Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Media Coverage of Abandoned Babies for 16 Days

Without a trace: the shocking fate of South Africa’s abandoned children
by Robyn Wolfson Vorster
Researching child abandonment in South Africa is akin to opening Pandora’s box.  Coupled as it is with illegal, late-term abortion, the body count (when you can find them) numbers in the tens of thousands, but could be many times that amount—perhaps we would know if the government was ever prepared to count them.  Criminal activity and clandestine practices are commonplace, and even for those children that survive, the result can be informal child trafficking or long term institutionalisation.  Despite this, abandonment is not on the government’s agenda for the upcoming “16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women & Children”, no statistics exist to quantify the problem, policing is confined to opening inquests instead of murder dockets, and we seem entirely devoid of strategy to end or even minimise this scourge.   It begs two important questions: what becomes of our “lost” boys and girls (who clearly aren’t in Neverland), and why do those in authority not seem to care?
Daniel* was the first abandoned child that I had met (at least knowingly).  As he played on the carpet with my son, his adoptive mom told me that he had been abandoned under a highway bridge in winter.  Seeing me shudder at the thought of a newborn, alone and icy cold, his mom shrugged.  “He was one of the lucky ones” she said. Despite the cold conditions, Daniel was rescued by a traffic officer and taken to a Place of Safety before he could die of exposure.  He was also better off than the two babies in the cots next to his: one had been left to drown in a longdrop; the other buried alive.  
Since then I have heard loads of abandonment stories, but Tami’s* is one of the most shocking.  Her mother aborted her when she was just over six months pregnant.  Tami was born, tiny but alive, on the floor of a toilet in the hospital where her mother (a nurse) worked, and then abandoned to die in a pool of blood. She was saved by a fellow nurse, only to spend her childhood being passed around in her community.   By the time she finished school, she had lived with 10 different families; knowing, but estranged from the woman who carried her in her womb, who has never acknowledged her, or been sanctioned for her crime.  She survived to tell the tale, and she too considers herself fortunate. Both Daniel and Tami are testament to the everyday horror of abandonment, where margins are so small that only the fortunate survive, and only the most fortunate avoid the long-term physical and psychological effects of a terrible, fleeting act of desperation that can either define or end a life. 
These individual stories are heart-wrenching, but it is only when we explore how many stories exist (and tragically, how many do not survive to tell their tale), that we begin to realise the extent of the problem.  In countless cases though, both the information, and the bodies, seem to have disappeared without a trace.  It makes obtaining a full understanding of abandonment in South Africa a bit like trying to complete a thousand piece puzzle without the picture (and possibly without numerous pieces).  
What we do know makes for scary reading though. For years we have been quoting one confirmed statistic about abandonment: in 2010, there were approximately 3500 children abandoned across the country. This number is noteworthy for two reasons; firstly, because it is already five years old and secondly, it only includes survivors of abandonment. The burning question must therefore be: if 3500 children survived, how many did not?
Tracking the dead is even harder than tracking the living.  One of the few statistics available is from 2012, where in Gauteng, only about 60 out of every 200 survived—70% did not.  The number may differ in other provinces (KwaZulu Natal for example, report very high numbers of abandonments, others fewer).  But if it is even marginally close elsewhere, it is worth asking how so many children are dying in plain sight without drawing public attention.  According to Nadene Grabham, the manager of Door of Hope (a Place of Safety caring for abandoned babies), countless babies are simply never found. And no wonder, in her 2014 thesis focusing on child abandonment, researcher and child protection activist, Dee Blackie determined that nearly 70% of abandonments were unsafe. She identified primary abandonment sites as toilets, drains, sewers and gutters; followed by rubbish sites, dustbins and landfills; and then parks or open veld. Bodies that are buried, flushed down drains or eaten by animals or rodents are seldom accounted for. 
But even when bodies are recovered, two rather troubling "anomalies" in registering and managing abandoned babies’ deaths make compiling statistics very hard. The first relates to how they are recorded by the police services. Following the recent release of the country’s crime statistics, experts questioned why abandoned babies had been dropped from the violent crime category.  There is no category for abandoned babies, and the police confirm that when they find an abandoned baby, they register an inquest (indicating an unnatural death to be investigated to determine if anyone is responsible), rather than categorising it as a murder or culpable homicide. Given that up to 65% of our abandoned children are newborns and 90% under the age of one, it is uncertain how the SAPS explain them “abandoning themselves”, but according to Luke Lamprecht, convener of the Shaken, Abused and Abandoned Baby Initiative, the results are two-fold: many of the inquests are never investigated further, and abandoned children are not included in our crime statistics.  Even when charges are forthcoming, they are usually on the lesser indictment of “concealment of birth”. Not only do we have no idea how many such deaths are taking place annually, but, to quote crime analyst and retired policeman Chris de Kock, “some people are likely to get away with murder”.  Either way, abandonment, “becomes an easy option.”
To compound the problem of tracking these deaths, there is also no longer a category for abandoned children in the death statistics produced by our mortuaries.  This, despite the fact that a report on fatal injuries in Gauteng in 2010, quoted local forensic pathology services as saying that, “babies dumped in Gauteng were increasingly becoming a large part of non-natural, undetermined deaths in the zero to four-year age group.”  As confirmation, the Forensic Pathologist Professor Jeanine Vellema said:  “These babies in dustbins, gutters, dumps...who are aborted or miscarried newborns being disposed of...are becoming a large part of 60% of undetermined deaths (of young children) in Gauteng."  A study on child homicide by the Medical Research Council in the same year found that 16% of child homicides were the result of abandonment. 
Since 2012 however, Forensic Pathology services have not officially tracked abandonments. Instead, they have a large number of babies classified as “stillbirths” in their records (even though stillbirths—seen as natural deaths—are not processed through the Forensic Pathology mortuaries). Forensic Pathology staff claim that these “stillbirths”, which number 1800 over three years in Gauteng alone, are actually abandoned babies.  According to Lamprecht, the distinction is critical—to be classified as an infant in South African law and have legal rights, a child must take at least one breath.  A hydrostatic lung test would show that many or all of these babies were actually born alive and died thereafter.  To close the circle of silence, mortality statistics in South Africa specifically exclude stillbirths. 
It is hard not to conclude that these numbers—which for Gauteng confirm that for every abandoned baby found alive, two are found dead—are being deliberately obfuscated. 
And alarmingly, this may only be a tiny fraction of the real problem.  Our abandonment focus has traditionally been around infants delivered on or around full term.  However, the same report on child homicide states that “while the abandonment of new born babies shortly after birth is a huge problem requiring urgent attention, we are possibly reporting only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ because [they] do not include ‘dumped foetuses’”.   In support of this statement, the Medical Research Council indicated that “abortions were the leading external cause of death in 2009 for children aged 0 to 4, where a cause of death was known”.   It is perhaps unsurprising.  Mortality statistics also exclude abortions, but global reproductive health group Marie Stopes state that of South Africa’s 260 000 annual abortions, approximately 52-58% are illegal—that is, up to 150 000 per annum.    
Stereotypical pictures of illegal abortion practices are of doctors with bloodied aprons and carving knives, but modern “clinics” are usually run by criminals who illegally provide drugs like Cytotec (a schedule 4 drug used for the treatment of ulcers but with a known side effect of producing uterine cramps) to bring on premature labour (or in less sophisticated areas, make women drink chemicals).  Women are instructed to take the drugs (orally or vaginally) and then fain a miscarriage at a local hospital.  They are sometimes told that the baby “will dissolve” or be “flushed away”.  But of course, the babies don’t “dissolve” and although some of them are first and second trimester foetuses not able to survive outside of the womb, many are post-26 weeks and therefore viable.  Like Tami, babies often survive the abortion process—born alive, only to be abandoned; or to die from prematurity, the effects of the abortion drugs or even from murder at the hands of shocked and desperate mothers (or family members), appalled at being faced with a living baby.
Lamprecht, who has studied illegal abortions extensively, concluded that in Johannesburg alone, up to half of the aborted foetuses found were actually viable.  The conclusion cannot be applied wholesale across the country, but even a smaller percentage of 150 000 annual abortions is still a staggering number. What we know is that illegal abortions are growing the quantity of dead abandoned babies exponentially, so much so that a state mortuary doctor is quoted in Blackie’s research as saying: “we are swamped” with dead babies “on a weekly basis.”  Small wonder that no one wants to tally up the figures.
But, if the numbers are so big, why aren’t illegal abortions being better policed or managed? The answer is complex. Despite isolated campaigns, the Department of Health argues that it does not have jurisdiction over illegal abortion practitioners because they are not registered doctors, and police say that their hands are tied. They cannot act without a complaint, and since the complainants would be pregnant women, typically fuelled by a combination of shame and desperation and themselves committing a crime, their co-operation is unlikely. Add to that the clever strategies of illegal abortion practitioners and the lenient sentences under the Termination of Pregnancy Act (a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 10 years), and it is no surprise that the practice continues unabated.  
However, experts also argue for a lack of will on the part of authorities to face the problem.  As with abandonment of full term infants, the absence of quantification speaks volumes.  As far back as 2012, the government admitted that more research was needed on the problem of abandonment, but it is yet to be commissioned.  No response has been forthcoming as to why, but according to Blackie, it is not due to a lack of funds: this year, the Department of Social Development returned R1.4 billion of unspent funds to the treasury.   Like the deceptive death and police statistics, the dearth of research seems to amount to plausible deniability, or worse, a lack of will to manage abandonment.  Perhaps this is the real issue—if the government does clamp down on illegal abortions and unsafe abandonment, it will save tens of thousands of lives.  But, it has no plan to care for those survivors.
Herein lies the problem: surviving may be "fortunate", but those who do don't necessarily fare well either.
According to Blackie, not all abandoned children make it into care.  During her research, she tracked multiple stories where the people who found these children and brought them to the police were asked if they wanted to “keep them”.  A simple affidavit was all that was required to secure the “adoption”.  In other cases, abandoned babies were presented to someone in the community seen to be in need of a baby.  This practice, considered by most participants to be an extension of Ubuntu, is usually well-intentioned.  But, “informal adoption” can have very troubling consequences because even if recipients care for the child, the process bypasses the Children’s Act and the stringent checks upon which adoption is contingent.  In addition, children often end up with no legal documentation and cannot access welfare grants, medical care or schooling.  Add to that a tenuous link to the family and the common practice of child disbursement, and these children frequently become easy targets for abuse and trafficking.
Worryingly, no one is trying hard to hide this illegal and morally ambiguous practice, and chief perpetrators are employed by the state.   It seems to be directly linked to government policy, where the primary caregiving strategy for orphans is kinship care, predicated on knowing your family. Seen as “weggooi kinders”—unwittingly estranged from family and community—abandoned children often fall through the cracks.
In fact, although the government publicly advocates for family care for these children, unspoken negativity towards adoption and the resultant "constructive prevention of adoption", lack of funds to advertise for birth families, along with the overloading of the foster care system, mean that abandoned children often end up in some variant of child and youth care centre, and stay there far too long. Notwithstanding good intentions, these centres are often overloaded and underfunded. This is particularly detrimental in the first 1000 days of life says Lamprecht, when a lack of stimulation and touch can result in long term changes in brain structure leading to memory problems, learning difficulties, behavioural and attachment problems, and possibly even sociopathic behaviour later in life. 
In addition, caregivers sometimes lack the expertise and resources to manage the worst consequences of illegal abortions and abandonment.  Dr Janet Lumb of the Thusanani Children’s Foundation (which provides therapeutic and medical care to children in care facilities) says that of the abandoned babies she sees, half were abandoned unsafely and about 60% were born prematurely (some are as small as one kilogram).  These babies often experience developmental delays and some are physically scarred, especially from rat bites and burns. Frustratingly, she says, even the worst affected thrive under care, and special needs adoptions are surprisingly common (especially to overseas families), but many children are not provided with those opportunities.    It becomes a heart-breaking self-fulfilling prophecy: too many in authority believe these children won’t amount to anything and ironically, our strategy for their care is making this a reality.
The societal factors resulting in abandonment are unlikely to diminish in the near future so this may all seem like doom and gloom. But experts have long been calling for constructive changes to help minimise this scourge.  Proposed solutions range from crisis pregnancy counselling to effective policing, facilitating safe abandonments to policy amendments across a number of sectors. We also need to focus on increasing the numbers of adoptions in South Africa, and improving the process.  For the "lost" boys in J.M. Barrie's far more whimsical tale about abandonment: Peter Pan, the answer was adoption: permanent care in a loving family, and in South Africa, adoption is still the best solution for meeting these children's needs in the long term.
Above all, someone needs to add up the numbers: the inquests, concealment of birth cases, "stillbirths", police reports and the numbers of children in the child protection services. Until then, we cannot know what the picture on the puzzle really is, and policies and interventions (and articles) are forced to rely on educated guesswork. 
Regardless, three things are clear: Child homicides are preventable so death through child abandonment and illegal abortions must be stopped, abandoned children (alive or dead) cannot stay hidden, and for policy makers, plausible deniability is no longer an option. Whatever happens next, someone will be accountable.

 *names changed to protect their identities

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Leading up to the 16 Days of Activismn 2016: The children nobody wants, a systemic child rights failure.

 A 14 year old girl needs a home, a residential care facility, someone to care for her. No child and youth care centre, no foster home wants her and attorneys advocating for the child are seeking a high court order to compel at least one institution to take her in and develop a permanent care plan for her. The girl entered the care system at the age of two and has been raped on numerous occasions since the age of 4. She was placed in a series of children’s and foster care homes, all of which failed to deal with her behavioural problems which include sexual promiscuity. She has not been to school for years and has no family or guardian to protect her interests.

Moira Simpson, founder and Director of the Kids Haven, a child and youth care centre in Benoni, has the following to say about the problems facing social workers and other professionals trying to find appropriate care and therapeutic intervention for this child and many others whose exposure to horrific and ongoing abuse since early childhood has left them with deep emotional and psychological wounds which in turn express themselves in what is referred to in professional jargon as ‘conduct disorders’, or ‘anti-social behavior’.

“It is one thing working with children on an outpatient basis, and totally another working with them in residential care. Children with anti-social personalities and conduct disorders and/or those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, are difficult to place because no matter what you try you fail to reach them. So everyone rejects the problematic child to avoid admitting the seriously damaged child, and then when things get tough being told ‘it is your child, deal with them’ when they do not cope.’ It would be better not to label them ‘conduct disorder’; because once this label has been affixed the children have no chance of being accepted by anyone.

In fact, the system is not working for these children at all and children are repeatedly failed by parents, families, foster care settings, the community, society, and education. Most children have multiple placements that break down. The whole system needs to be re-thought.

Some of the children need to be assigned a capable adult around the clock. At any one time four adults may be needed to contain, manage, and care for one child, including security personnel. It could take a whole team of professionals to attend to the needs of this one child. Resources get stretched, as they smash windows, toilets, doors, let off fire extinguishers, cut CCTV camera, break TV’s, light fittings, and much more. 

Worse than this is what they are capable of doing to staff and other children. In the past there were always a few extremely problematic children who would fall through the cracks and land up in jail, but now there are huge numbers of severely disturbed children needing specialized and resource-intensive interventions with barely any services available for them. Far too many of these children also have cognitive deficits and most of these require permanent long term care, as will never be able to function independently.  But there is nowhere for them to go. Child care organizations are collapsing under the strain, and going to the high court to force them to take the children could be the final straw for them.

Everybody has a different standard of what difficult behaviour is. Some children described as ‘monsters’ are just acting out at the neglect, abuse and trauma they are experiencing, and with proper care and intervention are able to heal and thrive beyond expectation. For others the damage is too deep.

Kids Haven tries to give all children a chance, but would like the system to allow us to ‘give the child back to go deeper into the system’ if we find we cannot meet the child’s needs, and often this need to be immediate, after a serious incident. If it turns out that that one child is single handedly destroying the organisation, we need to be able to say no. If we are not able to give them back at this point, KH will also have to be more careful about the children we admit in the future, and unfortunately some children we would have reached will lose out.

 I am sure other organisations would be more willing to accept a child if they knew there was some recourse should they not cope. But again, at what level would that be?

The child being removed needs some form of intensive and secure care. At the moment children have to commit a crime, face arrest and conviction before there is any effort at getting them “deeper into the system.” Could we not spare our most damaged children this additional ordeal and get them into specialized and contained care settings long before it reaches this point?”

The JCAF Team

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Xenophobia through the eyes of children of the inner city of Johannesburg

TRAUMA DEBRIEFING GROUP SESSION                                              21 APRIL 2015
ISSUE: XENOPHOBIA (Violence and Attacks)

The session was done with the inner-city children who come to our center (JPCCC) for boxing at the gym and the Life Skills programme on a weekly basis after school hours. As we know that Johannesburg city consists of many immigrants from different countries in Africa such as Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana, DRC, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, etc. who come to South Africa to find a better life. The inner-city population is diverse and multicultural including people from various places or provinces across South Africa to also find a better life. It is a place where everyone comes from their homes of origin, the city of gold, to dwell in the inner city to find jobs and make a living. Some people decide to work while others decide to start businesses, create jobs and feed many by providing for their families. The inner-city children are enrolled in many different schools in the city which are diverse, multicultural and multilingual.

These children walk to school together, play with one another and live in the same neighborhood. This is just a background to have an understanding of where these children come from. The issue was noted in the gym during their training session as the older boys spoke about Xenophobia and appeared to be affected by the xenophobic violence and attacks taking place in the inner-city.

In the session we had with the children, we first asked them their understanding of the concept Xenophobia. Some of the responses which were stated are the following: “Extreme hatred of foreign nationals; unreasonable dislike of people from other countries; people killing others to get out of their country”. This process was very intense and uncomfortable.
There’s a myth about the Zulu men killing people and burning foreign nationals by putting petrol, bombs and lighters. Another myth which emerged throughout the session is Nigerians sending Boko Haram soldiers to South Africa to kill all South Africans and bomb the country. This indicates the fear of the consequences of xenophobic attacks and violence. These children also expressed fear of what could happen next, they appeared to be concerned about what will happen next.

The group consisted of both local and immigrant children and it was overwhelming as a facilitator to be caught into the situation. Many immigrant children expressed anger, pain and fear for their own lives and the lives of their family and friends. They expressed their anger by stating how xenophobic violence and attacks are affecting businesses, the country’s reputation and the economy. Laziness and crime was stated as a cause of xenophobia according to some of the children. They expressed that people who come to South Africa work very hard and create jobs for many people and Zulu men think they are stealing their jobs, but in reality they are actually lazy. One of the boys stated that: “I blame the Zulus and I feel bad because they are taking advantage of the situation, thugs too to get some money because they are lazy to do any job’. Another important theme which stood out was that these children’s school teachers are trying to campaign against xenophobia and encouraging all the children in the school to be against it and stop it. Even though the children felt that it was not enough. 

Reflections on the hidden face of Xenophobia and effects on women and children of the inner city of Johannesburg

Reflections of the Hidden Face of Xenophobia
1.       In my view xenophobia presents itself in many ways- only one of which usually draws the attention of the media and of state officials. This is the overt violence and looting which we have seen over the past two weeks, resulting in serious injury and death, and making headlines all over the world, which then galvanizes some level of action on the part of the governmental and non-governmental sector.

2.       The hidden face of xenophobia, on the other hand, shows itself mainly to women and children in

·         The intimacy of their living spaces- perpetrated mainly in the forms of ongoing threats by SA neighbours and co-tenants
·         In schools- perpetrated both teachers and learners, but also more subtly in the adoption of (illegal) exclusionary practices
·         In health care facilities in which medical and clerical staff refuse to treat foreigners, often openly utter xenophobic threats, and/or make access to health care impossible by (illegally) charging huge amounts of money
·         The social media through which un-confirmed rumours and threats are spread like wildfire, seemingly planned and intended to frighten foreign nationals into either complete resignation and paralysis or a determination to leave- in effect, this is “murder by whatsapp”.
·         The harassment of women informal traders by both the metro police and SA customers

3.       Women and children are particularly vulnerable to this hidden face of xenophobia because they have already been multiply traumatized by violence in their home countries as well as in South Africa. The exposure to repeated and/or ongoing trauma has a cumulative effect on cognitive functioning and when subjected to threats (even if these are never carried out) a cognitive and emotional paralysis sets in which then makes it impossible for victims to rationally assess threats and explore reasonable ways of protecting themselves. We see this especially in women and children who were victims of the 2008 xenophobic violence.  When confronted with the current violence and threats these mothers and their children lose all sense of agency, and feel that they have no option but to wait for death by gunshot, fire or knife.

4.       Most of the families we work with in the inner city are headed by single mothers whose only source of income is some kind of informal trading, mainly in the CBD. The xenophobic violence and the continuing threats of further violence result in women not feeling safe to continue trading and thereby losing the only source of income that secures the roof over the head- a roof which already shelters far too many people who cannot afford the rent for accommodation that provides them with at least a measure of dignity and protection. We expect that by the end of this month many more families will be homeless and very hungry as a direct result of xenophobic violence and threats.

5.       Xenophobic attitudes, threats and exclusionary practices in schools and health care facilities in effect remove the only (constitutionally mandated) spaces in which women and children can expect safety, protection and care. This means that women don’t get treated for manageable conditions such as diabetes for hypertension and that children’s progress at school is severely jeopardized. We have seen children being orphaned by conditions which could easily have been managed, and our high school learners tell us that if they miss an exam because of the violence on the streets in their homes, they are simply failed.

6.       These are just some of the effects of the hidden face of xenophobia. Each one of them obviously has serious long-term implications for the physical and emotional well-being of women and children in all spheres of life, and therefore the progress and well-being of our country, our continent and our world.

7.       We therefore appeal to all South Africans who are genuinely committed to social justice and the fight against xenophobia to look the hidden face of xenophobia straight into the eye, and to declare with their actions- here, too, in these intimate spaces of home, school, pavement trading, and health care, we shall uproot you, never to show yourself again.

Johanna Kistner

23 April 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A tribute to Johannesburg Child Welfare from R Primary for service excellence

Dear Supervisor

I hope you are well. 

I want to thank you and to tell you what a pleasure it has been dealing with your worker.  She is professional, dedicated and very reliable.  She is dealing with three families from my school and she has been superb.   She has taken over the X case and has been fantastic.  It is such a relief that she is looking after the children’s welfare and that she will ensure that they are no longer at risk.     

Thank you for allocating her to these cases.  She is an absolute gem!

Kind regards


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Convenor Luke Lamprecht's reflections from Lefika La Phodiso (The Art Therapy Centre) Annual Report


Luke Lamprecht

There is a level of irony in my writing the introduction to this work that is beyond words. I have been involved in some way at Lefika for the past 20 odd years. In all of that time I know what we do is essential, I also know that it is often wordless and housed in a very sacred place where people can express themselves as themselves. Expression is an important outlet for the challenges faced by our young democracy. Seeking to understand and make sense of our lives expressed through creative expression may ironically be paradoxical. Once we find words, do we lose the essence of what we are and are doing?  In the madness that sometimes feels ever present in South Africa, I am reminded of Picasso.

“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”

What do you see?

Don’t look, just feel. 

As for me…

I see a child who was given a brush that gave her a big smile. A child who was given a blank piece of paper and could make her mark. I see a child who was given paint and made colour dance on a page with wild abandon. I see the paint sing of the innocence that is a child’s natural state.

I see adults observing the joy and true nature of a child at play in a world they create and is not judged or constricted. A safe place to find themselves and be held by the adults present to witness their evolving creation.

I see THIS CHILD through their eyes as they emerge with paint and brush strokes singing and dancing from the page and I wonder,

“If your eyes could speak what would they say”? – The Book Thief.

My eyes would project the humility and pride that being witness to a child’s development can illuminate in the heart and soul of mindful adults and I would say…

Thank you.

Luke Lamprecht

“What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit.” ~John Updike

Member Johanna Kistner's Poem on Inner City Work at SCPS AGM

Where angels fear to tread

Go, go where angels fear to tread
Because people are living there

Go where the pain is unspeakable
Go where the hopelessness is unbearable
Go to the last outposts where the hunger
For food and justice is an
Ever-present reality
Devouring the soul

Go to be overwhelmed,
Go to weep
For a beloved continent

Go and take with you your hearts
Your hands, your courage, your wisdom
Your imperfections and your love

Go, go where angels fear to tread
Because people are living there

Johanna Kistner

26 May 2014