#BabiesMatter, or do they?

by | Abandonment, Child Homicide

Over the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, an intensive campaign run by veteran child protection activist Luke Lamprecht called #BabiesMatter provoked the rather depressing conclusion that not all babies do matter. Perhaps the most significant questions are “why”, and what do countless births not celebrated, and deaths not mourned say about us as a society?

There is something about a baby. For many South Africans, the birth of a baby is a reason for celebration, an event marked with joy. In the modern age of social media, it is also followed by a flood of photos and commentary focused on caring for the helpless infant. We love babies, and they evoke deep nurturing instincts in us. It is therefore counter-intuitive that the death of so many babies goes unnoticed and unpunished in this country. Is it possible that some babies matter a lot more to us than others?

It has been well documented that the South Africa’s foundlings, the survivors of abandonment, are often poorly treated. And despite the rituals of death being hugely significant in this country, abandoned babies are treated even worse in death. Two recent stomach-turning incidents provide a stark illustration. The first was the appalling accident that left the coffins of tiny babies strewn across a highway in Johannesburg. And, in another (this time unpublicised) incident, the body of an abandoned baby who had been found and loved before she died, was transported uncovered and unsecured in the back of a forensic pathology vehicle after she was thrown into the van by mortuary staff.

According to Dee Blackie, whose 2013 thesis on child abandonment remains the country’s only academic work on the subject, the 26 “stillborn” babies whose coffins were spilled on the highway were almost certainly the victims of late-term abortions, who died in hospital at birth. Blackie notes that illegal abortion “practitioners” routinely tell women to take the drugs that bring on contractions, and then go to hospital pretending to be miscarrying. These babies often die, and are listed as “stillbirths”, but the criminal actions that precipitated their death are seldom acknowledged. What is telling is the number of children whose bodies go unclaimed. There are undoubtedly tragic circumstances where mothers are forced to choose a pauper’s burial for their children because they cannot afford the cost of burial. But, for the most part, mothers whose babies are stillborn are desperate to bury them. The number of “stillbirths” in one consignment from one hospital, seems to indicate that they were killed (perhaps unwittingly) by their mothers through third trimester illegal abortions, and then abandoned to an anonymous burial in an unmarked grave. If the people responsible for their burial had not handled the transportation of their bodies in such a neglectful and disrespectful manner, we would not have known about them.

But it wasn’t an isolated incident. During the 16 Day campaign, a prominent Johannesburg Baby Home shared a devastating story about a baby in their care. Also a victim of a late term abortion, Baby A was born very prematurely. The home took her in, and used their extensive experience and expertise to nurse and nurture her, providing her with round the clock care, as they do for all their premature babies. During an hourly check at 2am one morning in November, Baby A showed signs that she was battling to breathe. The carers administered CPR until paramedics arrived, but sadly, they were unable to resuscitate her. As the staff who loved her struggled to process their grief, they were completely unprepared for what happened next. The government mortuary assistant who came to collect Baby A, launched into an attack on them. He told the staff that not only was the Baby Home a waste of government resources (ironic, given the dearth of government funding to homes such as these), but also that they had traumatised this little one by giving her CPR. His parting shot was to throw her tiny body, unwrapped, and without a body bag or even a blanket, into the back of the mortuary truck before driving away.

In the end, an autopsy revealed that her lungs had not developed properly so the home had no hope of saving her. It was something that the government hospital should have identified, especially given her extreme prematurity. But this is the same hospital that will not issue abandoned children with clinic cards or (where the home has been able to find clinic cards for abandoned children), will not stamp them to enable the children to obtain vaccinations. The failure of the Department of Health to adequately care for Baby A not only resulted in her death, but also in her being stripped of her last moment of dignity, once again discarded, this time by a government official in the back of a mortuary van.

The perplexing question is how such behaviour towards abandoned babies and foundlings can be justified. For Lamprecht, who heads up the “Shaken, Abused and Abandoned Baby” initiative, and is faced with these horrors daily, it is an indication that the government has been effective in its messaging around abandonment. He explains that people have been taught to “other” abandoned children. While the government seldom addresses abandonment, when it does, the emphasis is on the fact that “other” people are guilty of abandonment: foreigners (accounts are strongly xenophobic), or people of other classes, backgrounds or cultures.

Lamprecht believes that the “othering” of abandoned babies allows our society to attach no worth to their lives. Their lives do not matter, and if their parents can “throw them away”, why should government keep them alive and raise them, especially when they are a burden the country’s stretched (and corruption-depleted) resources? People across the spectrum have internalised this perspective. They range from the Deputy Director General of Welfare Services, who during a 2016 interview with Carte Blanche on abandonment, responded to a question about women who abandon by asking, “are they even South Africans?”; to the hospital that failed to diagnose and treat Baby A’s undeveloped lungs; to the forensic pathology mortuary van driver who handled her body so callously; to ordinary citizens. When an information poster encouraging women not to abandon, but instead to place their children safely into care was published on a crime-focused social media page, the comments were typical. They ranged from: “I think I am from another species”, to “the fact that we have to make posters like this tells me that there are a lot of people on earth who simply should not even exist… let alone breed”. This narrative, which has been devastatingly effective in dehumanising the victims, is clear – “we do not abandon our babies, other people do”.

Crucially, this strategic propaganda belies a long-standing belief that the South African government’s approach to abandonment is dominated by denial or incompetence. While these factors are unquestionably present, there appears to be significant intent in the way that the government has chosen to actively ignore abandonment and illegal late-term abortions. According to Lamprecht, the state claims to be the upper guardian of all children with a duty to protect their rights. Yet its strategy has been one of targeted neglect, part of an overall approach to the care of vulnerable children that has been present since the Thabo Mbeki era. Mbeki has been at great pains in recent times to explain why he did not promote ARVs for pregnant HIV sufferers. But child protection activists contend that one of the most important reasons for withholding ARVs was because the government did not have a plan to care for the children whose lives would be saved through the medical intervention.

Although this theory remains unproven, recent history has confirmed just how unprepared South Africa was for the number of orphans the AIDS pandemic produced. According to the Children’s Institute, South Africa has three-million orphans, of which 1.2-million are either maternal or double orphans, and therefore particularly vulnerable to poverty, neglect and abuse. In response to this need, the government has tried to stretch a foster care system designed for 50,000 high risk children to handle the long-term care of more than half a million children. The failure of the foster care system, the appallingly low adoption numbers (just over 1,000 annually), and the fact that the country has approximately 21,000 children in institutional care (blighted by ever decreasing subsidies), at least 2,000 children (that we know of) in unregistered institutions, along with 90,000 children living in 50,000 child headed households, indicates the lack of a plan for their care and protection.

It stands to reason that if this current government were to facilitate and promote safe abandonment, police illegal abortion practitioners, and change the law to make it easier for under-age girls and foreigners to place their children into the child protection system, thousands of lives would be saved every year. As with the mass roll-out of ARVs, it is a relatively simple solution to a massively complex problem. But, if applied, the number of children in need of care would also swell dramatically, and the absence of a permanent plan for that care would be even more obvious.

This could be the logical explanation for the government allowing thousands of babies to die or suffer long-term physical and emotional scarring from abandonment and late-term abortion every year. But, it certainly isn’t morally justifiable. So why do we as a nation allow it to continue? In part, it is because accountability is in short supply in the Zuma-led government. Lamprecht argues that many South Africans feel personally abandoned by their government. Life Esidimeni and Sassa-gate have illustrated that even when a government department is solely responsible for wrongdoing, and clearly culpable, there are seldom consequences for its key officials. And, crucially, it is much harder to prove omission than commission. In the case of abandonment, the problem is even more complex because it is multi-sectoral (while it is primarily a Social Development problem, the fact that so many abandoned children are born as a result of late-term abortions, and so many die, also makes it the domain of the Health, Department, the SAPS and the Department of Justice).

According to Lamprecht, for Baby A, every seeming act of omission resulted from the belief that she was “other”, and her life meaningless, and each participant in the chain of her death decided not to care. The result is that no one is accountable for her death, or the death of countless others like her: her parents remain faceless, the hospital that did not provide her with proper care has avoided blame, and the pathology driver who threw her away, thus denying her dignity in death, has not been sanctioned. There was no one to fight for her life because it held no value for anyone except the home that cared for her, a home that is now powerless to hold any of the parties accountable for her death.

But even though government accountability and policy change seem an increasingly forlorn hope, we as South Africans have an opportunity to change perceptions around abandonment and intervene in our own way. For some, that may mean opening a Baby Saver or providing crisis pregnancy counselling; for others, it could mean targeted outrage, lobbying government and holding individual leaders responsible for their actions. But only when we as a society recognise the humanity of abandoned babies, stop “othering” them, and personalise their stories, can we change the statistic that South African babies are most likely to be killed in the first six days of life.

Perhaps it is as simple as this. The next time you hear a story about an abandoned baby or foundling, imagine that child loved and treasured with a doting family posting photos of them on social media. It will only happen when #BabiesMatter, not just some, but all of them. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 21.12.2017

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