AIDS orphan copes without his sister

Gift started kindergarten this year, but misses his sister who was taken away in a custody dispute.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Stretch: AIDS orphan Gift (center) started kindergarten this year, but his sister was taken away.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Caring foster mom: Celina Seloma (l.) is sad that Gift no longer has his sister, Mary, to play with.

All it took was an unfounded charge of child abuse and Celina Seloma's world turned upside down. Her small foster family became one child smaller.

In May 2007 – just weeks after the Monitor visited the Selomas' home and their 5-year-old foster son, Gift, for its first story in an occasional series on AIDS orphans in South Africa – a social worker for the child welfare agency that has custody of Gift's 8-year-old biological sister, Mary, visited Seloma and accused her of abusing Mary. The social worker – who never pressed charges – took Mary away in a mini-bus taxi and hasn't cooperated with Seloma's efforts to locate Mary.

Seloma and husband, Pule, were devastated. Gift – largely untouched by the drama – still asks to play with Mary, and cannot understand why she can no longer live with him in their tidy little concrete home in this middle-class section of Soweto.

"It's not right," says Seloma. "A child growing up alone is not right, he needs his sister and they can play together. [It's OK] if somebody is here with Gift, like the neighbor children, but sometimes he asks for Mary. I said, 'No, Mary is gone, far, far, far away,' and he says, 'Oh, OK.' "

The past 12 months have been full of change for Gift: a time for moving from nursery school to kindergarten, for making new friends and learning proper school behavior; a time of improving health but also the beginnings of speech therapy; a time of separation from his sisters, all of whom became orphaned when their mother died from AIDS. But in this world of change, there is one thing that this irrepressible child –diagnosed as HIV positive, reliant on government vouchers for medicines, food, and school fees – can rely on: the gift of love from his foster parents.

The 650 rand ($78) per month that Gift receives from the government as an AIDS orphan provides enough money for groceries, allowing Seloma to provide full-time care for Gift. Any extras are bought with the income that Pule earns as a handy-man.

Kindergarten has been a revelation for Gift. So many children to play with, so little time. His teacher, Margaret Legodi, says that Gift was "hyperactive" when he first started attending in January, but "since we've been with him, he understands he is in another place. He can follow the routine now."

At school, Gift gets the extra attention that he didn't get at nursery school. His teacher recognized right away that Gift was having difficulty with pronouncing words, and he now gets speech therapy twice a week at a local public hospital.

In Gift's classroom, children break out scissors and paper to cut out shapes. Gift seems more interested in watching the other children than in doing the work himself. It's a normal problem for children in their first year in school, says Ms. Legodi.

"The only thing that I can see that is maybe when we are doing activities, he still cannot settle down," she says. "He still wants to go to all the tables. But he is a very friendly baby, he is so sweet."

Seloma is certain that having a brother or sister to play with would help Gift to settle down. But her social worker, Jane Swanepoel, says that a child with Gift's health condition would require all the energy that a foster mother – particularly one of Seloma's age – can provide.

Ms. Swanepoel says that Gift's best chance at having a brother or sister was for the court to place his sister, Mary, under the Selomas' foster care. That clearly cannot happen now. The accusing social worker has spoiled any chance of Seloma's getting custody of Mary, and in any case, Mary is likely to have been placed with another foster family by now. Swanepoel is certain that the abuse charges are false. While she has no evidence to prove it, she suspects that the lure of the 650 rand child-care payment may have proved attractive to a prospective parent.

"When we heard the allegations we were so upset because we know what Seloma is doing for Gift," says Swanepoel.

When Gift was diagnosed with HIV – apparently passed to him by his birth mother – and was admitted to the hospital, Seloma stayed through the night at Gift's side. "She didn't go home.... Other foster parents would leave their kids and go home and see that their own families were well cared for," says Swanepoel. "She [Seloma] would leave her family and she would sit in that hospital. So, yeah, we wouldn't believe it. It was not true. It is one of those cases where I'm saying 100 percent, it's not true."

Seloma knows now she has little chance of getting Mary back and that she's unlikely to get another child to keep Gift company. But that just throws her attention back on Gift, the child to whom she gave a home and who gives her so much joy in return.

"Since Gift [has come] here I feel happy," says Seloma. "I don't know – it's like an angel in the house. He's very, very, very, very nice. I love him."

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