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A better SA, one baby at a time

With initiatives such as Stop Crime Say Hello, marketing whizzkid, social commentator and self-titled passionate South African Justin Foxton is committed to changing the country for the better.

After a five-year stay in the UK, Foxton returned to his home country in 2008 and, concerned by the situation of crime and violence – and the South African attitude to that situation, which was often one of apathy or helplessness – he became determined to do something.

Now in its fourth year, Foxton’s social initiative Stop Crime Say Hello encourages citizens to communicate and treat their fellows with dignity and respect, rather than live in fear of each other. All it takes is a simple “hello” – and, Foxton argues, one small act of friendship could easily lead to bigger ones.

Believing that an earlier intervention could have an even greater positive effect, some months ago Foxton launched a new project aimed at helping to promote an environment of peace and tolerance in South Africa.

Under the umbrella of The Peace Agency, his own NGO that works towards social justice, he has set up the Baby House, a crisis centre and place of safety for orphaned and abandoned babies. Foxton and his wife Cathy run the centre, which opened in mid-2010, from their own home in Umhlanga, north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Baby House is registered with the Durban branch of Child Welfare, and with Habit – the HIV Abandoned Babies and Infants Trust. It’s one of three Habit baby homes run in the area by that organisation, to care for babies in the transition phase between abandonment and placement in an adoptive or foster family.

According to Foxton, the couple converted a portion of their house in order to run the centre from there. “We have four cots and a dedicated team of supporters and carers who help us keep the babies safe until a suitable family has been identified,” he says.

Although this may seem like a small contribution compared to the enormity of the national situation of hundreds of thousands of abandoned children, he concedes, you have to start somewhere. And if more people set up baby houses, more babies would find loving homes. “We’re just ordinary people,” he says, “but this way we can make a difference in our community.”

The centre is small for a reason, says Foxton. “We don’t want to become another orphanage, but by keeping our operations to a manageable scale we know we can do the absolute best for the kids who end up with us.”

One of the big reasons for abandonment is sheer desperation. A new mother may not have the means to even feed her baby, or an HIV-positive mom can think of no way to give her new-born a chance at survival other than to leave the child near to where she knows help is available – a church, clinic, or hospital.

However, a rapid response and antiretroviral medication within 72 hours of birth cuts down on the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate. “In the last 18 months we’ve had 11 babies, and not one has left us with HIV,” says Foxton. They’re not orphans, he adds – they’re just babies, and there should be no stigma attached to the fact that they will be adopted. “We work closely with Child Welfare to find exactly the right parents for our babies.”

The aim is to get all Baby House infants adopted, but within a reasonable period so that adoptive parents don’t miss out on milestones such as teething, crawling and walking. Moreover, the team works hard to ensure that on the big day each infant is in the pink of health. Babies are clothed, fed, medicated, inoculated, and generally fussed over by the willing band of helpers, many of whom are volunteers who give up an hour here and there to care for the infants.

The team wants every adoption to be excellent, says Foxton. Prospective parents will get to spend time with their baby and bond with him or her before the final handover, and they will receive a comprehensive file of their child’s progress so far, along with many photos.

Foxton also aims to unify players involved in adoption in South Africa, and “get conversations going about adoptions”, so that any problems can be streamlined. He says that the process of adopting is not as smooth as it could be, mainly because the state has made it unnecessarily difficult. While the children do need to be protected, and the existing legislation – the Children’s Act of 2005 – does this effectively, there are a few hiccups in the system.

For instance, when an abandoned child is found and is ready to be adopted, the agency is compelled to take out an advertisement in local newspapers for 90 days, to give the mother, father or other family the chance to come forward and take responsibility for the child.

In an interview in November 2011 with a Durban newspaper, Foxton cited the example of a child who was at the Baby House for eight months because there was no free space in the newspaper to place the required advert.

When a mother gives up her child for adoption, she has 60 days after signing the consent form to change her mind. In both cases, Foxton believes the deadline should be 21 days for the sake of the child, especially if he or she is in an overcrowded institution where caregivers have many children to look after and may not be able to give any more attention than the bare minimum. “Otherwise, adoption is not entirely the daunting process that it’s made out to be – in most cases the parents are vetted within six weeks and they have their baby within months.”

There are also cultural stumbling blocks. In traditional communities especially, the thought of giving a child up for adoption is unthinkable. There’s even a proverb that claims it takes a village to raise a child. But this mindset comes at the expense of healing for the nation and, says Foxton, it is time for a rethink.

“It is important to know where you came from, to have an identity, but equally important is our African philosophy of ubuntu, where we care for each other. We believe that the two concepts can go hand in hand.” In the three and a half years since the launch of Stop Crime Say Hello, says Foxton, the organisation has identified a number of issues which create an environment conducive to crime. “Also, we’ve established that social crimes constitute the vast majority of all those committed in South Africa, 90% in fact.”

Often these crimes are committed by young men between the ages of 16 and 25. “Mentorship and a good, strong example set by older men are critical if we are to help these boys stay away from a life of crime.” And many of these young criminals are orphans, says Foxton, for whom crime is their only way of surviving.

“We have to consider our citizen responsibility to these kids,” said Foxton, “and ask ourselves what helping role we can play. Unless we step in to improve the situation, social issues like crime will never be resolved.”

Image 1: Justin Foxton and his wife Cathy at the Baby House
Image 2: Babies live in a cheerful environment and receive the best of care until they are placed with their new family.
By Janine Erasmus for the Media Club; images supplied by Justin Foxton.

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