Failing the abandoned
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LEFT atop refuse heaps and in the city centre restrooms, or deserted as a result of the deaths of their parents, more than 500 children are abandoned and orphaned in KwaZulu-Natal each year, according to the Department of Social Development. But, while living happily ever after awaits the fortunate who are adopted by doting families, concerned parties believe that many vulnerable children are robbed of the opportunity.
Debbie Wybrow, attorney and founder of the Wandisa adoption agency; Mercury columnist Justin Foxton, founder of the Baby House in Umhlanga and the KZN Adoption Coalition; and Lisa Parsee, executive director of Durban and District Child Welfare, all point to legislative delays which they believe negatively affect the adoption process.
In addition, Wybrow suggests that there are numbers of children in institutionalised care who should be assessed for adoptability, and many others who have been in places of safety for years without appearing on the Register of Adoptable Children and Prospective Adoptive Parents (Racap).
The purpose of the register, the department explained, was to keep the data of all adoptable children countrywide – and to assist adoption agencies in finding suitable prospective parents within the country.
“In instances where the adoption service provider has a child, but does not have suitable adoptive parents, (it) can check the register for available prospective adoptive parents that match the child,” department spokeswoman Lumka Oliphant said. It also works vice versa.
Of the 269 children currently on the register, 61 are from KZN.
While Foxton conceded that the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 was a “very solid, excellent piece of legislature”, he was not alone in suggesting that certain stipulations in it needed tweaking.
Before an abandoned child can be declared adoptable, an advertisement must be published in at least one newspaper in the area in which the child was found, calling on someone to claim responsibility for him or her within three months. During those 90 days, the child lives in a temporary place of safety.
Foxton’s coalition, which comprises representatives of the adoption fraternity in KZN, including social workers and crisis homes, is advocating for the time frame to be reduced to 21 days.
Foxton recalled how a little girl rescued from a Durban driveway was with the Baby House for eight months; he discovered that the advertisement had not been placed, because the social worker had had to wait for free advertising space to become available.
In the event that a child was given up by his or her birth mother, she had 60 days after the signing of the adoption consent form to change her mind. This period should also be decreased to 21 days, Foxton said.
Although the longest time a child had been in the care of the Baby House was 10 months, Foxton said the difference in development was marked.
“There’s teething, they begin to stand, they’re introduced to solids – all the things which the adoptive parents will miss out on.
“If you leave a child in crisis care for 18 months or more, he or she runs the risk of becoming institutionalised… I’ve been to state homes where there are rows and rows of cots, and the children standing in them look out (at you) with dead eyes.
“The caregivers can only afford to put bottles in mouths and change nappies. The child misses out on touch, love, colour and necessary stimulation. A children’s home or place of temporary care – even a small one such as ours – is not best for a child, a family is. Children are spending too long in crisis care.”
While Parseef felt the 60 days’ grace was reasonable, she said the 90-day wait favoured parental rights rather than those of the children, and that submissions were being made at a national level to discuss such delays.
“The nurturing of the baby is done by a temporary caregiver – parents miss out on this opportunity. Parents want babies from birth or as close to that as possible. They are very dissatisfied with getting an older baby; it’s not the ideal. At orientation with the parents we prepare them for this challenge,” Parsee said.
“Any delay has a negative impact on the child’s ability to attach and bond,” Wybrow asserted. “The impact of temporary and changing care on a child of any age can be devastating, and even more so during the child’s first few months of life when attachment and bonding are crucial to healthy growth and development.
“Caregivers change, children get moved and volunteers come and go. It’s a transient environment with no permanency, in contradiction of meeting the ‘best interests’ criteria of Section 7 of the act insofar as permanency.
“Many prospective adoptive parents have no option but to seek professional counsel for themselves and their adopted children to manage and overcome these issues,” Wybrow said.
She added that there were “many children (who) are still in places of safety and have been there for years without being placed on the register”. Asked how this happened, she responded that there were “a myriad reasons for society failing children”.
They included bureaucratic delays at the expense of children, emphasis being placed on the rights of the birth parent, rather than on the responsibilities of the birth parent, and a dearth of proper supervision of children’s placements – “once in alternative care they stay there, no matter what”. Wybrow explained “alternative care” as including foster care, temporary safe care or child and youth care centres (previously called children’s homes).
Wybrow was also of the opinion that the register “did not reflect those thousands of children who have a constitutional right to a family and who could be legally declared adoptable”.
“The list does not include children in institutionalised care who should be assessed for adoptability, nor those in temporary safe or foster care whose parents’ legal rights should be terminated because of abuse or neglect as provided for in Section 236.”
However, when asked whether there were indeed children who should be on the register but who had fallen through the cracks, and were institutionalised or in temporary places of safety longer than necessary, the department responded that not all vulnerable children were adoptable.
“The fact that some children are not on the adoption register does not automatically mean that the children are in child and youth care centres.”
Oliphant added that, because not all vulnerable children were adoptable, some of them grew up in child and youth care centres (children’s homes), and that there was also a significant number of children who were considered orphans and whose names did not appear on the register, but who lived with a relative.
The department was unable to respond to questions relating to the shortening of the 90- and 60-day time frames or the impact of that on the adoption process.