Children's Health Policy and Legislation Social Services

Falling through the bureaucratic cracks

Abandoned and orphaned children are languishing in South African institutions while bureaucrats take up to two years to decide whether they can be adopted.

Around a quarter of a million South African children are orphaned but large numbers are falling through bureaucratic cracks. By mid-2004, according to the Actuarial Association of South Africa (ASSA) 2002 model, 250 000 children in South African had lost both parents but government departments tasked with the welfare of these vulnerable children are unable to confirm actual numbers who are being cared for in children’€™s homes.

But what Government can and does confirm on its website is that the adoption process in this country is ‘€œlong and complex’€.

Every day stories of abandoned or orphaned children make headlines in South African newspapers but the real story only begins once these children have been placed in the children’€™s homes, places of safety and other institutions.

While there might be a general impression that there are thousands of orphaned or abandoned babies and children who are available for adoption, the reality is few of these children are currently being placed. Precious developmental time is wasted as children get caught up in red tape and bureaucratic bungling due to understaffing and workload pressures in departments or institutions charged with their welfare and safety.

To gain a clearer picture of where abandoned, orphaned and vulnerable children are being held up in the system it is critical for authorities to know just how many children are in residential care or shelters and homes.

But no one wants to release these figures.

‘€œI have them,’€ a senior director in the Department of Social Development said adding ‘€œbut I can’€™t give them to you as the provinces disputed my figures at a recent meeting.’€

Kgati Sathekge, spokesman for Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya, was more blunt: ‘€œWe don’€™t know (how many children are in residential care)’€ he told Health-e News.

A senior manager in the Department of Social Welfare added worryingly ‘€œthere are many, many children in the system we don’€™t know of.’€

At the time of going to press only two provinces had responded to a request for information. Head of department in Mpumalanga, Hussain Verachia , confirmed that the province currently had 693 children in residential care. The Western Cape has 2 209 children.

Department of Social Development statistics indicate that 2 338 children were adopted in 2000 compared to 2 320 in 2003. Only 369 of these children were classified as abandoned, begging the question, what happened to the rest of the children who were abandoned?

Figures from 169 affiliates of the SA National Council for Child Welfare, a non-governmental organisation which collects statistics from many child welfare societies, indicate that during 2003 there were already 1 803 abandoned children on their caseload. A staggering 6 356 children were added to this figure the same year. This translates into about 8 000 abandoned children on the books at any given time. These figures do not include the thousands of children in other homes and shelters not affiliated to the council.

These children could be anywhere in the system ‘€“ from a registered children’€™s home with loving, trained caregivers to informal, unregistered homes where no social worker ever visits.

Nationally, 238 610 children access monthly foster grants a figure that amounts to just over R126-million.

Under present legislation, foster families include people who come forward to offer a home to a child in need who is not related to them or people who are related to the child or who care for him or her because the biological parents are unable to do so.

Experts agree that a lack of urgency seems to dog the process. This and other hurdles such as an unmanageable bureaucracy, a shortage of social workers, a lack of long-term planning and a huge workload have led to many children not being adopted and left languishing in orphanages and other shelters. Crucial attachment and other developmental issues are affected during these early months in a baby’€™s life.

Lynette Schreuder, Director for National Programmes at the SA National Council for Child Welfare, confirms that human and financial resources are limited and there are not nearly enough social workers or funds to deal with the overwhelming number of children who are left to fend for themselves.

Last year the 13 children’€™s homes affiliated to the council cared for 3 805 children, 23 places of safety catered for 1 727 and 10 shelters offered a home to 2 425 children.

According to Jackie Loffell, of the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society, ‘€œthe problem is that there are children all over the country in children’€™s homes, hospitals, places of safety and short-term foster families who would be eligible for adoption but there is no one place where this information comes together, even for children whose parents are deceased, or whose parents have formally consented to their adoption.’€

Discussions around the creation of a central register of details of children and prospective adoptive parents have been initiated but such a record is a still long way from becoming a reality.

Penny Whitaker of the Cape Town Child Welfare Society agrees that the need for a central database is desperate.

Her organization is the largest adoption agency in the Western Cape but has seen its social worker complement drop from six to two in the past five years.

Last year the organisation finalised only 26 adoptions, all from birth mothers who had opted to release their children. The organization does not actively seek to place abandoned or older children.

Whitaker attributes the low number of adoptions to the fact that many mothers are opting to keep their babies after being counseled, that there is not a large number of children who are abandoned in the province and that there is a low HIV prevalence. She added that private adoption agencies were ‘€œmonopolizing’€ services.

The society currently has 50 parents on a waiting list and only one child eligible for adoption in its system.

Government statistics reveal that of the 2 320 children adopted last year, 371 were cross-cultural and 224 were by parents outside the country’€™s borders. Separate statistics are not kept for children adopted by single parents or lesbian or gay couples. The balance was adopted by a cross-section of South Africans.

More than half of the cases were processed in Gauteng courts alone. Most of the children in Gauteng were adopted by biological fathers, step-parents or relatives (52% of national adoptions in 2001 and 44% in 2002).

White babies still constitute the largest group of children who are adopted but Loffell attributes the preponderance of this to the common practice of step-parents who adopt the children of their partners. She added that the number of black families who are willing to adopt is growing.

A Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) report released last year on the State of Children in Gauteng highlights the problems: ‘€œIt can be argued that a large proportion of children who are currently in foster and residential (orphanages and shelters) care, especially those under three years of age, should in fact be in adoption.’€

These children are not adopted or fostered due to a combination of factors, including a shortage of prospective adoptive parents willing to take in black children, an ignorance of provisions in the Child Care Act which could facilitate adoption, poor social work practice, an overload of the social work services and a lack of state financial support for the adoption of children with special needs.

The report also states that the shortcomings in case management and service delivery are responsible for the relatively low numbers with regard to the adoption of abandoned and previously fostered children.

It highlighted the need to target abandoned babies specifically for adoption as they make up a small, but important minority.

A report on the ‘€œSituation of Children in South Africa’€ by the UCT’€™s Children’€™s Institute also warns: ‘€œthe child and youth care system is under-resourced financially and in terms of human capacity. The quality of care given to children in residential facilities is often sub-standard. The department’€™s welfare services budget is a key concern, due to the low priority it receives.’€

There is no doubt that keeping track of the many children being left homeless and parentless is critical – even more so in the face of a growing AIDS epidemic and the deteriorating socio-economic conditions in many parts of the country.

Everyone agrees the system needs to be streamlined, that children need to be placed on a central register, that adoption needs to be promoted and that social workers should be more proactive in screening prospective adoptive parents.

The fact that the national department tasked with formulating and dictating the implementation of policy does not even know how many children are in residential care is an indictment on those who are working tirelessly to offer a better life for these thousands of children.

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Anso Thom