Openhearted Adoption in South Africa: “Complicated, Beautiful and Messy”

Openness in Adoption is often thought to reference the nature of contact between adoptees and their biological families but it is about more than just this. Openness references the attitude and way in which families engage with all aspects of adoption: how we talk about adoption, to our children as well as outside of our home; how we engage with the fullness of who our children are – their race, roots and traits which may well reflect their biological families such as a particular interest or aptitude – and how we create space to engage with this. 

Openheartedness is for our children to know that everything we know, they know. Openheartedness means that our children can ask the hard questions and be told the truth by us, as their parent, as opposed to trying to protect them from the painful parts of their stories. Free expression is essential to belonging and to identity – something that the research has told us and as we repeatedly hear from adult adoptees in engagement.  

Imagine we could find the ‘ideal, perfect adoption’ story – what would that look like for you? What would need to happen?  Yet in reality, there is no such perfect story and if there was, one would need to ask many questions with regards to the ethics of such a story!  In an ideal world, in a perfect world, adoption would not be needed.  We know we don’t live in this perfect world but that doesn’t mean we should stop working towards and advocating for thriving families,  for families to be strengthened and for families to be safe places where parents and children can stay together.

During the month of July, Arise partnered with Angela Tucker and Sara-Jayne King to explore Openhearted Adoption.  Angela and Sara-Jayne may be oceans apart geographically, but all webinar participants were able to listen in and ask questions as a conversation unfolded between these two women whose shared story is that of adoption.  A story with common themes as we listened to them share some of their experiences, perspectives and views on what openheartedness included.

One of the big challenges put to all of us from adult adoptees is what action and advocacy is being put in place to reduce the number of children entering the system due to systemic issues. In South Africa we are aware that the majority of babies who enter the system are as a consequence of relinquishment – whether safely or not. Openheartedness requires that as adoptive parents we commit to engaging with these issues too.  But this is where for adoptive parents, it can get a little messy! One adult adoptee that we engaged with summed adoption up as follows:  “Adoption is complicated, beautiful and messy.”  Some of that messiness and complexity means acknowledging the grief and loss our children experience personally, but also the grief and loss triggered by systemic challenges.  These challenges in South Africa, because of our apartheid past and systems which haven’t changed much, have meant that poverty is racialized.  Due to the historical injustice as well as ongoing inequality, we still see a disproportionate number of black children eligible for adoption and we need to acknowledge this and work towards bringing change to these systemic injustices.

The majority of adoptive families who choose adoption in South Africa are choosing infant adoption, with their desired parameters set for a baby as young as possible. As tricky as it can be to talk about it, race and adoption in South Africa are still often linked to poverty. If there was a way for some mothers to parent, with extra support, they would choose to do this. Up to half of mothers’ who are offered extra support in order to be able to parent, choose this option. However, the remainder of mothers, for a number of different reasons still choose adoption. There are a range of reasons for this ranging from stigma, system challenges and shame. Some pregnant mothers in crisis don’t have the freedom to engage with social workers which results in abandonment with no known information of a baby.  Despite this there are occasions where social workers are able to track down birth families and reunification happens. Where possible, we advocate for this.

When it comes to reunification, we don’t have a firm guideline of what this should look like – it is something that is under discussion frequently with social workers and advocates who want to see children thrive, as well as their families. Children who enter the system through foster care often get stuck in the system for extended periods of time and as a consequence are not often considered as eligible for adoption, either by families or certain role players in the system. Permanency for our children is vital to seeing them thrive and this system challenge needs to be addressed. When we look closer, we can see a massive system failure in protecting children and families; but we also see choices, which may or may not be influenced by the context within which biological families find themselves. Birth, or first families still make choices in this. 

These are some of the complexities and messiness of adoption. We are the keepers of our children’s stories and we need to share EVERYTHING that we know with our children. Adoptive parents are called to grow a sense of comfort in being able to discuss it all – because this system and the power dynamics that sustain it are also a part of our children’s stories.