Adoption ‘ how it works
A summary of the labyrinthian world of social welfare services and the options that exist for abandoned children or those offered up for adoption.
Generally, a child is only given up for adoption once the mother has been counselled by a social worker in an adoption agency or an accredited adoption social worker in private practice.
Once the mother has decided that this is what she does want, the social worker links up with colleagues who have identified and approved adopters on a waiting list. If not, an attempt is made to recruit a suitable adoptive family.
The situation is more complex when a child is abandoned. First the child will be taken by the police or whoever finds him/her to a place of safety pending a decision by the children’s court. This may be a state Place of Safety, an NGO-run children’s home, a foster family or a temporary “safe house” (basically an emergency foster home). If the child is left at a hospital, the matter will immediately be referred to the Department of Social Development, a Child and Family Welfare agency or sometimes directly to a children’s home. Once the child has received a clean bill of health, he/she needs to be removed from the hospital.
What occurs from here on depends on how well the system works in the region concerned, whether there are adequate resources and how diligently practitioners in different disciplines follow up each case.
Jackie Loffell, of Johannesburg Child Welfare, confirms that in some regions abandoned children will languish in institutions because the local commissioner of child welfare insists on a two-year “police search” before the child is declared abandoned and released for adoption. There is no legal basis for this requirement.
‘There is usually no ‘search’ in any case – the police just confirm after the given period that they have not located the parents,’ says Loffell.
Other commissioners will free such children for adoption almost immediately. The first-mentioned approach has disastrous implications for children, as it takes no account of the importance of early bonding with consistent caregivers at this crucial stage in life. Loffell adds that a great deal of psychological damage can result from this practice that has been allowed to continue or decades.
‘There does indeed need to be an effort to locate the parents or relatives of the child, but this should be over a matter of a few weeks, not months and years,’ says Loffell.
Some agencies will place abandoned children with foster families (if they are available) until the children’s situation is clarified but many babies will wait out this phase in institutional care.
Meanwhile, the longer the child waits and the older he or she gets, the harder it is to find adopters and the more serious the problems the child is likely to develop due to early deprivation.
Another scenario arises if a child has been abused or neglected and is placed by the court in foster care or a children’s home. Accepted practice is for intensive services to be rendered immediately to the family in question, with a view to restoring the child to their care if at all possible, or to finding an alternative permanent family if there is no prospect of reunification. Sometimes these services proceed according to plan.
But according to Loffell such cases are at present the exception because of the parlous state of the social work services of the Department of Social Development and child and family welfare agencies which carry the burden of caseloads. Because of extremely poor pay and stressful working conditions these agencies are unable to hold onto experienced staff. The children are served by a constant procession of new recruits who often take months to catch up with their caseloads.
Once they do, the numbers and the rapid inflow of new cases make it impossible for them to give more than token attention to children who do, at least, have roofs over their heads and are not known to be suffering active abuse.
This means that a child may remain in limbo and spend his or her entire childhood in a children’s home or an uncertain foster care situation, or sometimes a series of such placements.
If the system worked properly, intensive services would be delivered to these families from the outset, assessments would be made at short and regular intervals as to whether or not they were responding, and in the absence of progress, prospective adoptive parents could apply to adopt the child.
Where appropriate, such adopters could be foster parents who are already caring for the child. The court would then decide whether or not to use its power to dispense with the consent of the parents.
Unfortunately, once again, magistrates vary widely in their readiness to go this route. There is at present no compulsory training for commissioners of child welfare, so these are not automatically people who have a grasp of children’s needs and developmental processes, or of the dynamics of child abuse.
Provision which had been made by the SA Law Commission in its draft Children’s Bill for specialised training of children’s court personnel have since been removed, a decision currently contested by non-government organisations.
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