Moms in crisis: 2 in 3 abandoned babies die

“It is poverty. It is inequality. It is rape. It is drugs and alcohol. It is prostitution. It is lack of family support and abandonment by the father of the baby. It is postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress. It is violence against women. It is violence against children.”

These are the harsh realities facing women in South Africa. Overwhelming circumstances which lead to desperate actions.

As South Africa commemorates Women’s Month, how can we as a society help support moms in crisis?

2 in 3 abandoned babies die
This sobering statistic is even more heart-breaking when considered together with the increase in baby abandonments in South Africa during the coronavirus pandemic.

In an interview with News24, Operations Director at Door of Hope, Nadene Grabham said that over the lockdown period, they received 16 babies into their care of which three were older babies between 3 and 9 months old.

“Our concern is that our two recent ones that were found abandoned were not newborn babies. They were three and nine months old. Obviously the nine-month-old is emotionally traumatised. Imagine a nine-month-old, you already know your mom, you know your mom’s voice, her face and now you all of a sudden have to cope with these voices and faces,” Grabham said.

Grabham shared the following informal statistics gathered between April and July this year:

  • 118 babies were received at various care havens during the lockdown period which began in April
  • 59 of these infants were abandoned
  • Over the same period, 25 newborns were found dead

“These are the ones we are aware of,” says Grabham. “Who knows how many more have not been found. This is more that we have ever seen in such a short space of time.”

In South Africa, around 3500 babies are abandoned annually according to the Adoption Coalition of South Africa. Up to 70% of these abandonments are deemed ‘unsafe’.

Why have abandonments increased over the lockdown period?

All4Women spoke to Nadene Grabham about the worrying rise in abandonments during the pandemic, and what had led to the increase.

Grabham highlighted the important difference between safe relinquishment and unsafe abandonment. For some mothers, relinquishing their child feels like the only option. These mothers leave their newborns in dedicated “Baby Boxes” or relinquish their children to havens like Door of Hope.

Unsafe abandonments occur when babies are dumped in dustbins, open fields, pit toilets, and even train tracks where they are left to die.

According to Grabham, some of the main factors that contribute towards this include:

  • Loss of income/employment
  • Mothers being abandoned by the father of the baby
  • Lack of family support
  • Not being able to get grants for babies born in lockdown
  • Failed illegal abortions

“More often than not, the moms are victims as well,” says Grabham. “It may not always be the mom who abandons her baby. It could be the father who perhaps is married and has children and had an affair. It could even be a family member, a pimp, or drug lord.”

The organisation appealed to the public for more empathy towards the mothers who may relinquish their babies.

The following case study from Door of Hope highlights the heart-breaking realities women in South Africa face:


“A loving and caring mommy had to save up money for three weeks to get transport to bring her baby to a safe place so that he could have a better life. As a community and a society, we have failed these mommies and these children. It is not always up to the mothers to leave their babies. Sometimes these choices are taken from them. Just as it is not always up to the mothers to practice safe sex, because women and girls are generally not safe in this country.”

“The profile of a mother who abandons her child, and a birth mother who voluntarily puts her child up for adoption are very similar. It’s the same circumstances. It is poverty. It is inequality. It is rape. It is drugs and alcohol. It is prostitution. It is lack of family support and abandonment by the father of the baby. It is postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress. It is violence against women. It is violence against children.

As a society here’s how we can start making a difference that will count:

Be kind to the mummy who is pregnant. It cost you nothing to make a frightened woman know you see her and respect her.
If the circumstances of her pregnancy aren’t ideal, then more condemnation is really unhelpful.
Parenting is hard. Giving her baby up is even harder. Be a friend not her judge.
Share the information of pregnancy support organisations with your communities/schools/clubs.
Please do campaign for better financial options for pregnant women.
Please do engage with initiatives creating employment for women.
Please do not judge. No one knows what challenges lie before each of us.

She fell pregnant after being raped. Out of her suffering, she gave her child a hope and a future:

What are the legal ramifications of leaving a baby at a safehouse?

“I really have not heard of any cases where a mom has been arrested and charged for ‘safe abandonment’,” says Grabham. “However, baby boxes and leaving a baby at a police station, hospital or doorstep are still technically illegal because as far as I am aware, there are no safe haven laws in South Africa”

“If a mom comes to us and has counselling and gives consent for adoption etc, there are no ramifications.”

The organisation tries to offer as much support to mothers as possible to help them make an informed decision about the safe future of their child.

“There are many crisis pregnancy centres around South Africa,” says Grabham. “There are also a number of temporary safe care facilities and foster care options. Keeping families united is the primary goal, but if that is not a possibility, then adoption options are made available.”

Government support

According to a media release by the Department of Social Development in June this year, “Covid-19 is causing great social and economic challenges for many families as their circumstances are changing.”

The Department said that it committed to the delivery of all childcare services, whilst ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children is paramount this time.

One of the alternative care options that the Department renders to children in need of protection, including abandoned children is adoption which gives them a permanent or stable family life.

“Under Level 3 of the lockdown regulations, matters relating to child and spousal maintenance proceedings, child abuse, neglect and exploitation, including child abandonment, foster care applications and hearings; international child abduction cases and adoption and hearings are prioritised.”

When it comes to “safe relinquishment” can a mom ever claim her child back if circumstances improve?

“If a mommy has safely relinquished her baby though our baby box and she comes back – sometimes the same day, or in a few days – we will get social worker involved,” says Grabham. “Wherever possible we will try to reunite the baby with the mom.”

Can relinquished babies be adopted?

Once a police case has been closed, and a birth certificate issued, there is a certain time frame before a baby may be adopted. “If there’s any info on the mom or the child’s family then all efforts must be made to trace them. However, if nothing can be found then the baby may be legally adopted.”

How can the public help?

Door of Hope is registered with the Department of Social Development. The department funds around a third of the organisation’s annual budget. They rely on donations for the remaining two thirds.

“We are grateful for financial donations as well as baby essentials like food, formula, nappies, toiletries, cleaning products,” says Grabham.


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