MEC for Social Development Meshack Radebe cuddles one of the orphans at the Shepherds Keep Home for abandoned babies on the Bluff during a visit recently. Photo: Steven Naidoo

Baby Faith has been abandoned – not by the young mother who gave her up for adoption but by the system that was meant to help her.

Even though two local couples are waiting to adopt her, she spent Christmas in a home for abandoned babies.

The six-month-old girl is the victim of an extremely rigorous new Childcare Act which cannot be properly implemented and has pathetically under-resourced service providers and massive inefficiencies.

It is a small wonder, then, that crisis parents from Durban’s overburdened baby homes were horrified when MEC for Social Development Meshack Radebe decided to adopt two children “on the spot” during a visit to a centre last week. Whether it was a publicity stunt or a heartfelt gesture, he has now lifted the lid on an extremely controversial issues surrounding adoption in South Africa.

Justin Foxton, who opened a place of safety for abandoned babies at his Umhlanga home just seven months ago, believes Radebe’s actions amount to “shopping for babies”. He said adopting two babies was a cop-out when the minister had the power to tackle problems and change the lives of thousands.

Cathy Pearce, a crisis mother at the Starfish home for abandoned babies in Durban North, voiced another concern – would the cumbersome new adoption process be fast- tracked to accommodate the MEC?

“What applies to one applies to all – even if you are the MEC. Our babies are the little people who matter. Adoption is not a spur-of-the-moment decision. He should have gone through the whole screening process first and really thought through the whole matter.”

Joan van Niekerk, manager, training and advocacy, for Childline South Africa, who helped formulate the new act, agreed: “Adoption should not be fast-tracked for anyone and neither should investigating the circumstances of either the adopted child or adoptive parents be cut short. It would be very difficult for anyone in the Department of Social Development to be objective about this particular adoption. In theory, they would be investigating the most senior person in their workplace.

“I hope that an independent organisation will be managing the screening process or even a social worker in private practice, as anyone employed by Child Welfare would be in the same position, as the organisation depends on subsidies.”

In response to Foxton’s comment, Radebe’s spokesman Mandla Ngema said the MEC did a lot for KZN residents.

“That is a ridiculous comment. He has changed the lives of many people in the province, he buys food for needy children, pays for their school fees and he does not rely on department funds to do this, he does it out of his own money.”

Ngema said all the necessary processes would be followed for the adoption.

“The MEC would not ask for the process to be fast-tracked. He does not consider himself as a ‘somebody’ just because he is a MEC, he wants the process to be followed as it would be for any other person.”

Ngema added that the social welfare staff handling the adoption would have to be objective.

“This is not about the MEC, it’s about these children who are suffering. The staff are trained to look at the child’s needs so everything would be done step by step.”

However, the real tragedy is that the children the MEC wishes to adopt are the lucky ones. According to statistics presented by the national Department of Social Development’s portfolio committee when reviewing South Africa’s adoption policy in October, there were 668 000 orphans in 2007. Sadly, between March, 2003 and January, 2010, there were just 14 559 adoptions countrywide. There are simply not enough prospective parents.

Another problem is the extremely long waiting periods required by the new act – abandoned babies have to be “advertised” for 90 days so they can be reclaimed by their families before they are placed on the register for adoptable children and adoptive parents (Racap). Parents who have signed consent for their babies to be adopted have 60 days to change their minds.

When these waiting periods are exacerbated by bureaucracy and bungling, the situation becomes completely untenable.

According to Foxton, the Racap database is virtually unusable. Designed to identify both prospective parents and children who are eligible for adoption, it is instead a “cut and paste” spreadsheet with random information that is not ordered either alphabetically or by province.

“I couldn’t find any of our babies on it. We were told that one of our babies has been placed on Racap, but it is Christmas and we cannot be sure.”

Pearce said changes had almost reduced adoptions to zero. Babies who would ordinarily have been adopted at about three months were now waiting until they were between seven and nine months old.

According to Wandisa, South Africa’s only fully accredited private adoption agency under the new Children’s Act, the earliest adoptions can probably only begin eight months after a child is removed from a parent or placed in temporary safe care. This excludes all other delays and time taken for investigation or court adjournments.

“The adoption process is unacceptably delayed. We are very concerned about the lack of application of certain provisions of the new Children’s Act which should enable the process to move more quickly for children and prospective adoptive parents,” Van Niekerk said.

“In Faith’s case, effective implementation of the Children’s Act and an efficient court process could have seen her in a good home by Christmas. Instead, she’s now learning to crawl in a very small baby house,” Foxton said.

He acknowledged that all cases – the MEC’s included – were extremely emotive. He has encountered many cases of babies being left on pavements or under bushes. Faith was born at Wentworth Hospital and only reached Foxton’s home 12 days later.

“Our other babies were found just hours after birth and seem more secure. When Faith arrived, she was very ill and screamed day and night. She had a furrowed, anxious face. She is only now coming out of her shell.”

Social workers failed to get Faith’s mother to sign consent before she returned to the Eastern Cape.

It took more than four months to get a signature and only then could the 60-day “consent period” begin. As a result, Faith was not eligible for adoption until a month ago.

While waiting, Foxton petitioned the Durban Child Welfare Society to consider two sets of Durban parents put forward by Wandisa. Thirteen e-mails were apparently ignored and he discovered a longstanding feud between the organisations. Any chance of a resolution was put on hold while decision-makers were on leave and spending Christmas with their families

Although many crisis parents declined to comment on the MEC’s adoption plans for fear of antagonising social workers, Foxton and Pearce believe it is time for all stakeholders to work together for change.

“We are the people on the ground who deal with these traumatic situations. We are there to back up the system, but it is failing our children. The new Children’s Act makes social workers’ jobs even more difficult.

“Many of the new measures haven’t been implemented, which is slowing down the process. They are dedicated but are paid nothing. They are frustrated and stretched – and now every adoption is taking much longer,” said Pearce.

Foxton spoke of a clash between “First World legislation” and antiquated thinking and procedures. Just five social workers deal with adoptions in Durban.

“We are trying to implement 2010 legislation via a system that is between 20 and 30 years out of date at best. Our social workers work under totally unacceptable conditions with no administrative support and just one computer and e-mail address between them. This means processing an ever mounting pile of paper manually.”

This is why, for babies such as Faith, time is running out.

As children get older, the chance of adoption shrinks. They form strong bonds with caregivers, making adoption extremely traumatic… and when they are institutionalised in state facilities, adoption is even more unlikely. - The Mercury