Changing the narrative for SA’s children

The Wybrow-Oliver and Wandisa Teams at Chelsea Village in Somerset West this week, standing, from left, Cliffie Swanepoel, Michelle Basson, Rosemary de Kock, Brad Oliver, Nontando Magxala and Debbie Wybrow

Imagine a world where children are cherished, mentored, protected. A world where no “Suzi” is ever abandoned again…

Our community reached out as one to make things better: from the initial response team, to the caring nurses; cuddles to envelop her in her early days; clothes to keep her warm – and now a safe home, temporarily, while the Wandisa Child Protection Team seeks the best long-term solution for her – and the legal process unfolds.

One little girl: a miracle, a star in the making.

And yet, within days of this story of hope, another baby binned. This time, it was too late. Frozen, forever three months old… RIP, “Little Lwandle”.

It’s hard when there’s a name and a face. But more manageable, somehow, when the issue is concretised, confined. The weight of the limitless is paralysing.

TS Eliot opined that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Which is why, as a proud South African, I felt overwhelmed and decidedly unpatriotic at a recent Colorado conference when I spoke of the scars etched into the underbelly of South African society… the scars of our children who have been neglected, institutionalised, abused.

Explaining how we have failed our most vulnerable was not easy… Apartheid’s unequal distribution of basic resources has left seven out of 10 children living below the poverty line. HIV/Aids and unspeakable violence have destroyed the family unit. In many institutions, sexual abuse comes standard.

I shared my experiences of girls shamed for being victims of rape, substance abuse blurring boundaries, moms hiding pregnancies, community members castigating…

I told of how birth parents struggle to find help when they can literally no longer carry their little ones, of the criminal sanction that accompanies even safe abandonment, how after counselling and consent – or courts terminating rights where parents fail to act as parents – birth parents are tracked down, publicly humiliated.

I spoke, too, of being challenged by decision-makers who insist that children physically abused to the point of permanent disability be “reunified” with perpetrators; who see parents of a different colour or culture as imposters, cutting adopted children off from their culture.

It was even harder to explain our societal breakdown because those professionals know that South African children have exceptional legal rights, undergirded by our benchmark constitution and upheld by our independent judiciary.

So why this disconnect between what should be – and what is? Why does the number of adoptable children who could benefit from family care rise each year?

Why is scant provision made for permanency for children with challenges, who are left lagging further behind? What happens when they age out of the system?

And as more screened families formally offer “forever homes”, including to children with special challenges, why is the number of adoptions declining?

We can speak to different outcomes, to changed narratives, legends in the making.

My husband, Brad, and I have witnessed the extensive transformation in hundreds of children’s lives through adoption, including children institutionalised because it was thought they would never walk or talk, or had no meaningful role to play in the world.

As Wybrow-Oliver Attorneys, Brad and I travel throughout South Africa to advocate for children.

We spearhead intersectoral teams streamlining the medical, legal and migration complexities inherent in each child’s matter at the intersect of justice, social development, home affairs and international relations.

Our passion is serving children with extraordinary challenges. Our greatest reward? Sharing their milestones – and seeing them shine.

We are also founders and directors of Wandisa NPC, a designated child protection organisation providing a full range of statutory services to children.

Our phenomenal social workers, with Rosemary de Kock at the helm, give their all to prioritise and protect orphaned, abandoned or institutionalised little people.

Wandisa counsels birth parents in crisis, finds temporary safe care homes for children, facilitates reunification where this is best for the child, and equips adoptive parents.

In the past year, 17 children were adopted into South African families. Another 20 children for whom no suitable local options existed, were placed through Hague Working Agreements into the USA, the Netherlands and France. Each international family spends up to six weeks right here in the Helderberg, transitioning into the next chapter of their life story.

Many return with extended family to celebrate their connection with us and their homeland.

Ours is an incredible community where time and resources are poured into projects for early education, uniforms, meals, shelters…

But the crisis we face is unprecedented. There are thousands more “Suzi’s”, symptoms of deep fault lines. To react is not enough. We must continue plugging those widening gaps, yet somehow find the fortitude to develop a new South African narrative.

Max du Preez recently described civil society’s pushback against what is wrong as one of our nation’s saving graces. We need your help. This is much bigger than us. The future of this country depends on our combined proactivity.

Holistic strategy, multiplication of funding to put the right infrastructure in place, replication of professional teams to maximise intervention, research using relevant key indicators, education and advocacy are good starting blocks.

Because to end up with a healthy society of functioning adults, each story must begin with the children.

Let’s endorse courageous leaders promoting “Right2Family Campaigns”, who, instead of dismissing it as “unAfrican”, see adoption as the primary protection mechanism for adoptable children.

Every child’s first 1 000 days must be protected. Nurture should be the hallmark of childhood. Neglect and deprivation leave permanent scars: no child deserves the neural pruning of institutionalisation nor the sexual exploitation inherent in many facilities.

Institutions should be closed when doors to adoption are open.

Lawyers, social workers, medical practitioners, child care workers, those in training and already in the field, must be educated to circle out to vulnerable children. Let’s identify 0-5 year olds with no family options; assess their physical and emotional needs; begin with therapy, remediation, medication where necessary.

Reverse flow adoptions are the best way forward – we start with the child’s specific needs – and find the family that can best serve that child.

Empirical research is critical: key indicators measuring significance and true prosperity in each child’s outcome can gauge success and refine strategy.

We must boldly use our constitution to implement children’s rights, especially those to family life and dignity despite disability.

The Human Rights Commission, the Public Protector and Parliament should demand explanations from those who are failing our children. And Home Affairs – we cannot help children who do not have proper documentation.

Hundreds remain at risk, for years unable to access family care or essential services. Implement systemic changes that have been proposed, streamline your processes and play your part in protecting our children.

Responsible media advocacy should continue to showcase the triumphs of those who have overcome disadvantage – and shine the spotlight on those who hinder their progress.

I have many stories to tell. But if we write adoption off as being unAfrican and xenophobically ignore helping hands from beyond our immediate precincts, we will leave no legacy of Ubuntu in the global village.

Storytelling is in our blood. We can rewrite the narrative if we find every child a family in which to star. And then we will be inspired by their tales of transformation – and our children’s children will in turn have stories to pass on, too.

This is a series of articles to appear, related to “Baby Suzi”.