By KATHLEEN CHAYKOWSKI
JOHANNESBURG—South Africa, buffeted by AIDS and economic crisis, is grappling with a related issue, baby abandonment.
When police in Port Elizabeth confirmed earlier this month that they had retrieved a newborn boy, alive in a shoe box inside a plastic bag, it added to accounts of infants abandoned by mothers in toilets, flowerpots, railroad tracks, rubbish bins, sidewalks and city parks. Many perish. Others are left to hospitals, acquaintances or charities, as mothers seek ways to give better lives to children they can’t support.
The issue has spurred unorthodox private responses such as the so-called Door of Hope—akin to a library drop box where desperate mothers can leave infants to be retrieved by volunteers. The Door of Hope has been operated by a nonprofit group of the same name in Johannesburg for more than a decade. Since then, the group’s founder said that about a dozen similar programs have sprouted up across the country.
A Home for Abandoned Babies in South Africa
David Dini for The Wall Street Journal
A house mother, Francinah Phago, tends to a baby at the Door of Hope. Abortion is legal in South Africa, but many religious communities, particularly those in rural areas, frown upon it.
“Babies are often left in places moms are hoping people will take care of them,” said Heidi Loening, a South Africa-based child-protection specialist with Unicef. “It’s the dilemma of ending a life.”
South Africa’s government doesn’t provide statistics on baby abandonment. But people who deal with the issue say it is rising as families that are already fractured by disease and poverty grapple with the fallout of the global financial crisis. South Africa was hit harder than most on the continent. Overall unemployment stands at 25%, and is much higher among the young.
According to one group, the number of abandoned babies fell from 2008 to 2009 but rose over the next two full years. Some 2,583 infants were abandoned across the country in 2011, up 36% from the year before, said the group, Child Welfare South Africa, a nongovernment organization that collected the data from 263 member organizations, including homes for infants and children.
Comprehensive global infant-abandonment figures aren’t available. Anecdotally, however, some fellow BRICS nations—Brazil, India and China—are also seen as particular problem spots, according to Shantha Bloemen, the chief of communication for Unicef in Johannesburg. Large portions of the population in such nations live in poverty, even as they are more acutely aware of better opportunities around them. But unlike in China and India, where rates of female abandonment are particularly high, South Africans abandon boys as well as girls.
South Africa’s government is devoting more funding to children’s and women’s shelters that aim to keep families together, according to social development minister Bathabile Olive Dlamini. For the 2013-14 year, the government has allocated what she said is a record $162 million for women and children’s shelters, and in funding to relieve the financial burdens of early childhood education.
Ms. Dlamini said her ministry has also tried to make the adoption process easier and quicker.
But the slower economy means fewer families can afford to adopt. Last year, about 2,400 babies in South Africa were adopted, down from 2,900 in 2010, according to the ministry. International families can adopt only once the government has determined that a South African parent can’t be found. Fewer than 10% of babies are adopted internationally.
Abortion is legal in South Africa. But many religious and traditional communities, particularly those in rural areas, frown upon it, as they do single motherhood. South Africa also has one of the world’s highest rates of rape; women often have difficulty bonding with infants conceived through violence. HIV-AIDS also has taken a particularly heavy toll on a generation of childbearing South Africans, often removing at least one parent from a family. About 18% of adults are HIV-positive, one of the highest rates in the world, according to Unicef.
The problems have led many women to the bright white hatch labeled Door of Hope, located steps away from a corner shop selling chilled drinks and cigarettes.
When a baby is placed inside the door, motion sensors trigger an alarm. Helpers check a live video feed of the box, where people also at times leave trash. Babies often arrive at night.
“We never judge the moms,” says Baptist pastor Cheryl Allen, who founded Door of Hope, which receives no government funding, in 1999. “Things are difficult here in the inner city. If the mothers stay with others, crying babies get them kicked out; they are orphans themselves.”
The group cares for babies until they are adopted, which can take up to year. Meanwhile, they are fed, cleaned and taken to medical appointments. HIV-positive babies are given antiretroviral drugs. The facility’s 54 baby cots are always full, say the home’s helpers.
The number of babies taken in at the home has more than quadrupled since its founding, from four per month to as many as 18.
Inside the home, there are sounds of cooing and crying. Volunteers “kangaroo” infants, wrapping them close to their chests to spark bonding.
Some South Africans, including social-development minister Ms. Dlamini, have raised objections to the use of baby doors, saying anonymous abandonment leaves children without any way of their tracing family or heritage.
Supporters say the hatches are a necessary option for women who might otherwise leave babies to die on the street.
Charmaine Coetzee says that in her case, she could neither bring herself to abort an unborn life nor take responsibility for the babies. So she left them to others.
Ms. Coetzee, now 40 years old, says that as a 19-year-old prostitute she gave her firstborn to a friend. A few years later, she said, an acquaintance raped her; she abandoned the twins at a hospital. Two years later, she said, she was a homeless alcoholic when the father of her fourth child proposed to her before he was killed in an alcohol-related car crash. She handed the baby to the boyfriend’s elderly mother.
Five years ago, as a homeless alcoholic, she arrived at a Johannesburg shelter seeking help. She has since taken a paid position there, doing laundry. Her face cracks into a smile when she says she is no longer an alcoholic, drug addict or sex worker.
Parts of Ms. Coetzee’s story were confirmed by Dr. Rebecca Walker, a volunteer at the shelter and a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Ms. Coetzee says her four abandoned children, unlike herself, have all attended high school. Three of her sons speak to her occasionally by phone, she says. Her youngest refuses.
“I wanted the best for them, not for me,” said Ms. Coetzee, who is planning a trip to Cape Town to see them.
Last year, Ms. Coetzee had a fifth child.
“The baby was a second chance for me,” she said of her one-year old, Ruthie, whom she tries to spoil with new shoes and clothes. “I’m trying my very best with her. This time around, I will not fail.”