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What happens to SA's abandoned babies?

Stories of abandoned babies often make news, but less is known about what happens to them afterwards.

Cots at the Fikelela Children's Centre, where up to 40 children can be cared for at any one time. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/EWN.

CAPE TOWN - Eight-month-old *Siphokazi bursts into tears and reached towards her carer with chubby hands.

Neglected and abandoned by her mother in January this year, the little girl's greatest need is no longer to be fed and cuddled, but much like any other child, to get her hands on the adult's cellphone.

Siphokazi is one of the millions of children in South Africa who are, for various reasons, without parental care.

She is also one of hundreds of abandoned or orphaned infants who have passed through the doors of Fikelela Children's Centre in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.

The temporary safe care facility, which houses up to 40 children at any given time, nurses them back to health before placing them in a more permanent home.

According to the centre, Siphokazi's mother had no home of her own and would leave the infant with friends or alone while she worked in the evenings.

But since starting her rehabilitation process at the centre and receiving the required medication, the little girl has started crawling and gaining weight.

She is also showing promising signs of taking her first steps.

If efforts to trace Siphokazi's extended family fail, she will be placed in foster care.

But even if the little girl's story ends up having a happy ending, when she leaves the centre another infant with an all too similar story is bound to take her place.

Social worker Kate Brydon cuddles one of the children at Fikelela Children's Centre. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/EWN

Social worker Kate Brydon said she's noted a rise in cases like Siphokazi's during her four years at Fikelela.

"When I first arrived here we only had about 20 children in our care… But now we sit on maximum capacity all the time. As soon as one child leaves another one comes in. So there has been an increase in need."

Brydon said the ages of the newcomers vary, but the stories are very similar.

Many of the infants are ill when they arrive either due to neglect or because of pre-existing medical conditions which had not been properly treated.

"We get children abandoned on the street and children abandoned in hospital."

Whether out of fear or confusion around a daunting medical condition, some parents see deserting their child at a medical facility as the best option.

"They get in there and then it's so overwhelming that they end up running away and leaving their child there because they think 'this is safe for my child let me leave'."

Whether through hospitals or the Department of Social Development, some of these children then make their way into the loving arms of one of Fikelela's carers, Phumla Mayekiso.

Fikelela Children's Centre carer Phumla Mayekiso plays 'peekaboo' with one of the abandoned infants at the Khayelitsha home. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/EWN

The senior carer has been working at the centre for 10 years and said loving and nurturing children in need fulfilled her life's purpose.

The mother of two faces demanding 15-hour work days, which start at 5:30 in the mornings and often end after 8pm.

Mayekiso explained the job not only entailed feeding, bathing and medicating 37 lively and demanding youngsters, it is also crucial to dedicate time to bonding and playing with newcomers.

According to Mayekiso most of the children are born to very young mothers, girls who are not very receptive to guidance or advice and easily influenced by a myriad of social pressures.

"They need more support from us as a community."

According to the Cape Town Child Welfare Society, seven children have been abandoned in the city since the start of 2015, compared to 19 in 2014.

Hope 4 Babies, an organisation lending support to struggling single mothers, knows the pressures that lead to the problem all too well.

The centre, which is based in Sun Valley, has an electronic safe box fitted into a door on the premises in which babies can be left.

An electronic safe box in which infants can be left. The door triggers an SMS which is sent to several staff members. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/EWN

It's hoped that the initiative will dissuade anyone from abandoning an infant out in the open where they're exposed to various dangers.

The group's Leonel Nass said there's a great need for support for struggling moms in the community.

She added women need to be made aware that leaving children out in an open field or along the road is not the safest option.

According to the National Adoption Coalition of South Africa (Nacsa) a review of reported abandonment indicates 65% of abandoned children are newborn and 90% are younger than a year.

Disturbingly, some 70% of abandonment locations are cited as unsafe, with common places including sewers, gutters, drains and toilets.

Nacsa further said according to a 2014 study there are 18.5 million children in SA and of these 4.5 million live with neither of their parents, with orphans having increased by 30% over the last 10 years to approximately 5.2 million.

*Siphokazi is an alias used for the child's protection.

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