Saved from death...

2013-04-22 00:00

IT’S a love story of sorts, but their happy ending is threatened by bureaucratic red tape and alleged bias against cross-racial adoption in the KZN Department of Social Development.

Dr Hayley Wood wants to secure her bond with her foster daughter Nomonde (5), but has faced numerous obstacles.

In desperation, she lodged a complaint with the Presidential hotline in her quest to finalise her adoption.

The British doctor came to South Africa to get working experience, after she qualified in Britain. While she was working at a State hospital in Umlazi, she came across Nomonde*, a critically ill toddler, who had been abandoned by her mother.

The toddler was so desperately ill that the entire staff did not hold out much hope that this child would live. She presented every symptom consistent with HIV, but there was no parent to give consent to test the child for the disease. Eventually the doctors received a court order to test her and she was indeed HIV-positive. Her CD4 count was one and doctors were amazed she was clinging to life.

Nomonde was diagnosed as having immune reconstitution syndrome, which occurs when a child is given ARVs to treat HIV and the body’s immune system then begins to fight all the opportunistic infections. She had also contracted TB.

“I had never seen a child so sick and there was something about her that just stole my heart. She started having left brain seizures and we had to put her into sedation to help her body fight the disease. From day to day she would just fight on, even when the odds were against her.”

During the time she was in hospital, social workers began the process of trying to find her family, but drew a blank. When she was eventually well enough to leave the hospital, she was taken to a Durban children’s home.

Wood had formed a strong bond with the tiny girl, who she used to visit frequently during ward rounds and after her shifts at the hospital. So she continued to visit her at the Edith Benson Children’s Home.

“At one stage, Nomonde became severely ill again and had to be re-hospitalised. I felt that I was so much more equipped to look after her than strangers who had no medical background.

“I began inquiries about adoption and I was told a definite ‘no’. Then someone suggested that I should inquire about fostering her. I approached the authorities and filled in the forms and nothing happened. I used to visit Nomonde every week and take her out with me for visits. I was getting very frustrated, as I knew I could offer her a better life,” said Wood.

One day Wood was told by the head of the children’s home that she must stop all host visits with Nomonde as “it could be detrimental to the child”. “I was aware the social workers had located her father,” said Wood. “He was clearly not interested in having her. His step mother, who was not even a biological relative, had visited her infrequently. She was not in a position to have the child either.”

Wood lodged a complaint against the Durban Welfare Society, questioning the efficiency and motives of the social worker and the Edith Benson Children’s Home.

Her complaint was supported by Joan van Niekerk at Childline, and finally, after much battling and waiting, she was granted a two-year foster care order.

Last year she began the process of trying to legally adopt Nomonde and hired a local private social worker, but she has found the process frustrating.

She believes the adoption process is skewed in favour of the biological family and “not in the best interests of the child”, as stated in the Child Care Act.

“The social worker told me Nomonde’s step grandmother, who has never bothered to show any interest in her welfare, has to approve the adoption. How can this possibly be right? I have personally sacrificed huge amounts of time and money to make this little child happy and healthy, and a complete stranger can have more rights — it’s bizarre.”

Wood, who works long hours at a local state hospital, says she wants to adopt Nomonde and explore the possibility of returning to Britain to pursue better work opportunities. Her mother has also been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“If we go to Britain, there will be no racism, as nobody asks: ‘who is that child?’ Or ‘why is your child black?’ I managed to get permission to take Nomonde to see my mother, who was ill, and nobody ever asked why I had a black child.

“We will just be a mother and her child, and there is nothing wrong with that. People here are obsessed with race.”

“Nomonde is a special child — she is the miracle child who came back from the brink of death. I can offer her a future. She will need speech therapy and constant medical care.

“Since she has been in my care, she has put on weight, she has started talking and she is progressing marvellously. If I leave her behind and I am told I can’t have her, I will be devastated. I don’t think that is fair to her or me.”

The Department of Social Development, in response to questions from The Witness and the social worker’s report, stated that when Wood moved to Greys Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, Nomonde’s paternal grandmother was not informed about her contact details.

The report said that no reunion had happened to let the step grandmother see the child or for the child’s father to deal with his anger issues.

The social worker’s report recommends that it is in the best interest of the child to be considered for adoption by Wood, as she is a special-needs child and she has bonded with Dr Wood.

Wood has refuted aspects of the department’s report, saying she has never changed her cellphone number and the paternal grandmother has never made any effort to contact her to see Nomonde.

“I am a doctor and I am on call 24/7. My cellphone is always on. The woman has just never made an effort.”

Wood has hired a lawyer to try and speed up the adoption process, but she is mentally and financially exhausted.

“The stress of not knowing if they are going to take away Nomonde is draining. I just want peace of mind and a future for us.”

Terri Lailvaux, a counsellor who prepares parents for the adoption process, said: “I see many people who are married to foreign citizens or, who are themselves foreign citizens, who want to adopt South African children.

“My experience is that it is almost always an uphill battle with a lot of red tape and rules — very few of which seem to be ‘in the best interests of the children’.

“I know of many altruistic foreign nationals who are willing to adopt special-needs kids or sick kids, purely to provide those children with the best education and health-care opportunities. Most of them tell me after investigation that South Africa’s stance seems to be that culture and race are more important than education, security and health care, and a child is better off living in foster care or in an orphanage.

“It is a very sad situation for the almost 1,8 million children in South Africa who forever need families.”

Zitha Mokomane, a senior research scientist with the HSRC, was one of a team of researchers who prepared a report looking at the adoption issue for the Social Development Department in 2010.

She told The Witness: “There are many prejudices among social workers. They are against same-sex couples, HIV-positive people, single parents and couples of another colour. In fact, they often are not well educated about the Child Care Act, with reference to adoption, and it is a problem.

“We were tasked with researching how to encourage adoption, because the cost of paying foster care grants is enormous. But the adoption issue is an extremely complex one. Many couples who want to adopt across the colour line have said they go immediately to a private social worker because the state social workers are too prejudiced.”

* not her real name. Because she is a minor in foster care, she cannot be identified.


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