File photo: Allison Joyce/AP
Johannesburg - They are abandoned at the very time they most need protection and care, and by the very people meant to protect them. Left to fend for themselves, many die. Some are miraculously saved.

While child abandonment may have declined at 26 child and youth care centres across the country over the past four years, latest statistics show that the number of babies abandoned anonymously has increased.

According to Joburg Child Welfare statistics, about 3500 babies were abandoned in 2010. That number has since decreased to 2830.

The statistics tell the National Adoption Coalition of South Africa one thing - there are increasing levels of risky abandonment: babies are being abandoned in unsafe places or areas.

Presenting the National Adoption Coalition of SA’s latest research into child abandonment ahead of Child Protection Week, activist Dee Blackie outlined the grim reality faced by thousands of babies in their first few days and months of their lives: two out of three abandoned babies will die.

“In the past there had been no conclusive statistical research into child abandonment, and when we speak of 3500 children abandoned, we are always referencing Joburg welfare statistics. So we decided this year we’d try understand these numbers,” Blackie said.

The research had two limitations, the one being it did not include state child centres/homes and it was not reflective of the Free State and Limpopo, as no responses were received from child centres in those provinces.

While the research showed a 30% drop over four years in abandoned babies at the various centres, the numbers were still scary.

Adoptions remained low, with a drop in the number consented for adoption from 1699 in 2012/13 to 1349 in 2016/17 - 149 of which were international adoptions.

“Many organisations couldn’t answer whether or not they know the biological families of the children. It used to be that we knew who the children belonged to (biologically), now we don’t know,” Blackie said.

Another problem was that children were being reunited with their parents and not children’s homes even though their parents’ homes were not ideal for them.

“A social worker can spend days trying to find a space in a home, but there mostly isn’t any. Foreign children (born to foreigners) are stuck in the system adoptions are taking far longer to process. A process that used to take six months is now taking up to 18 months,” Blackie said.

Social workers who participated in the research, also noted the rise in the number of premature and disabled babies.

“We’re seeing mothers taking medicines to terminate their pregnancies in their third trimester, but the child survives and is left brain damaged or disabled. Not only are the babies being abandoned, but they’re being abandoned with a disability”, Blackie said.

The National Adoption Coalition of SA launched its communication campaign “Choose to Care” to address this ongoing challenge.

“There were three major insights that led to the development of this campaign. The first was the research conducted in 2013 by Luke Lamprecht and Sheri Errington that mapped the sites where the bodies of discarded and potential children have been found across Gauteng, thought to be the result of late abortions,” Blackie said.

“The majority of the babies were found to have been born at over 26 weeks in utero and thus could have been viable births. The second is the fact that many babies are abandoned very close to places of safety that can help these desperate mothers, but they often don’t know that they exist or where to find them.”

Lamprecht, who has since developed the Babies Matter: Shaken and Abused baby initiative, said: “If you think about a baby, that baby will matter. On a very logical level, the concealment of babies, abandoned babies - all of it, it speaks to a failure of family planning. When you conceive a child in your mind, you’re already making space for them in your life. If you haven’t planned for a child, it’s obviously a shock. Unplanned pregnancies are the start of risk.”

He said the initiative promoted in utero attachment.

“We are all taught that with birth comes this bundle of joy - but for some women that is not the reality. No one gives you permission to say ‘you know what, I’m not coping’... post-natal depression is a real psychiatric condition.”

As part of its campaign, the National Adoption Coalition of SA has printed posters depicting a tombstone with the statistic that two in three babies die.

The posters not only highlight the danger of child abandonment, but also guide anyone experiencing a crisis pregnancy to a nearby place of safety or baby home that offers help.

Child Protection Week starts on Monday.

The Sunday Independent