SA foster care cri­sis

Post - - Comment - Candice For­tune is a clin­i­cal so­cial worker and lec­turer in the De­part­ment of So­cial Work at the Univer­sity of the Western Cape. She re­ceived her MPhil in Law from UWC in 2017 CANDICE FOR­TUNE

THE foster-care sys­tem is fail­ing South Africa’s chil­dren and the fail­ure is tak­ing place on many lev­els.

By the end of this year, a num­ber of foster care or­ders – as many as 200 000, ac­cord­ing to one es­ti­mate – are ex­pected to lapse.

Un­less the na­tional De­part­ment of So­cial De­vel­op­ment, con­trary to ex­pec­ta­tions, meets an ur­gent court dead­line to, after many years, present a “com­pre­hen­sive le­gal so­lu­tion” to sort out to what is rou­tinely de­scribed as South Africa’s long-fes­ter­ing “foster care cri­sis”. And a cri­sis it is. Those or­ders are es­sen­tial pieces of pa­per, as those car­ing for chil­dren put into foster care can­not ap­ply for the Foster Care Grant (FCG) with­out it.

Tens of thou­sands of chil­dren (and their care­givers) are de­nied what is of­ten a fi­nan­cial life­line.

(Al­though most agree that it is un­likely that the de­part­ment and Sassa, re­spon­si­ble for pay­ment of the FCG and other grants, will cease pay­ments.)

It’s a sit­u­a­tion whose ge­n­e­sis can be traced back to the early 2000s.

Back then, the child pro­tec­tion sys­tem dealt with and, ap­par­ently, coped with the around 50 000 chil­dren in need of foster care.

But then fol­lowed the ex­plo­sion of the Aids pan­demic and by 2004 the num­ber of ma­ter­nal or­phans (chil­dren who had lost their moth­ers) had jumped to over a mil­lion.

Many of those chil­dren were taken in by rel­a­tives (it’s es­ti­mated that as many of 80% of chil­dren in foster care are in kin­ship foster care), who could then ap­ply for a Child Sup­port Grant (CSG).

Worth R380 as from April 1, the CSG is legally seen as a poverty al­le­vi­a­tion tool.

But another option for these fam­i­lies was to for­malise the care ar­range­ment and ap­ply for the FCG.

In con­trast to the CSG, the FCG is worth the much larger R920 as from April 1.

It is con­sid­ered a child pro­tec­tion mech­a­nism.

Not too sur­pris­ingly, given the grow­ing de­mand for the FCG, the child pro­tec­tion sys­tem, and the so­cial work­ers re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing it tick­ing over, were over­run.

It’s partly a ques­tion of per­son­nel.

Ac­cord­ing to the Chil­dren’s In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, only around half of the coun­try’s 18 000 reg­is­tered so­cial work­ers are em­ployed by govern­ment and not-for­profit or­gan­i­sa­tions and only a pro­por­tion of these work with chil­dren and fam­i­lies.

In part, it’s be­cause the foster care sys­tem is of ne­ces­sity cum­ber­some and bu­reau­cratic.

To qual­ify for an FCG, an or­phaned child has to be placed in the child pro­tec­tion sys­tem.

This re­quires not only or­ders from a Chil­dren’s Court but must be backed up by a blan­ket of ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices, in­clud­ing on­go­ing mon­i­tor­ing and treat­ment.

As a re­sult of the cur­rent cri­sis, chil­dren are not only un­der threat of los­ing their grants, but so­cial work­ers are also un­able to of­fer the nec­es­sary sup­port to chil­dren in need of pro­tec­tion from abuse and ne­glect, the pri­mary con­cern of the foster care sys­tem.

Many chil­dren have fallen through the cracks and foster care or­ders have lapsed as so­cial work­ers are over­bur­dened with high case loads and can­not al­ways pro­vide the ad­e­quate amount of mon­i­tor­ing or su­per­vi­sion

In so­cial work, all work re­lated to chil­dren is cen­tred on the best in­ter­est of the child.

This serves as a bench­mark for all de­ci­sions made about chil­dren.

It’s a prin­ci­ple recog­nised in one form or the other in ev­ery­thing from South Africa’s Chil­drens Act to in­ter­na­tional agree­ments like the UN Con­ven­tion on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the African Char­ter on the Rights and Wel­fare of the Child (ACRWC).

But if so many of our chil­dren have fallen through the cracks in the cur­rent cri­sis, can we say we have acted in the best in­ter­ests of those chil­dren?

If child pro­tec­tion agen­cies have failed to pro­vide an ef­fec­tive foster care sys­tem, as the co­pi­ous num­ber of lapsed or­ders sug­gest, then there has also been a fail­ure in en­sur­ing the best in­ter­ests of those chil­dren in foster care.

In ad­di­tion, the foster care sys­tem is fail­ing chil­dren in two re­gards – the con­sti­tu­tional rights to fam­ily care and shel­ter.

In the foster care sys­tem chil­dren are re­moved from fam­i­lies – be­cause of sus­pi­cions of abuse and ne­glect – but with the hope of rein­te­grat­ing the child back into his or her fam­ily.

That re­quires, among other things, that so­cial work­ers in­ves­ti­gate the home cir­cum­stances of the child.

But over­bur­dened so­cial work­ers rarely have the time to do that.

Sim­i­larly, they are con­strained for time and resources when it comes to iden­ti­fy­ing suit­able place­ment for the chil­dren – prefer­ably in close prox­im­ity to their fam­i­lies.

Many chil­dren then end up in over-crowded group homes or with rel­a­tives with nei­ther the space nor other means to pro­vide for them.

A num­ber of op­tions are cur­rently con­sid­ered for al­le­vi­at­ing the pres­sure on the foster care sys­tem.

One pro­posal is the in­tro­duc­tion of a Kin­ship Care Grant, which would be made to chil­dren who are or­phaned and liv­ing with rel­a­tives.

It is sug­gested that such a grant – which would prob­a­bly be worth more than the CSG – would re­quire only an ini­tial as­sess­ment of the child’s sit­u­a­tion, but none of the in­ten­sive su­per­vi­sion re­quired with foster care place­ment.

With the in­tro­duc­tion of a Kin­ship Care Grant, less mon­i­tor­ing would need to oc­cur and less court in­ter­ven­tion re­quired.

This would lessen the bur­den placed on so­cial work­ers, but more ide­ally it would en­sure that the best in­ter­ests of the chil­dren are con­sid­ered para­mount in all de­ci­sions made.

There are ques­tions hang­ing over whether the de­part­ment would meet its De­cem­ber dead­line. Fail­ure to do so, would sadly be another fail­ure of South Africa’s chil­dren.

PIC­TURE: WCTV

Many chil­dren have fallen through the cracks and foster care or­ders have lapsed as so­cial work­ers are over­bur­dened with high case loads and can­not al­ways pro­vide the ad­e­quate amount of mon­i­tor­ing or su­per­vi­sion.

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