Wednesday we parked at the Child Welfare office around lunch time. It was cold. I watched as Andiswa’s father grabbed her from my wife’s arms. I saw the lines on the side of his face by his eyes and mouth grow deeper as he stood there, savouring the moment.
He couldn’t take his eyes off his six month old daughter as we walked inside the building. He looked like the proud father of a newborn infant – his body language, the way he held her, the permanent smile on his face. Was he going to take responsibility?
Andiswa, born on Christmas day, is not your typical “foster baby case”. Normally welfare gets a court order to remove a child if the child’s safety is under threat. Andi’s parents brought her to the welfare voluntarily in January and requested she be put into foster care, but did not want to sign her off for adoption. In February she was temporarily entrusted to us under a private arrangement facilitated by the social workers. The plan was to place her with us as “place of safety” parents, a six month agreement but the process was delayed several times. After she had been with us for 3 weeks, Andi’s birth mother disappeared without a trace. Meanwhile Cecile was taking Andi to the Child Welfare office almost weekly for her father to see her and to discuss the way forward.
As we sat down on Wednesday, Andiswa’s father was trying to feed her with a bottle Cecile had prepared. Occasionally he would converse with his friend in their mother tongue and the social worker with us in Afrikaans. The conversation was almost predictable, Andiswa’s father mumbling along in Nigerian-English about his fruitless efforts to track down the mother.
Understanding about every third word, I could make out that he was now ready for foster care, a two year arrangement. He thought it meant he could get his baby back at any time. The social worker explained that it’s not that simple, that the baby is bonding with her primary caregivers and that the court would act in the best interest of the child when deciding whether she could be returned.
He wanted another week to find the mother before making a decision. The social worker had enough. “I think you should take back your baby and care for her until you can make up your mind”, adding in Afrikaans “This is far too comfortable for him. His child is being cared for very well, there’s no pressure on him. In fact, I don’t even need his permission to place her in foster care.”
In a moment I saw him sign away his child. A quick exchange of words with his friend was followed by “OK, let’s go for open adoption.” Open adoption allows the biological parents some access to the child as determined by the adoptive parents. Eventually he agreed to foster care as a first step.
Cecile put Andi on the table. “Look, she’s sitting!” cried my wife. It was the first time she could actually sit on her own. Out came the cell phone cameras. We celebrated the moment together.
Next week we will go to court to rubber stamp the split second decision of a father to sign his child away. This is leading to adoption. I am excited to become Andi’s new dad, yet I feel like crying. I wanted him to fight for his child, to take her back. We simply have to find ways of empowering parents to be parents.We need to change this nation, one family at a time.