Features

Search for ‘dead’ child raises disturbing questions

ESTHER Katongo (left) and Sikwela.

NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
IT IS only a very special circumstance that would make a man want to pursue an issue for as long as a decade, and in the case of one Zambian man, that circumstance involves his 10-year-old son whom he last saw as a three-month-old baby.

He is desperate and angry because 10 years ago his son was taken to America without his consent.
At the heart of the issue is a social welfare officer whose chief responsibility is to ensure the protection of children and two parents whose permission was not sought in the adoption of their son.
On January 28, 2007, Mr and Mrs X gave birth to their fourth child, a son, at Lusaka’s Chawama Hospital.
Falsified adoption papers, however, show an incorrect birth date and place of birth.
When their fourth child was born, Mr X was out of employment, having been retrenched from his job in 2001.
At the time his son was taken out of Zambia without his consent in 2007, Mr X was away in Southern Province trying to make money in the pig trade.
Speaking exclusively to the Zambia Daily Mail, Mr X said while he was away, his wife decided to pay her aunt a visit on a certain day but she set off without transport money and wound up at the Social Welfare Office (administered under the Ministry of Community Development) in Lusaka.
There she met a female social welfare officer and asked for a little assistance with transport money to get to her intended destination.
“My wife asked for help with money, explaining that she had left transport money at home and that I was away in Southern Province because of my pig business, but the social welfare officer instead started bullying my wife and wanted to know how she could be moving around with children during the day. Her interest was with the baby,” Mr X shared.
Mrs X became unsettled by the social welfare officer’s reaction and excused herself but the officer would not let her leave just like that. She told Mrs X the Social Welfare Department would take away her children.
“My wife was told by the social worker that it looked as though she wasn’t managing to look after the children,” Mr X said.
All four of the children were then taken to an orphanage in Lusaka and Mrs X was told she could pay them weekly visits.
“She called me and was crying when this happened, so I told her that I would return to Lusaka as soon as I was done sorting out things,” Mr X shared.
The second week after their children were placed in the orphanage, Mrs X went to the Social Welfare Office to follow up on her children’s status and was informed that her three-month-old baby boy had died.
When she asked where her baby was buried, no one could show her. Upon hearing the news, Mr X immediately left his business in Southern Province and returned to Lusaka.
The X’s then asked the Social Welfare Office for the death certificate of their child as well as the burial permit ordinarily used to authorise burial, but none of these documents was produced.
It seemed as though the X’s stood no chance of seeing any document relating to their baby’s death, so they focused their efforts on getting back their remaining three children from the orphanage.
“They started giving us rules over our own children, saying first they needed to see where we were staying before they could release them,” Mr X said. “What they did not want us to find out, which we know now, is that one of our children was present when our baby was taken away.”
There was a farewell party at the orphanage and some pictures were taken, according to the recollections of Mr X’s daughter, who was staying at the orphanage.
The other three children were eventually released some three months after Mr and Mrs X’s baby ‘died’.
“One day, shortly after our children came back home, our daughter who had been with her baby brother at the orphanage asked us when we were going to get him back from America,” Mr X shared. “I asked her how we could get someone who had died back from America.”
Mr X’s daughter insisted that her brother did not die but was instead taken away by an American couple.
“This couple even told my daughter that her brother was going away to America but she would be communicating with him,” he said.
Mr X and his wife were taken aback by the persistence of their daughter regarding her little brother.
They returned to the Social Welfare Department demanding answers and were given a concocted tale.
The X’s were told the department had recorded two children with the same name and mistakenly thought it was Mr X’s son who had died when he had, in fact, gone to America.
“From that day in 2007, till today, we have been trying to see our son again,” Mr X said.
Someone else would have given up after 10 years of trying, but not Mr X, and especially not since he met one dedicated child protection officer under the Police Child Protection Unit in 2011.
The unit’s main focus is to look into offences committed by and against children in Zambia.
It is thanks in large part to the child protection officer’s determination that the X’s hope of seeing their son again has stayed alive.
Three weeks ago, they finally got a breakthrough when a 36-year-old juvenile inspector at the Kabwe Social Welfare District Office named Musenge Mumba, was arrested in connection with the case. She was later released on police bond.
Musenge was arrested by the Police Child Protection Unit and charged based on the following four counts: Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons contrary to subsection (8) of Anti-Human Trafficking Act No. 11, 2008; child stealing contrary to section (171) of the Penal Code of the Laws of Zambia; making false documents contrary to section 344, subsection (a) of the Penal Code of the Laws of Zambia and giving false information contrary to section 125, subsection (a) of the Penal Code of the Laws of Zambia.
Although Musenge was not the social welfare officer who initially took Mrs X’s children away from her, she is the one who processed the documents needed to facilitate the adoption and child’s exit out of Zambia.
Ministry of Community Development and Social Services permanent secretary, Howard Sikwela, says the ministry’s provincial administration in Central Province is looking into the case involving its officer.
Musenge will have to go on suspension until cleared by the courts of law but will be subjected to a disciplinary committee hearing at provincial level before this.
“This is a case which happened in 2007 and I don’t know why people didn’t want to follow it up seriously,” Reverend Sikwela said.
When contacted for comment, the executive director of the orphanage where the X’s children were taken in 2007 said the orphanage could not give out any information without the authorisation of the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services which it falls under.
According to the nationwide assessment survey conducted in 2016, there are currently 173 child care facilities in Zambia with 6,413 children represented as 49.35 percent males and 48.23 percent females.
The office of the Commissioner for Juvenile Welfare (Director of Social Welfare) is mandated by law to ensure the welfare and protection of all children in Zambia including those in institutions of care such as child care facilities and children in homes.
The minimum standard required by law to run a child care facility includes having adequate shelter, offering an age-appropriate and balanced diet, providing comfortable clothing and guidance to encourage healthy physical and emotional development.
Child-care facilities are also required to submit quarterly reports to the Department of Social Welfare outlining the number, sex and ages of children. Facilities are further mandated to report cases of child abuse or child neglect to the department.
Critics insist that the adoption system in Zambia needs revision. They argue that the police child protection officers must be involved in the adoption process to investigate a situation thoroughly before an adoption is authorised.
They further argue that the police child protection mandate must be shifted from the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Child Development to the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services- this way the police child protection officers can collaborate with juvenile inspectors of the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services when handling matters of child protection.
Adoption in Zambia is provided in accordance with the Adoption Act Cap 54 of the Laws of Zambia.
Zambia is also a member state to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption which provides safeguards for children in the adoption process.
Once an adoption order is granted by the court, the parents, members of the extended family and/or former guardians of the child lose all rights and responsibilities concerning the care, protection, maintenance and upbringing of the child.
An adoption is also irrevocable except in exceptional circumstances where, for instance, an adopted child is handled in conditions resembling slavery or is made to engage in immoral acts for his or her gain or is handled in any other manner that is detrimental to his or her development.
The X’s are more certain now than before that they will see their son again but, for his own good, he may not hear the true story behind his adoption until he is old enough to handle its psychological impact.
The Police Child Protection Unit is planning to assist the parents file an affidavit in the High Court challenging the adoption.
The unit acknowledges that considering the X’s son has spent nearly all his life in America, adapting to life in Zambia may affect him negatively.
Instead they are hoping for a situation where they can sit with the adoptive parents and negotiate certain terms.
One of those terms is allowing the child to visit his biological parents occasionally until such a time when he is an adult and the story behind his adoption can be explained to him. After that the child can make his own decision about the matter.
“We are looking at the psychological effect on the child if he is to move back to Zambia from America, but first and foremost what we want is to see the child here in Zambia,” a child protection officer said.
Police spokesperson, Esther Katongo, said the police had done its part by arresting Musenge and it remained with the biological parents to seek a revocation order from the courts of law.
The X’s have had three more children since their fourth child was taken out of the country without their permission in 2007.
They are hopeful that an imminent court hearing will begin the process that will enable them see their son again after a decade.
They have moved heaven and earth to get as close to victory as they have now and they are not about to back down.
*The identity of the parents in this article has been withheld to protect the identity of the child.



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