Among the many dreadful repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic is the effect that a devastated economy along with enforced lockdown is having on the rate of baby abandonment in South Africa.
A year ago a spike in child abandonments and the physical abuse of youngsters during lockdown was reported across local news.
At the time Robyn Wolfson Vorster wrote that lockdown has seen a spate of unthinkable child abandonments – a toddler discarded in a dustbin; a six-week-old baby found at midnight in a hole next to a highway; a toddler left with a stranger in the queue outside a shop.
"Others died in sewers, streets, dumps, under bridges and in shallow graves. Their young age and an inability to articulate the horrors of their stories has muted their voices," she described.
Sadly, the continued lockdown and effects of Covid-19 in 2021 have meant that this trend has continued.
The gaping hole in the child protection system
While abandonment is a growing problem, few know that it is a crime for a parent, legal guardian or caregiver to desert a child (even in what is considered a "safe abandonment" such as at a hospital or in a baby box/saver) and that there are legal consequences for anyone who is found guilty of abandoning a child.
The legal rights of infants and minors are protected by the Children’s Act 38 of 2005.
While this law is deemed pretty broad when it comes to the care and protection of children many have criticised its practical implementation and have identified areas where the law can improve and offer more safety.
Activist and researcher Dee Black from the National Adoption Coalition South Africa (NACSA) has highlighted the following issues:
- Illegal immigrants are unable to legally place their children in the formal child protection system in South Africa, and face deportation should they try.
- Relinquishing parental rights so that a child can be adopted, can only be done with a legal guardian’s consent from the age of 18 years, making this option inaccessible to teenage mothers; however, a child of any age can request an abortion in South Africa sending mixed messages about the choice of adoption.
- Child abandonment is a criminal offence, and a person who abandons a child after birth may be charged and prosecuted. Charges could include crimes such as concealment of birth and attempted murder.
- Baby savers are illegal, however, these are being opened up more frequently given the increase in abandonment.
- Many abandoned children don’t even make it into the formal child protection system, as they are absorbed into communities through 'informal adoption', raising concerns around issues such as child trafficking.
Alarmingly, child protection specialists have indicated that the law does very little to facilitate the adoption of abandoned children who find themselves on the Registry of Adoptable Children & Parents (RACAP) and with the number of orphaned infants on the rise and the rate of adoption on the decline, this is proving to be a significant setback.
Number of mothers unable to care for their babies is 'of grave concern'
With the increasing poverty and lack of access to contraceptives and assistance during severe lockdowns, the number of mothers who find themselves unable to care for their babies continues to be of grave concern.
The alarmingly high rate of rape in this country, along with judgmental communities and health staff as well as absent fathers contribute to this, and the options for a desperate mother are few.
They cannot, as many would like to think, simply hand their baby over anonymously at a police or fire station, or even a hospital or clinic, due to there being no Safe Haven law in South Africa.
Interesting to note here, is that our neighbour Namibia passed a law at the end of January 2019 allowing mothers to drop off newborns with the police or at a safe house without facing prosecution after cited Namibian police data showed that 25 babies were reported abandoned between 2017 to 2018.
In South Africa, the only formal statistics compiled about child abandonment recorded that approximately 3 500 children survive abandonment annually and that for every survivor, two die.
Added to this, there is no way of knowing how many are never found, yet we are still fighting to have a Safe Haven law passed.
The importance of baby savers
The good news is that there are over 40 baby boxes/savers established and saving lives in South Africa, despite the lack of this law.
Also, that there are currently public hearings on the Children’s Amendment Bill.
Nadene Grabham, Operations Director of Door of Hope Children’s Mission in Johannesburg, recently presented on South Africa’s child abandonment crises and the importance of adoption, and has made a case for the legalising of baby boxes and passing safe haven laws.
A baby box/saver is a safe place to leave a baby anonymously if one is desperate, rather than dumping them in a drain, field, bathroom, etc.
Once placed in the saver, the baby will be taken into care then placed into the foster care/adoption system, as with any other abandoned baby.
Raising awareness about these baby savers is essential in order for communities to know that there is this safe alternative.
We as communities need to stand together, uplift each other and support those who are most vulnerable if we wish to see a decrease in abandonment.
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