ANNANDALE, New Jersey — “Rescuing Children. Creating Families” is the motto of Acres of Love, a nonprofit organization operating in South Africa. The philanthropic organization’s goal is to combat child abandonment, a rampant injustice in the nation. Acres of Love implements this goal by saving children from abandonment and neglect and providing the love of family to the children in its care.
The Borgen Project spoke with Erin Krusiewicz, the national development director of Acres of Love. She explained that her favorite aspect of working at the organization is “building relationships with our families and supporting our South African team as they participate in the slow and steady work of helping our children know the deep, transformational love of family.”
Acres of Love: Exceptional Orphan Care
Krusiewicz elucidated that Acres of Love ensures that it bears no semblance of institutional care. Thus, rather than supplying a set of rotational caregivers, Acres of Love provides house parents who raise the children as their own. The children develop filial bonds with their house parents and experience the true love of family.
Acres of Love focuses on high-quality, holistic care. It purposely purchases its homes in middle-class neighborhoods in Johannesburg and Cape Town and provides the best education, health care and nutrition for its children.
Additionally, the altruistic organization provides individualized care. Krusiewicz explains that “every child who comes to Acres of Love receives an Individualized Development Plan (IDP)- focused on their strengths, needs and goals. Our social workers are tasked with following these closely and as our children grow, their IDPs grow along with them.”
HIV/AIDS: The Initial Catalyst for Abandonment
When Ryan and Gerda Audagnotti founded Acres of Love in 1998, the majority of the children came into their care because of the AIDS epidemic. According to a 2002 article in the International Journal of Epidemiology, South Africa’s HIV prevalence rate stood at 22.4% in 2000.
Fortunately, the rollout of anti-retroviral treatments reduced the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. However, the disease is still far from eradicated. According to Krusiewicz, the infectious disease still impacts about 13% of the population in 2021. Furthermore, South Africa had the second-highest number of HIV cases globally in 2019.
While HIV/AIDS remains an issue in the country, there are several factors contributing to child abandonment.
Failures of the South African Government
While Acres of Love works to ameliorate the child abandonment crisis, one of its most significant obstacles is the existing laws in South Africa. The South African government criminalizes infant abandonment under the Children’s Act 38 of 2005. However, in practice, South African courts prosecute few caregivers for abandoning infants and the lackluster legislation seldomly protects children from abandonment.
There are few safe alternatives to infant abandonment. Nadene Grabham, the operations director at Door of Hope Children’s Mission, has called for the legalization of “baby savers,” safe places where parents can relinquish their babies to the proper authorities, the Daily Maverick reports. Grabham has observed the chilling effects of the absence of legal baby savers. With no other options and the risk of arrest, many parents leave their children on the side of highways, in open fields, in garbage bins and in pit latrines.
Abandoning children in these adverse conditions deleteriously affects the child’s health, often leading to death. Therefore, in an interview with the Daily Maverick, Grabham argues that “Baby savers are about saving the lives of babies. Even if one mother puts her baby in a saver, that is one life saved,” Despite the illegal status of baby savers, Krusiewicz notes that there are still 40 baby savers in operation in South Africa that save the lives of many abandoned children.
Other Underlying Factors Driving Abandonment
According to a 2020 article in the Daily Maverick, one of the two largest categories of abandoning mothers is undocumented migrants who abandon their children rather than risking deportation. If a non-South African seeks “social welfare assistance,” authorities will become aware of their illegal status in the country, leading to their removal from South Africa. Thus, many undocumented individuals choose to unsafely abandon their child.
The other largest category of abandoning mothers is minors who abandon their offspring. Under South African law, mothers younger than 18 require parental consent to place their child in alternative care or within a child protection service. Thus, in fear of disclosing the birth of the child to their parents, as many young girls hide their unplanned pregnancies, young mothers choose to abandon the child rather than raise the child and face societal stigma.
Another catalyst for child abandonment is poverty and extreme wealth inequality. In the third quarter of 2021, the unemployment rate in South Africa stood at 34.4%. Furthermore, Krusiewicz says 32% of South African households with children are food insecure. Additionally, according to the World Bank’s 2022 report, South Africa is the most economically unequal nation in the world. With many families unable to provide for their children and a widening gap between the general public and the affluent, many caregivers choose to abandon their children.
Acres of Love Produces Self-Sufficient Adults
Despite these significant obstacles for South Africa, Acres of Love has succeeded in positively shaping the lives of the children within its care. To highlight this, Krusiewicz tells the story of Sipho. Acres of Love welcomed Sipho in 2001. She received individualized and holistic attention and ultimately flourished under the organization’s care. She is now an assistant house parent in one of Acres of Love’s Cape Town homes.
Sipho said to Acres of Love, “I am grateful to be in my mid-twenties and as healthy and strong as can be. I am now a mother to kids who don’t have parents and it makes me proud and happy that I was once a child at Acres of Love and I’m now their mom.”
The Future of Child Welfare in South Africa
Acres of Love’s work for the most vulnerable is the quintessence of treating the marginalized with love and dignity. The nonprofit’s vision serves as a reminder that hope is on the horizon.
– Alexander Portner