Thursday, May 17, 2012

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.

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