We Need to Decolonise Adoption – For the Sake of the Children

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

Keeping positive in South Africa

I am sometimes asked how I keep positive about living in South Africa. My answer is usually four-fold: Firstly, when I do those personality assessments I am usually categorised as having a positive personality type. So in some ways it is a part of who I am. Secondly – and this is not meant to be flippant or provocative – I am white and middle class; I have very little to complain about. Thirdly, our democracy is as healthy and robust as it has been in centuries and we are privileged to live in these times. Finally, and arguably most significantly, I am surrounded by incredible people; positive, proactive and passionate, who are quietly going about their business, working to make South Africa a better place. In my writing, I have regularly celebrated such people. I have written about a little girl who gave all her hard-earned money to orphans; about a young man who made an under-privileged girl’s dream come true by taking her to his matric dance and about a woman who has invented washable, reusable sanitary pads for needy girls. These people have replaced moaning with some form of action big or small and they seem to have the ability to see the bad but allow it to affect them for good. This is not a unique gift given only to a few. This is a decision. Once in a while we have the profound privilege of meeting and working with people who literally take our breath away. Such people are usually more human; down-to-earth, lacking in any form of “saviour mentality” and completely at peace with the ‘littleness’ of their mission. They flee from any form of grandstanding or glory-seeking and they do not care who gets the credit. From within this humanity emanates a deep and very inspiring sense of authenticity; a lack of both false humility and ego-driven self-righteousness. They also have enormously high levels of love and empathy that are a result of years of practicing those affects. Joanne and Bjorn Teunissen are a couple that take your breath away. When I first met these two people they were on a mission to adopt their son, 3-year old Emmanuel. Both educators – at the time Bjorn was headmaster of Crawford North Coast and is now at Crawford La Lucia and Jo was a primary school teacher running a business selling educational toys – they had no intention of opening a home for abandoned and orphaned babies. But the call was always upon them and it was a matter of time before they partnered with Cathy and I and opened the doors of the Baby Home Durban North on their property in Glen Anil. With their experience of adoption and their expertise as teachers, they took to this new mission as if they had been waiting all their lives to do it. Typically, they embarked on a road less travelled, extending their services to caring not only for babies but also for vulnerable toddlers and children with special needs. One word describes this couple (and indeed their kids Kiara, Tatum & Emmanuel) and sets them apart: Wholehearted. They don’t just care for vulnerable children, they do it with such joy; such unbridled glee. They simply love it; pigs in poo you might say! They do it with everything they have. And this is what makes them so unique. If you look at their Facebook page, you won’t just see pictures of babies being cared for. You will see pictures of babies eating bowls of colourful jelly, laughing, riding plastic scooters, playing in parks, on swings, swimming, mucking about, eating ice creams, going to school; you will see babies curled up fast asleep in the arms of one of their daughters, you will see shots of volunteers laughing as they joke with the family. It is one big happy family; love in action. I am not sure if I can properly capture in words what this family does day-to-day suffice to say that they don’t have 3 kids, they have 9; 3 of their own and 6 in the Baby Home. They love totally, and with utter abandon. They are 1 in a billion. I encourage you go and visit the Teunissen family and their Baby Home. Allow them to rub off on you. They are a true inspiration; a tonic for negative and battle weary South Africans. You can contact them on jo@peaceagency.org.za. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

My Holiday – by Paul Gwala’s ‘big brother’

The list of ‘firsts’ for our 22-year-old traveling companion was as lengthy as his first long-distance car journey: He had never in his life been on a holiday – ever. He didn’t know what it meant to be so excited that you battled to sleep the night before your journey. He didn’t know the thrill of being up before dawn, packing up as a family and heading off on an adventure, munching your sarmie and drinking a coffee. He had never been out of Kwa-Zulu Natal let alone into another country. He had of course never needed a passport and were it not for this trip and our rooting through Swaziland to the Kruger National Park, he might never have needed one. He had never seen an expanse of water like Lake Jozini, a landscape as wide as Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal or a sky as blue as the Lowveld on a hot summer day. Many of you will know the privilege of taking a child or indeed an adult on their first holiday; the wonder, the awe, the unfettered joy on their face; seeing a world that is so familiar to you through someone else, is a true blessing. As a family we go to Kruger as often as we can; it is our happy place and we know it extremely well. But through Paul I saw the magnificence of the place afresh as I witnessed it through his virgin eyes: I saw the beauty of an impala as if for the very first time; I laughed out loud at how comical warthogs are and marveled at the size of a giraffe; I willed a cheetah to show off her speed; my eyes grew bigger at the sight of elephants and I longed – longed – to see a lion (and I did!). I had my first ever bush braai off a Skottel braai and my first sundowners by a river. I had the time of my life. Paul is a young man that has been in our life for many years. He calls me his big brother. I have mentored him through our Bright Stars Mentorship Program and I have watched how a young 14-year-old that the system forgot, has turned into a fine young man. I have walked the road of his failure to matriculate and watched as he worked tirelessly to make a real success of an IT apprenticeship, achieving necessary qualifications and clawing his way from a trainee to a junior IT consultant. I know there are many of you who have had similar experiences; you will know that mentoring a vulnerable child is as much a gift to the mentor as it is to the mentee. I have seen how desperate Paul has been to work his way out of shack living in Mayville and into a decent life where he could one day have a wife and children and be able to provide for them. I have sat for hours listening to the specs of every Mercedes Benz on the market; Paul is passionate about Mercedes and his big dream is to one day own one! Yet, he has never seen an Impala. He has never seen a big mountain range. He has never had a picnic out in the wild and he has never had a family that could afford to take him on a holiday. And when he Facebooks his mates to tell them all about his adventure he gets comments like: “Why does this sound like a Grade 8 oral where the kid is lying about what they did on holiday?” Paul is one of millions of South African children and young adults for whom life is a dreamless, colourless, hopeless march to the beat of the drum of poverty. Have you seen an impala Mr Zuma? Have you and your friends been on a holiday? Do you have a decent home where you can have a family and dream about things? Your actions are indefensible not necessarily because they have been proved or disproved by your Secretary General or in a court of law, but because our Pauls live in poverty that disallows them a decent life. This is the true and most devastating fallout from your failure to lead. This is the consequence of your greed. And it’s not just Mr Zuma and his pals who have turned their back on our nation’s impoverished young; we all have to some degree. I feel deeply ashamed about Paul. How can it have taken me nearly 10 years to take him on a holiday? Until every child in this country can be a child; wonder, gasp for joy, jump up and down with excitement; laugh from their belly; go on holiday and see amazing things, then we have all failed. Every one counts. Consider mentoring one of the millions of kids who need to learn to dream again; take a child on holiday if you can – or just to your local beach or bird park; for an ice cream or for a game of Putt Putt (another first for Paul). How can we expect our kids to become productive adults if we don’t love and care for them? It is up to us. For more information on Bright Stars contact sandi@peaceagency.org.za

Hope for Menstruating Girls – part 2

Many of you will know that I am passionate about a number of topics not least of all sanitary pads. You will know this because for the past year I have been appealing to readers of this column to join me in providing packs of washable, reusable sanitary pads to impoverished girls in rural schools. This innovative and uniquely South African product – beautifully designed packs called Subz Pads and Panties – costs just R140 and will last a girl 3 years. For literally millions of girls across our country, such a product is nothing short of a miracle; it will prevent the indignity of using toilet paper, newspaper and in many cases used pads passed on by friends and sisters; it will prevent the spread of diseases; it will prevent girls from missing more than one-and-a-half years of school during their high school career because of their monthly period – a major determining factor in terms of girls matriculating. Readers of this column have contributed a fantastic R100 000 to this life-changing initiative known to us as Project Dignity. I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for your incredible generosity. With these funds we have helped nearly 800 girls in a number of different rural schools. It was on a recent activation at a school in one of the poorer communities we have visited that we all became aware of a very unusual reaction from the girls to the product. The girls usually whoop and high five one another when Sue Barnes of Subzs shows them the pads themselves. But in this community the greatest joy was reserved for when she pulled out the two pairs of panties that come in each girl’s pack. We couldn’t understand this reaction until after the activation when we were talking to one of the teachers at the school. She explained to us that not only do the girls have limited access to sanitary pads – they have no panties either. The result of this lack is extremely damaging to the young female psyche; a stripping of self-worth and dignity; lowered levels of self-esteem; even self-loathing; a giving over of her body – an object of embarrassment, ridicule and disgust – to very youthful sexual relations, unprotected sex, sex for money and other forms of abuse. The knock-on consequences of all this? Apart from the detrimental effect on the girls themselves, Marie Stopes International tells us that there are approximately 260 000 abortions in South Africa per annum of which between 52-58% are illegal. 3500 babies are abandoned each year. The 2011 census revealed that there are 7 million girls between the age of 10 and 19 in the lower Living Standards Measurement (LSM) brackets. We can safely say that a significant percentage of these girls will have limited access to both sanitary products and panties. Now we can campaign, protest and generally jump up-and-down during these 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children – and we should. But how can we have meaningful impact on our extraordinarily high levels of abuse if we allow the perpetration of such indignity and degradation on our girls on a daily basis? Abuse of girls and women must include not providing adequately for their monthly periods. Empowering women has to begin at the most fundamental level; honouring their femaleness – not as something base and dirty and embarrassing – but as something God-given and miraculous. Girls and women must be enabled to embody their femaleness with absolute pride and dignity. This is the most powerful anti-abuse message we can send. I am acutely aware that many of us feel overwhelmed and helpless during the 16 Days of Activism. What can we do to help? Well, working together we have empowered 800 young girls this year alone. We did this ourselves; this generous community of readers. We invite you to join us and sponsor a (nother) 3 year supply of pads and panties for one girl. For just R140 you will change her life forever. The Peace Agency bank details are as follows: FNB Durban North Acc #: 6215 995 8217 Branch code: 22-04-26 Please reference your donation with “Project Dignity” Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

Our children deserve the new travel regulations

I have been reluctant to weigh in on the issue of the new immigration regulations pertaining to children but I can contain myself no longer. Let me begin by recapping the intention behind the new regulations; to prevent child trafficking. Let me also – just for the sake of clarity – define what “child trafficking” is. Child trafficking is defined as: “the illegal movement of children, typically for the purposes of forced labour or sexual exploitation.” Now it is important that we humanise this issue because the arguments against the new immigration regulations have been worryingly callous; “How many children are really trafficked into or out of South Africa each year?” “Most kids enter or exit illegally through our very porous borders as opposed to through legitimate channels where their travel documents will be checked.” I even heard one travel industry commentator quipping; “Is this not using a steam-roller to crack a nut?” Researchers seem to agree that hundreds than in the thousands of children are trafficked into or out of South Africa each year. Now to put these meaningless numbers into a little context all I ask is that you close your eyes and imagine your son, daughter or grandchild – the one who is currently playing happily outside with her friends or watching some TV – imagine that child dirty and broken, parading the streets of a foreign country, turning tricks to fuel her insatiable drug habit and the bottomless pit of her “Daddy’s” lust for money. Would you not want to do everything in your power to prevent this from happening? Would you not stand in a queue at Home Affairs all day, every day for the rest of your life to ensure that that dreadful image never became a reality? Of course you would and stuff what anyone had to say about; “the negative impact on our tourism industry.” What callousness! Quite frankly if people are put off coming to our country because we love and care for our children then they should not be welcomed here in the first place. And let’s be honest here, we are not asking for all that much. Here is an extract from the website www.sapeople.com: “All children under the age of 18 – both local and foreigners – are now required to travel with a valid passport and an unabridged (full) birth certificate stating both parents’ names. If the child is travelling alone or with only one parent, then the child must also carry an affidavit filled out by the missing parent/s.” This particular website then goes on to provide a Parental Consent Form that you can download and use. So all that is needed apart from the normal passport is an unabridged birth certificate and – only if the child is travelling without both parents – an affidavit from the missing parent stating that the child has permission to travel. If you are travelling from outside South Africa all you require is an official document stating the name of both the child’s parents. According to the Board of Airline Representatives (BARSA) this will cost the tourism sector over R6.8bn in losses and could result in job cuts. It did not specify the timeframe for these massive losses or how the figure was calculated. But even if these figures are valid which is highly questionable, should we be placing monetary values – however large – onto children lives? Essentially what we are indicating when we say that the travel industry will lose RXYZ billion is that children’s lives are not worth this amount. Again – close your eyes and imagine your child. Now I know there is a bigger picture here regarding the impact on the economy and de facto on people’s lives as a result of travel industry related job losses etc. But in truth should we not be aiming to create jobs and boost tourism whilst doing everything in our power to prevent the incalculable losses associated with child trafficking? Should we not adopt a certain cosmetic brand’s strapline; “First Do No Harm” and ensure that our travel industry does not thrive at the expense of even one child? To quote another well know brand’s strapline lets; “Just do it”. Let’s go to home affairs, stand in the queue, get the unabridged birth certificate, do an affidavit and stop bloody whining. If we imagine that our efforts are saving children’s lives rather than wasting our oh-so-precious time and money then we may even do it with a sense of pride that our country is doing all it can to safeguard our children. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

Too poor to afford a sanitary pad….

A hush descends over the small prefab classroom as the diminutive dynamo Sue Barnes gets up to address the girls. She begins by asking them what careers they wish to pursue and the enthusiastic answers belie their impoverished circumstances; doctors, pilots, poets and nurses. A master at what she does, Sue quickly latches onto their aspirations explaining that without proper care of their bodies they will be unlikely to achieve their goals. Towards the end of last year I wrote an article about the fact that over 60% of girls in South Africa miss a collective total of a year-and-a-half of their 5 year high school career due to menstruation. Compelled by poverty to use unreliable substitutes such as toilet paper, newspaper and even used pads, these girls – embarrassed and stripped of their dignity – stay away from school during their periods. Little wonder that only 39% of KZN children who were enrolled in Grade 2 in 2001 matriculated in 2011. Sue has the girls eating out of her hands. No stranger to the workings of the teenage mind she pulls no punches. Over her head goes a pink apron creatively designed using pieces of coloured fabric which depict the female anatomy. The girls roar with laughter as she uses colloquial terms to describe the different parts. She explains the female body, menstruation and how babies are conceived. The most important aspect of Sue’s talk is that their bodies are precious and should be respected and cared for. In that article I spoke of a unique solution to the problem of girls missing school due to menstruation; fully washable, reusable sanitary pad-cum-pantie sets designed specifically for less privileged girls called Subz Pads and Panties. A pack containing 2 x 100% cotton panties and 6 ultra-absorbent, multi-layered washable sanitary pads costs just R130 and will last a girl for 3 years! I appealed to readers to consider sponsoring a R130 pack for one girl. The response was overwhelming. Literally hundreds of people contacted me wishing to get involved. We raised enough to supply packs to over 500 girls in an impoverished Richard’s Bay community. In that column I wrote these words: “One of my hardest lessons in recent years has been what 19th Century Saint Therese of Lisieux called “The Little Way”. She was a simple Catholic nun who came to a profound understanding of the fact that change – redemption if you like – occurs only as we embrace The Little Way and embark on a life of small, intentional acts of love and compassion and repeat them often.” Seldom have I experienced this “Little Way” so clearly – so profoundly – as I did on that day in Richards Bay. For what could be more humble – more “little”- than a young girl’s need for a sanitary pad? And yet as we handed out pack after pack – each one containing not just the product but the love and compassion of a nameless, faceless donor – one of you – I understood that the little way is the only way. For it is only as we play our small part that lives are changed, dignity is restored and dreams can be fulfilled. R130 – to keep a girl in school. Who would have imagined that it could be that simple? As an NGO we want to help as many girls as we possibly can through this project. If you would like to sponsor a (nother) “Project Dignity” girl with a 3 year supply of washable, reusable sanitary pads please contact me on justin@peaceagency.org.za and I will send you details. R130 will literally transform a young life. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.