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South Africa AIDS orphans overwhelm social work services

Lora Doman has 450 cases to keep track of: A daunting challenge typical amng those in social work services providing care and protection of South Africa AIDS orphans.

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Mrs. Sesotho came to Roodepoort Child Welfare in 2007, when her daughter Mary Jane Mebe died of AIDS, leaving Sesotho with six grandchildren to care for. Two of these children have HIV and require constant medical treatment, one gets therapy for emotional stress, one has been diagnosed with arthritis, and another with epilepsy.

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Sesotho – who takes heart medication herself – looks after these children the best she can, Doman says. But she’s been unable to get full custody because the children’s father – an unemployed Zimbabwean refugee – refuses to cooperate with the foster-care legal procedure. Having signed documents to transfer the children to Sesotho’s care, he now refuses to hand over birth certificates and other records. So Sesotho is unable to obtain government grants to help support her grandchildren.

“I buried my own daughter,” Sesotho says. “I have a small house. Four of us sleep in one bed. I have to borrow money at the end of the month.”

If the father would simply sign off on the foster-care agreement and give up any claims to the children, Sesotho would receive $540 a month in grant money.

“I need to fight for this family,” says Doman, after hearing Sesotho retell her story. “I need to prove that the children really need care, and that the father really will not do his part.”

• • •

As dark as Doman's cases can be, many also fill her with a sense of hope – like the case of 7-year-old Gift.

Celina Seloma – an elderly woman whose own sons have died – has looked after Gift for four years. Found neglected and ill in a tin shack in the northern Johannesburg township of Diepsloot, Gift was taken away by Roodepoort Child Welfare, and placed in foster care with Mrs. Seloma. Months after Gift came to stay, a doctor informed Seloma that the boy had HIV, probably contracted at birth from his mother.

Today, Gift is having medical treatment for HIV – the medicine provided free of charge under a US-funded program, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – and he is healthy, sweetly mischievous, and the center of attention at Seloma’s home.

Other cases take Doman’s breath away, as struggling families set aside their bickering to act in the interest of the child.

Last year, Doman received a call to place the infant child of a teenage mother in foster care. The mother, 16-year-old Celina Mashiane, was perfectly healthy, but had reached her wits’ end living in the tidy brick home of her mother, Lucy Mashiane, and her stepfather.

Unlike many of Doman’s cases, AIDS was not a factor, nor was sheer poverty. Here, the problem was cultural tradition. Celina’s stepfather resented having an extra mouth to feed. Celina’s boyfriend refused to pay “damages” – an African tradition where, in lieu of marriage, young men who father children pay the mother’s family to help support the child.

The solution lay in finding a new way, Doman says, one that allowed Celina some space to finish school, and also relieved the financial burden required by African traditions.

Through painstaking negotiations with both Celina’s and the young father’s families, Doman encouraged shared custody. Today, the father’s family shares the financial responsibility for raising Celina’s baby, Amogelang.

Having a few days without Amogelang to look after allows Celina to go to high school, she says, and she has plans to attend college to become an accountant.

This solution “changed the way I thought about other things,” Celina says, holding her baby in the kitchen of her mother’s house. “I had to make decisions to do the right things for my future and the future of my child.”

Doman seems satisfied after a recent visit to Celina’s. As she settles into the drive to her next case, she says, “It keeps me going to see smart people take themselves to a new level.”

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South Africa AIDS orphans: Gift's birth mother confronts his foster parents

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