If you are not directly involved in the care of orphans and vulnerable children – or if you haven’t tried to adopt a child in the past year – you may be unaware that adoption has all but ceased in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

In May 2016, the Department of Social Development called an immediate halt to adoptions in KwaZulu-Natal over a case of alleged child trafficking. The case was never proved and it never will be. I know the family well and they are giants in the field of adoption and child care. It was simply a witch hunt designed to give a semblance of credence to the fact that the government simply wanted to phase out adoption.

The consequence is that our Baby Home in Durban North – along with other similar places of safety for abandoned or orphaned babies and children – is bursting at the seams. Where we used to pride ourselves on doing an adoption a month for some years, we have not done a single adoption in 18 months. The impact on children is huge. A quote from a recent article by child activist Robyn Wolfson confirms what we have all intuitively known: “According to Marietjie Strydom from the Attachment Foundation, studies confirm that prolonged time in care affects children’s ability to attach emotionally. Neuroscience has also shown a vast alteration in the brains of institutionalized children.” In other words, science tells us that what the Department of Social Development (that department tasked with caring for our children) is doing, is in fact actively subjecting our most vulnerable children to tremendous degrees of emotional pain and trauma.

The impact of this is well documented. Children who are institutionalized may suffer from a wide range of disorders. At one level this includes depression and anxiety and self-soothing behaviors such as chanting, biting themselves, head banging, rocking, scratching, or cutting themselves. At another level, sub-optimal attachment results in cruel or aggressive behavior enacted with a cold detachment and a lack of empathy. 

All of us who run Baby Homes, child and youth care centers and foster care facilities try our absolute best to provide a warm, loving family environment for our babies. But at the end of the day, we are not their family. We are an institution. Our goal should always be to see children placed in what we call their forever families. In the right instances, we are delighted when our children are reunified with loving and caring family members. Where this is impossible, we advocate for adoption. This is because whilst stable, loving biological family is always first prize for a child, this is not always possible. In these cases, adoption provides the care and permanency that is essential for a child to be given the best chance of avoiding attachment-related disorders.

So, why continue with a directive to halt all adoptions in Kwa-Zulu Natal, even after the smoke screen of child trafficking has cleared? If you are one of the many prospective adoptive parents who are currently childless whilst our Baby Home is over full, this question will not only be perplexing but tragic.

The answer may be more complex than it would appear. On one level, we can simply pin the blame on the Department of Social Development. What they are doing is slowly throttling the very life out of adoption because this is not their preferred alternative when it comes to child care. But it is still contained in the Children’s Act and for as long as it is there, it must be actively pursued as an option for adoptable children.

However, we must also consider that adoption – largely the domain of white adoption social workers, white parents adopting black children (I should know; I am one of them), white activists (again, I am one of them) – also needs to reform itself. In latter day parlance, we need to work together with government to decolonize adoption. This means we will all need to lay down our weapons and listen to one another. And that charge must be led – not by government – but by the adoption community of adoption social workers, adoptive and prospective adoptive parents, Baby Homes – anyone involved in adoption. Why do I say we should lead this charge?

Because for too long we have held an antagonistic position on adoption that bumps heads with the fact that adoption is more common – more acceptable if you like –  in white culture than it is in black or Indian culture. This is a well-documented fact that is borne out by adoption statistics. For too long we have stood in judgement of this fact, as if white cultural perspective on this thing is somehow better or right. We have made our position on this well-known so now we are left with two clear options: we can all hold onto our views and adoption will slowly die. Or we can reach out to one another in humility and peace, park our preconceived ideas and cultural preferences and talk to each other in the interests of our children.

I know which option I’m backing.  

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole