Alternatives to Abandonment – City Story

Alternatives to Abandonment

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A distant, muffled sound caught the children’s attention. It was hard to find where it was coming from. Eventually, they traced it to a rubbish-clogged stormwater drain… the tiny cry of another abandoned newborn. 

The story is alarmingly familiar in our country. There are a reported 3000 unwanted babies abandoned every year in South Africa (National Adoption Coalition) It is thought that only one in three survive.  An analysis published in 2016 (the South African Medical Research Council).stated that, in 2009, almost 85% of infanticides resulted from abandonment. The estimates are that for every baby found alive, two are found dead. All too often, the individual stories, whether the babies are found alive or dead, are harrowing: public latrines, rubbish bins or the open veld where the infants are vulnerable to the elements and to scavenging wildlife. Children born in this country are at the highest risk of being killed within the first six days of their lives. Many of the infants who are found are survivals of late-term abortions. We are moved by the plight of these little ones but the truth is that there are possibly twice as many victims in this lamentable account: many of the mothers driven to such actions are desperate, having no-one they feel they can turn to and no idea that there might be other options open to them.

Many factors contribute to the high rate of ‘baby-dumping’ in South Africa. Child abandonment is a criminal offence in this country, with consequences for those found guilty of it but the pressures which push women to resort to such drastic are myriad: lack of finances; fear and guilt because of no family support; cultural and societal taboos; desertion by the father; stress resulting from keeping an unwanted pregnancy hidden…and often the mothers are little more than children themselves, emotionally too immature to cope with a baby.

If the mother of a newborn is a refugee or asylum-seeker, particularly one without documentation, wants to find medical or other assistance, she is often fearful that her foreign status will prove a barrier to finding help. She simply doesn’t know that every pregnant or breastfeeding woman and her children under the age of six have access to health care services. But sometimes, the on-the-ground experience is a very different reality and the door to healthcare is closed just because the woman is an alien.

Of course, there are solutions for a mother who feels alone and unable to cope with a baby. One, on the face of it, may appear a laudable ‘community’ answer when an abandoned child is taken in through ‘informal adoption’, but alarm bells have been rung pointing out that this could be a convenient cover for child-trafficking.

There are other more formalised avenues the mothers could take. Local hospitals and clinics could be considered but with no ‘safe haven’ law in South Africa, a mother would find it very difficult to leave her baby there and walk away. There would always be questions to be answered and the threat of criminal action against her would be very intimidating.

A bewildered expectant or new mother could approach her nearest clinic or hospital for advice from a social worker. These same health care and social work professionals can give trauma counselling, and advice about how to access health, welfare, legal and financial help and can be a great support to women dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. They are a route to information about foster care and adoption programmes. Where lack of finances is a factor, the mother could apply for a child support grant which is aimed at helping meet a child’s basic needs in lower-income households. 

When a baby is abandoned, the Department of Social Development works with the hospital social workers to place the child in a transition home, where either the child will eventually be reunited with its birth mother or with other members of its family, or be adopted by what is often referred to as their new ‘forever families’. Often, of course, the frightened mother knows little or nothing about these official routes. To cater for panic-filled midnight dashes to rid herself of her newborn, baby safes have been installed at various institutions. These are a modern evolution of what was known as a ‘foundling wheel’ in the Middle Ages in Europe where a cylinder rather like a revolving door was set in the outside wall of a building like a church or a convent. A mother would put her child in the cylinder and turn it so that the baby was then inside the building. She would then ring a bell to alert the inhabitants. 

There are five modern baby safes in KZN: Thandi House in Pietermaritzburg; The Domino Foundation in Durban North; Open Arms on the Bluff; Choices for Life: Impilo Baby Haven eManzimtoti and Likhon iThemba Charity Hop Shop in Glenwood. The Domino Foundation’s transition Babies’ Home has seen several infants left almost literally ‘on the doorstep’ but none has ever been left in the baby safe. Said Housemother, Precious Thabethe, “One young mother obviously had heard of us and had caught taxis from a township to leave her child in our driveway and then run. We were able to trace her because the baby was wearing a wristband from the clinic. We were happy that charges weren’t laid against the mother and that we were able to get counselling for her. The baby was eventually adopted/reunited with her mother.” Precious spoke of how she and her team are always overjoyed to welcome a new tiny member into the ‘family’, but, “…we are heartsore for the girl or woman that has been driven to dump her child.” She said that every avenue needs to be explored so that the understanding that places like the Babies’ Home exist is spread in communities.

The Domino Foundation sits on the board of the National Adoption Coalition whose aim is to unify and empower the adoption community, to engage and raise awareness on adoptions in communities and to create positive and permanent changes in the lives of children. Domino Marketing Storyteller, Karen Brokensha, noted, “Because many of the babies who are abandoned are Black, we need to stir the hearts of the Black community to adopt these children. There is certainly a lot of cultural resistance to adoption and we have to recognise and understand that. If mothers who are tempted to dump their newborns felt their own communities were more amenable to the idea of adoption, we might well find fewer abandonments happening.”

One of Domino’s other programmes, Red Light, works to see survivors of exploitation rescued, restored and then released into new lives of freedom. Red Light Release Co-ordinator Esther Madikane, said that their work often brought them into contact with women and girls unsure of how to cope with an unintended pregnancy or having been pressured into abandoning their newborns. “Many of these ladies have very raw emotions about how they dealt with the babies whom they had then seen as ‘unwanted’. As they go through the process of healing and restoration, we come alongside them in their pain and help them to a place where they are able to forgive themselves, forgive the men who had made them pregnant and move into a space where they will joyfully welcome any future children into their lives.” 

In Domino’s Life Skills programme, issues like adolescence and wise life choices are discussed in class with the programme’s youth workers. They also have a counselling framework and facilities in the schools where they operate so that learners with personal issues troubling them are able to share confidentially. Youth worker, Nonhlanhla Majola, spoke of how the empathetic ear of a dispassionate adult can give youngsters a safe space in which to talk about major issues: “We teach the children that they are special, irreplaceable and unique, and an important part of our curriculum focuses on how to value their sexuality and that of others. We are able to build better interpersonal relationships and be more available onsite at the school, as well as assisting with parent/child home visits.”

Issues like sexuality, teen pregnancies, HIV and AIDS are among those the pupils face in their own lives, their families and amongst their peers. The Life Skills programme deals with these with an eye on how the children need to be equipped to make wise choices after they leave school. One of the concerns of the youth workers come from the statistics which tell an alarming story: the rate of fatherlessness in South Africa is one of the highest in the world. A 2017 survey showed that 61.8% of those under the age of 18 have no father in their homes and 62% of birth certificates in the same year had blanks in the boxes about the fathers’ information. The question has to be asked, “The fathers of half-a-million plus babies born each year are absent. Where are they?”

Youth worker, Sicelo Miya, commented, “We see the consequences of absentee/unknown fathers all the time in many of our pupils.” Motivational speaker, Edwin Louis Cole, had men as his target audience because he believed that, in large swathes of the world, men have abdicated their responsibilities, if not financially, certainly from a home leadership point of view, as nurturers,  protectors and as educators. He famously said, “The father is the most critical member in a family, whether he is present or not.” Abuse, whether physical or emotional, is tragically a feature of far too many households…a crime of commission. However, the sin of omission, when the father is either not physically present to his offspring or is emotionally detached from them even when he lives in the same house can also have devastating effects on young people. However, it doesn’t only take being physically present for a man to be an effective father. It is vital for that man to be emotionally available to his children. Sicelo said, “Our programme aims to instil in the boys a deep understanding of how they will have to show integrity and courage in their future lives as husbands and fathers, to see women as deserving respect, even if cultural norms and practice encourage the very opposite. Being the head of a home really involves servant-leadership.”

Many voices both here and elsewhere clamour for more and more sex education in schools to curb burgeoning populations and, while the Comprehensive Sexuality Education curriculum in Life Orientation classes may seek to impart knowledge, ultimately it is a ‘heart change’ rather than a ‘head change’ which will make for greater stability in the families of the future in South Africa.

About The Domino Foundation

The Domino Foundation is a registered NPO and PBO with a desire to see individuals and communities within South Africa living in dignity, justice, hope and purpose. Through their 8 focused community transformation initiatives, Domino directly impacts the lives of over 13,500 individuals daily, across KZN. The Foundation is 100% compliant in terms of the B-BBEE codes, and is able to offer companies and individuals’ maximum benefit based on their donations and seeks to collaborate with new partners to continue the #DominoEffect of changed lives, changing lives.


Karen Brokensha |

Rowan Philips |

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