Tuesday, December 4, 2012

349 days of inaction and the currency of protecting children

From the beginning of recorded history it has been recognised that money has enormous power. From the biblical
1 Timothy 6:10 - For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
To more modern reflections when Mark Twain rethought the Biblical and said
The lack of money is the root of all evil.
Culminating in interesting philosophically satirical comments from authors such as Ayn Rand, who reworked the biblical again to read
So you think that money is the root of all evil. Have you ever asked what is the root of all money?
From these, and the passage of daily life what we do know is that there is a sad truth in the phrase “money makes the world go round”…or not.
The Non-Profit Sector has always attempted to mitigate against the multitude of vulnerabilities that face humanity on a global level. Poverty has always been central to this. What is it about poverty that contributes so significantly to vulnerability? It is access to resources. Those resources relate directly to the realisation of the indelible rights that are enshrined in our constitution. So has our Constitution now become class based and our human rights culture, so hard fought for, now become a luxury that comes with a price tag?
There has been a great deal of media coverage of the global financial crisis, interspersed with overarching controversy, such as the now infamously vandalised “spear painting”. So what is the connection? The connection is that the painting controversy happened during a time where the country prides itself on a focus on children during Child Protection Week, in the face of the ever nearing collapse of the Child Protection System as a whole. Why is this related to the global financial crisis and recession?
The current recession could be over by the year's end, but its impact on children will continue through next year and may virtually erase decades of improvements in American children's well-being, according to a new report by the Foundation for Child Development.[i]   
If this is the case in developed countries what is the situation for our developing country? Quite frankly it is dire. The experience of some children is that their rights, which should be granted immediately and unconditionally, are not even being progressively recognised but in fact are regressing in certain areas. What has led to this is a complex interplay of factors from the global financial crisis to an improved view of South Africa within the BRICS nations, to erratic and unintelligible National Lotteries Distribution policies, to a change in direction in Socio-Economic Development funding from corporates and a totally inadequate budget form the Department of Social Development and other relevant Departments to meet their positive child rights mandate.
So where does the non-profit sector find itself? It finds itself taking on the pathologies of the clients it is trying to uplift. We are left with a feeling that we are slightly better dressed and more eloquent, but are still standing on the street corner with a sign “no money, no food, 1 100 000 children to feed, please help”. The question to ask at this point is how did we get here? In order to answer this question we need to look at where we came from. Traditionally the non-profit sector filled gaps where government did not meet its mandate, and the result is that much of the work has been “out-sourced” to NPO’s, but not at the same value as the same government service. This glaring imbalance and lack of respect for equal partnerships between Government and its’ people plays itself out in a sadly infuriating relationship that feels abusive. We are praised at the NPO summit by the President for the development and growth of the NPO field, but told by the officials that there is not enough money. We are lambasted by the SAPC as being funded by Imperialists and always taking the Government to court. To add further insult to this injury, there appears to be an ever increasing mistrust in our motivations and ability to govern and be held accountable, so the corporate sector funds in strange ways. A sad irony that contributes to the overall picture is that our improved perceived international status is resulting in less international aid coming in and ever increasing amounts going out.
Now we feel like schizophrenics standing on the street corner with an unintelligible sign and wild staring eyes. Are we paranoid or is there a sense that the NPO’s are  facing a slow death and taking the hopes of the full realisation of the rights of children with them? There are some who believe that this is the case and this was raised at a summit to launch an NPO code of governance. It was suggested that the government began destroying the traditionally strong and fiercely ethical NPO sector when it launched the YDA and the NDA. The thought has stuck with us, although unprocessed at the moment. Our history was one of challenging government, if we maintain this are we seen now as critics, rather than the voice of the voiceless for the current experience of rights realisation for children in South Africa? 
We know this whole mess sounds like the idle and uncontained ramblings of a messy mind. Well that may well be true but it highlights the feeling we are left with, bewilderment! So what do we do? We march on the National Lotteries Board, they laugh at us. We meet with DSD on many occasions and all we seem to get is transformation talk and some very concerning innuendo that we are unethical, multiplying too quickly and unable to govern appropriately with insufficient funding. We need to reflect on this point as the psychological training we had kicks in on a deep level and screams “this sounds like transference to me.” What you say about us firmly reflects you. So we, in true advocacy style mobilise and get angry, we ask for disaster zones to be declared, and we receive letters in return. We challenge the budget and again we are told there is no money and that we need to find it elsewhere as the funding dispensation will shift to developing organisations based on a myth that established NPO’s are rich and hiding money. So we are left with a situation where the GWSSDF co-ordinator stated it as it actually is, there is a policy of “redistribution of poverty!”
Why is this happening, well very simply based on empirical research, there are not enough skilled people to do the work and the money allocated is totally insufficient to meet the mandates. We have in the vicinity of 160 000 social workers in the country. We need that full amount to meet the Children’s Act mandates and then have not even begun to address the other levels of vulnerability in our population. We costed this Act and came to a set of figures where we looked at full implementation (Clem Sunter’s Premire League scenario), we look at a basic minimum funding dispensation (possibly Sunter’s Second Division). Research shows that in terms of the second division scenario the State is funding at less than 50% and in Premiere League terms less than 10%. So where does that leave us? Well it could be argued that the pie is only so big and as a result can only be cut in so many pieces. However we hear of widespread corruption, mismanagement and incompetence and would like to see this budget. However, more pertinent is the proposed Toll Road Amendment Bill that seeks to get relief funding for the financial losses incurred due to civil society court action. How much are they asking for, billions, how much to we need to avert of crisis of children that needs to move to a crisis of conscience? Some of those billions. So here we are where we started, money as the priority and the neglect of the financial potential of human capital.
Where does this leave us, with Sunter’s final scenario, a failed state. We constantly quote Whitney Houston and loudly proclaim “I believe that children are our future”. How then is it that we do not invest in them now? Let’s leave this here with an image in your mind of children going to school in good faith to realise the potential of their promise of education and the future it opens or closes doors to. Rural children walking for miles and parents sacrificing to access education. On those dusty roads there is no pot of gold or light, there are not even books. As the rivers of Limpopo carry the hopes and dreams of the children down with the books dumped in them, we are reminded that children’s rights are going up in smoke, as they are burned with the books that are destroyed when they were never replaced. How will we replace the hope and trust of our children in us!
Money and the skilled, conscious, ethical will to use it for the good of all as opposed the financial enrichment of self. In order for this to be realised there needs to be an acknowledgement of the crisis facing children. We look back at the cost of denialism and the warnings put forward at the time. The scenario planners again looked at possible outcomes and we are now faced with headlines like “three orphans bound and stoned to death”, “Cries of gang raped girl” and “Mutilated girl, 8, drags herself home.” In the most telling of all stories highlighted in the media we are told that parents have refused to let their children attend school as a way to get roads tarred. If parents are breaking the law and using children to do it and the country cannot get control over its institutions charged with the care of children, where are we in recongising the rights of the child.
We talk of child participation so what are the actions by and against children telling us? There is a deafening scream “help” -  will it be heard?

The sad truth of the disabled in South Africa on International Day of the Disabled

On Mon, Dec 3, 2012 at 8:13 PM, Johanna <johanna@sophiatowncounselling.co.za> wrote:
Today is the International Day of the Disabled. It seems that this important day has forgotten this man, as have the many agencies tasked with the duty to uphold his rights and his dignity. A few months ago this man, aged 59, had a stroke which has left him paralyzed and totally unable to care for himself. He is unable to speak or walk, and unless somebody gets himself to the toilet on time he soils and wets his pants.  When they could do no more for him hospital staff dumped him with his only relative, his sister. She shares a bed with eleven children in a quarter of a sitting room in a flat in one of the biggest slum buildings in Berea. The sitting room is shared with two other families, while a couple lives in the one bedroom. Altogether 20 people share a bathroom, a toilet, and a tiny kitchen, which is home also to a huge deep freeze, containing nothing but one frozen orange and the encrusted stains of beetroot juice. Between the bed his sister shares with her children and the curtain which demarcates the living space of the next family, is less than one meter, just enough to squeeze in a wheelchair and a small TV. There is no space to move except onto the bed.  The flat reeks of urine and faeces. The wheelchair is broken. Social workers at the hospital told the sister that they could do nothing to find proper care for him (because he is a refugee), and at the humanitarian aid organization tasked with assisting disabled refugees has as yet not been able to come up with a workable suggestion.  No food, no linen, no space to move, no toiletries, no adult disposables, no care, no concern, no compassion. On this International Day of the Disabled we seem to count only those who achieve seemingly superhuman feats. A traumatized, smelly, starving, dirty disabled refugee does not fit our image of disability heroism.

Shame on us all!

Johanna Kistner

Executive Director/Clinical Psychologist
Sophiatown Community Psychological Services
4 Lancaster Street, Westdene, 2092

Monday, June 18, 2012

Eversheds Attorney's intervention in the Sexual Offences Act with Women and Men Against Child Abuse in partnership with JCAF

to undisclosed recipients
SCA decision in the matter of DPP, Western Cape and Prins
On 11 May 2012, the High Court in the Western Cape handed down a decision in relation to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 32 of 2007 (the Act). In terms of this judgment the court found that over 26 offences contained in the Act could not be prosecuted upon as they did not constitute an offence as they did not contain penalty provisions.
The affected provisions in question are contained in Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of the Act and include:
·         Rape
·         Sexual assault
·         Compelling or causing persons 18 years or older to witness sexual acts
·         Incest
·         Bestiality
·         Sexual act with corpse
·         Acts of consensual sexual penetration with certain children (statutory rape)
·         Acts of consensual sexual violation with certain children (statutory sexual assault)
·         Sexual exploitation of children
·         Using children for or benefiting from child pornography
The effect of this judgment was that various persons charged with any of those offences could raise an objection in terms of section 85 of the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) and have the charge quashed.
After this judgment was handed down, Eversheds was approached by the non-profit organisation Women and Men against Child Abuse, which requested we assist them in ensuring that the matter was brought before a higher court. We liaised with the National Prosecuting Authority that confirmed they would launch an appeal. We further liaised with the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and confirmed that they would seek to intervene.
Eversheds subsequently provided submissions to the Minister and the NPA regarding the following key issues, which had either been disregarded in the High Court judgment or misconstrued:
·         The applicability of section 51(2) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, Act 105 of 1997.
·         Section 276(3) of the CPA.
·         The principle of legality and the doctrine of nulla poena sine lege within the context of Constitutional Court and SCA decisions.
·         The case law pertaining to a Judge's discretion.
·         Sections 29 and 35(3)(n) and (l) of the Constitution.
·         The three doctrines of interpretation of statutes that the legislature does not intend absurd results, that the legislation must be in accordance with public interest and that the legislature acts reasonably.
·         The application of the cassus omissus rule to the proceedings.
Due to the severity of the issues raised, the appeal was heard as a matter of urgency. It was heard by the SCA on Wednesday 13, June 2012 and the judgment reserved until Friday, 15 June 2012.
The judgment handed down by Wallis JA with Mpati, Navsa, Brand and Malan concurring found that the appeal by the DPP must be upheld and that the order altered to one dismissing the objection to the charge.
While the SCA addressed the societal implications of the High Court judgment and the effect that it would have on women and children who were subjected to violence, the court also considered the legal argument raised regarding whether the absence of a penalty provision can lead to it being found that no offence exists.
The SCA found that the language of the sections unequivocal in that the legislation intended each section to create a criminal offence and further that the Act unequivocally contemplates that on conviction the courts will impose an appropriate sentence on the accused.
Further the SCA found that in this instance it is not necessary for the charge sheet to specify the penal consequences of a conviction.
The SCA further held that section 276 of the CPA is the source of the power of our courts to impose sentences. The SCA held further that this section is not restricted to common law crimes and can be turned to where the legislation does not provide a punishment.
The SCA found that, while the imposition of a sentence by a court must have its justification in either the common law or statute when an offence is created by statute, the absence of a penalty therein does not render the charge invalid or warrant the quashing of the charge.
For further information contact Michal Johnson on 011 523 6128 or michaljohnson@eversheds.co.za.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Plea to 702 to raise awareness around the plight of children at the Central Methodist Church

Moira Simpson, Director of Kid's Haven and Founding Member of the Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum called 702 yesterday in response to the Methodist Church of South Africa's support of the civil action against women and child abuse on the weekend. The JCAF's response to this, as requested on air by John Robbie is below. This highlights the irony of of the public face of the church as opposed to its own inaction, despite supposed structures to manage these issues, in this highly publicized, but publically sanitized case that has been ongoing for years.

Goodday Mr Robbie

You spoke to a colleague of mine from the Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum at the end of your show today. We have been struggling for a few years now to manage the issues around children at the CMC, the Soweto Centre (which sprung up after the previous crisis in the media) and the Albert school (which draws predominantly foreign vulnerable children to the inner city of Jhb). 
The MCSA started a Children's Desk in response to the issues raised in the previous crisis around unaccompanied minors in the CMC.
We assisted them in writing a child protection protocol and editing their children's policy.
Most recently we have had clients who live at the CMC with children aged 2 month to 6 years of age who have asked us to have their children placed in alternative care as they are unable to care for them at the CMC, particularly when they are trying to find work and they need to leave their children alone to look after themselves. Another challenge was that the department of Health (City) condemned the creche on the premises (called FLOC).
We appealed to the presiding Bishop of the MCSA, who referred us to Bishop Witbooi, who has not responded. we then also addressed our concerns and need for intervention in a Methodist building to the Children's Desk's Victoria, also no response. The only correspondence we have had was an acknowledgement from the administrator at the head office to tell us to contact someone else, not even an internal referral nor acknowledgement from any leadership of our concerns.
We have asked for assistance from Social Development who referred us to Child Welfare who have interviewed the families.

We remain deeply concerned and are not satisfied with the church's response and are currently asking for clarity from Child Welfare re their interventions.
You mentioned another aspect of the Children's Act and adoptions today, our concern is that the new Act also need to be tested in terms of what services need to be rendered to the families mentioned above and what responsibility the Church should take as they are the landlords of an illegal shelter not suitable for anyone to live in.

Thank you for your time and passion
Be well
Luke Lamprecht
Convenor JCAF  

Luke Lamprecht 
3rd  Floor Children’s Memorial Institute
13 Joubert St Ext

Dear Mr Robbie,

I am a clinical psychologist running a community mental health service and, like Moira Simpson and Luke Lamprecht, am very concerned not only about the conditions under which children continue to live in the Central Methodist Church, but also about what seems to be complete apathy on the part of the Methodist Church of South Africa. Our appeals to the Presiding Bishop, to Bishop Witbooi and to the social worker responsible for the Children’s Desk have so far gone unheeded.

Moira, Luke and  myself are founder members of the Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum which was really born out of our collective concern about what was happening to children and young people at the Central Methodist Church. We were the first to move unaccompanied children living in the church to Kidshaven, at their own request, in 2008 and 2009. As a result we were banned from entering. Our joint efforts to bring the situation to the notice of the church, the local authority, the state and the public in general led to a huge outcry in 2009, and various intervention plans were developed with the Department of Social Development, all of which were sabotaged. In the end a curator was appointed by the court to see to the statutory processing of all the unaccompanied children in the church by the end of 2010. Most of the under age children on the original list were in the end placed, but this list did not include the over 18s, the children living in the church with some kind of care givers, those born and raised in the church, or those that have arrived unaccompanied since then. It must be noted that as a result of the advocacy process led by JCAF, Luke Lamprecht was asked by the Methodist Church of South Africa to draw up protocol for the church’s newly established Children’s Desk.  This was completed just about a year ago, but it seems that the standards the MCSA claims to ascribe to do not apply to the care of children living in the Central Methodist Church.

In the past three mothers have come to our centre in Bertrams to beg us to take their children into care. We have tried to get Child Welfare to act on the one case for over a year now to no avail. Two other mothers have requested the same intervention more recently. Child Welfare’s argument is that the children cannot be placed because the mothers are not “bad” or “abusive”, but are simply living in bad conditions (like so many other people). The reality is that these conditions prevail in a church which claims to offer “services” and shelter and which refuses to acknowledge or seek help in either creating proper conditions under which people can live, or moving them to more appropriate shelters. Three weeks ago the mothers were in a complete state of panic all people remaining in the Central Methodist Church had been told to leave by the end of the week. The reality is that “giving up” their children into statutory care is all the hope these mothers have of ever ensuring that their children have some chance (however limited we know this to be) of a better life. How much neglect and abuse does it take for a  mother to make this ultimate sacrifice?

I therefore support Luke Lamprecht and Moira Simpson in their call to break the silence around the Central Methodist Church in particular, and the apathy of its mother body in general. We also are looking for ways of challenging the decision made by statutory bodies to leave the children in this situation because their caregivers are not abusive..

Kind regards,

Johanna Kistner
Executive Director/Clinical Psychologist
Sophiatown Community Psychological Services
4 Lancaster Street, Westdene, 2092

Dear Mr. Robbie,

I am Libby Johnston from Refugee Aid Organisation (RAO). I support Luke Lamprecht, Moira Simpson and Johanna Kitsner in their appeal for action against the Central Methodist Church. I also support finding ways to challenge Child Welfare and DSD's decision to leave children in harmful situation because the children are not being physically abused. This is absurd, as the Children's Act clearly states that a child should be removed if he/she is found to be in need of care. The CMC has been deemed unsafe and unsanitary, it is a travesty that social worker assigned to protect children are actually the ones making them suffer.

As stated earlier I fully support Luke, Moira and Johanna's request to take action on both parties.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jane fends for her family: The Citizen Newspaper Children's reporter: GRAEME HOSKEN | 21 May, 2012 00:06

With her mother dead, her father unemployed, fending for the family rests on her.
"I want to be happy. I just want to be a normal child. I want to go to school. I want to play with my friends. Can you help me? Please can you help me?"
This is Jane's plea.
Wearing a tattered tracksuit top, Jane rocks her crying sister in her pram, embarrassed as she tidies herself up, trying to hide her broken shoes beneath papers littering the ground.
Jane and her three-year-old sister are up early, helping their father get ready to look for work before searching the Randfontein landfill site for food before sunrise.
"I am a clever girl. When I was in school I knew all the answers. I did all my homework and my teacher said I was good. I want to be a teacher."
Standing up straight and bragging, Jane said her teacher told her that when she was "big" she could be a teacher.
"When I am a teacher I will make sure that all children go to school, even the naughty ones.
"School is good and all children must go to school," she said.
Prevented from attending school for the last three years because her birth registration documents were destroyed in a fire, Jane is now the "head" of her household.
"I don't want to be here. I don't want to do this. I want to go back to school. I miss playing with my friends. I want to be happy. I want to be normal," she said.
But her life does not allow a carefree passage into adulthood.
Her responsibilities are huge, unbearable to witness. She has to help her father keep the family together. Her tasks include scavenging for food and looking after her sister while her father searches for work during the day.
At night, she prepares supper and puts her sister to bed, keeping an eye on her in case she cries for her mother.
Looking at me, she asks: "Are you happy? Do you have children? Have they got a mommy? Tell them you love them and make them happy."
Her words are too wise and painful for a 15-year-old. But then again, this is no ordinary teenager.
*Names have been changed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Bullying" erodes empathy (extract form conclusion to JCAF quarterly report)

We received a referral from the Refugee Aid Organisation to assist where a child with Autism is being bullied to the point of it becoming assault by children from a neighbouring school. The issues to be managed include awareness of what Autism is and the challenges this poses to the person with Autism as well as to those who need to manage them. Disability and chronic illness remain at the forefront of our strategies but this case, as in the introduction, highlighted how we use words that effect how we think and as a result act. It clearly raised the vulnerability, stigma and lack of understanding surrounding the disabled. It also emphasised how we sanitise this prejudice and resultant assault as an almost harmless juvenile form of taunting we call “bullying” where boys will be boys and cowboys don’t cry. The result of this label is a different approach to the cases that undermines their severity and as a result justifies the behaviour resulting in an ever increasing lack of empathy and appropriate consequences and a resultant disregard for the effect we have on others.

Changing the language of Child Headed Households (Extract from introduction to JCAF quarterly report)

The Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum continues to grow in numbers, strength and reputation. It is firmly held together by its founding directors and developed by new members and opportunities.  The initial rallying call to start the child advocacy forum, which was the plight of the unaccompanied minor children at the Central Methodist Church, remains a challenge almost four years after its inception.  While this is truly sad, it is an indication that the issues confronting children in our country often appear unresolvable.  Our country prides itself on its Human Rights based culture where children’s rights are realised progressively in a developmental state.  However, individual cases where “this child’s rights” need to be upheld, it appears that there is systemic blindness because we are attempting to meet the needs of the children.

The Jhb Child Advocacy Forum and its member organisations fiercely attempt to guard against helping the children and firmly focus on these children and this child.  It is this approach that has unnerved the forum because while policy, protocol and political rhetoric serve children’s needs on paper, the practise of child protection often exposes the inherent attitudinal and capacity inefficiencies and inability to truly care for and protect children.  The Forum’s mind is drawn to the reflections where we in good faith attempted to follow the letter of the law in support of a child headed household.  We supported a specific child headed household as per the new legislation, with more support than most of these households being given. Over the years that we as a team attempted to support this social anomaly it became clear that children should not need to care for themselves. It took the healthiest child in that family to tell us as professional adults that this was the truth.  The sadness was our own inadequacies in the face of these children’s extraordinary resilience and our blindly buying into the country’s  law that is simply not good enough for children without caring adults who take responsibility for them.

What we do with what we have learnt is the advocacy question and one that we need to take very seriously as we know that it is unacceptable for children to raise themselves.  Without being alarmist, I am reminded of a novel where such a social experiment was taken to its logical end – none of us see the Lord of the Flies as a viable subcultural end in a Constitutional democracy.  We will therefore begin the fight for adults to care for children and begin strongly opposing the establishment of a nation of social orphans that we have for too long seen pleading for scraps at our car windows. The public see these children as feral but the law now refers to them as “living and working on the street”, again a shift in language that sanitises the dire circumstances of children who have no caring adult that the state does not know how to manage. We see these children from our cars on a daily basis and avert our eyes and feel irritation and even fear as they approach us with the hope of being acknowledged, let alone helped. While we are sitting in these cars in traffic we hear radio campaigns bemoaning the fact that they became aware of the existence of “child headed households,” glibly developed a campaign to highlight their plight and encourage us to contact “our nearest charity” to help.

It is now time to speak the truth in a language that tells things for what they are and maybe then the level of discomfort we generate will promote developmental activism and action, rather than sanitise children’s suffering.

Language in Child Protection: Luke Lamprecht and the JCAF committee (Kids Haven, RAO, SCPS)

Reflections on the impact of language in Child Protection

I look back at a career of twenty years and remember one of the pivotal lessons I learnt which related to how we think about children’s behaviour and this in turn related to the language we use.  It was the lessons learnt from the developmental approach which attempted to re-define the way the so-called medical model labelled children’s behaviour.  In what seems a rather extreme example, one must describe behaviour rather than label a child. A child is not a thief and we cannot say a child steals.  We must rather describe the behaviour so that we have a way of dealing with it.  The result is “this child currently struggles to control his impulse to take things that do not belong to him without the express permission of those to whom they belong”.  This description of a child’s behaviour may seem comical but it highlights a very important concept.

How we use language relates to how we feel about what we talk about, which in turn directs how we react towards what we are told.  It appears that we have forgotten this developmental lesson when we live in a country that has laws designed to protect children’s rights while using seemingly politically correct language that on closer scrutiny undermines children’s rights.  We have one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world, which has specific protection for children under Article 28.  These rights are defined internationally and are upheld by a large number of new and old laws in South Africa. 

We as child rights advocates have embraced and attempt to implement these laws so that we see the progressive recognition of the rights afforded to children in South Africa.  However, within these same laws that are written to protect children’s rights it appears that some “politically correct” definitions, in an attempt to cater for an untenable reality for children in South Africa, are not right.

My mind is immediately drawn to the Children’s Act with its Amendments that recognises “child headed households” and goes on to say that these children MAY be in need of care and protection.  Or alternatively, sets out regulations for adults who assist with their care.  On closer consideration from the Forum’s experiences of being the adult who assists these children under these circumstances, we want to challenge this concept in its entirety.  Instead of “child headed households”, if we used the developmental language that removes labelling, what we are left with is “children who have either been orphaned or abandoned by their parents, extended families, communities and who the State has decided it need not care for because the reality is that there are too many of these children, so let’s say they must care for themselves and making it law”.  We then make ourselves feel a little less uncomfortable by setting out regulations for those who must “support” these homes. We even struggle to use the term child for this group as they have had their childhoods stolen due to a lack of state economic prioritisation for the care of children.

What we neglect to consider is the paradoxical nature of law’s language.  We talk of social disintegration and threats to the fabric of society.  We talk whimsically of the family being the original thread that holds our social fabric together.  Yet, we create a legal construct where a child who, according to our Constitution has a right to a family, is in the same legislation had adult responsibilities forced upon them and are expected to “head households”.  We hear when the media sensationalism highlights moral decline, the reverberating phrase:  “where were the parents of these children?”.  South Africa’s most recent international sexual shame relating to the gang rape of a 4 year old in a 17 year olds body, by other children, is a case in point.  The public’s outrage was firmly levelled at the parents of both the victim and the offender.  Communities were saying “Where were the adults?”.  Yet, our country has constructed legislation that acknowledges the lack of adult care and by acknowledging it sanctions it, because there are not enough good adults to go around anymore.  We despair about the actions of our children, yet we expect that they take full responsibility as we have allowed this in our law without adequate adults to assist.

Language in Child Protection: Johanna Kistner, Director Sophiatown Community Psychological Services (Annual report extract)

It’s all a matter of language

South Africa is a land of many languages and Johannesburg is abuzz with the sounds and meanings of dozens of linguistic cultures and histories. Language both constructs and gives meaning to reality and as  such is the most powerful tool given to us for either the making or the breaking of our humanity. Although counsellors, therapists and healers all over the world may use many different media through which to practice their craft, in the end it is language that gives words to the unspeakable; that allows for the articulation and sharing of thoughts, experiences and feelings; and that makes it possible for one human being to reach out to another with compassion and love. Over the past year we have had many occasions to reflect on the language of work, healing, empowerment and social justice and in the process have become very aware of the way in which the institutionalized jargon of both government and civil society can mystify or even negate the horror of suffering, thereby removing the urgency of the need for both compassionate service and radical social transformation. Take a look at these examples:

·      The “UAM” short for Unaccompanied Minor. Who is she? She has many faces, many names, many stories she presents to many service providers as she makes her way across many borders- geographical, social, cultural and economic. She is also one girl, 16 years old, who has crossed the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa many times, slept with truck drivers who have hidden her under their load, raped by the thugs controlling the no-man’s land between the two countries, exchanged shelter and food for further sexual favours, until she found refuge again in a church where she was raped again. She was picked up by the police, sent to the social workers, placed in a shelter, ran away, picked up again, sent back to Zimbabwe to the abusive uncle who has been her guardian since her parents died of AIDS many years ago. She has run away again, crossed the border in the same way, sought help in the same church, was  referred back to the same social workers, was found half-dead at the same railway station, started on ARVs, defaulted, and somewhere, tragically, in the last four months her track has been lost. A UAM- or a child bereft, betrayed, abandoned, abused, forgotten, violated, rejected by service organizations, by the state, by the church, by nations, by humanity? A UAM or a child forced to cross perilous boundaries without the comfort of a guiding hand, a re-assuring voice or a place to belong to at the end of the journey?

·    The “Child Headed Household”. For years we have as a nation tried to negate the massive suffering caused by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of parents and caregivers by creating the notion of the child-headed household, peppered with ideals of family bonding and the amazing resilience of children. Maybe this is true for a few families. But in the experience of this team a child-headed household is no more than the cruel abandonment of children in need of care, guidance, supervision and love. Adults may wax lyrically about the resilience and belonging, but they are not there when it is time to say “happy birthday”, or sign a report card, or attend a parent’s meeting or tug in a bewildered teenager with the promise of a better tomorrow.  A child-headed household? Or a state abdicating its responsibility for the most vulnerable by abandoning them to the myth of self-sufficiency and blood-coded family bonds, making children take on parental responsibilities they are developmentally not capable of, and reframing gross neglect as innovative community care.

There are many more examples: The OVC (Orphan or Vulnerable Child) we have been informed, has recently been re-phrased as MVC (Most Vulnerable Child), presumably so that attention needs to be given only to those living in the most desperate conditions of abuse, neglect and poverty. Already we are seeing help denied to mothers who love their children but are not able to care for them because of displacement, extreme poverty, and lack of documentation, with welfare agencies arguing that these children are not wilfully neglected or abused. If their mothers did  indeed inflict severe abuse on them, maybe they could get re-classified as MVCs and get at least some intervention. The notion of home-based care equally mystifies firstly the very real medical, physical and emotional needs of terminally ill people, while at the same time creating an army equally needy, exploited, poorly paid, ill-equipped and frustrated workers in the same of ubuntu. It is time, we feel, to do justice to the injustice of the suffering of vast numbers of people, by giving it words that scream for radical action.