not give them a clinic card. Others have cards that have been destroyed or are unlocatable. None of these children will be able to obtain birth certificates without their clinic cards.

The bureaucrats that are keeping these children in care appear impervious to their well-being, and disturbingly, there seem to be no solutions to many of their challenges. One such child is Jacob*. He is chubby and lazy, happiest to shuffle along on his bottom rather than try walk. Much to his delight, his caregivers have pushed him outside in his pram and parked it under one of the big trees in the garden. It is his favourite pastime, clutching the stuffed bear he got for Christmas and staring at the leaves, apparently deep in thought. Jacob has been in his CYCC since he was just a few hours old. His mother died in childbirth and his aunt, who is already raising four of his siblings does not have the resources to care for another child.

Jacob should have been immediately available for adoption when his mother died. But, his aunt unfortunately lost his mother’s death certificate. She has no ID and cannot get an affidavit certified to have the death certificate reissued. Without it, Home affairs will not issue Jacob a birth certificate, and without the certificate, Jacob is stuck in limbo. He turned one in November and according to the Department of Social Development social worker, there is “no plan of action”.

Another child seemingly lost in the system is Andile* who we find building block towers with his new blocks and then knocking them down, much to the delight of Grace and the other babies in the room. Andile turns three next year and he is the big brother in the nursery. He is also still waiting for his birth certificate. But his birth mother was undocumented, not, according to the social worker because she was foreign but because she was poor and uneducated and her own mother did not have an ID number. Although this situation is common in South Africa, the Department of Home Affairs does not have a solution for children like Andile. For now, he is loved and treasured in the nursery, but his future looks bleak. Barring something extraordinary happening, he will probably spend his childhood in care without access to proper schooling, proper healthcare or any government assistance.

Like Andile, Sara* and Maria* seem destined to spend their lives in care, for reasons that are similar, but in some ways, even more troubling. Now 6 and 4 respectively, these sweet little sisters have been in the CYCC for almost four years, having been removed from their alcoholic mother’s care just after Maria was born. Now that their preschool has closed for the holidays, they can be found playing outside in the sun, getting up to mischief or taking their much treasured “babies”, adored Christmas gifts, for a walk around the garden hushing them and singing lullabies in harmony. Despite being happy little girls, their story is heartbreaking. Both were born with foetal alcohol syndrome and Sara, the older sister is also HIV positive. Although their birth parents are still alive, they will not sign consent for the children to be adopted. This, despite the fact that they do not visit, will not attend court appointments and deliberately “disappear” if the social worker is in the area.

The Constitution empowers magistrates to dispense with parental consent if it is in the best interests of a child, but it is rare, and even if one did, the children could not be adopted because Sara’s birth certificate was issued with one digit incorrect and doesn’t correspond with all her other documentation. In spite of numerous attempts over the last two years to get the typo corrected, Home Affairs have yet to rectify it.

Zanele* is another child who is waiting for parental consent before she can be adopted. She is one of the babies we met last year. Her birth mother tried to abort her in her third trimester and she was born extremely prematurely. Mercifully, Zanele survived her prematurity and now 16 months old, she is a happy bouncy little girl who loves nothing better than cuddles, “reading” the books she got for Christmas, and singing nursery rhymes with the “aunties” in her nursery. But the “aunties” are frustrated because she should be out of care this Christmas. However, her birth mother will not sign consent for her to be adopted. And despite having tried to kill her daughter, the court will not dispense with her consent. Until such time as the courts act or her mother relinquishes her parental responsibilities, she will stay in care.

Buhle* also desperately needs consent to be adopted. When she celebrates her birthday just after Christmas, it will be her third birthday in care. Buhle is the great escape artist in the nursery and she loves nothing more than to be outside in the paddling pool splashing and squirting water through the colourful ducks floating in the pool. When she is indoors, she can be found colouring in, or occasionally munching on her crayons. Buhle was born to a mother who is mentally disabled and unable to give informed consent for her adoption. But although she cannot give it, the magistrate will not dispense with consent. Sadly, Buhle is showing signs of mental disability, and will need specialised education and professional support if she is to have any chance of an independent life as an adult. Her caregivers are frustrated. They know that even an excellent institution cannot provide everything a child like Buhle needs to be an asset to society. She needs a family to love and support her, but without the court’s intervention, this will be impossible.

It is one of many frustrations for those running CYCCs. Wandering past the nursery where Khanye and Andile are playing, I meet the nursery manager watching Jacob as he lies under his big tree watching the leaves. She tells me that the home’s goal is to place children in adoptive families within six months of their arrival. Over the years since the inception of the Children’s Act, that time frame extended. In 2015, it was 17 months. Now only two years later, it has stretched to a horrifying 36 months. Distressingly, she knows that the chances of these children being placed in adoptive homes diminishes with every day they spend in care.

And yet, this CYCC may be one of the fortunate ones. For some children who have no prospect of adoption, even the hope of being cared for in a safe, loving environment may be taken away from them. This year, one NGO, situated outside an impoverished squatter camp experienced this first hand.

In early December, the children in their care were treated to a Christmas party. Each Santa shoebox was greeted with joy as the children held up shoes, toothbrushes, sweets and toys. But just days later, they were informed by department officials that the children’s village in which they had lived for the last five years, and which has never received any government subsidies, would be closed. The children, who are traditionally billeted out over Christmas to maintain their ties with their community, and give their house mothers a chance to rest, were instructed that they were to be “reunited” with their families and that they should not come back to the home after the Christmas holidays. Ranging from the age of 5 to 21, most of these children lost their parents to the Aids pandemic, and for many, the housemothers in the village are the only mothers they have ever known. They were traumatised.

Yvonne* is 18. She has been in the village since its inception and is due to write matric next year. This clever and hardworking young woman, whose Santa shoebox contained toiletries and books and the special treat of pink sandals and matching nail varnish, is horrified by the thought of moving in with her grandmother who shares her one room house in the squatter camp with 13 other people, mostly adults. Apart from the loss of her housemother, who has cared for her through her teen years, she worries about how she will be able to study in such an overcrowded space. After years of hard work, the department’s seemingly draconian decision could result in her hopes of getting her matric being dashed.

Another child Thato* is quiet and slightly withdrawn, but with a sharp intellect and a naughty sense of humour. He received a smart pair of shoes and some new clothes in his box, along with a torch and a ball to play with. The hard blows that life has dealt him are clearly visible on his face, particularly evident in the livid scar running across his head and showing through his short hair. As the other children chatted and danced and enjoyed the food during the Christmas party, he sat on his own, holding his precious gift close. Thato is new to the village. He was forcefully thrown out of his home by his mother when he was only 12 because she no longer wanted to raise him. When he was found by the people running the NGO, he was already 15, and was living rough and working for adults. Thato is the only child who will not be billeted out this holiday because he has nowhere to go. It is clear that family reunification (which is hardly viable for any of the children) is not an option for him. But apparently, the Department failed to investigate or to care.

No official reason has been given for the decision to close the NGO, a decision which is perplexing to staff and management, especially since Social Development reportedly told them only months before that they wanted to send more children to their village. When faced with Yvonne and Thato’s concerns about losing their home, the social welfare official is reported to have said, “look at your nice things, why should you be favoured? Other children are worse off than you so you will be fine”.

These children, like all children, desperately need one adult who is “irrationally crazy about them”. And, although staff at their CYCC remain determined to fight to be that for them, their future is uncertain. But for one child, hope arrived just in time. Sipho*, the gorgeous extroverted toddler playing hide and seek with his caregivers and a fire truck in our 2016 Christmas article, was one of the children who made the biggest impression on us last year. Despite his delightful nature, 2017 started badly for this child. At three, he was the biggest child in his nursery and he slowly started to show the signs that he needed more individual attention. As his behaviour became naughtier, caregivers, already fearful of what would happen when he was too old to live in the nursery, despaired of providing him with the care and attention that he needed. Distressingly though, Sipho’s birthmother remained unwilling to raise him, or sign consent for his adoption.

And then, quite unexpectedly, everything changed. After years of trying to persuade Sipho’s birth mother that he needed a family, she got engaged and informed Sipho’s social worker that her new partner did not want her child. It was the catalyst for her finally signing consent for him to be adopted. And, despite his age, his social worker (quite miraculously) matched him to an adoptive family.

On the day that Sipho finally met his new mom and dad and two big sisters, the staff held their breath, hoping he would bond with them, but unsure about how he would react. Both shy and showing off, he initially held back. But then he started to share his chips. As the staff struggled with the emotion of saying goodbye to one of their favourite children, they watched in awe as he folded himself into his new family. All the months of showing him pictures of them seemed to give him certainty that he belonged. What happened next took everyone by surprise though. As the afternoon wore on, it was Sipho’s new daddy who increasingly captured his heart. And then there came a moment when Sipho took his dad by the hand and led him to the nursery so that he could say goodbye to his friends. Afterwards, Sipho turned to him and asked if his car was outside. His new father nodded. Faced with the prospect of leaving the only home he had ever known, Sipho looked up at his father and said simply: “Come on Daddy, let’s go home.” Sipho had found one person to love him irrationally. He left without looking back. DM

* Names changed to protect their identities

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