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[Expert Opinion] KZN in Grips of Adoption Crisis

05 September 2017
In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the province with the largest number of orphans and abandonments, only eight adoptions took place in 2016.  This shockingly low number was the result of a memorandum, issued in May 2016, that effectively suspended adoptions for six months.  
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According to the Head of Department (HOD) for Social Development (DSD) in KZN, the memorandum was designed to tighten up adoption approval processes to “prevent child trafficking”.  The link between adoption and trafficking has never been proven, but the memorandum caused a virtual shutdown in adoptions.

The KZN DSD was slow to rectify the problem.  This may be because its annual reports indicate that the department’s primary strategy for child protection is family reunification, failing which foster care, and even institutionalisation are considered better options than adoption. It’s a strategy which can be problematic:

  • Family reunification is not always possible, nor is it always in the child’s best interests.  This is especially true where the child has been removed because of abuse.
  • Foster care is an impermanent solution, especially for abandoned children, and given that there are approximately half a million children in a system designed for 50 000, foster care is so overloaded that it’s at the point of collapse.
  • International research shows that institutional care can damage a child’s developing brain, especially in the first 1000 days, and lead to lifelong problems in learning, anti-social behaviour, and mental-health difficulties including: anxiety, chanting, head-banging, rocking, self-harm, cruel or aggressive behaviour, cold detachment and a lack of empathy.

When adoption approvals finally resumed in November 2016, the department added new quality assurance processes which now make finalising cases almost impossible.  There are significant concerns about this new approach:

  • The KZN HOD asserts that only 53 adoption applications were made this year, of which 75% have been finalised.  But adoption social workers counter that because of the backlog, there were actually 129 applications, and that only 30% of these have been approved.
  • The department has committed to approving adoptions in 30 days or less. But in fact, approvals take an average of 6 months.  Children often remain in care during this time.
  • Only 17 unrelated adoptions have been approved this year, leaving large numbers of abandoned children, and children consented for adoption, without permanent family.
  • The department seems unwilling to accept adoption consent from birth mothers, at times even contacting extended family to ask if they want the baby.
  • Baby Homes are over full, and children are growing older in care.
  • Parents who want to adopt are being forced to foster.  Many are too fearful to apply for an adoption because even when their foster child’s biological family has not made contact for years, the DSD uses the adoption application to trace them, and try to force a family reunification.
  • Some departmental checks are extraneous to the Children’s Act.
  • Many adoptive families are having to resort to High Court litigation to get adoptions approved.
  • Adoption social workers are accredited by the department to act on its behalf.  These new stringent requirements demonstrate a lack of trust in its own service providers.
  • The National DSD has expressed concerns about KZN’s approach to adoptions.

Despite this, the HOD is adamant that there is no adoption crisis.  She claims that there is just very little demand. The adoption community disagree, arguing that the low numbers are due to the KZN department’s lack of support and obstructive tactics. They believe that a new co-operative approach is required to ensure that everyone acts in the best interests of the most vulnerable.

Written by: Robyn Wolfson Vorster – Writer, researcher and child protection advocate.

Carte Blanche approached the National Department of Social Development for comment on the state of adoptions in the country and as yet we have had no reply. We also approached the DSD in KZN with our findings and the discrepancy in the numbers of adoption applications in the province, and to date we have had no response.