On this World Adoption Day, we need to remain mindful that adoption remains one of the most viable care options for some abandoned and orphaned children, both locally and abroad. However, there are systemic challenges in the current South African adoption system that hinder the process, which in turn impacts the rate of adoptions.
The number of adoptions in South Africa (and around the world) is steadily declining and, at first glance, this creates a paradoxical situation. According to the SA Child Gauge report, there were about 3.1 million orphaned children in South Africa in 2016. As many as 3 500 babies are abandoned each year – and this figure includes only those that survive. Of course, most orphaned children live with extended-family members and do not need to be placed in other forms of care. Nevertheless, there are still several children in South Africa who could be adopted.
It is surprising and concerning, therefore, that the number of adoptions is steadily dropping. Only 10 021 legal adoptions were registered between 2010 and 2016 in South Africa. Local adoptions decreased from 2 234 in 2010/11 to 978 in 2015/16.
Adoption is defined as placing a child in the permanent care of an adult, by a court order. The child has the same status as one naturally born to the adoptive parent. The purpose of adoption is to protect and nurture children by providing them with a life-long, safe and healthy family environment with positive support.
Adults who want to adopt are screened by an adoption social worker. The process is a rigorous one – as it should be – to ensure that the placement is in the best interest of the child who has been abandoned, orphaned, abused or voluntarily given up by their parents. The application is made in the Children’s Court, which provides judicial oversight on the process.
But it seems there are a number of reasons for the decline in adoption numbers.
Some claim adoption is a front for child trafficking. This is a valid concern, but there are mechanisms in place to ensure this does not happen. The court has to be satisfied that the child is going to be in a safe environment before it grants an adoption order. To avoid placing children in harmful environments, adoption law in South Africa provides safeguards within the adoption process, including background checks, criminal record checks and psychological assessments. Trained adoption social workers are involved, the Children’s Court has judicial oversight and the Department of Social Development is involved. These institutions also keep records of the child’s biological family in the event that the adoptee wants to access this when he or she is an adult.
Putting a stop to adoptions is not an appropriate strategy to counter child trafficking, as this punishes orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children who are in need of a good family.
The reluctance to adopt is also driven by the notion that children should be placed with relatives, and that adoption should be a last resort. When a parent voluntarily gives their child up for adoption, the parent wants the child to have a life that he or she cannot provide. To then place the child with the parent’s extended family undermines their decision to give the child up for adoption. Even for abandoned children – those whose parents and relatives can’t be traced – adoption is treated as a last resort. Children stay in child and youth care centres instead of being placed permanently with families that want to adopt them.
Orphans, those whose living relatives cannot afford to care for them, also end up in foster care or a children’s home. Foster care is temporary. The child is removed from the parents’ care (when found to be in need of care and protection) and placed in foster care for two years. If the parents still pose significant danger to the child, the foster care will be extended. At times, it’s found that the child cannot be returned to the parents because of abuse or neglect, resulting in the child being deemed “adoptable”. Yet adoption is still not considered.
Another reason for the decrease in adoption figures is the view among potential adoptive parents that the Department of Social Development slows down the process. The law requires that a letter from the Head of the Department of Social Development that recommends the child’s adoption accompanies an adoption application. This letter is supposed to take 21 days to retrieve, but it takes longer due to some provinces duplicating the work of the court.
The National Adoption Coalition of South Africa, assisted by the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, is challenging the misuse of this requirement in the Durban High Court. In KwaZulu-Natal, obtaining this letter takes anything from six months to three years. This is not in the best interest of the child, as children are left in limbo.
It is the Centre for Child Law’s view that adoption may provide great benefits for children, and prevents them growing up in child and youth care centres where there is no family life. Adoption remains a good option for abandoned and orphaned children – for whom this may be the only chance to be part of their own ‘forever’ family.
Ms Lithalethemba Stwayi is an attorney at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria.