Where Magic Lives

International Adoptions
Date: 21-05-2006
Producer: Marion Edmunds
Genre: Children
Children for parents, and parents for children… International adoption is a new solution, as childless couples seek sons and daughters beyond their borders.

Ruda Landman (Carte Blanche presenter): ‘Infertility is becoming more and more of a problem in prosperous communities, and the search for babies for adoption is becoming ever more desperate. Here in South Africa some white couples are prepared to go quite literally to the ends of the earth to find their bundle of joy.’

Willem and Adri live in Alberton. For ten years, they knew the agony of trying and failing to conceive.

Adri Els (Adoptive Parent): ‘If you have walked a long road, you decide that it’s enough. We really wanted to be parents. That was our great wish.’

Willem Els: ‘It’s relatively difficult to find somebody in South Africa who can help. We phoned, emailed about five or six agencies, and they said that their waiting lists were full.’

Willem and Adri started surfing the web. They particularly wanted a white baby and there are none available in South Africa. Eventually they found social worker Sheri Shenker.

Sheri Shenker (K & S Adoption Agency): ‘Parents waiting for Caucasian children started looking outside of South Africa and found out that there were children available in Eastern Europe for adoption.’

Sheri works with an American agency. The children they find are in orphanages, many abandoned by poor parents.

Sheri: ‘The agency works with only certain orphanages. We send all documents from South Africa to the Eastern [European] country; we talk about the parameters in terms of the child that we are looking at.

Adri: ‘Sheri always said, ‘It’s going to happen’, and I remembered her words through the whole process and whenever I half lost courage… ‘It’s going to happen’.’

And it did. Just before Christmas, Sheri had news of a little girl. So Willem and Adri flew east to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan to get her.

Ruda: ‘When Willem and Adri left for Kyrgysztan, they were under the impression that there was a specific child waiting for them. But when they arrived at the small town of Tokmok on the border, they were taken on a tour of orphanages and told to choose one of the abandoned babies.’

Adri: ‘How do you pick up one? How do you know which one is the right one? It was very difficult for me and Willem. We didn’t immediately pick up a baby.’

They were in a former Soviet State, it was bitterly cold and they were relying on translators. But it was the tears of a small boy that guided them.

Adri: ‘What happened was that Carl started crying. He was the first baby that Willem picked up. We thought he was a very beautiful baby.’
This is Willem and Adri’s new son. Since they brought him home, Carl has doubled in weight, thriving on the love and care of his parents. For Sheri, another mission accomplished.

Sheri: ‘You also have to put yourself on the line emotionally – part of you is giving over to a system, and you hope that they protect it and nurture it.’

And as the world becomes a smaller place, the system is working in the other direction – South Africa is attracting foreign childless couples who come here to adopt.

Sheri: ‘Before the law in SA changed to allow non-South African citizens to adopt South African children, we would sit with children year after year who had absolutely no option in terms of finding a family.’

And finding a child to adopt in Northern Europe is almost impossible.

Ruda: ‘Last year, 250 South African babies were adopted by parents mainly from Scandinavia and Europe.’

Little Nico was abandoned in Hillbrow but, thanks to Sheri, he now has a family. He’s going to grow up an Austrian national, with brand new parents Joerg and Evi Huber from Vienna who have just flown in to Johannesburg to meet him.

Joerg Huber (Adoptive Parent): ‘Nico has been adopted. We went to court on Monday, he’s our son for the rest of our life and the rest of his life.’

Evi Huber (Adoptive Parent): ‘It’s yours from the first moment when you say yes.’

The same week, in Pretoria, baby Ruth was falling in love with her new parents, Lars and Jenny Bennbom, from Stockholm in Sweden.

Jenny Bennbom (Adoptive Parent): ‘We have been longing for such a long time, and she is finally there.’

Jenny and Lars are happily married, with a beautiful home and successful careers. But that was not enough.

Lars Bennbom (Adoptive Parent): ‘It’s a miracle, it’s indescribable.’

The social worker helping them is Katinka Pieterse. Last year she placed more South African babies with foreign couples like the Bennboms, than with local families.

Ruda: ‘Why are South African couples going overseas to bring in babies?’

Katinka Pieterse (AFM ABBA Adoptions): ‘Most people, I think, would like to adopt a child that looks like them. I do however have some ethical issues that we have thousands of children in need of family care in South Africa. And on the other hand we have families who are going out to find children that look more like them.’

Still dealing with apartheid’s legacy, the lack of white babies and hundreds of thousands of black orphans raises tough questions. What defines a good adoption match – colour, culture or nationality?

Ruda: ‘Did you ever consider adopting a black baby from South Africa?’

Willem: ‘We really wanted our baby to look similar to us. You know, it’s everybody’s personal choice and I respect other people’s choices. And an opportunity arose and we decided, let’s see if this works for us.’

Before adopting Nico, Joerg and Evi had counselling to prepare them to parent a child from Africa in predominantly white Europe.

Joerg: ‘I think culture is something that grows, so I am of the true conviction that Nico will have the Austrian culture, because that is where he will be growing up. But yes, colour of skin… he will be different.’

Social workers encourage adoptive parents to tell their children where they come from.

Willem: ‘I don’t know what culture he is. He is a South African.’

But Willem and Adri have compiled a video diary of their trip so they can tell Carl the special story of his birth.

Willem: ‘He will know where he comes from; I think that is important. He must also know that he is adopted.’

Jenny: ‘Her past will always be part of her and part of us. Of course, she will be brought up in a Swedish way. I am going to make a scrapbook for her… to read it to her as a story… starting next week.’

The future looks rosy for these three little children. Their fairytale endings mask their tragic beginnings.

Katinka: ‘The child that is legally up for adoption [has] already had the loss of a birth mother, and probably a birth father, and a whole extended family. And you then… to have inter-racial adoption in South Africa… the child has a further loss of his culture, his language, being with a family where he looks the same as them. When you [turn] to international adoption, there is a further loss, it’s the country. So the losses become more and the whole idea of adoption is to minimise the losses.’

Ruda: ‘South Africa is facing a social welfare crisis in the wake of the Aids pandemic. It’s predicted that by 2015 there will be 4.5 million mainly black orphans in this country, looking for love and care and a home.’

For Musa Mbere, the government’s priority is to place children where they can still speak their home language and live by their own customs.

Musa Mbere (Department of Social Development): ‘What we would like to see happening is that children remain in their own communities, so they don’t lose their sense of their own identity and their culture.’

Yet adoptions of South Africans by South Africans is very low – only two thousand children found local adoptive parents here last year.

Musa: ‘It also is influenced by cultural background and beliefs. If you belong to a certain family and a clan, you are taken away into another clan, you lose the connection with your ancestry.’

Social workers in the field are frustrated that there is simply not enough urgency or staff in the department to deal with this crisis.

Katinka: ‘There’s no real national plan in place. If you compare adoption to foster care – foster parents will get a grant for the rest of the child’s life up to the age of eighteen.’

54 000 children were fostered in South Africa last year, but Katinka and Sheri think adoption is a better long-term option.

Sheri: ‘Either subsidised adoption or tax breaks for adoption would be a wonderful thing to happen in South Africa, but we don’t see it happening in the near future.’

Ruda: ‘Why is it taking so long for government to look at getting people to adopt children?’

Musa: ‘It’s going to take time before things settle down in the country and people look at soft issues like the adoption of children.’

Ruda: ‘But surely 4.5 million orphans is not a soft issue?’

Musa: ‘That is very true. As government, we are trying to deal with it. As government, we have a steering committee which involves all the departments, and there is ongoing discussion in terms of what goes into the bill.’

New Child Care legislation to regulate both local and international adoptions has been under discussion for years, with no finality, but pressure on South Africa for orphans for overseas parents is more than likely going to grow.

Ruda: ‘The number of South African adoptions from overseas is tiny when compared to a country like America, which has adopted 150 000 foreign babies over the past eight years. Of these, almost 40 000 came from Russia.’

And international adoption is pricy.

Musa: ‘Money should be covering the cost… the administrative cost of placing the child, but it should not be a profit-making kind of venture.’

A portion of the fees paid by Willem and Adri to the international agency gets paid back to the orphanages from where the babies come.

Ruda: ‘What did it cost you?’

Willem: ‘Probably between R180 000 and R200 000 including air tickets and other expenses.’

Ruda: ‘Many people might say that it’s just about profits, and people are buying babies.’

Willem: ‘Carl’s mother abandoned him in a hospital; he spent six months in an orphanage… there is no way anybody could have made a profit out of him.’

For Evi and Joerg, the fees are a lifetime investment in a happy family.

Joerg: ‘With our travel, with our stay, it would be around 12 000 euros. It’s more than worth it.’

Lars and Jenny are starting a life with Ruth.

Jenny: ‘She will be brought up in a Swedish way, but her background will always be there.’

Back in Stockholm, Ruth is meeting her great-granny. Born in Tokmok, Carl’s first words will be Afrikaans. He’ll sing Nkosi Sikelele.

Ruda: ‘Would you encourage other people to do it?’

Willem: ‘Absolutely. Definitely. If I decided tomorrow I wanted to go again, I would.