As we observe World Adoption Day, we need to remain mindful that adoption remains one of the most viable care options for some abandoned and orphaned children. However, there are systemic challenges in the South African system that hinder the process, which in turn impacts the rate of adoptions.
The number of adoptions in South Africa (and around the world) is steadily declining and, at first glance, this creates a paradoxical situation.
According to the SA Child Gauge report, there were about 3.1million orphaned children in South Africa in 2016. As many as 3500 babies are abandoned each year - and this figure includes only those that survive.
Of course, most orphaned children live with extended family members and do not need to be placed in other forms of care. Nevertheless, there are still several in the country who could be adopted.
It is surprising and concerning, therefore, that the number of adoptions is steadily dropping. Only 10021 legal adoptions were registered between 2010 and 2016 in South Africa. Local adoptions decreased from 2234 in 2010/11 to 978 in 2015/16.
Adults who want to adopt are screened by an adoption social worker. The process is rigorous - as it should be - to ensure that the placement is in the best interest of the child who has been abandoned, orphaned, abused or voluntarily given up by the parents. The application is made in the Children’s Court, which provides judicial oversight on the process.
But it seems there are a number of reasons for the decline in adoption numbers. Some claim it is a front for child trafficking. This is a valid concern, but there are mechanisms in place to ensure this does not happen. The court has to be satisfied that the child is going to be in a safe environment before it grants an adoption order. To avoid placing children in harmful environments, adoption law in South Africa provides safeguards within the adoption process, including background checks, criminal record checks and psychological assessments.
Putting a stop to adoptions is not an appropriate strategy to counter child trafficking, as this punishes children who are in need of a good family.
The reluctance to adopt is also driven by the notion that children should be placed with relatives and that adoption should be a last resort - and by the view among potential adoptive parents that the Department of Social Development slows down the process.
The law requires that a letter from the head of the Department of Social Development that recommends the child’s adoption accompanies an adoption application. This letter is supposed to take 21 days to retrieve, but it takes longer due to some provinces duplicating the work of the court.
The National Adoption Coalition of South Africa, assisted by the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, is challenging the misuse of this requirement in the Durban High Court. In KwaZulu-Natal, obtaining this letter takes anything from six months to three years.
It is the Centre for Child Law’s view that adoption may provide great benefits for children and prevent them growing up in child and youth care centres where there is no family life.
* Lithalethemba Stwayi is an attorney at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.