A co-founder of Baby Savers South Africa (BSSA) has said that baby boxes used by desperate mothers to safely deposit newborns will remain in use, despite Gauteng’s department of social development claiming they are illegal.
“Baby Savers has existed since 1999 and saved hundreds of babies’ lives. Our legal advisers have provided that just because the department says it is illegal does not mean it is,” Whitney Rosenberg told the Mail & Guardian.
“Proper legislative consultation must take place.”
The department has said that women who leave their newborns in the deposit boxes are abandoning them, which is a criminal offence.
Based in all nine provinces, BSSA is a coalition of groups that “provide a safe alternative to unsafe baby abandonment through the use of a Baby Saver”.
In a letter to BSSA at the end of September, social development Gauteng said the baby box concept was a violation of chapter three of the Children’s Act, which unpacks the responsibilities and rights that mothers and fathers have towards their children.
“The baby box takes away any form of responsibility of the biological mother to care for the child and further disregards the future role and responsibility of the biological father,” according to the letter.
But Rosenberg countered that Baby Savers havens were aimed at ensuring the child’s right to life and dignity and had the best interests of the infants in mind.
The reasons for child abandonment were varied, said Rosenberg, and included “restrictive legislation, poverty, high levels of violence including rape, extreme gender inequality and diminishing family support”.
The only alternative to the closure of the safe havens was for the mothers to hand over their babies to police officers, nurses or social workers, said Rosenberg.
“This is, however, not an option that women have. We have countless examples of women being turned away from help by these individuals.”
Putting a baby up for adoption is also not always a viable option for the mothers, she said. “The law requires that both the mother and the father give their permission. If the mother is a minor, under the age of 18, she would need the consent of her own parents or guardian to give her child up for adoption.”
She said that babies that are left at the havens are immediately assigned a registered social worker and a case is opened at the police station. A court order to place the child in a child and youth care centre is then sought. All information is sent on a monthly basis to the social development department. This ensures that all children received at BSSA are accounted for and all normal legislative processes are followed, as with any other child.
Accurate figures for the number of infants who are abandoned are difficult to come by. From April 2020 to March 2021, 435 babies were abandoned countrywide, said Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu during a parliamentary question and answer session.
Since January this year, 64 babies have been abandoned, according to media reports.
The department said people needed to be empowered with information “and understand that abandonment is a criminal offence and by law, one should deter from abandoning their child”.
It said that there were laws for mothers “who wish to relinquish their responsibility”.
“The current child protection system comprises hospitals, police services, child protection organisations and the social development department. These systems require further strengthening so we can safely and lawfully receive children that mothers wish to relinquish,” the department said.
On Wednesday, a baby was found in a closed 20-litre bucket on the banks of the Jukskei River in Alexandra township, Johannesburg. This is but one example of scores of unwanted babies who are dumped nationwide.
Elizabeth Mokwena, a manager at the Kidz Clinic and victim support unit at the Alexandra police station, told the M&G that it was short sighted for the department to close the havens without consulting the people who work on the ground.
“I was on the scene on Wednesday and it is always sad seeing such things, seeing a little human dead in a bucket when there are available resources for them to have a life. The department should consult us as the people who see and deal with these cases, instead of just closing off the havens,” she said.
Democratic Alliance representative for social development Alexandra Abrahams said the Gauteng social development department had little understanding of the meticulous protocols BBSA, as a mechanism of safe relinquishment of children, ascribed to.
“Contrary to the directive, Baby Savers do not compromise the protection of children, nor does it encourage infant abandonment. An infant cannot be denied a family name, identity, cultural and religious practice nor reunited with family relatives if said infant is dead, abandoned unsafely in open fields, pit latrines, or public restrooms as South Africa has witnessed on numerous occasions,” he said.
“In the rights of children, as per the South African Constitution, section 28 can only be executed if the child’s right to life as per section 11 is first and foremost secured.”
Abrahams said desperate mothers are often turned away from their families, police stations, public hospitals and social workers when attempting to safely hand over their infants, which for various reasons, they can no longer care for.
He gave the example of a 23-year-old woman from KwaZulu-Natal who abandoned her three-month-old baby beside a stream in Dawncrest. In an accompanying note, the woman detailed how, twice, social workers had failed her and her baby.
A woman from Alexandra township, speaking to the M&G on condition of anonymity, related how she was humiliated at a police station when she wanted to hand over her baby.
“I gave birth at home alone and throughout my pregnancy I knew that I did not want to keep the baby. I made my way to the police station and asked for assistance. One female officer started swearing at me and told me how much of a disgrace to womanhood I was.”
She said she was threatened with “a beating” if she abandoned the baby.
Referring to the department saying that leaving babies at the safe havens impeded on the rights of biological fathers, Abrahams said: “It is hypocritical for the Gauteng MEC for social development, Mbali Hlophe, to now be the voice of biological fathers when, during deliberations on the Children Amendment’s Bill, it was her own party, the ANC, who used their majority in the portfolio committee on social development to silence the voice of biological fathers when they refused to incorporate amendments in the bill to strengthen rights of biological fathers.”
Rosenberg said the addresses and contact details of their safe haven had been removed from their website to avoid member organisations being targeted.