Deep Read: For orphaned babies, time is always running out

When Dineo* was a few weeks old, her mother left her with a hawker at a market, and never returned.

She is one of 3 500 babies who was abandoned in 2010, although this figure is an estimate by organisations and people working in the social services sector, as the government has no official statistics. 

Now nine months old, Dineo is a resident of the Baby House in Umhlanga, Durban, where former marketing professional Justin Foxton and his wife, Cathy, have turned their back cottage into a home for babies who need families.

Since they set up the Baby House two years ago, they have hired three full-time carers and cared for 11 babies who have been adopted.

The Foxtons returned from the United Kingdom in 2007 after six years.

"When we got back, the thing that struck me most was the issue of crime and how we react to it as a nation," says Foxton.

"I got the sense that everyone was either a victim or waiting to become a victim. I started thinking about how we could apply ourselves as citizens to find a solution to crime."

When he started looking into mentorship of young people in his community, it brought him into the realm of the orphan crisis.

There are currently 1.8-million children in children's homes, with the potential to be adopted, in South Africa, says Pam Wilson, head of adoptions at Johannesburg Child Welfare.

And according to a recent report by the Human Sciences Research Council, more than eight million children are living on child grants. 

"In 2010 there were only 2 400 adoptions nationally," says Foxton.

"The rest are being cared for in foster environments, state care, places of safety, or are looked after by a sibling. The question in my mind was how can you even think about creating a safe South Africa when you have so many children without proper homes? What's 10 000 more policemen going to help?"

Trying to find adoptive families is not an easy feat.

Racial and cultural issues are still very much at play. Some children end up staying in the Baby House for as long as eleven months, because they do not fit into the racial criteria of parents who want to adopt children of the same race as themselves.

Foxton says that adoption is "counter-cultural" in South Africa.

"We have heard from senior sources in the department of social development that adoption is seen as a swear word among many black people," he says.

"I often come across learned people who are vociferously anti-adoption. It goes back to ancestry and spiritual beliefs, but mostly it is a social thing that we need to take care of our own."

Sexual orientation is also an issue, with many places of safety unwelcoming to gay or lesbian couples.

"Last year was the first lesbian adoption in Durban," says Foxton.

"We are one of the few baby houses in Durban that welcome gay and lesbian adoptions from our home. People still have very old fashioned views, especially in Durban. We take our babies, who are mostly black with us to the Promenade and you can't believe how shocked people get."

Then there is the issue of HIV. 

Babies who are born to HIV-positive mothers can be prevented from contracting the virus if they are given antiretrovirals within 72 hours of their birth. But in South Africa's overburdened public health system, babies aren't always tested and treated in time to prevent the virus from taking hold.

Tracey Brand is the KwaZulu-Natal manager of the Big Shoes Foundation, an NGO that tests abandoned babies under 72 hours old for HIV, and provides antiretrovirals if necessary.

"The crucial thing with abandoned babies is to ensure that they are not HIV-positive," says Brand. "Babies with HIV do not get adopted."

"We take some stress off the state. We ensure that children get through the system quicker," she says. "Often, in the state system, results get lost and by the time the child has been properly medically examined, it is too old to be adopted."

Brand says another issue contributing to delays in the process is a lack of knowledge among the police.

"We used to have a Child Protection Unit in the police where there were police officers who dealt specifically with children and knew the law. But that has been disbanded, and now everyone is involved. We are dealing with policemen who don't know the legislation and don't know what to do in terms of a child's medical needs. And all the while the clock is ticking."

Time is a pressing concern for Foxton too, who says that the lengthy spell an abandoned child must wait before he or she may be adopted is a problem.

"A lot of children are in limbo," says Foxton. "We have been doing a lot of lobbying to reduce the time frames for adoption. If a child is abandoned, the child has to be 'advertised', and that ad has to run for 90 days … We think those times frames should be reduced to 21 days."

Why do women abandon their babies?

Brand says that, in her experience, the reasons women leave their children for strangers to find go deep into the fabric of South African society.

"There are huge issues around termination of pregnancy," she says. "Try to get one at a hospital or a clinic in South Africa without feeling like you're Satan. Women who go for abortions are treated terribly by nurses. They are handed meds and told to sort themselves out."

She says that too often women are quite literally left alone in a corner to deliver a dead foetus, and clean up after themselves.

"Lots of women just don't want to suffer this ordeal."

Brand says that many women are reluctant to ask for birth control, for similar reasons.

"[At too many clinics] nurses make you feel like you shouldn't be having sex at all and give you a hard time about it."

Brand says that these issues with the health system lead to women consulting doctors, often on the black market, too late, and are given medication to abort the pregnancy.

"Often it's so late in the pregnancy that the pills just induce labour," she says, "and the baby is born alive while the mother thinks it is dead."

"It's a vicious circle. Our health system doesn't allow women to be empowered about their reproductive sexual health."

*Not her real name.

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