There are an estimated 3.7 million orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa. And many more children are living with sick and bedridden caregivers. Children without proper adult care are more likely to be abused and exploited.

No-one argues with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), when they say that children should grow up in safe family environments, whether their own or those provided by foster or adoptive parents. In fact this is echoed not only by child care experts but also by our Minister of Social Development who has stated that adoption is an essential part of South Africa's child protection strategy.

Anyone who has ever ventured close to the adoption space however, knows that what is said and what is done - appear contradictory. The DSD has stated that its intention is to “increase adoptions” which are currently down more than 50% in the past five years to about 1200 adoptions in 2017/2018.

The process -we are told - is a bureaucratic nightmare. Independent social workers and child protection organisations have found it almost impossible to facilitate the process of adoption with potential adoptive parents - calling the process ‘traumatic’ - largely due to the behaviour of a range of government officials and public servants; so hostile that it is referred to as “constructive prevention of adoption”.

And as you know another closely related area of contradiction is the operation of “baby safes” where desperate mothers may place their babies in a safe receptacle. As it is illegal to publicly operate and communicate such a facility - mothers facing desperate circumstances are less likely to know about this option when they need it most.

Recently, three amendments to the Children’s Act have been proposed that are meant to increase access to adoption but have the potential to seriously worsen the situation.  Although the Act has respected adoption till now it has been an uneasy fit with the department.  As a member of the Portfolio Committee, when this issue was deliberated on years ago, it was the ACDP - in communication with children’s rights lawyer Debbie Wybrow - who argued for the protection and facilitation of adoption and won the day.  The hostility and suspicion regarding adoption was very evident at that time as well.

Debbie Wybrow, has referred to the recent amendments as an unprecedented threat. Others have called it “an unambiguous act of aggression”.

The amendments to Sections 249 and 259 of the Children’s Act would mean the government would facilitate all adoptions - and the intended removal of subsection 3 of clause 250 would make any payment for national or inter-country adoptions illegal.

This would prohibit the involvement of any professionals other than government social workers, in the complex adoption process including attorneys, psychologists, therapists, trauma counsellors and medical practitioners; this despite that fees are clearly specified by the DSD and closely vetted by them and the courts in every adoption process.

These amendments would have gone unnoticed had they not been raised by attendees to the National Child Care and Protection Forum, hosted by the Department in November, after they had already been gazetted. And, in fact the policy document, usually intended to inform stakeholders regarding legislation, dated August 2018 - that was later dispatched to select stakeholders - bore the watermark ‘Secret’ on every page. It is this sort of situation that highlights the need for people to vote their values as very few political parties prioritise such issues and the ACDP has constraints as a smaller party.

So why is it that government appears so hostile when it comes to the issue of adoption.  A closer look reveals that there is in fact a ‘continent-wide’ reluctance to embrace adoption.  The reality has been ‘lip-service agreement’ and no obvious commitment to ensuring an orphaned or abandoned child can grow up in a nurturing family where they can be loved and cared for, and most importantly where they can belong.

This anomaly appears to be the result of a deep chasm between cultures which has been hinted at but never thoughtfully considered.  Dee Blackie, who facilitated the creation of the National Adoption Coalition for South Africa in 2011 - in researching for her Masters degree - detected that the issue rises from deep cultural concerns around the formal process of adoption.  She was constantly told by community members that “adoption is not ubuntu” which she found very confusing as informal adoption takes place every day in South Africa by members of extended family.

It is the process of formalisation - where a court removes the parental rights of the biological parent from a child and then places those rights onto another family, with different familial ancestors - that is the major cause for the reluctance.

Interacting with community members, police officers, social workers, nurses, children’s home managers and carers, adoption social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, traditional healers and sangomas, the complexity of childbearing and kinship in the context of African ancestral beliefs were very apparent.

For people with traditional ancestral beliefs, deceased family members play an important role in the well-being of a family, in their role as familial ancestors. Ancestors, it is understood, have a particular view on how families should be constituted and if a child is born that it should be cared for within the family bloodline. If this does not occur, then all members of the family, on both the biological mother and father’s side, could suffer as a result.

Giving a child away through the process of adoption can be viewed as a slight on the ancestors. This it is feared could result in the ancestors never gifting you with another child.  Sangomas believe it is not the role of a court to make decisions on how families are constituted, this is seen as solely the domain of family and ancestors.

Of course the challenge with child abandonment is that if one has no idea who a child’s biological family is, then there is no way of knowing how to connect that child with their ancestors from the father’s ancestral line. Boys that have been adopted and only discover their adoption as young adults - especially those with ancestral beliefs face trauma around key milestones they might have wanted to consult their ancestors on - like becoming a man, having a child, paying damages for a child and paying lobola for a wife.  Some are told they do not have the right to take part in funeral arrangements or to inherit the family home.

The ACDP is calling for a national lekgotla on adoption - one that brings into the open and explores all of the issues - the drastic reduction in adoption numbers, the various registers and their lack of functionality, the current proposed amendments to the Children’s Act which will prevent private social workers or CPOs from conducting adoptions and issues of culture, race, xenophobia and decolonisation.

There is a need to consider how we can support the legal process of adoption with an appropriate cultural process as well. This dual approach is also supported by adoption social workers who have shared their experiences of including family elders, traditional leaders, healers and sangomas into their adoption process.

Until we acknowledge and address the concerns and perceptions around trafficking, race, culture, colonialism and consent that are preventing access to adoptions, amendments like those presently proposed will very likely be passed into law.

Research shows, cultural concerns play a significant role in attitudes toward adoption not just in communities, but among child protection officers and even senior government representatives.

Cross-cultural understanding is going to be key to the wellbeing of millions of abandoned children and orphans. Many women experiencing a crisis pregnancy are told by government social workers that adoption is not an option for them. Sadly, they are then arrested by police officers and physically abused by communities if they try to abandon their child.

The concern for officials seems to be linked to the deep rooted understanding that assisting in the process of adoption will anger the ancestors and that they will be punished accordingly. This, coupled with a deep distrust of the Western culture in general and adoption in particular - presents a very real obstacle preventing children from experiencing the home and family they deserve.

Child trafficking concerns play a big role too as despite the fact that strict laws and regulations are in place to prevent abuse and maintain links for oversight purposes - lack of resources and capacity undermine such safeguards.

The official position of the SA government is that they will absorb the work of doing adoptions, the reality is of course - that overworked and underpaid social workers will not have time to facilitate adoption - they are presently unable to even keep pace with the demand for emergency temporary safe care and foster care services.

If the Department of Social Development is able to push this legislation through Parliament it will effectively close down access to private adoption solutions. Adoptions will all but stop and abandoned children will be trapped in the many orphanages that will need to be opened to care for these voiceless children until they become adults.

What we can hope for and work toward is for Parliament to allow for the inclusion of government social workers to perform adoptions with the appropriate accreditation, but to remove the clause on fees.

This would be a win-win situation - allowing for more accessibility to adoptions for all South Africans, which is the department’s stated objective.

At present, there is a high court order compelling the National Minister, Susan Shabangu, to resolve this situation by November 2019; it is the ACDP's hope that a meaningful conversation bridging the ‘culture divide’ will result in greater understanding and a significant increase in ‘hearts and homes’ being open to adoption and to children in need of adopting.

15 March 2019