It’s been four years since Namibia legalised ‘safe relinquishment’. This followed government, civil society and the ruling party’s youth and women’s leagues declaring child abandonment a national crisis when 13 babies were found dead every month. By contrast, despite South Africa’s exponentially bigger problem, its government opposes legislation to end unsafe abandonment. It begs the question, do South African authorities really believe that every child has a constitutional right to life, or are the lives of Namibian babies more important than ours?
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Namibia began 2023 with a campaign to inform women of their right to safely relinquish a child that they cannot care for.
South Africa started 2023 the same way it ended 2022, with soaring numbers of abandonments, media reports indicating that for every child that survives abandonment, at least one, but as many as two, die, abandoning mothers being arrested despite being failed by authorities when they attempt to put their children into the child protection system, and no approved plan to minimise or mitigate the impact of unsafe abandonment.
By contrast, the Namibian campaign is a follow-up to its government declaring child abandonment a national crisis and a resultant 2019 change to legislation allowing for the safe relinquishment of a child that parents chose not to raise.
Safe relinquishment is defined as the safe, usually anonymous, surrender or placement of a child into a baby saver, or with a designated safe haven provider. Certain criteria must be met for the child to be safely relinquished, including that the child be below a certain age, and free from abuse, neglect or malnutrition.
The number of babies that were being abandoned prior to Namibia’s legislative change is unknown. But, in her 2021 article in the African Human Rights Law Journal on curbing unsafe baby abandonment, Dr Whitney Rosenberg, whose doctoral thesis is on global practices for the safe relinquishment of babies, described how in 2008 staff at the water works in Namibia’s capital Windhoek reported 13 babies were dumped or flushed down toilets every month.
Although Namibian abandonment statistics were hard to access, Rosenberg highlighted widespread concern expressed across the Namibian government and the ruling party about the prevalence and impact of child abandonment.
The need for intervention was voiced by the departments of Home Affairs, whose minister stressed children’s right to life as protected in article 6 of the Namibian constitution; Health, whose deputy minister emphasised the need to train health care workers to deal more sensitively with pregnant teens; and Gender Equality and Child Welfare, whose minister articulated the need to provide support and services for desperate pregnant women. Parliament, Women’s Action for Development (WAD), the SWAPO Party Women’s Council and the SWAPO Party Youth League all called for increased government action to combat unsafe abandonment.
Combined government and civil society pressure led to the 2019 promulgation of the country’s Child Care and Protection Act which included a clause prohibiting the prosecution of women who relinquish their babies safely at a prescribed location (such as a police station, hospital or place of safety), and whose baby shows no signs of harm.
Significantly, this law, which decriminalises the safe relinquishment of babies, was Namibia’s first departure from child-focused legislation that it inherited from South Africa, and was also driven by a need to decolonise its legislation and create child-related laws that are relevant in Africa.
Despite the change in law, the BBC reported that 140 babies were still abandoned unsafely across Namibia between 2018 and 2022. This prompted its government to initiate the 2023 awareness campaign encouraging women to make use of baby savers or relinquish their babies safely with authorities.
SA’s different approach
Although Namibia and South Africa are neighbours, South Africa’s approach to abandonment could not be more different.
During the 2021 and 2022 hearings for the Children’s Amendment Bill, South African civil society painted a bleak picture of unsafe abandonment in the country, and petitioned Parliament to include clauses into the Bill to allow safe relinquishment.
Its submissions included detailed changes to the wording of the Children’s Act and consequential amendments which would legalise the use of baby savers provided the baby was under one and showed no signs of abuse or neglect.
In the Gauteng hearings on the bill, the chairperson of the portfolio committee for social development who, along with many of her colleagues, was visibly moved by the stories of abandoned children who died or were maimed through unsafe abandonment, asked activists “to stop telling these sad stories, they are touching, I’m telling you”.
She and the committee then invited Dr Rosenberg to present on proposed safe relinquishment legislation in March 2022.
Within months, however, the committee had decided to reject most of the clauses in the Bill to focus exclusively on foster care. All discussions about safe relinquishment were also shelved, and despite commitments that the remainder of the clauses would become a committee bill, nine months later and the bill is yet to reappear on the committee’s agenda.
Even if Parliament does reopen discussions about ending unsafe abandonment, it probably won’t get any support from government.
Unlike Namibia, neither the executive, nor the ANC woman’s or youth leagues have made statements about the crisis of child abandonment or the need to save lives. Nor has it ever been on an agenda during Child Protection Week or the 16 Days of Activism for no violence against women and children.
Baby murder rate
This is despite South Africa reportedly having among 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).
The same Medical Research Council study found that children under 5 in South Africa were most likely to die of unnatural causes during the first six days of life as a result of unsafe abandonment.
Nevertheless, the Department of Social Development responded to questions posed by the committee in March 2022 about ending unsafe abandonment by stating that legalising life-saving interventions would be unconstitutional:
“The Children’s Amendment Bill did not make provision for safe abandonment of children nor does it seek to decriminalise safe abandonment. The matter arose as part of the public hearings. If it has to be considered; such consideration will be unconstitutional as it will be in contravention of Section 28 of the Constitution. According to the Constitution of the Republic; children must be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation which are also reiterated in the definition of care in the Principal Act (Children’s Act 38/2005) where a child must be protected from maltreatment, abuse, neglect, degradation, exploitation and any other physical, emotional or moral harm and hazards. Therefore decriminalisation of abandonment will continue to put children’s lives [at risk].”
In her presentation to the committee, Rosenberg countered this argument emphasising (as the Namibian government did) that the child’s constitutional right to life and dignity should trump all other rights, and further, per Section 28(2) of the constitution, that the best interests of the child are paramount in all decisions regarding the child.
She also refuted the department’s claim that legalising safe relinquishment amounts to legalising abandonment. Unsafe abandonment, which epitomises the maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation that the department wants to prevent, would remain a criminal offence. If however the mother could not raise the child and was not able to place it into the child protection system, her act of safely relinquishing the child into an accredited baby saver would no longer be a crime.
Legalising safe relinquishment is thus designed, wherever possible, to stop unsafe abandonment which could result in disfigurement and psychological harm, or death.
Where Rosenberg and the DSD do agree is about the need to prevent abandonment.
According to the department, its position is to strengthen prevention and early intervention programmes to identify and support pregnant mothers and inform them of “alternatives to abandonment such as termination of pregnancy, giving a child up for adoption or placing a child in alternative care (foster care or child and youth care centres). Early identification of mother at risk upon delivery of the baby must be done and such mothers assessed for appropriate referrals and immediate counselling upon giving birth to avoid abandonment of babies. Communities at large must also be educated about dangers of abandonment and support required by mothers of newborn babies.”
Whilst concurring that prevention is critical to saving lives, activists contend that while the circumstances driving abandonment exist, such as poverty, unemployment, gender-based violence, patriarchy, rampant teen pregnancies, and the restrictive legislation that prevents under 18s and foreigners from placing their children into the child protection system, abandonment will never be eliminated.
They further argue that, across all levels, government has proved very poor at the early identification of at-risk women, providing counselling and support, and assisting mothers to exercise options other than raising their child. And, they argue, the situation has become worse over the last year since the department made this policy statement.
The failure is painfully illustrated by the stories of four mothers from four provinces, all experiencing a crisis pregnancy and trying to seek help.
In October 2022, a 23-year-old mother from Veralum, KwaZulu Natal abandoned her three-month-old baby girl next to a stream. Her baby was clothed, and she was left with a nappy bag containing nappies, a dummy and a bottle of milk, along with a note explain why her mother abandoned her:
“Hi, You might be wondering why I dumped my baby, don’t wonder, just help her if you can or call authorities but don’t judge me. I have spoken twice with social workers they delaying to assist. I know this looks bad but I had no option. The system is fragile and we can’t even abort safely anymore. Hospitals have strict rules.” (sic)
Despite the child being in good health when found, her mother was arrested for child abandonment after she handed herself in to police following a furore that erupted on social media. She was charged and released on R500 bail.
In response, the KwaZulu-Natal MEC of social development Nonhlanhla Khoza, who cited the Veralum child’s story with two others in which babies narrowly survived unsafe abandonment: one where a newborn baby boy was left to drown in a pit latrine in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and another, in Newcastle, where a child was thrown out of a hospital window, said that it “was devastating to see such despicable incidents of dumping of children”.
The MEC then insisted that mothers have “a lot of options” when facing a crisis pregnancy: “We encourage parents who are unable to care for their children to seek help at a clinic, hospital or the department. We have a lot of options made available by our government to ensure that we safeguard the children and we want to urge parents not to resort to dumping children regardless of situations they face.”
She painstakingly detailed the process that authorities follow. A clinic refers a mom to a social worker, options counselling occurs, a safety and risk assessment is conducted for the child, followed by the child’s removal to temporary safe care in a family or child and youth care centre. Finally, a care plan for reunification is developed. Urging mothers to approach the department if they are in crisis, she threatened that abandoning mothers would “face the might of the law”.
It sounds constructive, except that the MEC was patently ignoring the mother’s protest that the system doesn’t work. It’s a depressingly common narrative.
In the Western Cape, Amanda Jones, a volunteer from the Helderberg, Baby Saver, had to threaten the Department Of Social Development with charges of culpable homicide if they did not allocate a social worker to a mother experiencing a crisis pregnancy who was at high risk of abandoning her baby.
Aphiwe* was adamant she did not want her baby. She told Jones that she was revolted by the child moving in her womb. She had tried to abort her baby three times over the course of the pregnancy, the final time at 37 weeks when she again failed, but her attempt resulted in an infection. Yet. at 39 weeks, regardless of the danger, she was still talking about trying to abort her child a fourth time.
The baby’s father told her he didn’t care what happened to the baby, and it was her problem. He threatened to block her if she kept contacting him.
When Aphiwe eventually went to the local clinic in her third trimester, she described being “chased away” by the nursing sister who told her that they didn’t have time for people like her who didn’t know what they wanted, and came so late in the pregnancy to get care. Aphiwe then sought help from a local GP who diagnosed a serious infection from the failed late-term abortion. He gave her medication, but although he said that the infection could be life threatening for the baby, did not book her into hospital.
After weeks of trying to get help for Aphiwe and her baby, it took Jones’s email begging the department to intervene and threatening to press charges if anything happened to Aphiwe’s baby, for it to get a child welfare social worker allocated to her case to help her book into hospital and place her baby into the child protection system.
Jones specifically requested that Aphiwe’s file contain a note stating that the hospital should not give the baby to her mother post-birth because she was at high risk for harming the child.
Despite this, in Aphiwe’s words, the child welfare social worker assigned to her case told her that, “I should not give the baby up for adoption because it’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life… If I do, I will never have peace and nothing will ever go according [to plan] with my life.”
The social worker then told her she may be bewitched and should visit her church for help.
Further, despite Aphiwe’s hospital admittance form stating the baby was to be adopted and the clear message given to the social worker that she may hurt her child, Aphiwe’s baby girl was handed to her after she was born. Aphiwe was placed on a chair outside the delivery room and instructed to breastfeed her child before they would allocate her a bed for her post-birth recovery.
Had she been discharged with her daughter, Aphiwe’s baby may have become another heartbreaking abandonment statistic or story. Mercifully though, Jones, dismayed at the child welfare social worker’s approach to the case, obtained help from another child protection organisation that removed the child. Aphiwe’s baby is now in the loving care of a temporary safe care parent.
The outcome could have been very different. In another troublingly similar story, a mother in Gauteng who also did not want her child was forced to breastfeed and care for her newborn in hospital for three days while the hospital blocked efforts from the temporary safe care parent to collect him. This was despite the mother also being deemed high risk for abandonment.
The safety parent’s relief at finally being handed the baby boy was short-lived. A medical checkup shortly after Thando* was placed in her care showed that the baby had a fractured skull.
The hospital’s insistence that his mother parent him almost cost Thando his life.
Shortly after the Veralum mom’s arrest for child abandonment, another safety parent, this time in the Eastern Cape, sat in a car with a young mother who had just confessed to abandoning her newborn daughter. The story of a baby girl left behind a fast-food restaurant at night had made it into the media in their hometown and Lorraine* had read it with dismay. She knew immediately that she had spoken to the abandoning mommy a week before.
During their discussion, Nkululeko* had told Lorraine that she had hidden her pregnancy and didn’t want anyone to know about the new baby. She was adamant that she would neither identify the birth father nor raise the child.
Lorraine is not a statutory social worker and cannot take a child into the child protection system. She therefore referred the mom to the local DSD, warning them that Nkululeko was terrified of anyone finding out about the pregnancy and that they should not ask questions until they had her baby in temporary safe care. Heedless, the DSD social workers pushed for details about Nkululeko, her family and the birth father. They then told Lorraine that she had disappeared and would no longer answer their calls.
The day after the referral, news broke that a baby girl had been abandoned the night before.
Although Nkululeko’s baby survived, Lorraine was appalled. Not only had Nkululeko felt she had no option but to abandon her baby after getting assistance from the DSD, but Lorraine knew she had to counsel her to turn herself in to police.
Nkululeko was arrested and charged with abandonment.
There is a small glimmer of hope in this story. At court, Nkululeko was released on her own recognisance, and after counselling, was reunited with her daughter who she has chosen to raise.
But she still faces criminal charges. She is back in court this month to see what the penalty will be for her crime.
All four stories have a common link, the singular lack of assistance for women experiencing a crisis pregnancy from hospitals, government social workers and the DSD. Without the intervention of volunteers and temporary safety parents, these babies could have died or been permanently estranged from their birth families.
The stories belie the MEC’s promise that birth mothers have a lot of options. Conversely, they show that government interventions often drive mothers to abandonment rather than preventing it.
And despite the promises and her threats, unsafe abandonment continues unabated, especially in KwaZulu Natal.
In January 2023, another baby was abandoned about 15km from where the Veralum baby was found in Phoenix, this time on the side of a highway, wrapped in a plastic bag. Babies were also found on an electrical box in Margate, outside a house, also in Margate, in a construction site in Port Shepstone, and at a clinic in Durban.
Nadene Grabham from Baby Savers SA says that in January and the first two days of February alone, there were 10 media reports of babies abandoned unsafely. Half of the babies were found dead: in stormwater drains, on dumping sites and on the street wrapped in plastic bags.
Although all forms of abandonment, including safe relinquishment, are still illegal in South Africa, Grabham says that 12 babies have been safely relinquished into baby savers so far this year. All survived and were immediately placed into the child protection system.
It’s hard to argue that there is no crisis. It is even harder to argue that government interventions are sufficient to end unsafe abandonment. It’s hardest to argue that it would be unconstitutional to pass legislation that saves the lives of unwanted babies and prevents the physical and psychological trauma of unsafe abandonment.
Bottom line is that safe relinquishment saves lives. But perhaps, as statistics and anecdotal evidence show, in South Africa, unlike Namibia, these little lives just aren’t that valuable.
*Names changed to protect their identities.
This article was first published in the Daily Maverick: 26.02.2023
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