Babies not for Sale. Or are they?

This post is another sobering look at the adoption situation in South Africa and how frustrating it is to deal with the bureaucracy  and also the perceptions associated with adoption in this country. Going through our second adoption currently we can testify to how difficult it is to get the adoption and paperwork finalised. Siya has been in our family for 18 months already but we still do not have the documents finalised so that we can apply for his new birth certificate and passport.

Babies not for Sale. Or are they?

IT WAS a shock, turning on the radio recently and hearing a government official publicly questioning my motives for adopting my beautiful daughter. In an interview on Talk Radio 702 about the declining number of adoptions, the spokeswoman for the Department of Social Development declared defensively that “our babies aren’t for sale”.

The statement came days after our family finally concluded our long and arduous adoption process. Although dismaying, it didn’t come as a surprise — for us, the last three-and-a-half years have been characterised by a battle against the government’s hostility towards adoption.

While officials cite fear about trafficking as a reason for their adoption obstacles, millions of South African orphans are significantly more vulnerable to trafficking, poverty, abuse and neglect than my little girl. We are fiddling while Rome burns.

Across the globe, adoption is seen as necessary and socially beneficial, a permanent way of taking care of the world’s 153-million most defenceless children. SA seems to be a notable exception. Here, adoption is viewed with suspicion and, in some senses, it is considered to be un-African.

A nuclear family that does not respect the child’s origins is seen as no substitute for authentic community. The communal raising of vulnerable children is a valuable thing. But the flip side is that anyone wanting to care for a child in a way that removes him from his kin and culture, and legally and permanently changes his identity, is seen in a negative light.

This affects the likelihood of many children being adopted, even when that identity, kin and culture is unknown. It explains why, even though adoption is legal and apparently accepted in this country, the government seems to ascribe evil intent to anyone who tries to adopt — hence the “babies for sale” comment and the highly combative process.

Since we began our adoption proceedings in 2011, my husband and I have been vetted by social workers, psychologists, doctors, the police, the courts and, of course, government officials.

It has been checked whether we have a police record, whether we are on the National Register for Sexual Offenders, whether we are psychologically and physically well, whether our marriage is in good shape, and whether we are financially able to afford adoption. We have opened our lives, health, finances, history, relationship and mental state to an astonishing amount of scrutiny, and all at great expense.

But we did not pay money to buy a baby. Instead, we paid for all of the professional services required to approve us for adoption; we paid to ensure that our child was adoptable; we paid for the legal process of having the relationship confirmed; and we paid to have our child’s legal status changed.

Not that I am complaining: like most adoptive parents my view is that no matter how hard, combative and costly the process, I would do it all again — and more — for the joy of having my child. I find myself asking: if you wanted to traffic children, why would you join what must be one of the most highly monitored groups of people in SA and accept the wait and costs involved?

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimates that SA has more than 5-million orphans. The agency considers them to be particularly vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

THE government’s policy suggests a longing for a utopia that no longer exists because communal care is becoming financially and practically less viable. The reality is that traditional extended families and communities have been decimated.

“Kinship” relationships, underpinned by the notion of ubuntu, are still presumed to be keeping our children safe, but HIV/AIDS, poverty, urbanisation and the dispersal of families it brings have changed things. As long as adoption is discouraged, the government is dooming many orphans to institutional care, child-headed households, mistreatment, neglect and trafficking.

Given that millions of children are eligible, SA’s adoption figures are astonishing. They declined by about 50% from 2,840 in 2004 to 1,448 in 2014.

Nonetheless, the government appears to be offering community caregivers the foster care grant in support of their approach to managing orphans. This grant was never intended to be used for large numbers of children or to combat poverty, but it has now become something of an incentive — one that actively discourages legal adoption.

The foster care grant differs from other welfare grants in important respects. First, it is not a poverty alleviation grant so it isn’t means tested. Provided the child is poor, caregivers can receive the grant whether they earn R200 or R200,000 a month.

Second, it is a particularly large grant — R860 a month, more than double the childcare grant of R330.

Finally, as an emergency grant designed for short-term interventions in crises, it is intended to be paired with close and careful monitoring of recipients. But, given that well more than half a million South Africans receive the grant, and the ratio of social workers to recipients is very low, it is likely that monitoring is often nonexistent.

The grant is expensive, resource intensive (social workers must renew the court order for each recipient every two years) and, bizarrely, carries the inherent assumption that orphans are two-and-a-half times more expensive to care for than other children.

While many caregivers have good intentions, the fact that it cannot be effectively monitored means that the policy puts the very children it is supposed to protect at high risk. Yet, it remains the default grant for people caring for orphans.

ADVOCACY groups began calling as far back as 2001 for the government to implement a means-tested “kinship grant” to relieve the pressure on the foster care system, and pay and oversee caregivers in a way that is more equitable and manageable. But, although plans for this new grant have been discussed, they have yet to materialise.

It is hard to miss the irony — people are benefiting monetarily from SA’s orphans, but not adoptive parents.

And who will raise abandoned children if adoption is not an accepted solution? No matter how committed and capable some communities are, the government’s approach does not cater for abandoned children whose families are in most cases unknown.

Current estimates are that about 3,500 children are abandoned annually. There has been little research, so the figure may be much higher. If officials remain opposed to adoption, not only privately but publicly, what hope is there for children who have been tragically labelled “weggooikinders”?

Society has changed and SA’s strategy for coping with orphans is simply not working. If it were, we would not have 5-million children deemed vulnerable to abuse and trafficking, we would have a plan for dealing with abandoned children and we would not need to financially incentivise community-based care for unparented children in a way that may collapse the foster care system.

Sadly, hindering adoption is not going to restore traditional African culture or reinstate universal, altruistic kinship care. The only likely result is that it will prejudice those who want to be part of the solution.

The government either needs to substantiate the claim and act accordingly, or it needs to back down, make the process less adversarial and start viewing adoptive parents for what they should be — partners in giving SA’s children hope and a future.

This post originally appeared on Business Day Live.

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