Beyond biology: Is the quality of family care more important than the members of the family unit?

2018-11-04 08:26


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After a few years of marriage, Adele and Sinead* wanted a child.

Their agreement was to conceive with donor sperm through intrauterine injection (IUI) and if that failed after six months, begin an adoption process.  The couple used the services of a private gynaecologist and medical technician at Andocryos (a private sperm bank in Johannesburg) and accessed private psycho-social support.

Adele spoke to a couple going through the same process, who lived in Bloemfontein. They were turned away from receiving IUI there because they were a same-sex couple. Sinead received IUI and on the sixth attempt, conceived Zoe*.  The process was expensive and stressful.

After Zoe was born, the couple decided to adopt their second child. To say this was a gruelling time with multiple disappointments is an understatement.

State vs private adoption

After Sinead and Adele completed their screening for adoption with Johannesburg Child Welfare (a state adoption resource), they waited for a baby for 18 months only for the organisation to tell them that they would get more progress if they applied for adoption via a social worker in private practice.

"They [Johannesburg Child Welfare] were no longer able to guarantee we'd be able to be placed with an infant as they no longer had resources to process a transracial adoption," says Sinead.

Ntombenhle* was eventually placed with the couple after seven months, through the social worker in private practice.

"We have still not been granted a court date to finalise the adoption even after two years, because of the systemic delays as well as the seeming refusal of the Department of Social Development (DSD) to approve the adoption," says Sinead.

Child protection advocate, Robyn Wolfson Vorster, notes that the DSD's strategy is to place children, who are already in the child protection system owing to abandonment or the death of both parents, with a relative.

"I think they see familial ties as unbreakable and that traditionally, there was always someone to take on an orphan. The reality is that blood relatives may be overburdened, and that the quality of care for many orphans suffers," she says.

Low number of adoptions

Vorster notes that there are about 1.8 million children who will benefit from adoption in South Africa, but only 1 033 national adoptions took place between April 2017 and March 2018.  Of those, as few as 20% would have been unrelated adoptions. Unrelated adoptions are those where there is no blood link.

"I believe that the DSD is not in favour of adoptions and prefer reunification of families. If this is not possible, then children are placed in foster care."

The state became stricter with adoptions to reduce child abuse and trafficking, which explains the drop in adoption rates over the past few years. The state currently provides a foster care grant.

Tracy Morison, lead author of the forthcoming and seminal book, Queer Kinship: South African Perspectives on the Sexual Politics of Family-Making and Belonging, argues that this stance is short-sighted.

"There is plenty of research that shows that gay fathers and lesbian mothers do a great job of caring for their kids."

Morison notes that the quality of care is the most important factor, rather than how the family is constituted.

Conservative views

Vorster notes that the DSD is extremely conservative and views same-sex and trans-racial adoptions as counter-cultural.

But Sinead's opinion differs.

She believes the DSD's main gripe isn't against same-sex adoption but unrelated and non-filial adoptions. In fact, Sinead felt more discriminated against by the private medical practitioners and adoption services.

"I think in principle the DSD's policies are good. They don't deny adoption but have added in several extra steps to try find family before approving any adoption outside their preference. Most western countries have become more conservative about adoptions because adoption is a fraught process. Better screening and more rigid practices are needed," she says.

Of course, this change in the adoption process translates into extensive delays: "The delays were a cause of huge frustration. Things are taking forever [in terms of finalising Ntombenhle's adoption] and there seems little impetus to speed things up from within the system." 

Vorster says she can't say that the DSD is against same-sex adoptions, at least not overtly.

"Sinead and Adele may not have experienced open hostility from the DSD but the delays are very passive aggressive."

Vorster doesn't believe that many people unpack the true motivations behind what the DSD does "so it is easy to excuse it as incompetence or even a noble attempt to protect our children. Sadly, having inhabited this space for quite a while, I am painfully aware of their [conservative] agenda."

Sinead and Adele's mixed experience with both the state and broader society highlights the inherent preference for a nuclear family (two heterosexual biological parents and their biological children) set-up.

Indeed, Sinead was taken aback when "mother" and "father" were the only options to fill in on their daughters' birth certificates.

Heterosexual bias

The South African White Paper on Families reveals that nuclear families make up 23.2% of families, three-generational families make up 16.1%, single parent families - 11,1%, and childless married couples - 6.4%.

Says Morison: "What we do know, based on existing data, is that the ideal, heterosexual nuclear family is less the norm than is often widely assumed or portrayed."

The number of households headed by a heterosexual couple has steadily decreased since 1996.

Morison and her co-editors, Vasu Reddy and Ingrid Lynch, in Queer Kinship note that there is a strong heterosexual bias in sexual and reproductive health services, psycho-social support services, including counselling and screening in fostering and adoption services, social security practices and schooling practices.

There should be more recognition and support of "queer" kinship in South Africa, which is a framework to challenge and unsettle "the normative character of heterosexuality and its associated gender hierarchy".

South Africa's history of the treatment of families is sordid: During apartheid, mixed race, same-sex, customary and polygamous marriages and relationships were prohibited. While these laws have been abolished, the idea of what a family constitutes remains conservative.

"The western hetero-patriarchal model of family has come to be seen as the ideal, for example in policy-making, though with some recognition of African permutations as 'alternative' family forms.

"The delegitimisation of 'other' kinship constellations also has personal implications for individuals who experience pain and suffering when the relationships with loved ones are dismissed and invalidated," says Morison.

Criticism against white paper on families

While the White Paper on Families acknowledges the different family constellations in South Africa, it has been criticised for doing so superficially.

Furthermore, there is a widely-held assumption that women are better nurturers and caretakers and that children need both male and female influences. Some believe that growing up with a mother and father both present is absolutely integral to becoming a normal adult.

"There is a critical need to deepen our understanding of kinship arrangements and reproductive decision making," says Morison. She advocates advancing new ways of imagining diversity in intimate arrangements.

To conclude, the psychologist Carien Lubbe-De Beer writes in Queer Kinship that families are more than just biologically tied. "Instead, kinship encapsulates the people who will be there for one another."

Indeed, Zoe and Ntombenhle are beautifully cared for by their mothers. Like all families, there are ups and downs, but there's belonging, love and care.

*Queer Kinship is edited by Tracy Morison, Ingrid Lynch and Vasu Reddy. The forthcoming book is published by the HSRC Press and has additional support from the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, hosted by Wits University.

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