Desperate Measures: Why do moms abandon babies?

2019-02-18 10:23
A desperate mother leaving a baby inside a ‘baby bin’.

A desperate mother leaving a baby inside a ‘baby bin’.

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Poverty, rape, abuse and lack of documentation.

These are some of the many reasons some mothers choose to abandon their babies.

Experts say the shocking discovery of a newborn who was rescued alive from inside a stormwater drain in Durban this week, highlights an ongoing crisis that needs to be addressed urgently.

Newborns are being dumped in bins, wrapped in plastic and thrown in the veld, discarded into trash to be delivered to dumps, and disposed of in myriad ways, in their thousands.

According to a recent Medical Research Council study, approximately 3 500 children survive abandonment every year. Estimates are that for every one child found alive, two are found dead.

The study said that 65% of abandoned children are newborns, and 90% are under the age of one.

“A large number of babies have already survived a late-term abortion prior to being abandoned. Seventy percent of abandonments are unsafe, and many abandoned babies are never found,” reads the study.

The findings suggested that a child born in South Africa is at the highest risk of being killed during its first six days of life.

Most reports of abandonments came from Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, the Medical Research Council study said.

In Pietermaritzburg, Child Welfare says it receives more reports of abandoned or neglected children during the December and January holiday period.

While there has not been an increase in abandoned children in public spaces in the city, Julie Todd, director of Pietermaritzburg Child Welfare, said there have been more reports of mothers abandoning their children with family and abandoning their parental responsibilities. Todd said annually they deal with about 12 reports of babies abandoned in public spaces.

At the weekend, the provincial SAPS recovered the body of a baby thrown into a pit toilet in Mpendle. A 23-year-old woman has since been arrested.

Last month, The Witness reported that a newborn baby girl was found abandoned in front of an elderly woman’s gate in Ashdown, Edendale. Medics said the baby, who was estimated to be seven days old, was found lying on the ground by children going to school.

The Witness also reported that a woman was arrested for attempting to kill her newborn baby and is also suspected of killing another baby, after small bones were found buried in a shallow grave at her home last month.

Provincial police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbele said the 30-year-old woman was arrested in the Mpumalanga area, near Cato Ridge.

Police were alerted by an elderly woman in Georgedale, Mpumalanga, who heard screams near her home on New Year’s Eve. Mbele said the newborn baby was found abandoned and was taken to hospital for medical attention.

Further investigations were then conducted since there were rumours that the woman was pregnant with twins although a second child was not found.

The woman was arrested and charged with attempted murder and child abandonment.

Last December, a passer-by found a week-old baby boy abandoned next to a railway line near Hillcrest.

At the time, KZN police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala said the baby was found by a passer-by who heard the child crying. The child was wrapped in a blue-and-white blanket, wearing a white romper.

Poverty, rape and lack of documentation

A quick Google search revealed over 26 reports for abandoned babies for 2018 countrywide. The number of unreported incidents may be unknown.

Julie Todd, director of Pietermaritzburg Child Welfare, said there are many different reasons mothers choose to abandon their children.

“Lack of documentation also limits access to services and grants and for those in this category they see no way out of their situation which will be worsened following the birth of the child — another responsibility,” Todd said.

She said in other cases, some of the children were conceived as a result of rape and there is an emotional detachment.

“Others are conceived following a brief relationship and they have no emotional or financial support from the biological father or extended family.

“Others cannot be said to be abandoning their child when they put or throw the child in a drain or long drop as they are obviously choosing to do so knowing the chances of the child being found or surviving are small.

“This is a different type of desperation and questions still surround what drives a mother to this point, but these ‘abandoned’ children are few compared to the other categories mentioned — these technically are attempted murder.”

Abandoned baby. Photo: ER24

ER24 paramedics treat a newborn baby girl for hypothermia after she was found abandoned. PHOTOS: ER24 (FILE) 

She said one of the emerging problems seen on social media platforms is that mothers are being shamed into keeping their children even when they are attempting to do the best for their child, by perhaps considering adoption as an option.

“In some cases, they are being shamed by community members and in others by state social workers. Mothers considering adoption report having been told ‘we don’t do this’ … ‘we take care of our own, you mustn’t throw away your child’. Rather than be named and shamed and victimised it is possible some are choosing the anonymous abandonment route — a desperate attempt to provide for their child and a selfless one at that as they permanently cut their ties — a sacrifice made for their child.”

Mark Morcom, Thandi House co-founder, said when they started out, there were on average about three to five abandoned babies a week in Pietermaritzburg.

“We believe that hospitals are now offering better support at the time of birth. Even though it is still a massive problem in the province, the numbers have decreased,” he said.

Morcom said usually abandonments were done by young mothers.

“I suppose a lack of maturity has to do with it. While there are systems in place, most of the mothers are not educated properly on what to do.”

In the same breath, Adeshni Naicker, KZN Child Line director, said many mothers often realise during pregnancy that they will receive no financial aid from the father and resort to abandoning the baby.

“Mothers are also ill-informed about their options regarding an unwanted pregnancy and some are often wary of the protocol of giving up a baby for adoption and see abandonment as an easier option,” Naicker said.

She said with the recent spate of abandoned babies, organisations needed to start drawing attention to the options available and perhaps make the protocol for unplanned and unwanted pregnancies easier and more accessible.

Naicker said abandonment had long-term consequences.

“Children who are abandoned at birth often grow up feeling unloved and emotionally scarred.

“They question their worth and wonder what was wrong with them. They shy away from getting close to adults and are afraid to develop a close bond believing that adults will not be able to love them in return.”

Abandoned baby. Photo: ER24

A medic tends to a baby who was found abandoned. 

Laws need to change

Robyn Wolfson Voster, a child protection activist, said the law needs to change if there is to be any hope of addressing the scourge.

“What kind of a society are we? We should be screaming and shouting, and really all resources should be going into this. The difficulty is that there are children who can never be adopted, because of health issues,” she said.

Are there other options available?

Julie Todd, director of Pietermaritzburg Child Welfare, said although some areas are better resourced than others, there are pregnancy crisis centres in many parts of the country — again some areas are better resourced than others — where a pregnant mother can go and stay and be counselled regarding future planning for her unborn child.

Foster care (short-term) and adoption are but two of the options for a young mother who can’t be kept together with her child.

In some areas, although not enough, there are shelters where mothers and children can be temporarily housed and assisted to get back on their feet, but they can only be accommodated on a short-term basis.

In Pietermaritzburg, there are emergency carers who have been screened and deemed suitable by child protection organisations and government to care for abandoned children.

“Many abandoned children initially are placed in hospital — if not abandoned there — to assess them medically before they are placed in temporary safe care by court order,” Todd said.

Health Dept promotes contraception

Provincial health spokesperson Ncumisa Mafunda said: “The department is concerned about reports of abandoned babies despite the many reproductive services available in its facilities. The department provides free contraceptives in the form of condoms, injectables, implants and pills”.

Mafunda said concerned with the number of young mothers who arrived at the department’s facilities after complications arising from illegal abortions, MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo launched an awareness programme to promote safe and legal Termination of Pregnancy (TOP) services in 2015.

“This anti-illegal termination of pregnancy campaign, which was carried out in every district, resulted in an increase in facilities that offer TOP services. Since then, the department has noted fewer deaths arising from complications related to illegal terminations.”

However, she said the department will continue to promote its reproductive health services as part of efforts to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the province and wishes to urge the media to support these efforts. “Healthcare professionals are reminded to consider the importance of upholding professional ethics at all times. This includes creating a conducive environment for everyone who seeks health care, regardless of their age,” said Mafunda.

‘There will always be that void’

Local caregiver Zanele Mhlongo*, who takes care of abandoned babies, said: “The worst thing for us is that these children will never know their true identity. When they are small, they are cute and don’t know better.

“When they grow up, it is inevitable … They will have questions.”

And their new parents won’t have the answers.

“They can go into loving and privileged homes, but there will always be that void that can never be filled.”

Mhlongo lovingly cares for her 12 children — including Aphiwe*, a thriving one-month-old boy, who was found abandoned in Ashdown.

When she puts him back down in his crib, he whimpers.

“I have a bond with all of these children,” she smiles.

“By the time they leave, the bond is there because I spend time with them.”

For Mhlongo, the “first prize” is when these children find adoptive families.

Sergeant Mthoko Ngobese, Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson, said a mother who abandoned her child could face criminal charges. “Child abandonment and neglect is a criminal offence and offenders are dealt with accordingly,” he said.

But a social worker, who asked not to be named, said arresting mothers was not the solution.

“The problem of child abandonment is rooted in poverty and unemployment. Women living in squalid conditions do not consider the consequences, but the effect of a child they cannot afford or want.”

* Names have been changed to protect the children concerned.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg
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