Sounding the death knell for adoption?

by | Adoption

The 2016 World Adoption Day celebrations are proving muted, overshadowed by the election soap opera in America, and here at home by the crushing disclosure that there were only 1,165 adoptions last year. In a country with 3-million orphans and tens of thousands of crisis pregnancies annually, adoptions have stuttered and, in some cases, stopped. While reported reasons range from fear of child trafficking to bureaucratic sabotage, most agree that in child protection, the gap between what is legislated and what is achievable is widening. So, how will the government and adoption community respond to the crisis?

World Adoption Day was postponed this year. Unable to compete with the madness of the US presidential elections, its belated arrival is proof that adoption and politics make uneasy bedfellows.

Not that we needed any. Here in South Africa, the day was preceded by the Department of Social Development’s muted yet devastating revelation that only 1,165 adoptions occurred last year, a 30% decline from 2014. Revelation may even be a stretch – the figure was buried in a slide in a presentation that the Director of Adoptions made at a joint National Adoption Coalition (NACSA) and Department of Social Development conference. You had to look for it.

At the same conference, the Children’s Institute confirmed that South Africa has 3-million orphans, of which up to 1.2-million maternal and double orphans could benefit from adoption; not to mention untold numbers of crisis pregnancies where abortion or maternal care are not an option. And yet, the consensus is that adoption in South Africa is challenging, and that in some provinces, it has almost ground to a halt. This is confirmed by the tiny number of adoptions, which alarmingly may even be overstated. Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen, senior law professor at the University of the Western Cape, suggested that if the figure had been disaggregated (it wasn’t), up to 80% of those adoptions would be step-parent adoptions. It amounts to a handful of inter-country adoptions and an equally tiny number of non-family national adoptions. As a child protection strategy, adoption may already be staring into the abyss.

At the same time, it is on the cusp of an important change to practice. With the Children’s Second Amendment Bill nearing finalisation, Department of Social Development social workers will soon be able to perform adoptions. This, along with a strategically timed revision to the rates that private and agency-based adoption social workers are permitted to charge for adoptions, could eventuate in adoptions becoming the monopoly of already overburdened and, in some cases, somewhat sceptical government social workers. Small wonder that the state of adoptions feels like a threat to some. But it might also be an opportunity to address why adoption is so challenging and highly contested, and to reinsert it as an integral part of the country’s child protection strategy.

It isn’t news that adopting in South Africa is hard – the word most commonly used to describe the process. Even impartial observers employ it, usually by way of the frequently asked question: “Given how many South African children are in need, why is adoption so hard?” The answer is that it is intentionally difficult, but not for the reason people imagine: it isn’t to prevent paedophiles from adopting or to stop our children being trafficked; at least, not entirely.

The South African public has undoubtedly internalised the trafficking vindication, which isn’t surprising – it is the dominant script being read by the government. Along with abuse, is the most “legitimate” reason for making adoption hard. And to some degree it is true. The screening process is deliberately and rightly challenging to weed out those with malicious intent. The argument breaks down however when we consider that the most difficult part of adoption is not the screening prior to placement, but the legal steps to finalise the adoption. These occur after the child has been placed in our care. Even if the court or government halted the adoption at this point, the child could already have suffered harm.

The abuse and trafficking explanation is certainly plausible, but it is a red herring. It masks a deeper, more painful reason for the hesitant progress of adoption and in so doing prevents us from addressing it. Adoption is hard because, as with many things in South Africa, there is a gaping chasm between what is legislated and what we as individuals (and even as institutions) have the appetite to implement; it is hard because while adoption may be necessary, for some it is an incongruous and even negative form of child protection.

Culturally, the two most problematic aspects of adoption are the permanent change in identity implicit in adoption and the fact that for an adoption to occur, the legal relationship between the birth parents and the child must first be terminated. Dee Blackie, anthropologist and adoption advocate, explains that legally and formally changing a child’s identity can be problematic in an African context. The fear is that a child will be lost if it is no longer connected to familial ancestors, and equally that adopted children can never truly belong to the new family. Another area of concern relates to the rescinding of parental rights. The Children’s Act states that a child can only be adoptable if parents first forfeit their rights (either through consent or through the process of abandonment). But anthropologists argue that this violates the principles inherent in child circulation (which is still our most common form of child protection). Child circulation is based on the tenet of community care, but crucially, regardless of the duration of care, parents don’t lose their rights to the child.

Beyond culture could lie an even deeper pain. As child protection advocate and adoptive parent Justin Foxton points out, most of South Africa’s adoptions are transracial with the inherent threat of loss and the enculturation of black children. This source of heartache could explain why so much of the language used about adoption is pejorative. References to adoptive parents “buying” or even “stealing” children are generally interpreted as ignorance of the process (which may be true). But, they could equally be attributed to the grief associated with adoption.

Despite this, countries across Africa have included adoption as part of their child protection strategy – with varying success. Zambia and Namibia for example have been quite effective in overcoming the cultural concerns of birth mothers and black families considering adoption. In South Africa, black adoptive families are increasing but the majority are still urbanised, with a tertiary education. Adoption certainly isn’t widespread. Either way, what advocates have largely failed to do (not always for lack of trying) is transmit the benefits of adoption to those who process them, who may feel that they are complicit in robbing a child of its family and identity – a serious fear indeed.

So it should come as no surprise that as adoptions slow to a trickle, the biggest sticking points are the courts’ unwillingness to rescind parental rights (even when the Children’s Act specifies that they can and should), concerns about cultural loss, the Department of Social Development and Home Affair’s passive aggressive pushback against name and identity changes, and the nigh impossibility of getting inter-country adoptions approved because the government – contrary to the Hague Convention – insists that social workers “exhaust every option” to find kin or local families first. Simply put, as a child protection strategy, adoption is supported by the law but not by those who apply it.

Even for those who don’t advocate adoption, this is bad news. Realistically, the child circulation model of child protection is facing huge challenges. Devastated by poverty, HIV/Aids and urbanisation, community-based care is no longer a self-sufficient system. Increasingly, the burden of costs to the state is contributing to the enormous grant bill that is outstripping our tax base, and the accompanying administrative woes which have brought the foster care system to the brink of collapse. Adoption is also a necessary strategy for managing crisis pregnancies (especially those seeking help late in the pregnancy). Without it, we are likely to see even more late-term illegal abortions and abandonment. And, without adoption, we have no adequate, affordable strategy for the long-term care of abandoned children. Separated from their families by the act of abandonment, these children seldom have the option of kinship care. Instead, they are likely to be placed in Child and Youth Care Centres. These centres are increasingly being advocated as the alternative to adoption (especially for those who cannot reconcile adoption with cultural concerns). But, no matter how nurturing, they remain institutions, and conference speakers stressed the negative impact of institutionalisation on brain development (especially in the first 1,000 days), on attachment, and on future progress including cognitive ability, if the child will complete school and obtain higher education, earning potential and even overall health.

So, is it all doom and gloom? Well, no. The Chief Director in the Department of Social Development, Prof Roseline September, ended the conference (titled “The Changing Face of Adoption”) with an undertaking to liaise with the Department of Home Affairs and the judiciary to streamline administrative processes and minimise adoption bureaucracy. This is good news – it’s no secret that the administration of adoption is a nightmare. But, bureaucracy is no more the root of the problem than trafficking is. Despite best intentions, adoption advocates cannot continue to ignore the pain behind adoption and hope that numbers will miraculously increase… therein lies insanity.

Foxton argues for the need for decolonisation of adoption. “If we fail to address the disconnect between belief and the law, along with the emotion behind it, the process will continue to be hard and adversarial, and the number of adoptions will keep falling. South Africa may even revert to an exclusive focus on child circulation, with its inherent cost and resource challenges, and the consequent risk to children”.

This, the tiniest of our child protection strategies has the potential to be one of our most important. But, for adoption to continue, those on both sides of the spectrum must work together to reinvent it in a culturally relevant form. Already, the emphasis on ensuring that adoption is part of an overall child protection strategy is helpful. Adoption in South Africa may be most appropriate when family reunification has failed, or for abandoned children with no obvious familial ties (to avoid the need to rescind parental rights). In cases where the birth mother has consented, open adoptions may be optimal (to ensure that children are exposed to their cultural heritage and to extended family, who in some cases still want the child). In addition, legal recognition for customary adoptions and the simplification and subsidisation of familial adoptions could promote relevant kin-based adoptions and take the pressure off the foster care system.

But the question remains: do the parties involved have the will to make this work? If the Department of Social Development’s goal is to wrest control of child protection away from child protection organisations and private practitioners, whose goal in turn (probably understandably) would be to keep their livelihood, then our children will be the biggest casualties. But if the aim is to ensure that adoption is both effective and contextually appropriate, there may be a good outcome. Critically, unlike the decolonisation of education, the key constituents are too young to fight this battle themselves. It is up to those on both sides of the spectrum to work together to make changes. To quote the Chief Director again, it is time for “collaborative actions to do much better for our children”. The writing is the wall, not just for adoption but for child protection as a whole. But, bleak as the situation appears, it is probably too soon to call World Adoption Day off completely, at least for now. DM

First published Daily Maverick: 15.11.2016

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