Abandoned children: Lost or found(ling), what’s in a name?

by | Abandonment

In a country that does so little to prevent abandonment, make it safer, or provide optimal care solutions for survivors, the language used to describe abandoned children amounts to a particularly cruel form of victim shaming. Shockingly, those in authority are often the worst offenders.

In October 2017, the Danish government made the decision to instal baby savers across the country to allow desperate parents to abandon their babies safely. This, in a country where statistically, one baby is abandoned every year, resulting in eight fatalities over the last 13 years. By contrast, South Africa, where thousands of babies die every year as a result of abandonment (Gauteng, the only province to release statistics, has 600 annual deaths alone), and many others are left permanently physically or emotionally scarred through the experience, is yet to act in any way to prevent abandonment, or make it safer.

To make matters worse, abandoned children that survive are often labelled in pejorative ways, branded as “abandoned” on their birth certificates, issued with abridged birth certificates rather than the mandatory unabridged ones, or not issued an identity number because the Department of Home Affairs deems that they must be “foreign”. By contrast, those that die (the estimate is two deaths for every one child found alive), are euphemistically labelled “stillbirths” by forensic pathologists, while their abandoners are prosecuted (if at all) for “concealment of birth”, a crime that is not listed as a violent crime or collated by the police in public records. The upshot is that abandonments are seldom investigated, and that the murder rate for children (an average of 900 per year) is woefully inadequate because it does not include any abandoned children.

As a country we fail abandoned children every day. We even deny many a family. Those who survive abandonment are routinely taken to government-run Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCCs) where they are seldom processed for adoption. Only the children fortunate enough to be “overflow” (beyond a government institution’s capacity), are sent to NGO-run Places of Safety where they may be declared adoptable. Either way, the number of children who are placed in permanent families is pitiably small: of the approximately 3,500 children who survive abandonment annually, only about 300 make it on to the Register for Adoptable Children and Parents (RACAP), a prerequisite for adoption. And, dismally low adoption numbers (only a few hundred unrelated children adopted annually) indicate that even then, not all of these children find families. The thousands who aren’t processed, placed, or reunified with family members (often an impossibility in unsafe abandonments), are doomed to a life of institutional care (this, despite research showing that even the best institutions cannot replicate a family), or impermanent foster care solutions in an overburdened and poorly monitored system.

But as activists launch ongoing (currently futile) attempts to lobby government to approve safe abandonment to give these children a fighting chance; and to make adoption a key strategy to provide them with a future, it is the language of abandonment that we as a nation can most influence. What difference will it make?

On a blisteringly hot Friday the 13th in Cape Town, a much-tattooed biker heard an unusual sound from a municipal dustbin. He investigated and found a tiny baby girl dressed in a Babygro and sealed inside two plastic bags. In desperation, he fought his way to release her. Nicknamed “Suzi” for his favourite motorbike, she miraculously survived.

Suzi’s story is special for so many reasons. Not only was she moments away from suffocating, but her rescuer was unlikely and awkward and forever changed. A local news article described how he forced the lid off the bin, plucked out the little bundle, and tore open the two bags. “The first thing I saw was the tiniest hand, and then a face, and I shouted: ‘It’s a baby’.” “Is she alive?” onlookers asked. As if to answer for herself, her eyes opened, just a little, and her fingers curled around her rescuer’s finger, as he held her close. Within seconds, others gathered around, expressing shock and consternation, disbelief and offers of help. “I’ve got her,” he said, and indeed he had. This big, gentle man, arms covered in tattoos, skulls on his T-shirt incongruously the backdrop for this fragile little being, was exuding an energy of protection like a warrior, cast into this unexpected role of rescuer. Suzi will be remembered because, unlike the majority of abandoned babies, she was found.

Just days later, another little girl was also found, this time partially buried in the sand in Port Elizabeth. Her rescuers were equally unlikely, two small children playing in the bushes close to where she was dumped. They heard her cries and rushed to get help. The local police named her “Sindiswe” (meaning “saved” in Xhosa) in celebration of her survival.

From the start, the narrative around Suzi and Sindiswe has been different. Despite the nature of their abandonment (which in both cases seemed unusually intent on harm), no one has been condemning their birth mother to infertility or hell (whichever comes first), and no one has suggested Mengele methods to prevent future abandonments. Instead, two communities have rallied together around the girls, providing them with gifts, clothes, nappies and formula. A newspaper editor who drove past the scene where Suzi was rescued has launched a series of articles on child protection and adoption which has already saved the life of another baby (his mother placed him in a baby saver rather than abandoning him unsafely). Questions on social media and to authorities have focused around their well-being, how they slept, are they recovering? It shouldn’t be unusual, but it is.

Clearly, no narrative is going to take away the pain of abandonment from these children (nor should that ever be the intention). But our language communicates what we as a society believe about abandonment and, by implication, about abandoned children. Our tendency is to define these children by the worst thing that ever happened to them, rather than the fact that they overcame it. Sindiswe and Suzi are perfect example of what happens when you talk about something differently, and the very reason why we need to take a long hard look at how we speak about abandoned children and their stories. This includes the label itself. Perhaps it is best illustrated by way of contrast.

The most shocking conversation that I have had about abandonment was with an eight-year-old child. We were chatting generally about adoption and family, when seeing that she could trust me, she asked the unthinkable: “Why would a mother throw her baby away?” Experience has taught me that with children, the reason for a question is often as important as the question itself, so I enquired why she was asking. Her answer was concise, and devastating: her friend and classmate, Jess* had just found out that her mother had thrown her away in a dustbin. Trying to hide my dismay, I explained abandonment to her in kid-friendly terms (as much as is possible), and she left appeased. But the story of a Grade 3 child in a suburban school telling her classmates that she had been “thrown away” shook me. And when Jess’ teacher approached me weeks later seeking help for her, I discovered just how disturbing her story was.

Jess’ story begins with the familiar, a young mother giving birth to a baby girl, a baby girl that she couldn’t or didn’t want to raise. Although her motives for abandoning are unknown, what is known is that she placed her baby in a packet, and then in a dustbin in the suburb where her family lived. The proximity to home made it easy for authorities to track her down, which may secretly have been her hope, or the sign of confused and illogical thinking. Either way, she was not prosecuted, but still refused to raise her daughter. The Department of Social Development social worker therefore organised for the child to be reunited with her extended family. Not untypically, she was moved around quite a bit, settling with an aunt when she started school. And perhaps it is this child circulation that is responsible for what happened next, or an overworked social worker who didn’t brief the family adequately on how to talk to Jess about her history, or simply an adult behaving like a child. Either way, an argument between Jess and her aunt ended with Jess petulantly shouting, “my mother would never treat me like this” and “I would be better off with her”. It provoked an unthinkable response. Her aunt retorted: “little do you know, your precious mama threw you in a bin when you were born”.

This indiscretion, said in anger, not only turned Jess’ story into a weapon against her, it also robbed her of a safe place to talk it through. Bereft, she did what any other eight-year-old would do, she told all of her friends at school, who told the class, and other children, and teachers, and even strangers (like me). By the time I spoke to her teacher, the school social worker was recommending that she be placed away from her aunt, and change schools, to give her a chance to reinvent herself as something other than “the child whose mother threw her in the dustbin”. One devastating decision at her birth, followed by another devastating betrayal by her aunt, robbed this little girl of everything that mattered to her in a matter of weeks.

Jess’ story is heartbreaking, but it is also foreseeable. Since family reunification is South Africa’s preferred child protection strategy, Jess’ case provided the Department of Social Development with an ideal outcome. Her extended family was found, and the social worker was able to place her with them. But child circulation (which is often the outcome of an abandoned child being returned to family), and even kinship foster care, can come with a cost. With approximately half a million children in the foster care system, overworked social workers are often unable to spend time monitoring children, let alone counselling family members about how to talk to a child about abandonment.

It may also be a reflection of how we view abandoned children in this country, which raises an interesting question: why? Why the wholesale callousness towards such a vulnerable group of children? Again, I can only speculate, but throughout history, abandoned children have been a very uncomfortable mirror reflecting our worst societal ills to those in places of power and influence. Historically, the two biggest causes of abandonment have been poverty and immorality. Both are factors that nations have tried to conceal, and South Africa is no different. Here, abandonment is a reminder of the ugliness of rape and incest, of teen pregnancy, patriarchy, the evils of “blessers” and the horror of illegal late-term abortion. On another level, it reminds us that poverty, disease and urbanisation have decimated families, and that ubuntu is failing in unprecedented ways because communities have been stripped of their power and ability to physically care for the number of children in need. In addition, given the belief that only foreigners abandon, and policies making it hard for them to place their children in the child protection system which sometimes makes this belief true, it is also a stark reminder of the impact of xenophobia. Moreover, there is an element of “self-fulfilling prophecy” here. Many South Africans intrinsically believe that life will be difficult for abandoned children because not knowing their families will forever disconnect them from their ancestors. If that is our governing belief, what is the point of intervening?

So, we allow Home Affairs to label the living “abandoned” on their birth certificate (as an aside, after last year’s article on the “abandoned” endorsement, an advocate offered to take this case to High Court to get the practice changed, and the endorsements removed. But parents and social workers were too reticent or afraid to join in the suit, so the practice continues unchecked); and we allow the Department of Health to call the dead “stillbirths” on their death report. We don’t require the SAPS to police illegal abortion practitioners who abort viable babies, babies that frequently go on to be abandoned with life-altering disabilities; nor do we insist on safe haven laws to help more children survive abandonment. And we allow the “trash-can kid” narrative to persist, all in service of the belief that these children are never going to be okay.

Personally, I think that it’s time for change. It’s time for abandoned children that die to be listed as “abandoned” in our forensics and crime reports, not specifically for policing (although that is often required), but so that we can keep statistics and hold the government accountable for the appalling number of deaths. By contrast, the survivors need a new term. I would like to see them defined not as lost, but as found, because the government’s apathy has guaranteed one certainty: the only abandoned children that survive are those that are found. Be it by waste pickers, the homeless, children, shepherds, dogs, community members, the police, or by those who lovingly tend our (currently illegal) baby savers, being found is as defining as their abandonment.

So perhaps it is time to dust off the word “foundling” to refer to the survivors. Used for centuries to describe children rescued from abandonment or placed anonymously, it is still the preferred term in Europe. And while it isn’t completely value-free (the institutions dedicated to caring for foundlings were sometimes deeply unpleasant places), it continues to be associated with survival and therefore, with hope. Besides, in South Africa, there is no baggage accompanying the term. Using it would not deny the heartache of a child’s start in life, but could give children an opportunity to see the redemptive part of their story alongside the trauma of their abandonment. Equally importantly, it would give us as a society different (far more positive) language for talking about these children. The impact could be profound.

In August of 2017, two police officers rescued a baby girl who had been wrapped in five plastic bags and abandoned in a drain. One of the policemen described the experience: “We, as officers of the law, are trained to be very tough at all times, in any situation and under all circumstances. However, what I experienced on 12 August at about 8am broke my heart and made me forget my toughness. Holding a crying, gentle creation of God in my hands made me feel like a small boy. I unwrapped a new-born baby from five plastic bags. The infant was scared, hungry and crying for her mother’s milk.”

The policemen cared for the child, cleaning her and cutting her umbilical cord before rushing her to hospital, where she recovered from her ordeal. According to police, the woman who had alerted them to the child’s cries has put in an application to adopt her.

This baby girl, like Suzi and Sindiswe, is alive because she was found. If her rescuer’s application to adopt her is successful, she will have a new family. How transforming if she could have a new label too. When faced with stories like these, and these tiny miraculous survivors, the least we can do is dump the term abandoned, and call them “found(lings)”. DM

* Name changed to protect her identity

First published in the Daily Maverick: 09.11.2017

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