Safe homes at the coalface of repairing a child’s mental and physical state after the trauma of abuse and neglect, say that returning the child to his or her family has to be carefully considered as reuniting of families is not always the answer.
Toni Tresadern, the house mother at Thandanani (which means love one another) in Welgelegen, said the way the reuniting of children with their families is handled by social workers needs to be looked at seriously. “All social workers talk about reunification and quote it from the Child Care Act but do they actually know what is involved and how many different things need to be considered? I personally don’t think so.
“There is so much to reunification – in theory the concept is great but in the real world, it seldom works and social workers are not qualified to sort out all the problems that result in completely dysfunctional parenting, leading to children being removed,” said Ms Tresadern.
She said that so many parents are low functioning, with some having mental health issues and many have no education.
Ms Tresadern said she believes that all the talking in the world cannot improve their situation.
“Of all the parents I have spoken to in informal settlement environments, not one understood what a social worker was trying to say to them. They all just say ‘yes, yes, yes’ until they get their child back,” she said.
She said once the children are back home there is no follow-up and history repeats itself.
“I cannot tell you one success story. Every child that I know of that went into care and was returned by social workers to the parents, should not have been returned.
“Nothing changed in the children’s lives – the parents just got more devious and clever in hiding neglect and abuse. Nobody wants to lose their child grant again,” said Ms Tresadern.
She said that over the past 10 years there had been no reunification services rendered for any of the children that she has had in her care.
Ms Tresadern also said in her experience, once children are placed in foster care, they are generally forgotten by social workers for the two-year foster order period.
“Many of these orders are also not renewed at the end of the two-year period, meaning that the foster parents (who are often grandparents or family members) lose their R890 government grant.”
She said this puts enormous emotional and financial strain on the family and results in the family having to beg social workers to renew their court orders.
“Not only are they out of pocket but they also run the risk of a biological parent turning up on their doorstep and taking the child back,” said Ms Tresadern.
She said when social workers remove a child at risk, they are just happy to find a placement and normally give the safe house very little information about the child.
“I have made it a mission to hold social workers accountable for their actions or lack thereof, and they are not happy about this one little bit. I highlight irregularities and always point out when the Children’s Act is not being followed or is being amended to suit a particular social worker’s ‘agenda’,” said Ms Tresadern.
*Beulah, the house mother at a place of safety for abused and abandoned children in Goodwood, said reuniting families in such situations is only possible if both the child and the parents have gone for counselling.
Beulah used one of the cases she has dealt with as an example, where an eight-year-old boy was constantly being exposed to sexual activities by his mother who is a sex worker, to the point that he could explain exactly what sex was at six years old.
She said the boy has been at the home for more than two years now, and that he is still in the process of overcoming the abuse he was exposed to.
Beulah said while the mother of the child was having sex with her clients in the same room as her son, she would instruct the boy to face the wall. She said when the boy was placed in the care of the home two years ago he thought masturbating in front of the rest of the children was normal.
Beulah said that the behaviour the child had learnt over the years has impacted on his school environment. She said in a recent incident at the boy’s school he wrote a letter to a girl in his class asking her to have sex with him.
What upsets Beulah is that the mother of the child who is still a sex worker, has not tried to offer her son a stable family life.
She visits the boy once every second week.
“For eight years this child has been in different shelters. This mother has had many opportunities to make amends with the child. How many women have eight years to get their lives on track. The child has gone from pillar to post and clearly isn’t important enough for her to change her life. Why do they get access to the children?” asked Beulah.
She said that each time the mother visits the child, he gets reminded of what he was exposed to. “It’s like a drug addict. When they see drugs in front of them, or pictures of drugs they remember what it was like, and usually want to go back,” said Beulah.
As part of the healing process, she said the child received counselling once a week up until April.
However, the funding the home received for counselling has stopped. She said the home is in the process of finalising sponsors to continue counselling services.
Beulah said what is most difficult is when a child who has been counselled goes back into a home of abuse or violence.
She said this is where the cycle repeats itself, and the child goes through the same trauma over and over.
“This is so unfair. How does this help the system, how does it help the child build a better life?” questioned Beulah.
Beulah said before social workers look at reunification, the healing the child has gone through since he or she has come out of the abuse, has to be taken into account.
“It’s not just that simple (reunification). Parents can’t just think they can pitch up any time in the child’s life and expect everything to be okay and start over,” said Beulah. She said safe homes like hers want to create a future for the children. “But if they’re going back into the cycle how does it help them,” she said. “I believe the child who walks through our doors was sent here for a reason.”
Sihle Ngobese, spokesman for MEC of Social Development, Albert Fritz, said the children in question definitely have a right in making decisions about reunification.
He said the current Children’s Act incorporates the international recognition of a child’s right to participate by expressly giving children a right to participate and express their views in an appropriate manner in any matter which concerns them.
“They can do so if their age, maturity and mental development enable them to express their views. It must be noted that although a child’s age is one of the determining factors for whether that child is able to participate in a matter, age is not a determining factor for recognising a child’s right to participate in the matter in the first place,” said Mr Ngobese.
He added that when children are capable of expressing their views and they choose to do so then their views must be considered.
Mr Ngobese said that child participation does not only entail the child directly voicing his or her views but also refers to the child’s participation in proceedings affecting him or her through a legal representative.
“So that when a child is required to be consulted first, then the child will participate by giving his or her views in the matter,” he said.
He said that there is a positive obligation to listen to the child’s views and to take them into account even though the child’s views is not the overriding factor considered.
When Northern News asked Mr Ngobese what support is offered to parents and families after reunification, he said there are supervision services by a social worker or a probation officer. He said they also put in place community structures which can assist in providing care and protection for children such as social relief, social grants, parenting programmes, and after-care support groups.
He said families can also partici- pate in existing community-based education, prevention and early intervention programmes aimed at strengthening resilience in children, families and communities.
South Africa’s Children’s Act gives effect to certain rights of children as contained in the Constitution, including the rights of children in alternative care, foster care and in child and youth care centres and drop-in centres.
*The names have been withheld in order to protect the identity of the people involved.