Roselyne Sachiti Features Editor
Early this year, First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa called on Zimbabweans to demystify the idea of adoption and foster care to ensure that orphaned children can grow up in traditional family set-ups that groom them for the future.
Speaking at a belated Christmas party for orphaned children held at Fairfield Children’s Home at the United Methodist-run Old Mutare Mission on January 4, she called on Zimbabweans to embrace adoption.
“As Zimbabweans, closely knitted family structures are a vital part of our culture. Surely, we are all relatives of these children. Most of us have the capacity to accommodate them. We can take them in within our homes. Adoption is also an option that we have and we should demystify and embrace it. There is no need to fear and remain in ignorance. We should educate each other and remove the myths and unfounded social cultural beliefs that hinder us from talking care of our own.”
Adoption is a permanent arrangement whereby adoptive parents and the adopted child acquire the same rights, duties and privileges towards each other as if the child had been their biological child.
In Zimbabwe, most people have always adopted children but it was usually done within the family where no legal documentation was required.
If a man or woman died his or her siblings would share the responsibility of taking care of the children and, resultantly, no child was left to suffer on their own outside the family.
But with some babies being dumped at birth by their biological mothers, children`s homes have had the burden of caring for them for a long time with very few people taking them up.
Various reasons have been cited as to why few people adopt. These include financial problems, cultural issues, and misconceptions about adoption
For others, specific beliefs regarding ancestry have been the deciding factor. They argue that children deprived of their origins lose contact with their ancestors resulting in horrible, punitive consequences for the future happiness of the child.
Some have raised questions on who would carry out rituals when burying the adopted children in the event that they die.
Inheritance issues among others also keep people from adopting as they worry about who in their families would take care of the adopted children in the event they die (parents).
Women like Mary Anne Chiswa (name changed to protect adopted child) of Harare who have gone through the process say it is not an easy road, the system was frustrating.
Having begun the process early 2016, she felt adoption was an extremely lengthy and emotionally draining.
“When we approached the department of social welfare, they told us that the process would take up to three years. So we decided to foster with the intent to adopt so that we could have the baby brought to us sooner.
Foster care is when a state certified caregiver or guardian provides family life to a child who cannot live with their own parents.
“We were told to hold off the adoption process. They said they wanted us to foster for at least three years before we started the process,” she revealed.
She said her husband’s job sometimes requires her to accompany him for foreign business trips. Sometimes, they just want to enjoy family time in a foreign land and have faced serious problems since they are still fostering the baby.
“The problem with fostering is you need special papers to travel out of the country each time. This takes so long and in most cases we end up following up right up to the day before travelling. This puts us through unnecessary anxiety.
“It does not matter how much time you give social workers your application, even if it’s two months before travelling they have misplaced our papers several times,” she complained.
Chiswa said when they decided to adopt, they told the Department of Social Welfare that they wanted a new born baby girl, dark in complexion.
The couple was given a four month old and they were happy. The baby recently turned two.
“She already had names but we gave her a new one which she goes by now, so that when adoption is finalised she will not be confused,” she said.
During the visits to the Department of Social Welfare offices, there were times Chiswa and her husband felt they needed more privacy while their case was being handled.
“There is usually no privacy at all. There are too many staff members in one big office and they also keep changing. So I am sure it is unfair for those who really need to keep the adoption a secret.
“Sometimes you are told different things by different officials. One will say one thing and another something else. Recently, we were given a four-year-old, only to receive a call a week later with a social worker asking us if we can take in another child. They seemed unaware that another child had been brought to us already,” she added.
Chiswa narrated how because of delays in getting the adoption through, their daughter could not be covered by her father’s medical aid.
“She can only be put on medical aid at her dad’s workplace when we have adoption papers in order. She is currently not able to benefit from school fees payments by her father’s employer. She is supposed to start pre-school next year so we have been saving money because we want to take her to the best pre-school,” she explained.
Having gone through the fostering process and awaiting adoption, she has a few recommendations for the department of social welfare.
“During my countless visits and long hours there, I witnessed traumatising events there. The department needs to be well equipped to deal with babies coming in. They need a canteen to feed those that cannot afford to buy meals while being attended to at the offices.
“While there for my case, I saw a two week baby being brought in at the department’s offices around 11 am. She had been collected from Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals at around 8 am the same day. I saw how restless the baby was and realised she was hungry. I sent someone to buy formula milk using my own resources around 1pm. Had I not done anything, that baby could have stayed that way until being taken to her new home. I have seen the poor, disabled and elderly there and needless to say, they will be hungry,” she alleged.
Chiswa added that she is hopeful that her adoption will sail through as three weeks ago, she reached out to the department and later received a promising call.
“Three weeks ago, we called and reminded them of our case. We got a call from someone asking how long we have been with our daughter. We took that as a sign that something could be happening in the positive but we have not heard a word since,” she revealed.
Sharing her experiences, Chiswa has inspired two women to adopt. The women are also still fostering pending adoption.
“When I spoke to them recently, they mentioned how they even dread starting the tedious process,” she added.
When she was younger, Molly Mapanga (not real name) always wanted to have many children. She also would see a lot of homeless children and always wanted to help them in some way.
When she married, she had her first child but could not conceive again even after trying all medical interventions.
“We then considered adoption and it took us two years to make the decision,” she said.
At some point, she said, they considered surrogacy but then decided to adopt after talking to their extended family.
She explained her first time experience when she stepped into the Department of Social Welfare offices.
“The lady who attended to me when I said I wanted to adopt asked me ‘what is the problem. Why are you adopting?’ The room was full of people and she kind of discouraged me. I had to explain why I wanted to adopt in the presence of other people,” she said.
Added Mapanga: “The other issue is my husband is Zimbabwean but one of his parents is foreign. He has a Zimbabwean national identification card but his father is Malawian. So the woman at the Department of Social Welfare told me to instead consider adopting from my husband’s paternal country as it will be easier there. My sister-in-law had also made investigations there and it was not going to be easy. I was discouraged,” she explained.
In the midst of her frustrations in October 2015, Mapanga encountered a lady who has adopted many kids and sought her advice.
The woman encouraged her not to lose hope and offered to accompany her to the department as a way of supporting her.
They were assisted by a different social worker who asked for religious references, friend references, confirmation of where we stay, marriage certificates, police clearance, and utility bills among other things as part of their standard checklist.
“The social worker also wanted police clearance from Malawi, but in that country, you can only get clearance if you left after the age of 18. My husband had left Malawi as a young boy and this did not count. They also wanted his social security number in Malawi even though he had not lived there past the age of 18. Throughout this process the Department of Social Welfare head office in Zimbabwe was very efficient. We eventually got clearance from Malawi,” she added.
According to Mapanga, the process was smooth at some point and they hoped to have the baby by January 2017.
“In that interim a six-month-old baby that had been abandoned had been identified and deemed adoptable. The paper work was done and she was moved to a place of safety pending adoption. In January 2016, there were changes in the department. Staff was again moved around and the lady who had been very helpful was moved to another department. I had to deal with an all-male team.
“One day, I went to see the social worker and he said I could not adopt and maybe should consider fostering. My husband was working in South Africa at the time so the social worker said maybe they would re-consider if my husband got a job in Zimbabwe,” she revealed.
The social worker also asked for copies of the passport to see if Mapanga’s husband he returned to Zimbabwe regularly. They also allegedly wanted to check and verify the entry and departure stamps.
“At some point, the same social worker indicated that the child possibly had relatives and they wanted to carry out investigations. We were OK with that.
“It was not about a particular child we just wanted a child. They went on a wild goose chase and in three different locations to look for the so called relatives of the child and came out with nothing. It was a continuous frustration because if you did not literally pursue them, they did not do anything,” she added.
Despite her frustrations, she said at one point she felt sorry for the social workers who also worked under difficult conditions.
“Those days the department sometimes did not have enough resources even something as basic as bond paper, printers and proper furniture. The filing system was not great,” she said.
Mapanga pointed out how the staff structure changed for the second time adding that this was the best thing that had happened to her.
“It was an all-women team and they were pushing the adoption agenda. Eventually we got a court date and adoption was granted in September last year. The child was handed over on August 18 last year,” she added.
She also said her many visits to the department made her see areas that needed improvement.
“I found out there were only two senior social workers for the district and they were doing a lot of work. Students would come in and do other things. At one point I sat for five hours before being attended to during the adoption process. It’s not the best environment. You have kids coming in, all in the same office. They were not getting any privacy. It’s an open office. It’s not really the best environment,” she said.
She suggests that finances permitting, the department can create space for a separate waiting room where kids could be put as they wait to be taken to different homes.
“I wish they could charge a small fee for their services,” she said.
When their adoption was eventually approved, the baby had developed into a toddler and was now speaking and knew people in the home she was staying.
“We, however, visited her and my daughter developed a bond with her. My first daughter would regularly ask when the baby would come home. Sometimes I did not have an answer and she was equally frustrated. Our adopted baby now knows her sister, dad and the family has accepted her,” she added.
Upon completion of the court process, Mapanga and her husband were handed a short birth certificate and told the long one required ministerial consent.
“I applied for the long birth certificate in October. In November when the new political dispensation came in, I tweeted to ask how long it takes to get a ministerial order. I immediately got a response and got ministerial order in January. I eventually got a long birth certificate,” she said.
She however bemoaned that parents who adopt cannot get a long birth certificate with the new parent details on it.
“The long birth certificate that was issued is non electronic and leaves the parent section blank, puts the child’s name in Section 3, lists the social worker as the informant and lists the child’s birth name at the top. This is unacceptable — we would be forced to hide it from her until at a time when we have told her she is adopted. I went back to social welfare and they wrote a letter requesting that a new birth certificate be issued. The lady at the Registrar General’s office at Makombe Building refused. She said the one I got was sufficient telling me I should counsel my children. It seems adopted children do not have the same rights as other children.
“Can you imagine when you have two children and the other one has a long and another short birth certificate. They will start to notice at some point,” she added. “I do not know if I could do it again. But with the ladies that are there right now, I would because their hearts are in the right place.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare Mr Ngoni Masoka said his ministry commissioned an assessment of the situation of children working and living on the streets in 2015 covering Beitbridge, Bulawayo, Harare and Mutare and found out that in the four areas, 4 701 children were living and working on the streets.
He said currently, 494 children were under foster care in Zimbabwe with girls constituting 55 percent of total foster care placements.
He said in Zimbabwe, adoptions are dealt with by most senior and experienced social workers who can ensure that the client is put at ease, comfortable and in a very relaxed atmosphere.
“Adoptions are strictly treated with high degree of confidentiality band the ministry of Labour and Social Welfare has 65 district offices with provision for privacy during adoptions interviews,” he said.
He added that like in any organisation, the ministry’s resources are never adequate.
“But the question is, are we getting value and quality services from those at our disposal and to the satisfaction of service users and general public? The response is in the negative because of various factors such as huge caseloads vis a vis available social workers and brain drain as Zimbabwean trained social workers are in high demand regionally and internationally,” he revealed.
He admitted that this compromises quality service delivery.
“For example, the ministry’s monthly caseload is 7 456 and out of this only 3 500 cases are dealt with on a monthly basis,” he added.
Mr Masoka said the ratio of social worker to child was too high in Zimbabwe compared to other Sadc countries. Our current ratio stands at 1:49 000 children whilst in countries like Botswana, the ratio stands at 1: 1867 and in South Africa 1:250,” he added.
Mr Masoka said adoption as a single unit programme within the ministry is also affected by such factors including staff mobility.
He said when a child is adopted, the Children’s Court has granted an order of Adoption, the Adoption Order is forwarded to the Registrar Generals office. At the RGs office, the adopted child’s name is entered into the Adopted Children’s register and a birth certificate is issued. Mr Masoka said the child then adopts the name of his or her adopted parents.
Given all the cultural and social issues that come with adoption process, how can society heed the First Lady’s call to bend over backwards to provide homes for these children? How can those like Chiswa and Mapanga who are genuinely willing to adopt get better services?