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Opinionista

The truth behind SA’s shocking child abandonment statistics

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Robyn Wolfson Vorster is a dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting, Robyn opted out of corporate life eight years ago to work as a children’s rights activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy and the needs of vulnerable children. She now uses her many words for education on children’s issues, and to motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at For the Voiceless or her website, Becoming a Mom.

Lockdown has seen a spate of unthinkable child abandonments – a toddler discarded in a dustbin; a six-week-old baby found at midnight in a hole next to a highway; a toddler left with a stranger in the queue outside a shop. Others died in sewers, streets, dumps, under bridges and in shallow graves. Their young age and an inability to articulate the horrors of their stories has muted their voices. So we ask for them: How many deaths and devastated lives will it take before authorities act to end abandonment?

Ezra was three months old when he died. Or at least we think he was; perhaps he was older, or younger… it’s hard to tell.

All we know is that he was about six weeks old when someone dressed him in a white babygrow, wrapped him in a fluffy blue blanket and left him to die in a large hole in the ground next to a highway in Johannesburg.

It was midnight on a cold night in May and, with the curfew in place, he shouldn’t have been found. But he was. Three homeless men looking for a place to keep warm heard him crying. As two of the men climbed into the hole to find the baby, the other flagged down a police car patrolling the area. The officer called for backup and the second responder, a policewoman, rescued Ezra. Poignant photographs show her cuddling him on her lap in the police van. His rescue was miraculous; the stuff of fairy tales.

But with abandonment, “happily ever after” is never a given. After six weeks of love and pampering at the “baby home” whose “baby saver” (a place where a baby can be safely abandoned) is 3km from the place where he was abandoned, Ezra began struggling to breathe. It was sudden. Frantic efforts to save him failed. Within 24 hours, he was dead.

Ezra’s abandonment came just days after the same baby home admitted a traumatised nine-month-old girl, Nonkululeko*, who had been left with a stranger outside a shop while her mother bought groceries. Her mother never returned. The two stories inspired the baby home to start collecting statistics from the media and other baby homes. The information that poured in was devastating.

By the beginning of June, 26 baby homes reported an intake of 58 abandoned babies over the first two months of lockdown. Media reports for the same time (as well as June and early July) detail 50 abandonments – mostly babies – found in sewerage pipes, the open veld, rubbish dumps, in shallow graves, buckets, streets, outside homes and most tragically, in a dustbin a few meters away from a baby saver. Thirty-two (two-thirds) of these children were found dead.

These statistics include an unusually high number of older children, all with heartbreaking stories. One of the saddest accounts is that of 30-month-old Kuhle*.

The toddler was discarded in a dustbin outside a hospital in the first month of lockdown. Mercifully, he was found by a hospital social worker on her way to work that chilly autumn morning. He survived, but as an older child capable of both remembering and interpreting the experience, the psychological scars of his ordeal, and the rejection and loss it embodied, will be harder to heal.

Many don’t survive.

Two weeks after Ezra’s death, the same policewoman who had held him on that freezing night in May had the grim task of recovering the body of another abandoned baby, a newborn, also covered in a blanket – but this time left naked in a bin. As with many unsafely abandoned babies, help came too late.

Help also came too late for a baby left propped up on a pillow outside a house in Tembisa one bitterly cold night in June. The family who found the child as they left for work are tormented by the unanswered questions: why didn’t they hear the baby cry? Could they have done anything to save its life?

But while devastation is common among those who find dead babies, little compares to the horror of an East London man whose dog placed the severed head of a two-month-old baby at his feet. In spite of community outrage, the police were of little assistance, and many fear that dogs will continue to dig up the child’s remaining body parts.

These incidents, and many others, saw newspaper headlines declaring that abandonments had spiked during lockdown.

There’s some truth to this: many baby homes have experienced significant growth in numbers compared with 2019. The Gauteng health department also issued an unprecedented report stating that 118 babies had been abandoned in Gauteng hospitals over lockdown.

Moreover, it’s an increase confirmed by anecdotal evidence, including from illegal abortion providers who reported an upsurge in illegal late-term abortions over lockdown, a practice commonly linked to abandonment and abandonment deaths.

Concern about increasing abandonment was significant enough to warrant a civil society campaign during Child Protection Week highlighting the problem, trying to compel birth mothers to consider options other than unsafe abandonment and encouraging the general public to assist new moms to parent.

Given the campaign’s goals, and the department of social development’s (DSD) recognition that poverty and gender-based violence contribute to crisis pregnancies and abandonment, it is logical, but inaccurate, to assume government support for the initiative.

Instead, the DSD issued a media statement debunking the claims of increased abandonments, accusing NGOs of withholding information about abandonments and challenging the sector to prove that the problem exists.

The statement, like other communications from the department about abandonment, features the four “Ds” so common to government’s approach: defensiveness, denial, dispute and deflection.

Defensive in tone, the briefing, entitled “Social Development calls on NGOs to report cases of child abandonment” begins with denial: “the department has no record of the increase of cases in child abandonment during the lockdown period.”

It then disputes the numbers: “the department has to date received nine cases of child abandonment that were reported by provinces between March and April this year.”

Next comes deflection: “no reports of such cases were received from NGOs for the same period” and “the department takes this opportunity to appeal to all NGOs to report all suspected cases of child abuse, neglect, abandonment and exploitation to a designated child protection organisation, the provincial department of social development, local social worker or a police official.”

In summary, there’s no problem with abandonment that the department is aware of, but if there is an abandonment problem, the department is unaware of it because NGOs aren’t reporting the abandonments.

The “failure to report” claim is nonsense because the national department wasn’t working during Level 5 lockdown and couldn’t have received these reports. But the media statement does echo themes common in the department’s woefully infrequent communications about the scourge.

In a 2019 oral reply to a question posed in Parliament by shadow minister for social development, Bridget Masango, about what measures the department is taking to address the abandonment of about 3,500 babies annually, the minister responded that the figure of 3,500 was “not known to the department who, as the custodian of the Children’s Act, 38 of 2005, has a responsibility to keep official statistical data and records of abused, deliberately neglected or exploited children into the national child protection register”.

The statement was made without a hint of irony.

Civil society has waged a lengthy battle to get the keepers of “official statistical data” to disclose abandonment figures (tellingly, the minister neatly avoided providing any statistics and made no attempt to explain her omission).

In the absence of government data, the 3,500 figure, drawn from a 2013 study conducted by Dee Blackie, has been quoted in every media report about abandonment for the past seven years. It’s unlikely to have escaped government attention.

The minister then answered the question about what the department is doing to address abandonment, explaining that it is “strengthening community structures” to care for vulnerable children, working on the “preservation and strengthening of families” through “prevention and early intervention programmes” and offering “psychosocial support and counselling” to provide parents with “options such as making their child available for adoption”.

But many dispute the minister’s assertion that women experiencing a crisis pregnancy are being offered options like counselling and psychosocial support.

Kgomotso Mgiba, who put her child up for adoption, argues that for many pregnant women, options are non-existent.

Mgiba, describing in painful detail how nurses tried to dissuade her from going the adoption route, was told that adoption wasn’t “in black people’s culture”, and that she “should never have children again”. Nurses subsequently ostracised and isolated her when she ignored their “advice”. Worse, a hospital psychologist instructed her to “take her child back”.

Mgiba was certain that adoption was the best option for herself and her family, and went ahead in the face of accusations that she had “thrown her child away” or “sold her child”.

She wonders how many new moms succumb to pressure from nurses and social workers, then end up abandoning their children anyway.

Tahiyya Hassim, director of New BeginningZ Baby Haven, has first-hand experience of government’s failure to provide pregnant women with options.

Based in Laudium and Cape Town, the organisation has seen a considerable intake of older children in the past two years. According to Hassim, although some children were abandoned and others removed because of abuse, the common denominator is that the mothers had told social workers or nurses and doctors early on (either during the pregnancy, at birth or shortly after birth) that they did not want to raise their child.

Many had tried to explain their concerns to different social workers over time, only to be told how bad they were or, like Mgiba, that they had no right to “throw their children away”.

Others were told to keep their babies and the DSD would help them get grants.

Whether abandoned or abused, malnourished and neglected, Hassim has seen a similar pattern with these toddlers: none of the mothers wanted them, but they were forced to keep and raise them. By the time their children came to New BeginningZ, those that survived had already experienced irreversible damage.

It’s a damning indictment.

Not only is the government failing to prevent abandonment, but in some cases, it’s actually exacerbating it. Government practice and policies are driving abandonment.

Two of the largest categories of abandoning mothers are non-South Africans who risk deportation along with their child if they try to get social welfare assistance following a crisis pregnancy, and young women under 18 who are unable to place their babies into child protection without the consent of a parent or guardian (even though they can consent to an abortion). Fearing exposure and judgment, many young women opt to abandon.

It’s extremely common.

In one weekend in September, a 16-year-old was arrested in KwaZulu-Natal after her baby was rescued from a pit toilet, and a 17-year-old from Plettenberg Bay was arrested for abandoning her week-old baby beneath a bush in Knysna.

After years of attempts by child protection activists to make safe abandonment legal in South Africa – either through safe haven laws which allow a mother to place her child at a hospital or police station with no questions asked, or through anonymous birth, which allows a mother to deliver without leaving her details – the department is yet to even open discussions on the topic.

This is despite evidence showing that laws like these save thousands of lives in other countries – countries whose abandonment rates are far smaller than South Africa’s.

So, if legislation and government policy and practice are not preventing abandonment – and in some cases directly causing abandonment and the deaths of abandoned babies – why isn’t government being held accountable?

The answer lies in the statistics.

No one knows how big the problem actually is, and the absence of evidence makes it invisible. Civil society doesn’t have the funds to embark on a statistical analysis of abandoned children, essential for any court action forcing the government to amend its abandonment policy.

And, as the minister states, government – the custodian of statistics – is certainly not divulging them. But even without formal statistics, what we do know about abandonment is damning.

The 3,500 figure quoted by Masango is the number of children who survived abandonment and were cared for by child welfare in 2010. The implication is that overall abandonment in 2010 was much higher.

A survey of baby homes in 2017 indicated similar numbers, but also showed an increase in anonymous and unsafe abandonments. This is alarming given that in 2013, 70% of abandonments were deemed to be unsafe. If this percentage has increased further, the likely upshot is that even more abandoned children are dying.

This was confirmed in a 2016 Medical Research Council study on child homicide, which revealed that children in South Africa are at the highest risk of unnatural death in the first six days of life – a statistic directly related to death following abandonment of neonates (babies in the first 28 days of life).

Estimates are that only one third of abandoned children survive abandonment, and in Gauteng in 2015, for every abandoned child found alive, two were found dead.

In addition, many abandoned babies were first subject to a late-term abortion. Statistics show that 52-58% of South Africa’s abortions are illegal (up to 150,000 per annum), and in Gauteng, studies indicated that up to half of these abortions (which are seldom policed and often unsuccessful) take place in the third trimester.

This would already be cause for alarm. But there’s also evidence of government concealing abandonment statistics, especially when babies die.

Although it’s a criminal offence, there’s no category for abandonment in South Africa’s reported crime statistics. And SAPS routinely opens an inquest when confronted with a dead, abandoned baby. The assumption is that babies were already dead when they were abandoned. This, even when autopsies have discovered that the deceased showed signs of blunt force or sharp force trauma.

There’s also no category in SA’s forensic statistics for abandoned babies.  They are instead listed as stillbirths, but also unnatural deaths (a puzzling oxymoron). As a result, there is no way to track abandonment statistics through crime or pathology numbers.

Put like this, the government’s response to abandonment looks less like ignorance and more like intent. But the bewildering question is: why?

In a DSD video about gender-based violence, the minister stressed that the purpose of social welfare is to care for South African citizens, but specifically the most vulnerable. You can’t get more vulnerable than abandoned newborns, babies and toddlers.

So, given that the DSD isn’t denying that abandonment is occurring, why is it largely ignoring the issue? And why does it become so defensive when confronted with the extent of it?

Only the department knows.

And while it isn’t saying, there have been some hints regarding motivation. One possibility is that the department believes abandonment is something only foreigners do, so a strategic response isn’t warranted.

Also feasible is that it subscribes to the myth that safe abandonment encourages mothers to abandon their children rather than raise them. This falsehood persists despite research-based evidence that abandonment results from systemic issues of poverty, patriarchy and violence – not from choice or women taking an “easy option”.

But it’s most likely due to government’s need to maintain plausible deniability, cynically minimising an inconvenient problem for which it has no solution.

The crux is the absence of strategic initiatives for the long-term care of abandoned children. After years of speculation, the DSD’s Luyanda Mtshotshisa finally publicly articulated the department’s desire to “do away with the adoption of children altogether”. He was speaking at a portfolio committee briefing about the Children’s Amendment Bill. Mtshotshisa later clarified that “if a child is adopted by a stranger, it becomes a very isolated case”.

When asked by the committee what would happen to abandoned children without non-related adoptions, the department incomprehensibly (despite having worked with NGOs since May to compile more accurate abandonment statistics) countered that “only nine children” were abandoned during lockdown – again cherry-picking the incomplete statistic from the first five weeks of Level 5 lockdown when abandonment was difficult to hide, and effectively ignoring every other child abandoned in the past six months.

Regardless of the DSD’s obfuscation (or Rip van Winkle approach), abandonments haven’t ceased. The baby home that cared for Ezra noted that 70 unsafe abandonments had been reported in the media during lockdown: 42 of the children were deceased.

In September alone, these statistics included a:

  • Newborn baby abandoned on pavement in Cape Town.
  • Newborn baby abandoned naked in street in Johannesburg.
  • Newborn baby abandoned in a pit toilet in Durban.
  • Newborn baby found alive in shallow grave in Potchefstroom.
  • Newborn baby abandoned on side of road in Berea.
  • Newborn baby found dead in rubbish bin Cape Town.
  • Newborn baby found dead in rubbish bag in Port Shepstone.
  • Newborn baby found dead in black bin bag in Margate (the day after the Port Shepstone baby).
  • Newborn baby boy found dead in a dustbin in Vanderbijlpark.
  • Newborn baby found dead covered in plastic in a cemetery in Modderfontein.
  • Newborn baby abandoned behind a container at Cape Town station.
  • One-week-old baby found in bushes in Knysna.
  • One-week-old baby found abandoned under a tree in Eshowe.

One of the best articulations of the situation facing abandoned children came from a baby house in Port Shepstone.

El Roi Baby Home began after its founder, Trevor Downham, had a dream in which he saw a crowd of people walking down the road in Hillbrow carrying a coffin. As he went to help them, they dropped the coffin and the lid came off to reveal the corpses of many newborn babies. When he looked closer, he saw that not all the babies were dead. He tried to save them, only to be pushed aside by the coffin-bearers who closed the lid and continued their journey.

It may seem fanciful to cite a dream, especially one that came to fruition in 2018 when a bakkie carrying the bodies of dead abandoned newborns being driven to a graveyard for a pauper’s burial overturned on the M2 highway in Johannesburg not far from where Ezra was abandoned, spilling tiny coffins across the road. But it neatly sums up the problem of abandonment: most abandoned babies were healthy before they were aborted late-term, or born and then abandoned unsafely. Many end up maimed, disabled, psychologically and emotionally scarred, or dead.

And most could have been saved if we had acted.

Blackie argues that abandoned children in South Africa have been abandoned twice – first by their caregiver and then by the government.

The Children’s Act of 2005 defines an abandoned child as a child who has “obviously been deserted by the parent, guardian or caregiver”.  Her view is that abandoned children have “obviously been deserted” by the state too.

Abandonment is a hidden problem, one devoid of the victim’s voices.

But it’s an irrefutable reality that will not be managed or minimised by social welfare programmes. What’s needed is a targeted strategic and research-based response to lessen abandonment and prevent abandonment-related deaths.

Which begs the questions: how many abandoned babies and children are too many? How many will be “enough” to warrant government action?  When will the government start tracking and disclosing the numbers of survivors and those who have died?

And, in a country that was willing to risk the economy to save lives during the pandemic, why are these young lives so tragically unimportant? DM

*Not their real names.

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  • This is the true nature of our South African society. Too few people care (the policewoman, Robyn Vorster, some NGO’s are notable and courageous exceptions). The suffering of these children must be unspeakable.