Abandoning a baby: a last, desperate resort
By Hanti Otto
The number of babies abandoned in hospitals and public places has doubled this year. Lelane Brits, a senior social worker at the Apostolic Faith Mission's executive welfare council, said that the number of babies abandoned in the province this year was already twice as many as the whole of 2006.
"About one out of every three children in our Pretoria and Johannesburg system have been abandoned," she said.
Sandra van der Merwe, a social worker at the unmarried parental care section of the Christian Social Council North, said of the 100 babies in their system in Pretoria about 13 were found abandoned.
Kate Allen, the director of Door of Hope, a home for abandoned babies, said that since they started the Hole in the Wall project in August 1999, they had received about 60 abandoned babies.<!--pull quote --><!--pull quote end -->The Hole in the Wall, or Baby Bin, was founded in response to growing concerns about babies being abandoned. Mothers lift a flap on the side of the sanctuary and place the baby on a cushion. A sensor alerts a care worker and the baby is collected.
She said that when they started the project, some critics feared it would encourage abandonment.
"But out of the about 580 children we have taken in, only 60 have come through the Hole in the Wall. It just gives completely desperate mothers an option," she reasoned.
Allen said there was at least one abandoned baby in Johannesburg a day and two babies a day in Soweto.
Last year 1 200 babies were abandoned in three provinces, including Gauteng.
Social workers say the mothers who abandon their babies should not just be labelled as "bad".
There are numerous reasons why women abandon their babies, usually shortly after birth.
"Postnatal depression, helplessness, lack of support, all play a role," Brits said.
It is seldom because she didn't care. Usually it is because she saw no other way out of a desperate situation.
Allen said: "Yes, if a baby is left at a rubbish dump or in a farm toilet, then one can believe the mother doesn't want the child to be helped.
"But mothers mostly leave babies where someone can find them."
Rape survivors often came to the Door of Hope, not wanting the baby of a rapist.
"We don't pass judgment. Mothers don't know all the options available to them, and often there is a stigma to adoption or giving up the baby. So they just leave it somewhere, as the community makes them feel bad about their situation," Allen said.
Brits said it was the most unnatural thing for a mother to do, so one could assume she was in a terrible state of mind after walking with the stress of an "unwanted" baby for nine months.
Joan van Niekerk of Child Line also said people should not judge these mothers too harshly.
"A lot of women who abandon their babies have been abandoned by their partners. Sometimes the practical and emotional implications are just too much for these women," she said.
"HIV is also a tremendous burden. Sometimes the mother is ill and in no physical condition to take care of the child. Or the baby is too sick for her to manage," Van Niekerk said.
She stated that society should stop letting the fathers off the hook, as they were also responsible.
Van der Merwe said no mother would just "leave" her child, unless she was in an extremely desperate situation.
"At least she is honest enough with herself to admit she will not be able to care for the baby. She takes a leap of faith, hoping someone will find the child and give them a better future," she said.
Van der Merwe said in some religions a woman with an unwanted pregnancy was totally rejected, even threatened.
Brits has found that a lot of abandoned babies were born to prostitutes, illegal immigrants or young girls.
They fear they might be prosecuted for something else if they seek help.
Often, the mothers did not know about places of safety.
Brits distinguished between "hard" and "soft" abandonment, finding that "soft" abandonment was more common in Pretoria. This was where the mother would leave the child where she knew someone will find him.
Others would just disappear from a hospital after giving birth.
"If you throw the baby in a toilet or dustbin, it will be aggravating circumstances if you are arrested," she warned.
Van Niekerk stressed that child abandonment was regarded as a form of child abuse.
"There is the option of adoption, we can help both mother and child," she said.
Brits said: "Sometimes we have mothers who have abandoned their babies coming to us, saying they have cleared their heads and want the child.
"It takes a lot of guts, but, unfortunately they usually face prosecution for abandoning the child."
The social workers have the same message for women who find themselves in difficult circumstances: "If you cannot care for or do not want your baby, go to the police, a hospital or social worker and explain your problem. This way you will not be arrested and your child will have a chance of surviving.
"Do not just leave the baby anywhere."
This article was originally published on page 8 of The Pretoria News on July 25, 2007