Baby saver ban: geared for child ‘protection’ or spiralling out of control by increasing infant deaths?

by | Abandonment

Gauteng Social Development’s October ban of baby savers as a place to relinquish babies followed 10 years of advocacy by civil society to prevent unsafe abandonment. Government terms it ‘child protection’, but given the number of children dying or left disabled when babies are abandoned in rubbish dumps, disgusting pit latrines or the open veld, who is this protecting? Instead, baby savers should be considered an essential service.

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In October 2023, the Gauteng Department of Social Development (DSD) issued a directive to Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCCs), as well as private temporary safe care homes, declaring all baby savers in the province illegal, ordering them to close with immediate effect, and threatening legal action for those organisations that do not comply.  

Baby savers are mechanical boxes attached to CYCCs, places of safety or crisis pregnancy centres where a mother who is experiencing a crisis pregnancy, who cannot or will not raise the child and isn’t able to place that child into the child protection system, can safely relinquish the child as an alternative to unsafe abandonment. Based on the ancient practice of foundling wheels, they are designed to provide a last resort safe haven for vulnerable infants.  

Dr Yolande van der Hyde, a senior pathologist at the Observatory Forensic Pathology Institute, recreated an autopsy she had just performed on a dead abandoned baby. She said that many abandoned children were not born dead, but took a breath before they died.

South Africa has the distinction of having the first modern baby saver in the world. Situated at the Door of Hope, it’s been operational since 1999.  Based in Gauteng, the baby saver, which has rescued 270 infants over the last 24 years, is one of those ordered to close.

No response

At the time of publishing, the DSD had failed to respond to questions posed to it about its motivation for issuing the directive, the extent and impact of abandonment and DSD’s strategy for preventing it. However, its position has been well articulated, both in the directive and interviews given by Yvonne Deonarin, Director Children Protection Services: Gauteng DSD on radiotelevision and news media since news of the directive broke in mid-October. 

In a nutshell, the department’s position is that safe relinquishment through baby savers:

  • Is a form of abandonment, which is a criminal offence in the Children’s Act.
  • Encourages abandonment.
  • Is not in the best interests of a child.
  • Denies the child’s right to a name, family, social, cultural and religious identity.
  • “Silences the voice” of the child’s biological father.
  • Creates a caseload of “abandoned children”.
  • Is linked to illegal adoption and trafficking.

It further argues that baby savers are unnecessary because babies can be relinquished at the DSD’s offices, at clinics, hospitals and police stations, and that it has no knowledge of the organisations running baby savers.

They are important points, but to date, no one has been able to debate them publicly. Nor has the department veered off script to respond to any of the counter-arguments raised by child protection experts from Baby Savers South Africa (BSSA), the Teddy Bear Clinic, and Women & Men Against Child Abuse. The issues are therefore worth interrogating, particularly because what is missing from the department’s argument is as significant as what is included.  

Notably absent is an appreciation of the desperation of abandoning parents, and recognition of the extent and impact of abandonment. 

The department has never publicly acknowledged that more abandoned babies die than survive, and that those who survive are often left physically scarred or with trauma-related psychological challenges. In Deonarin’s recent interviews she also downplayed the numbers of babies surviving abandonment. Stating that the Gauteng DSD only had records of 13 babies abandoned in the province between April and September, she said that the department was not aware of the “thousands of babies being abandoned annually”. 

Deonarin’s comment insinuates that the numbers are either overstated, or that the abandoned children are being received by baby savers but not placed into the child protection system, but instead trafficked through illegal adoption for financial gain.  

However, the department knows the origins of the statistic. It’s derived from Dr Dee Blackie’s 2013 master’s thesis on abandonment. Blackie used figures provided by child protection organisations such as child welfare to calculate that 3,500 babies survived abandonment in 2010. 

In the absence of any other formal research on the topic, including by the DSD, Blackie’s statistic has been cited ever since. 

Nor is it likely to be inaccurate. In March 2022, in response to a question posed by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Social Development about how many babies had been abandoned in the years since Blackie’s research, national DSD sought to answer the question by conducting informal research across CPOs in each province, rather than referring to Part A of the child protection register, which should include an accurate tally of the number of babies surviving abandonment in the period.

A baby saver, also referred to as a baby box or baby safe, is a structure built into a wall where mothers can leave infants as a safe alternative to baby abandonment. (Photo: Whitney Rosenberg)

Babies that survived abandonment

Numbers provided were incomplete (there was no data from the Northwest Province, and limited information from others such as KwaZulu-Natal). But the combined total of 10,500 babies that survived abandonment over the period is substantial. Moreover, the Minister of Social Development told Parliament that 1,024 babies had been abandoned from April 2019 to March 2021 alone.

There’s no minimising the problem. Deonarin herself admitted in a November 2022 TV interview that “the prevalence of child abandonment is on the increase” and that those abandonments included babies “put into packets or dropped off in a nearby field”.

It’s also been flagged by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. In 2022, after the committee received South Africa’s five-yearly report from government, and shadow reports from civil society, it specifically highlighted abandonment and its prevalence on its list of concerns needing more investigation.  

In 2023 to date, there were 86 stories written about abandoned babies. Two thirds (57) were found dead, in rubbish bins, pit toilets, in buckets, on train tracks, in plastic bags, the veld, on the street, in an oven, in the mouths of animals, and in one devastating headline, strangled and being eaten by a dog.

But while the number of children who survive abandonment every year is significant, until government recognises how fatal unsafe abandonment can be, it will always understate abandonment figures.  

One of the unanswered questions posed to Deonarin for this article was “how many abandoned babies die annually?” Her silence wasn’t unexpected. The number of abandoned babies that die is not formally tracked by the SAPS or through forensic pathology labs.  

As a result, these children are completely invisible.  

Completely invisible

Child protection activist Luke Lamprecht however says that when he was researching abandonment, one Johannesburg mortuary recorded 20 dead abandoned babies every month for every six found alive. Lamprecht’s figure, amounting to an intake in one mortuary of 240 babies per year dying through unsafe abandonment, infanticide or neonaticide, was confirmed by Dr Jena Stuart, Chief Specialist Forensic Pathologist at Gauteng Department of Health’s Forensic Pathology Services. She says that the problem is “spiralling out of control” and placing the health sector in crisis.

A 2009 child homicide study completed for the Medical Research Council included 454 children under the age of five who died of unnatural causes.  Of these children, 233 (53%) died in the first six days of life, prompting the researchers to conclude that in South Africa, children under five were most likely to die of unnatural causes in the first six days of life and that the country has some of the highest rates of neonaticide (murder of children within the first 28 days of life: 19.6 per 100,000 live births) and infanticide (murder of babies under one: 28.4 per every 100,000 live births) in the world. In the study, 85% of the neonates died because they were abandoned in the open veld, rubbish dumps and dustbins, toilets, rivers and dams or were buried in shallow graves.

A recent Carte Blanche feature on dead abandoned babies included an interview with bone specialist Dr Roxanne Thornton, who establishes cause of death in the often decomposed bodies of abandoned babies. She identified illegal abortions, concealment of birth and infanticide as common causes of death for abandoned babies. Tragically, the babies she examines can be as old as nine months. But even then, their deaths are seldom investigated. 

In the feature, Dr Yolande van der Hyde, a senior pathologist at the Observatory Forensic Pathology Institute, recreated an autopsy she had just performed on a dead abandoned baby. She said that many abandoned children were not born dead, but took a breath before they died.    

But government has removed the word “abandoned” from its crime records and pathology reports. These babies are now all classified as stillborn even when there is evidence that the child was born alive and then died, or where there was blunt or sharp force trauma. 

One abandoned baby survives, two die

Following their reclassification, an investigative reporter analysing the number of “stillborns” in pathology reports in Gauteng confirmed Lamprecht’s findings that in the province, for every abandoned baby that survives, two die.  

Nor is the prevalence of death specific to Gauteng. Media stories from across the country show that in 2023 to date, there were 86 stories written about abandoned babies. Two thirds (57) were found dead, in rubbish binspit toilets, in buckets, on train tracksin plastic bags, the veld, on the street, in an oven, in the mouths of animals, and in one devastating headline, strangled and being eaten by a dog.  

These stats and stories show the deadly impact of unsafe abandonment.  But the thousands that survive seldom escape unscathed either. Instead, they suffer debilitating physical and psychological injuries. It’s hardly surprising, many of the 29 children whose abandonment and survival was documented in the media in 2023 were found in drains, in municipal rubbish bins, in pit latrines and in plastic bags, including a baby rescued in Gauteng’s Sedibeng municipality during the 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children, after being sealed in a plastic bag and thrown into a river. 

CYCCs and Places of Safety report that many abandoned babies have physical or psychological disabilities. These include brain injuries due to oxygen deprivation, cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, cognitive delays, limbs and other extremities missing due to rat bites, damage to lungs due to exposure after a child was abandoned outside in winter or at night, from near drowning or breathing in faecal matter when abandoned in pit latrines, tremors due to being abandoned at the side of a highway or children plagued with night terrors because they were left in dark drains for extended periods of time, or even buried alive.

Not surprisingly, the department doesn’t acknowledge these cases. If it recognised the risk of children’s death or disability following unsafe abandonment and did not act to prevent it, it would be acting negligently at best, and potentially, even criminally. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Closure of baby savers in Gauteng will lead to more unsafe abandonments and deaths — experts

Nonetheless, the DSD is on the same page as child protection activists about many things related to unsafe abandonment. Everyone agrees that first prize is for children to be raised in their nuclear or extended families, that it’s not optimal for children to be robbed of their cultural identities, heritage or relationship with their biological fathers. They even agree that abandonment is rife and that if societal factors such as poverty, unemployment, sexual violence, teen pregnancies and the breakdown of extended family exist, so will abandonment. 

Where they disagree is about if unsafe abandonment should be prevented at all costs, whether government’s efforts to stop crisis pregnancies and assist women to place their children into the child protection system are working, and if women can relinquish their babies at all DSD offices, clinics, hospitals and police stations. Activists further query if baby savers rob fathers of rights because women who abandon typically report that they’ve been sexually assaulted or abandoned by the biological father. Most importantly, civil society disagrees that abandonment is an “easy option” or that abandoning parents would abandon if they had alternatives.    

Underestimating desperation is as dangerous as ignoring the extent and impact of abandonment.

Pervasive factors driving abandonment

Frustratingly, despite being aware of the factors driving abandonment – Deonarin listed many in her November 2022 interview – the department seems curiously lacking in empathy about the despair they can cause.   

Moreover, government doesn’t understand that no one would deliberately risk arrest, prison, hurting or killing their child, or sacrificing any future relationship with them if they felt they had options.  

Recognising that people abandon as a last resort when they cannot or will not raise a child, and when placing the child into the child protection system is either not possible or government fails to assist them, refutes the argument that safe relinquishment is an enabler allowing parents to avoid parental responsibilities. Equally, if abandonment is a certainty, it’s inevitable that the child will be separated from the extended family, from culture and from its origins. 

People who use savers see abandonment as their only choice, making assertions that baby savers promote abandonment spurious. They’re instead a last resort to stop death.  

Armed with that knowledge, government should recognise that banning baby savers to stop abandonment is akin to government banning lifeguards to stop people drowning.

Even when it recognises desperation, the DSD still deems savers unnecessary, arguing that parents can relinquish at DSD offices, hospitals, clinics and police stations instead. Worryingly though, some women report being “chased away” when they have tried. 

Deonarin calls these “isolated incidents”.  However, the Gauteng DSD was unable to provide standard operating procedures for safe relinquishment at these institutions, and when BSSA asked for them, it was allegedly told that the department was in the process of writing them. 

‘Go home and parent’

In the interim, incidents of women seeking help being told to “go home and parent” abound. As recently as November, there were two separate incidents in Gauteng on the same day.  

In the East Rand of Johannesburg, a desperate mother tried to relinquish her baby at a police station because she had not received help from the department. When the SAPS took the baby to the local DSD offices to get it placed into the child protection system, the department ordered the police to arrest the mother because, despite the DSD’s directive, the police were told that she wasn’t allowed to relinquish her child to them. 

On the same day, in the West Rand of Johannesburg, a care worker from a place of safety escorted a mother to her local DSD offices because she wanted to place her four-month-old baby into care. The social workers apparently told her “she didn’t look poor” and sent her away. Even after a senior DSD manager intervened, the mother was told she couldn’t put her baby into the place of safety she had chosen. She left the offices with the baby. The child has since been placed into care, but without intervention, she might have abandoned her baby.

The DSD’s concerns about the potential illegality of baby savers based on the Children’s Act and the risk of trafficking through baby savers are however valid. It’s why advocacy groups have been working for years to amend the Children’s Act to allow for safe relinquishment. In March 2022, Dr Whitney Rosenberg from BSSA, whose PhD is focused on safe relinquishment, presented to the Social Development Parliamentary Portfolio Committee and explained children’s constitutional right to life and the importance of acting in their best interests. She showed how abandonment statistics necessitate a solution to end unsafe abandonment, and the impact on children of government’s failure to act.  

She then presented potential amendments to the wording of the Children’s Act to be incorporated into the Children’s Amendment Bill (CAB). These would legalise safe relinquishment through baby savers while ensuring that unsafe abandonment remains a criminal offence.  

But the amendments were not made in 2022. The committee’s priority was instead to pass the bill in time to meet the November 2022 deadline imposed by the North Gauteng High Court. The order compelled the DSD to provide a comprehensive legal solution to the foster care crisis, thus preventing the Minister of Social Development from being deemed to have acted unconstitutionally. The committee therefore decided to only pass the 12 foster-care related clauses, rejecting the remaining 126 clauses of the bill and effectively removing the option for new provisions in the Act to legalise baby savers.  

Despite this, the department still missed its deadline, and the order had to be extended for another 12 months.    

The committees’ plan was to include the remaining 126 CAB clauses in a committee bill to ensure that extensive work done on them through national and provincial public consultations wasn’t in vain. But calamitously, it discovered in May 2023 that it had been given inaccurate advice by the parliamentary law advisor who told parliamentarians that if the committee rejected the remaining clauses in the bill, they could still work on them as a committee bill.  

Advocate Charmaine van der Merwe, the Senior Parliamentary Legal Advisor in the Legislative Drafting Unit, clarified that the committee should have divided the bill into two, and then passed the clauses related to foster care. This would have allowed it to deliberate on the other clauses thereafter. 

Instead, when the committee rejected the 126 clauses, they were taken “off parliament’s radar”.   

While the number of children who survive abandonment every year is significant, until government recognises how fatal unsafe abandonment can be, it will always understate abandonment figures. (Photo: City Press / Media 24 / Gallo)

Upshot: restart baby saver legislation

The upshot is that work on the remaining clauses and suggested provisions related to baby savers must be restarted from scratch. Moreover, if the committee revives the process now but doesn’t have time to introduce the bill in the sixth Parliament, it cannot be carried over until the seventh Parliament. The result is that the bill, along with proposed new safe relinquishment clauses, has been shelved until a new committee is formed after the 2024 elections.  

The state law advisor was so appalled by the advice given that she felt duty-bound to report her colleague, an action opposed by the ANC members of the committee.  

Given that the DSD was privy to these discussions and aware of the plans to amend the act (and that its inability to fix foster care led to the delay effecting the changes), it seems disingenuous for the Gauteng department to act now to close baby savers, knowing legislative changes are pending.

Equally disingenuous is its continued assertion that it’s unfamiliar with the organisations running baby savers. BSSA met with a senior director from the Gauteng DSD on 4 October and explained in detail the vision for baby savers, its member organisations, the CPOs working with each saver to ensure that children placed in savers are immediately put into the child protection system, what processes they use when a baby comes through the saver, as well as the plan, also presented to parliament, for BSSA to become a regulatory body for savers. 

Acknowledging the risk of trafficking through unregulated savers, BSSA’s proposal is to register all savers who work with accredited CPOs and follow the processes dictated by the Children’s Act. This would ensure that every child placed in a saver is put into the child protection system. Equally, any saver not following the procedures would be flagged and suspended, pending compliance, or closed. 

At the meeting’s end, the DSD and BSSA agreed to pursue ways of working together. But, on the same day, the DSD issued the directive to ban baby savers and make their activities illegal. 

Since most baby savers are run by places of safety or CYCCs, if they defy the directive, they risk legal action, loss of funding and having their accreditation removed. But if they close, unsafe abandonment, which will continue unabated, will result in even more babies dying or being maimed.  If savers are driven underground, the risk of trafficking, minimal when savers are regulated, could also become real.  

Banning savers to prevent trafficking may ironically result in trafficking increasing.

Going upstream to stop abandonment at its source: addressing gender-based violence and prevention of crisis pregnancies should minimise abandonment numbers. As should options counselling and, when they are finally drafted, the implementation of safe relinquishment standard operating procedures for clinics, hospitals, police stations and DSD offices, especially if the DSD accompanies them with training, and includes the number of children relinquished into care as a performance indicator for DSD social workers. 

But, government prevention and intervention programmes lack urgency and effectiveness, as attested by abandonment stats. And societal circumstances in our country and resultant desperation mean there is no end to abandonment in sight. 

It’s therefore time to deal with the reality of abandonment rather than pretending that the savers are the genesis of the problem and that if abandonment numbers aren’t tracked and managed, abandonment isn’t happening.  

Ignoring this scourge won’t allow government to escape the consequences if it fails to end it. 

Baby savers an ‘essential service’

To quote Dr Sheheda Omar from the Teddy Bear Clinic, when you acknowledge that women who abandon feel that they have no other option, and that most abandoned babies die, it makes baby savers an “essential service”. Reinforcing that the right to life always trumps the right to identity, Omar explains that if you accept that the children placed in baby savers were going to be abandoned, not raised or placed in the child protection system, avoiding death, disability or psychological damage will always be in the child’s best interests. 

It’s also in the best interests of government. Now that the UNCRC has flagged abandonment as a reporting issue, government will be required in terms of the country’s treaty obligations to track abandonments (including those that result in death) and to show progress in minimising unsafe abandonments. Moreover, if the department deliberately denies children their inalienable rights to life and dignity, they could be deemed to have acted unconstitutionally. 

Government therefore needs to withdraw its directive and work with baby savers across the country to ensure that all savers are registered with BSSA and that the processes outlined in the act for placing a child into the child protection system are followed by those running savers. Further, it should expedite amendments to the Children’s Act to make safe relinquishment legal.  

In the interim though, DSD intransigence is costing many of our most vulnerable their lives. It seems incomprehensible that government must be compelled to save the lives of infants, but until it ends this perpetration of violence against those with no voices to protest, the 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children is a farce. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 08.12.2023

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