A few months ago, I wrote a column on the orphan crisis that is gripping South Africa in general and KwaZulu Natal in particular.
This column resulted in something of a breakthrough. Readers of this blog and many in the online community heeded our call to action and the KwaZulu Natal Adoption Coalition was relaunched to address the situation of adoption in the province.
Concerned parties gathered in Durban for the inaugural meeting. It was a significant moment because for the first time in many years, people concerned about the future of vulnerable children in our province got together in one room, parked their own personal agendas and asked how they could play a role in ending this crisis.
More on that in a moment. A week after that meeting I received an email containing statistics that inform the use of the term ‘orphan crisis’ in South Africa. They are utterly overwhelming. Two are worth keeping in mind:
3 million orphans nationally; up to 1.2 million are maternal or double orphans.
In 2016, there were 8 adoptions in KwaZulu Natal, the province with the lion’s share of 1.2 million orphans.
Yes, just 8 adoptions in one year.
Let me qualify: not all orphans are eligible for adoption. At any one time there are approximately 500 children legally adoptable. But 8? Something is seriously wrong.
Back to the relaunch of the Coalition. It is noteworthy that the gate-keeper of adoption – the Department of Social Development – was absent from the meeting. This initially frustrated me, but it became clear that this was providential for adoption.
In South Africa we are quick to blame government for everything. This restricts our creativity in finding solutions to the problems we face. If the Department of Social Development been there, we would not have grappled as we did with the question: “What contribution am I making to the current orphan crisis?”. We would have turned the spotlight onto them.
Yes, the Department has only processed 8 adoptions in one year. This is totally unacceptable. But we must ask ourselves why the Department tasked with caring for our vulnerable children put a virtual end to adoption?
Such a monumental disparity in numbers cannot be explained away by incompetence or laziness. 8 adoptions simply makes no sense. Unless, you do not consider adoption to be the best option for a vulnerable child. What then? What if you fundamentally disagree with adoption? What if it is completely counter-cultural to you? Would you be prepared to advocate for and even process adoptions? Or would you do everything in your power to limit, if not do away with adoption?
I am not sure if these positions are true of senior members of the Department of Social Development – but frankly I would understand if they were. About a year ago I had what I call a flipside moment about adoption: What if my family, that consists of Cathy and I (two white parents) and Lolly (our six-year-old black adoptive daughter), looks to some like the rainbow nation and to others like modern-day colonialism?
I know we get warm smiles from many people and hostile stares from others, therefore this might be the case. What if these stares are coming from people who esteem their culture highly; people who understand that colour is a proud and very integral part of culture. What if they see us as thieves rather than loving parents: “You took everything else – and now our children?”
Formal adoption is not African as such. It is a Western concept; in Africa, a product of colonization. That is why the vast majority of the people in our coalition meeting, adoption social workers nationally, and adoptive parents, are white.
Now, we can huff and puff all we like: “But isn’t this all about the children?” and “why can’t we just move on from all that colonization/apartheid stuff?” But these questions are not only insulting, they are unhelpful. We need to start asking different questions that will move us into a new space of engagement and understanding.
Tell me what you see when you see Cathy, Lolly and I walking down the street. Is our family beautiful to you or is it painful to see? Can adoption ever be black African? If so, what do we need to do to help make it so? If not, how do we deal with that as a society? Would you be prepared to help us – an adoptive family – to bring some black into our white?
Once we ‘go there’ in terms of these kinds of conversations – what I am calling the decolonization of adoption – I imagine that adoptions in KwaZulu Natal will increase again.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
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