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.