Arriving in South Africa one is immediately struck by an intense color contrast never seen walking the streets of New York City. Bursts of purple are framed against the blue sky, the green landscape, and the white exteriors of buildings.
We are told by our hosts that we have fortuitously scheduled our visit during the brief window of time that the Jacaranda trees are in full bloom. We have come to Johannesburg to learn from our South African counterpart, Johannesburg Child Welfare (JCW). JCW is a vast child welfare agency providing services within Johannesburg and its surrounding areas. The work they do spans from child abuse treatment to family integration. It is a privilege to see the broad range of their work and to hear from the adoption team about the realities that inform our shared effort to find homes for children where no domestic adoptions exist. For one week, against the colorful backdrop the Jacarandas have provided, we will make visits to the various institutions and shared group homes where many of the children JCW advocates for reside.
Our first stop is Othandweni, a JCW-run institution located in the township of Soweto. Othandweni has the capacity for about ninety children, thirty children live in the nursery and sixty older school age children live in five cottages that are segmented by age. There are close to fifteen full time staff. The environment at Othandweni is lively, bright, and loud.
Part of the reason why this welcoming and safe atmosphere exists is the presence of the Grannies. Othandweni is the site of our Granny Program, which we first established in 2011. Fifteen women from the local community dedicate their time to visit with the thirty children who live in Othandweni’s nursery. They come Monday through Friday for at least 4 hours a day, dividing their time between caring for two children. The children they are working with are between birth and 6 years of age and have a range of significant special needs, from HIV to cerebral palsy. The dedication, consistency, and passion of the Grannies bring to life a specially-designed curriculum that helps these children meet their developmental milestones. The visible impact this program has had on the children who have benefitted from a relationship with a granny makes it easy for everyone involved to wholeheartedly buy into this program. It is a model that JCW hopes to implement in other institutions as its benefits have proven to extend beyond its original goals, the “gogos” speak of the sense of enfranchisement this program has brought them – as one gogo puts it, the program “has given me a new lease on life”.
Over the next two days we visit three other institutions. Princess Alice is a JCW-run home for infants and is located in a particularly affluent neighborhood of Johannesburg. The focus at Princess Alice is on providing a nursery and pediatric services to infants who have been abandoned or orphaned. Many of the children at Princess Alice have special needs and are on medication regimes that need to be strictly monitored. There are between twenty and thirty infants residing at Princess Alice and a combination of full time staff and community volunteers who are a constant presence. We next stop at Cotlands, which is an institution caring for infant and toddler age children. Cotlands had recently reduced their capacity at the time of our visit and was focused on expanding its community-based family services while still providing care for around fifteen to twenty infants and toddlers. Like any other institution in Johannesburg there are many special needs infants. Learning about the particular profiles in the care of these institutions continually reinforces why Spence-Chapin is doing the kind of focused work it is doing in South Africa. The population of special needs infants and toddlers is significant in size and growing domestic options for these children is a work in progress for JCW.
Ethembeni, a Salvation Army-run institution within Johannesburg, is our last stop. Ethembeni has the capacity for close to fifty or sixty infants and toddlers. There is a nursery and separate living areas for the toddlers. Ethembeni is a longtime presence in the child welfare landscape in South Africa and has done a lot of important work on behalf of vulnerable children in Johannesburg. Continuing the theme of the trip, we met many toddlers with significant special needs including children with a combination of cognitive disabilities and physical disabilities. There is a sizeable population of children with minor to severe cerebral palsy and also Down syndrome. Part of the normative mindset of caregivers and administrators at these institutions is that finding homes for these children is a near impossibility, an idea that we have seen be defied time and time again by families who possess the expertise and resources to responsibly provide homes for children with these specialized needs. Sharing our optimism with them will hopefully encourage them to continue their active advocacy on behalf of these children.
We return to Othandweni on our final day in Johannesburg to meet some of the older children who live in the cottages. We are greeted with a performance of music, dance, and poetry. As the older children at Othandweni come from a variety of tribal backgrounds their presentations are cultural fusions of their different backgrounds, combining the features of Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and other cultural traditions. We met many children whose legal statuses were not settled and/or they still maintained connections with their birth family through visits and other forms of communication. However, there certainly are children who desire to be part of a permanent family and Spence-Chapin hopes to be able to work on their behalf.
It was a poignant time to visit Johannesburg as the one year anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing was approaching. His work on behalf of the marginalized is an evident influence to the incredible work that JCW does on behalf of children who are vulnerable. Spence-Chapin is privileged to be working with such an ethical and altruistic organization. I returned feeling energized about the focused kind of work we are doing and with a deeper sense of accountability to the children who we met.