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When adoption is multi-cultural

Cape Town - “I can’t pretend I’m coloured and I can’t pretend that I’m going to raise her in a coloured way, but that’s not important, as long she’s exposed to everything,” says Kerryn Vermeulen of her 2-year-old adopted daughter.

Kerryn and her husband Etienne are both white.

Tracy Gibson, her husband Ken, didn't want to mention daughter's name.Candice Ridgway and her husband Stewart. Their son Hayden.Douglas Newman-Valentine and his husband Marlow Valentine, their daughter Rebecca.Kerryn Vermeulen, her husband Etienne, their daughter Riley.Jonathan Ancer with his sons Samuel Ancer and Khwezi Ancer.

Their daughter Riley, is coloured, making them one of hundreds of families in the Western Cape who have participated in cross-racial adoptions.

In the past financial year, there have been 367 cross-racial adoptions out of over 1 000 adoptions, the Department of Social Development says.

Kerryn isn’t intimidated by raising a multiracial family.

“It’s what we do in everyday life that matters. She has choices, she’ll be exposed to everything and when the inevitable time comes when people make comments, I know she’ll be ready. She’s the light of our lives.”

Though interracial adoptions are relatively common, they are still not the status quo.

Based on a review of the Registry of Adoptable Children and Parents, reports show that as of November there were 297 unmatched parents and 428 unmatched children.

Most parents prefer to adopt children of their own race, resulting in only 29 possible matches for parents on the registry.

Cape Town Welfare says the decreasing number of adoptions is due to a lack of resources and human capital within its organisation.

However, Dee Blackie, a consultant to the National Adoption Coalition of SA, says despite families like Kerryn’s who are open to cross-racial adoptions, the declining adoption numbers have to do with “cultural barriers” within traditional African families – barriers which cause a propensity for choosing abandonment instead of formal adoption.

She also says that the Children’s Act of 2010 is partially to blame.

“Many young girls are not keen on adoption because it seems like a conscious act, you’ve been given a gift by the gods and you choose to give that gift away, much like abortion, and there’s the belief that the gods will make you suffer. Infertility is a huge fear for a young woman,” Blackie says. “Then they are forced to abandon their babies.”

Blackie’s research showed that often traditional African cultures were fearful of bringing babies of unknown ancestry into their families.

Last year, there were only 14 black parents registered for adoption, while 398 black children were up for adoption, according to the registry.

Jean Luyt, a clinical psychologist, created a group called Cape Town Adoption Support after she adopted her son, Khwezi, 10 years ago.

She says often the group is very diverse, although “statistically there are more white people adopting” and she says, “there are no white babies available, but all white adoptive parents”.

Often discussion centres on how to navigate cross-racial adoption. “It’s concerns of a cross-racial nature, about the difference, about living in a sexist or racist environment, what does it mean for the child? The issues are sensitive because you have to acknowledge everyone isn’t on the same page,” Luyt says.

Marlow Newman-Valentine and his husband Douglas are gay and coloured and adopted their daughter, who is black, through a private agency.

They had difficulties with Child Welfare because of their sexuality.

Although Marlow made sure to say the agency they used was “neither racist or prejudiced towards us”, he says overall the adoption process felt homogeneous.

“Unfortunately the adoption agencies are “extremely” white – and there is a bit of an uncomfortable feeling to the process. Whether it is prejudice or just internalised issues – I’m not too sure,” Marlow says.

The Department of Social Development declined to comment on the SA Human Rights Commission’s investigation on homophobia in adoption agencies.

Their adoption was closed, but Marlow is adamant that they would never deny their daughter her biological culture. “Our child will always be exposed to diverse languages, cultures, experiences, not because she’s black or female, but because we believe she should be stimulated and educated as widely as possible. We are not going to do things within a particular culture, language expression or gender,” Douglas says.

Candice Ridgway and her husband Stewart also adopted their son Hayden without requesting race. They couldn’t conceive their own child.

Candice says “the waiting list for black children isn’t very long” and the process was extremely quick, although Stewart adds that the process was extremely expensive, a problem he thinks could be a barrier for many. “We didn’t specify race… we were just waiting to love a baby,” Candice says.

The couple is aware the birth mother was HIV positive, although Hayden is not, a factor they say wouldn’t have mattered.

“I want to send him to a school that teaches Xhosa, but to be honest, we’re not going to raise him in traditional Xhosa ways, we’re going to raise him as our son and if he wants to learn, he can and he will,” Candice says.

Tracy Gibson and her husband Ken, who adopted due to issues with fertility, also adopted a Xhosa baby girl. They did not specify race or gender.

Their only specifications were that their baby be neither HIV positive, nor have foetal alcohol syndrome.

However, Tracy did express apprehension about her husband’s traditionally Afrikaans extended family who refuse to acknowledge the baby.

“They grew up where black people were not treated as equal. The minute I take my daughter into my arms, they won’t talk to me,” Tracy says.

“She’s 2 now, but what about when she’s 14, 15, 16? How am I going to explain why they aren’t looking at her, how am I going to explain their mentality?” - Arabella Watters, Cape Argus

Jumping through hoops – and then some

My parents sat me down. “Son,” said my dad, “your mother has something important to tell you.” I looked from my father to my mother. My mother took a deep breath and then dropped a bombshell. “You’re adopted.”

“I can’t believe you’re only telling me now,” I said. “I mean, why did you wait so long?”

My mother, whose lip wobbled and trembled, finally cracked and burst into… great big fat peals of laughter.

“I’m sorry,” he chuckled.

He? Yes. Not only is “my mother” not my biological mother, he is also a he. I was role-playing with 20 other people at a Child Welfare adoption workshop a couple of weeks ago.

The people, of various ages, sexualities and income-brackets, have one thing in common: they have started an adoption journey.

Actually, they have two things in common: they also have the capacity to shower a child with love.

They have different reasons for adopting. Some are single, some have fertility issues, some can’t stand the thought of children growing up without parents, some are gay and some have a religious calling.

We, Jean and I, are on our second adoption voyage. We have a 10-year-old son, a Minecraft whiz, rugby fanatic and sushi junkie, who believes there’s nothing funnier in the world than a fart joke – except maybe a fart.

During the first day of the workshop, we discussed reasons children are put up for adoption and whether the participants would be willing to adopt children born as a result of rape or incest, or adopt disabled children.

We also discussed transracial adoptions because many adopters are white and most adoptable babies are black.

The second day dealt mainly with when and how to tell your children they are adopted. We asked our son if he had any advice for the participants. “Sure,” he responded. “Say: ‘Hey, kid, you’re adopted, good night!’”

Did I mention he has a sense of humour?

Our boy has always known he is adopted – it’s part of his narrative. Do you remember anyone telling you what your name is? There are some things you just know – and you get on with it. That’s his attitude. He knows his parents are not his biological parents, but he also knows that they are his forever parents, who will be there for him no matter what.

The workshop is part of the country’s strict screening process.

First step is filling out forms, and getting four written references. Then you need a medical certificate. And a police clearance certificate. And a certificate to certify that you’re not on the sexual offenders’ list. And a deposit. And then an interview with a social worker – as a couple and then separately.

And then a two-day workshop. And finally, the social workers come visit you at home. If you are approved, your name is put on a list. And then you wait... and wait and wait some more. For a few days or a few months or a few years.

The bureaucratic hoop-jumping is frustrating. If only all people were screened so carefully before they were allowed to become parents.

Adoptive parents face misconceptions like you are not your child’s “real” parent, or you won’t love an adopted child as fiercely as a biological child. That’s hogwash multiplied by bunkum to the power of codswallop.

You love your children because they are your children – you bond with them, nurture and protect and do whatever it takes to make them happy – yes, even laugh at their fart jokes. - Jonathan Ancer, Cape Argus

Adoption by the numbers

The number of adoptions registered in South Africa has decreased over the past three years.

Department of Social Development statistics show that 1 448 adoptions were registered in the year between April 1 last year and March 31 this year, while 1 669 adoptions were registered for the previous one-year period. The figure for April 2011 to March 31` 2012 was 1 817 adoptions.

Penelope Whitaker, a senior manager with the Cape Town Child Welfare Society, said there were only two social workers responsible for adoption services in the organisation and their case loads “exceed the national norm”.

Administrative expectations required by the children’s courts had increased, so that adoptions took longer.

According to www.services.gov.za couples or individuals who want to adopt must apply to an adoption agency.

The potential parents were then screened at home to make sure they were “fit and proper” to adopt a child.

If the agency was satisfied, the parents would be put on a register of adoptable children and adoptive parents while a child was sought.

If a suitable child was found, the parents would meet the child, and if all was well, a report would be sent to the children’s court to issue an adoption order. - Ilse Fredericks, Cape Argus

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