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Why adoption is a problem in South Africa


Dr Dee Blackie is a child protection researcher and community worker in Johannesburg. Following a 15-year career in marketing, branding and business consulting, she started working with communities concerned with child protection, child abandonment and adoption in 2010. She launched Courage in 2015, a community engagement programme aimed at assisting child protection officers and communities to address their daily challenges. She can be contacted at [email protected]

As an independent child protection researcher and rights activist, I have been asked repeatedly why the government is considering drastic changes to the Child Protection Act that will potentially have a dire impact on adoptions in South Africa. I share my opinion based on my experience as a change management consultant for the past 20 years, and specifically in the child protection community for the past nine. In doing this I hope to speak for abandoned children who are left on the streets, rubbish heaps and latrines of South Africa every year, for too often they do not have a voice.

Experiences in child protection in South Africa

I entered the child protection community in 2010, the year child abandonment sky-rocketed in South Africa. Having experienced multiple miscarriages and suffering from postpartum depression, my mothering instincts were on high alert.

In July of our World Cup year, I was horrified to see a picture of a newborn baby girl who had been abandoned and who had died on a rubbish heap on the outskirts of Soweto – on the front page of a national newspaper. Calling around, I quickly realised that the issue of child abandonment was reaching epidemic proportions (estimated at 3,500 children in 2010 alone). However, the Department of Social Development at the time were refusing to acknowledge that it was a problem.

To put this in perspective, a social worker at one of the largest child welfare organisations in the country told me that a few years previously, they would see only one or two abandoned children a month, but in 2010 as many as five or six children were being delivered to their doors every week.

It was at this point that I met some of the most courageous women this country has to offer, specifically the independent social workers and heads of child protection organisations, who are keeping the tsunami of orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children safe in this country, that is so hostile towards its youngest and most vulnerable.

Together we managed to coordinate a conference in 2011 with many leaders in the child protection community and formed the National Adoption Coalition of South Africa. Our first plan of action was to draw attention to the option of adoption, as if a child is abandoned, and has no known biological family, then the best long-term solution is for the child to grow up in a nurturing family where they can be loved and cared for, and most importantly where they can belong.

With the help of a picture-based training company, we developed a simple community engagement programme that explored issues such as option counselling for crisis pregnancy, the protocol to follow in the event of an abandoned child being found, and clarity on the detailed process of adoption. We then took this training programme into communities around the country to try to increase awareness for the issues at hand.

It was at this point that I realised that there were some deep cultural concerns around the formal process of adoption, as outlined in the Children’s Act (2005). I kept on being told by community members that “adoption is not ubuntu”. I found this very confusing as informal adoption takes place every day in South Africa, when parents are lost or unable to take care of their children, and extended family or caring community members then absorb the child into their family.

These informal arrangements, however, are often not formalised through the courts, and it is this process of formalisation, where a court removes the parental rights of the biological parent from a child and then places those rights into another family, with different familial ancestors that were cause for concern. The challenge for the child protection community is that due to these beliefs, the majority of vulnerable children are not placed formally into the child protection system, but are rather abandoned into care, making the process of reunifying children with their biological family almost impossible.

What also became clear in my many workshops and engagements was that all of the independent social workers and child protection organisations were finding it almost impossible to facilitate the process of adoption, due to the behaviour of a range of government officials and public servants.

The constructive prevention of adoption

The management of abandoned children is governed by the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 which was implemented in 2010. Child protection experts are subject to how the act’s implementation is interpreted and managed by the various government departments that they engage with in fulfilling their mandate. While most agree that it is an excellent piece of legislation, its implementation since 2010 has caused a number of challenges in the sphere of child abandonment and the solution of adoption.

One of the strangest omissions in the act, which was written by government legislators, was that government social workers were prevented from conducting an adoption and that these could only be undertaken by independent accredited social workers and child protection organisations, an issue they have been trying to amend ever since.

Some of the challenges presented by the act include the inability for a woman residing in South Africa illegally, to formally consent for their child to be adopted. In fact, if an adoption social worker is contacted by an “illegal immigrant” about placing her child up for adoption, they are compelled to advise the relative authorities.

The act also requires the consent of a child’s legal guardian should she chose to place her child up for adoption. A girl of any age can request an abortion from a state medical institution in South Africa, without the knowledge of her parents or guardian, but placing a child up for adoption can be done only once a young woman is 18, sending a clear message as to which “option” is supported by the government.

The public operation and communication of “baby safes” also presents an area of contradiction. This service is deemed illegal in terms of the Children’s Act, due to the anonymous nature of the abandonment, but more and more are being opened every year due to the increased incidence of child abandonment.

Most child protection officers agree that many abandoned children are not placed within the formal child protection system. Instead, there are countless reports of police officers handing these children over to a community member for care, in contradiction to the rigorous screening that takes place during a formal adoption.

During my research, child protection experts who deal regularly with the implementation of the Children’s Act, often cited “excessive regulation” by the government. Government influences the process of adoption in six key areas, and each of these areas is currently considered problematic by adoption practitioners.

From accreditation of adoption social workers to the management of the national adoption registry, the formal letters of recommendation required from provincial representatives and the canalisation and finalisation of an adoption after the formal court process has been completed, the Department of Social Development has a number of opportunities to intervene in an adoption and by all accounts it does this frequently.

The Children’s Court and Department of Home Affairs also appear to have a point of view on adoption and often add to what has now become a two- to four-year process. With Home Affairs this starts with officials refusing to give abandoned children unabridged birth certificates, preventing them from entering the child protection system, and even after an adoption has been finalised parents can wait a number of years for their child’s updated identification and travel documentation.

Although none would state it outright, I believe due to fear of victimisation, most child protection organisations believed that this “over-regulation” was tantamount to the constructive prevention of adoption.

I decided to return to university in 2013 to complete my masters in anthropology at Wits, trying to understand child abandonment and adoption in the context of African ancestral beliefs.

Adoption and culture

For my master’s research into the lived experience of child abandonment, I spent time following the people and conflicts associated with this child protection challenges. This included speaking to women who had experienced a crisis pregnancy and chose to abandon their child in both safe and unsafe spaces, children who had been abandoned, and a range of child protection officers who dealt with both the abandoning mother and abandoned child.

This included community members, police officers, social workers, nurses, children’s home managers and carers, adoption social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and traditional healers and sangomas. What was apparent in my findings is the complexity of childbearing and kinship in the context of African ancestral beliefs in southern Africa.

Young women experiencing a crisis pregnancy openly stated that it would be better to leave a child somewhere for “God” or the “ancestors” to decide their fate, rather than formally signing their rights away to their child. The belief stems from the fact that for many African families, deceased family members play an important role in the well-being of a family, in their role as familial ancestors.

Ancestors have a particular view on how families should be constituted and if a child is born, it should be cared for within the family bloodline. If this does not occur, then all members of the family, on both the biological mother and father’s side, could suffer as a result.

The women I spoke to stated that giving a child away through the process of adoption could be viewed as a slight on your ancestors, who essentially only exist through your children. You have been given a gift and you have chosen to consciously give this gift away, not dissimilar to cultural views on the choice of abortion.

It was believed that this could anger your ancestors or God and could result in them never gifting you with another child, essentially rendering the woman infertile. The sangomas also had concerns around the process of adoption, as they believed it was not the role of a court to make decisions on how families are constituted, this is seen as solely the domain of family and ancestors.

The challenge with child abandonment is that if we have no idea who a child’s biological family is, then we have no way of knowing how to connect that child with their patrilineal ancestors (from the father’s ancestral line). Many of the young men I spoke to during my research had only discovered that they were adopted as young adults, as their parents had chosen not to tell them before this.

The result was devastating to them, as they believed they had been living a lie. It also created all sorts of challenges around key milestones on which they wanted to consult their ancestors. This included important decisions, becoming a man, having a child, paying damages for a child and paying lobola for a wife. It was almost as though a piece of themselves was missing and until this had been resolved they could not live a full and happy life.

Some of the adoptive parents that I spoke to advised that they did not tell their families that they had adopted and rather “went away”, until they could pass the child off as their own, to avoid causing a rift within their families. Other adoptees spoke of the trauma at the death of their adoptive parents and being told by their extended adoptive family that they did not have the right to take part in funeral arrangements or to inherit their family home, as they were not true members of their family.

I did, however, speak to a number of sangomas who advised that ancestors are not ignorant to the struggles of the modern world and that adoption is seen as a necessary part of this. Many were taking care of children who had been abandoned into their care, and some had even adopted these children into their family both legally and culturally.

Their view was that no matter what happens, the best course of action is to consult with familial ancestors, to ask them for their advice and help in caring for the child. This was applicable to both a mother experiencing a crisis pregnancy and unable to care for her child herself, or a family wanting to adopt. This dual approach was also supported by adoption social workers who shared experiences of including family elders, traditional leaders, healers and sangomas into their adoption process, supporting the legal process of adoption with an appropriate cultural one.

The cultural practice was referred to as an ubigile ceremony, which was sometimes conducted at the adoption organisations, or following the finalisation of an adoption. This served as an opportunity for the adopted child to be formally introduced to the ancestors of their new adoptive family, and to ask for their support in ensuring the wellbeing of the child moving forward.

In my research, these cultural concerns played a significant role in attitudes toward adoption not just in communities, but among child protection officers and even senior government representatives. A seasoned social worker once advised me, “the Children’s Act is a good piece of legislation as it has lots of checks and balances to protect the child, but if you use these as a means to prevent adoption, it becomes almost impossible to place a child in a family”.

I have worked extensively in both the government and independent child protection space in South Africa and have observed the “constructive prevention of adoption” at every level of engagement. Women experiencing a crisis pregnancy are often told by government social workers that adoption is not an option for them, and they are arrested by police officers and physically abused by communities if they try and abandon their child.

Abandoned children are refused a legal identity and are left to languish in our many baby homes and child and youth care centres (CYCCs) or orphanages. I was once asked to run a workshop with a group of state-run hospital nurses as there had been a number of “alarming incidents” reported. These included cases of nurses contacting a birth mother’s extended family clandestinely to advise them that their daughter was placing her child up for adoption, and advising them to come and claim the child. This was despite the women being above the age of 18, and well within their rights to make this decision for herself.

Other incidents included nurses refusing to contact the adoption social worker who had been counselling the birth mother, and treating these social workers with hostility, accusing them of child trafficking. There was even a case where a young mother was refused pain medication after a caesarean section because she had decided to place her child up for adoption and was being “punished” for this. When I queried this behaviour, I was advised that the greatest concern in assisting in the process of adoption is the fear of angering the ancestors, being found “guilty by association”, and being punished accordingly.

The biggest challenge, however, is one of leadership. In the past nine years of working in the child protection community with both government and independent social workers, police officers, nurses and various state officials, I have been told many times that although the government must be seen to support the Children’s Act and the right of every child to grow up in a family, in terms of our Constitution, adoption is seen as problematic.

I have witnessed an open confrontation between officials from the Department of Social Development and the private child protection organisation sector around the process of adoption. I have not observed this personally, but I have also been told many stories of senior members in Parliament, national and provincial Government openly stating their desire to close adoptions down.

Where we find ourselves today?

In a shocking turn of events, the government has introduced a last-minute amendment to the Children’s Act which it is trying to strong-arm through the legislative process without proper consultation with the child protection community.

This amendment has two parts, the first allowing government social workers to conduct an adoption, which the private social workers and child protection organisations have been very supportive of, going as far as to offer and deliver training and mentorship to assist the government in gaining the expertise they require to become proficient in this specialist area.

The second part, however, is where the problem lies. In the final amendment, a last-minute clause was added, one can only assume in the hopes that the private welfare sector would not notice the small change. This clause prevents anyone, from independent social workers, child protection organisations, medical practitioners, specialists and lawyers to charge for services rendered in the process of adoption. They are also prevented from gaining donations that could be used in an adoption, effectively closing down all avenues for funding.

Government’s excuse for this last-minute amendment is starting to emerge, with inflammatory statements such as “our children are not commodities” and claims of excessive overcharging for adoption fees on national television.

To date, no evidence has been shared of any organisation that has overcharged for adoption fees or been prosecuted in this regard. These fees are in fact clearly specified by the Department of Social Development and are closely scrutinised and vetted by both department officials and the courts in every adoption process. Adoption fees can range from no charge to about R15,000, with a sliding scale used to assess what people can afford to make the adoption as accessible as possible.

These fees cover the costs of assessing a child for adoptability, searching and advertising for biological parents if the child has been abandoned, medical assessments (which are not offered free to abandoned children in state hospitals), assessing parents using a range of psychological, medical and legal tools, counselling and preparing the birth mother, the child and the parents for the adoption process, and a mountain of administrative work, court time and post-adoption support. Services often run way over the specified amount, but the shortfall is made up with tireless fundraising from supportive donors who see the exceptional work these organisations perform on a daily basis.

The government claims that it is not preventing independent social workers from processing an adoption, but the organisations in question must first be designated by the Department of Social Development, and then request these fees from the government before they can proceed. This in a climate where existing government funding routinely only covers a fraction of child protection costs.

To put this in perspective, the government pays only R96 a day for an abandoned child who is being cared for by a private baby home, a fraction of the costs needed to take care of a child on a day-to-day basis. Research conducted by Shukumisa in 2016 found that the majority of social welfare services in SA are provided by NPOs. The Department of Social Development only pays a portion of some organisations’ costs with the expectation that the NGOs should raise the balance from donors, however, the 2008 global recession led to donors diverting significant funds from “middle income” countries such as South Africa.

The 2015/2016 budget for the Department of Social Development indicates that 88% of its budget is allocated to social assistance (social grants), and only 10% to welfare and social development services. The remaining 2% is spent on administration. Shukumisa’s findings indicated that the Department of Social Development has been decreasing the budget share for services rendered by NPOs (down 3% since 2005) while increasing its own staff salaries at higher-than-inflation rates.

Another “excuse” being offered by the Department of Social Development representatives is that this will make adoptions freely available, repeatedly using the example of a “poor woman in the rural areas”. In my experience, the majority of poor women in the rural areas taking care of children in South Africa, are blood relatives to the children, either a grandparent, aunt or extended family member. Most of these women are receiving a foster care grant of around R920 a month, which assists them with poverty alleviation, many being pensioners and having to take care of multiple children in their old age.

I do not believe that many of these women would consider formal adoption as culturally they view it as problematic. As the child is usually a blood relative issues of familial belonging and ancestral connections are also not an issue. However, should this “poor woman in the rural areas”, adopt the child, they would no longer receive their foster care grant, but rather a child support grant of only R380 per month, which would significantly impact on the family’s level of wellbeing. This does beg the question: Has government conducted research among rural community members on their views and the relevance of this amendment to them?

Throughout my research, the most contentious area among all of my respondents was that of international adoption. There was a real fear that African children are being sent overseas to become “slaves” to white adoptive parents. Although South Africa is a signatory to the Hague Convention on International Adoption, with designated adoption partners in a range of countries, I have been given numerous examples of government officials and the courts either refusing or delaying international adoptions excessively.

It is in this area that costs can escalate as adoptive parents must cover the costs of international travel and staying in a foreign country for anything from three months to a year while their adoption and travel papers are finalised. After drowning under mountains of red tape and delays, many turn to the courts, paying hefty legal fees in an effort to return to their home country with their adoptive child.

This new amendment will effectively close down international adoptions as the funds provided by the government will not come close to covering the extensive costs of these lengthy processes. Devastating news to abandoned children, many of whom are born prematurely or with health, physical and mental impairments, as a are a majority of children who are placed with international adoptive parents.

Finally, to the criticality of adoption and the right of all children to grow up in a loving and caring family where they belong. In the research I conducted for the National Adoption Coalition of SA in 2016/2017, abandonment estimates had levelled at around 3,000 children a year. However, the recent economic downturn appears to have led to another spike in abandonment in 2018.

The most concerning finding from my research was the increase in anonymous abandonment and the fact that many abandoned children are either premature or impaired and believed to be the result of late-term abortion. My findings were supported by research conducted by UNICEF in 2012 that found that nearly 30% of children in our orphanages (CYCCs) are disabled, versus only 11.2% of South Africa’s general childhood population.

There have been countless studies around the world on the importance of children growing up in a stable and loving family where they can “attach” to at least one primary caregiver. Conversely, there are also a number of global studies that indicate that children who grow up in institutions or constantly changing temporary foster care can struggle with long-term behavioural, educational and social challenges.

The final excuse that the Department of Social Development representatives keep referring to is that adoption is “just another child protection option”, similar to foster care, institutional care and child-headed households”.

This is wholly incorrect and most definitely not in the best interests of our children.

The best-case scenario in this conflict between the Department of Social Development and independent social workers and child protection organisations is that Parliament allows for the inclusion of government social workers to perform adoptions, with the appropriate accreditation, however, and removes the clause on fees. This would truly allow for more accessibility to adoptions to all South Africans, which is the department’s stated objective.

The worst-case scenario is that the Department of Social Development is able to force this legislation through, using inflammatory statements and unfounded accusations, effectively closing down access to private adoption solutions. And although it has stated that its intention is to “increase adoptions” (currently down more than 50% in the past five years to just 1,186 adoptions in 2017/2018), adoptions will trickle to a halt, with abandoned children languishing in the many orphanages that will need to be opened to care for these voiceless children until they become adults. DM


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