'Stealthy' changes to adoption laws anger experts
Alarm bells have been sounded over a "secret" document - drafted by social development department officials - which seeks to exclude all private professionals from adoption processes in SA by prohibiting them from charging fees for their services.
Proposed amendments to legislation regarding the banning of fees were gazetted in October, with 30 days for public comment. But adoption experts have accused the department of using "stealth" to push the amendments through, saying they would have gone unnoticed had they not been raised by attendees to the National Child Care and Protection Forum, hosted by the department of social development in November, after they had already, unknowingly, been gazetted.
A petition to extend the date for public comment to the end of January has been signed by more than 9,300 people and sent to the office of the president, the department of social development and parliament's social development portfolio committee. The petitioners have not yet received a response.
Adoptions, especially cross-cultural and international placements, are a hot potato in SA. Though government officials have strongly denied they have an "anti-adoption bias" they concede that placing children with extended families and preserving "cultural ties" are top of their agenda.
Department spokesperson Lumka Oliphant said the fees issue had "created challenges" over the years. "Not enough effort was made to consider other alternative care options . to retain children within their families of origin before adoption of a child by a person outside the child's family can be considered," she said.
"Fees should not be charged for adoption because it is not a business but a child
protection measure." And, she said, if those in private practice wanted to be involved, they should do so for free.
But funding for government-subsidised child protection agencies in SA is drying up.
A source in one agency in KwaZulu-Natal who did not wish to be named said it had to scrap 25% of its posts because of budget cuts. Those affected by the proposed amendments - child protection organisations, private social workers, lawyers, psychologists and other professionals - say it is not in the best interests of children for swamped and inexperienced social workers employed by the department to determine their fate.
Fees should not be charged for adoption because it is not a business but a childDepartment spokesperson Lumka Oliphant
Adoption and children's rights attorney Debbie Wybrow, who is leading the campaign against the proposed amendments, said adoption processes were highly regulated and fees were prescribed in the Children's Act and monitored by the courts overseeing adoption proceedings, as well as by provincial and national government.
She said Oliphant's comments were proof that the real reason underlying so much of the department's decision-making - apart from nationalism and xenophobia - was a deeply entrenched cultural/spiritual desire to eliminate not only international adoptions but all adoptions.
"Of all the children we have worked with and secured placement for over the past year, not one who has been placed internationally could be placed in SA. In most cases, in addition to extensive and costly advertising for family members to come forward, we have employed tracing agents to search for biological family, to no avail."
She accused the department of using "stealth" to push the amendments through.
"Subtle deletions in ever-evolving documents are hard to spot. I suppose alarm bells should have rung when the policy document dated August 2018, later dispatched to select stakeholders and usually intended to inform legislation, bore the watermark 'Secret' on every page."
The Sunday Times has seen the document.
Wybrow said that, in essence, the amendments will mean that birth families and adoptive parents will no longer have the freedom to access the social work expertise of accredited child protection organisations at their own cost, nor to consult any other private professionals regarding adoption.
She labels this "state capture" because every role player except social workers and other professionals in the employ of the state will effectively be eliminated from serving children.
"And it will result in the closure of many, if not all, child protection and other professional organisations who have decades of experience in working with children in need," she said. "The current threat is unprecedented. The amendments they hope to push through will significantly erode the constitutional rights of unparented children to family life and wellbeing."
National Adoption Coalition chair Katinka Pieterse said: "The intention of these drastic proposed amendments or the rationale behind it needs to be further consulted and the potential far-reaching implications on adoptions in SA need to be considered."
Oliphant denied the report was ever secret. She said the maximum 30-day period for comments was part of the legislative process.