Child Protection in Crisis
Is child protection in crisis?
We know our children are in crisis, we see it in their behaviour, particularly in the child and youth care sector. Children coming into care display uncontrollable, even disturbed behaviour. They show their pain by lashing out at the people that are trying to help them. They don’t know right from wrong; don’t have an internal value system and therefore no ability to control their behaviour. They react, survival is their goal.
South Africa’s history of denial of human rights under the apartheid system caused untold damage, and while we hoped that with the change to democracy in 1994 everything would get better slowly but surely, healing the hurt is proving to not be that easy. It will take time. The needs of children are being spoken about but unfortunately not prioritised as they should be. Post 1994 saw the emergence of many organisations aimed at meeting needs, but to date it seems we are barely touching the surface of the problems in our country. Instability in the rest of Africa has led to a surge of unaccompanied minors in need of care seeking refuge in South Africa. They bring their special needs with them, and challenges such as no papers, loss of family connections, and their struggles with xenophobia.
South Africa’s lost youth
We all read the papers; we hear the horror stories involving our youth. 16 year olds kill each other with Samurai swords. Teenagers burn each other to death in apparent satanic rituals. 11 year olds stab each other to death. Girls get raped, gutted and left to die. Violent service delivery protests and unrest are a symptom of deep disillusionment. The fact is our youth have been failed at every level. Our ‘born free’ generation, whose parents fought so hard for a better life, have landed up in the same predicament as their parents: illiterate and poor.
Absent parents and broken families
Two out of three children don’t live with both parents. Most do not have stable parental figures to turn to for emotional and financial support. Adults seem focused on their own needs ignoring the needs of their children. Adults are not taking responsibility for the babies they give birth to. When their children display serious behaviour problems, institutions are an attractive solution. Parents don’t work with organisations to solve the problem and get their children back. Basically they dump their children for institutions to give them a life. And no one holds them accountable.
Importance of education
After the family, school is next in importance in terms of the child’s development patterns. Schools are a place for both intellectual and psycho-social development, and they can in some way compensate for the negative effects of bad parenting. Opportunities are given for children to achieve, and with some encouragement and recognition they become conscientious and diligent.
On the other hand schools can reinforce the negative effect of poor parenting, by failing to see the genuine needs of the children. Instead they react to the difficult behaviour, label the child and refuse to teach him.
Our schools are all too often staffed by dispassionate teachers, more interested in union politics and striking for more money than in changing the lives of the children they teach. They are no longer good role models for the children.
Education system in crisis
The shortage of teachers is a crisis. Our country needs 25,000 new teachers each year, but only 10,000 are being fed into the system. Another risk is that good education is still a matter of being able to afford it. According to recent national numeracy testing, only 15% of school children will have basic reading, writing and numeracy skills by the time they leave primary school. The average mark for grade 9 maths was just 13%. South Africa was rated 132 out of 144 countries for its primary education, and 143 out of 144 for the quality of our science and maths. Every year the matric pass rate goes up which is seen as a huge success, but this conceals the fact that 7 out of 10 born frees did not make it to matric. Another problem for those that pass is the shortage of space in universities. UCT received 25,000 undergraduate applications for 4,200 places; and Wits 89,000 applications for 10,500 spaces.
Welfare system in crisis
In terms of the new Children’s Act all shelters, ECD’s, children’s homes and drop-in-centres must be reregistered as child and youth care centres. Support for organisations should be provided by DSD to comply with the regulations. Resources need to be allocated to support the process. Rezoning, advertising, structural plans etc are costly and time consuming. To date very few organisations in Gauteng have been registered in terms of the 5 year plan, which ends on 31 March 2015. If organisations are not registered on 1 April 2015, they can be closed and their funding terminated. This could be a real crisis for children in need of care and protection.
According to the Children’s Act the DSD must provide an adequate spread of services to meet the needs of children in the country. Children with severely problematic behaviour and mental health issues are not catered for at all. There is nowhere for organisations to refer these children to for specialised care. NGO’s do not have adequately skilled human resources. The Children’s Act advocates for professionalization of all social service professionals. More than that, NGO’s need a balance of skills, expertise and passion. Another problem is that due to a lack of funding many smaller organisations are closing. Also, from time to time the donor community changes its focus. They are currently moving into funding networks as opposed to individual organisations.
Family preservation is now the focus of DSD and they are moving into prevention and early intervention programmes. This focus is correct, as long as it is implemented well and sustainable, but child protection services still have a role to play.
In a population of 50 million people in South Africa, 23% are aged between 15 and 24 years of age. Almost half of these are unemployed and 7 out of every 10 will not finish matric. Two thirds of the unemployed will never find employment. Many youths prefer to be unemployed than to start at the bottom, indicating a lack of work ethic and knowledge of the labour market.
Culture of violence
South Africa’s murder rate is 5 times the global average, and 30% higher than other sub-Saharan countries. Our children are placed in stressful, traumatic, violent situations every day. South African women are 6 times more likely to be murdered by a partner than the international average. 50 violent murders happen every day in the country, which means that hundreds of South Africans are traumatised every day by the death of their loved ones. 10% of adolescents have experienced violent crimes. The risk is that when children live with violence they become violent. Research has shown that children who grow up with neglect and abuse and fail to attach to significant others are likely to react to stressful situations with violence.
Rape and sex
One in three South African school girls have experienced sexual assault, many at the hands of male family members. At least a third of all teenagers have sex before the age of 16, some as young as 9. Girls are often sexually active even before they have reached puberty. In 2009 107 pupils in grade 3 became pregnant. In the same year there were 45,000 school girl pregnancies, with strong evidence that the menial child support grant is a reason for many young women to become pregnant. In 2012 the number of school girl pregnancies rose to 94,000.
South Africa has 3 million AIDS orphans who are at risk of poverty and exploitation. If they are deprived of love, guidance and protection, and are without positive role models they may develop attachment disorders. They also have to deal with isolation and stigmatisation.
Most young people try alcohol, tobacco and cannabis at some point in their lives, some before they turn 13 years old. 10% drink regularly, 30% smoke daily. Results show a strong correlation between drug use and repeating a grade, and increased levels of physical injury, crime, sexual violence and risky sexual behaviour. There is a strong correlation between drug abuse and mental health issues. The problem is that smoking cannabis has become almost a norm in the communities that our children come from. Drug dealers are on every corner, outside schools, openly dealing.
A life of crime
According to USAID in 2003 South Africa had more than 507,000 offenders between the ages of 12 and 25. The repeat offences rate was exceptionally high, with 85% relapsing into crime within 6 months of release.
Child headed households
About 122,000 children out of 18 million children in South Africa live in child headed households and take on adult responsibilities. This includes parenting younger children and household chores. At a time that they need nurturing they become bread winners. The child’s sense of self is nurtured by a parent figure. Taking on developmentally inappropriate roles has an impact on the child’s sense of self, and identity formation. Without parents to encourage them to go to school they do not attend school regularly. In order to survive they start begging or working during school hours. Crime, drug addiction, prostitution, poverty and malnutrition are rife. Children in child headed household are at risk of all the ills in society.
Poverty and hunger
12 million people in South Africa go hungry every day. 65% of children live in households with a per capita income of less than R650 a month, while 35% live in households where no one is employed and social grants are vital for survival. Poverty on this scale shows how difficult it is for a child to become a self-sustaining adult.
Stress and depression
Exposure to loss, stress and trauma combined with the lack of hope of a future, and the absence of a social support system means that many youths suffer from depression. One in five teenagers have considered harming themselves. 24% of attempted suicide cases occur in youths aged 17 and under. Some African cultures don’t recognise mental illness, seeing it rather as a symptom of physical illness, or a message from ancestors, or a type of hysteria. Accessing psychiatric care is only really accessible to the rich.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder is highly prevalent in South African youths. A severe anxiety disorder, it develops after the direct experience of an extremely traumatic stressor that one perceives to be a threat of a violent death or serious injury. Individuals react with intense fear, helplessness and horror, with flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares and intense psychological distress; or with avoidance, dissociation, general numbing of emotional responsiveness, unpredictable outbursts of anger and hyper-vigilance.
In South African youths the trauma is enhanced by the fact that they are often blamed, and seen as immoral in rape and incestuous rape. Secondary trauma also occurs, having to report abuse, or being told not to report, making it difficult to come to terms with the trauma. Continuous exposure destroys trust, leading to harmful strategies such as eating disorders, cutting themselves or attempting suicide. This also leads to isolation or withdrawal or somatic symptoms such as pelvic pain, gastrointestinal discomfort or paralysis with no medical explanation.
Experiencing deep trauma at a young age leaves permanent emotional scars and shapes the child’s personality and ability to deal with life and society as an adult. Traumatised youths can become withdrawn, or reckless, defiant, oppositional, delinquent and aggressive, perpetuating the cycle of violence modelled by parents or peers in their society. In terms of sexual behaviour men identify with the aggressor, and repeat the behaviour. Female victims seek out sexual relationships in search for the love missing in their lives.
2. The heart of the problem
Breakdown of family structure
The presence of a mother and father figure is central to the formation of a healthy psychological development pattern. Parental role models are central to the development of the self and self-esteem, relationships with others, the modelling of behaviours, including value systems, morals, coping mechanisms, and a good work ethic.
Dysfunctional or absent parenting is considered to be the most primary ‘trauma’, a ‘wound’ to the self, which is always carried in the unconscious. It has a profound affect through childhood and adulthood, and manifests itself through dysfunctional relationships.
Two thirds of all children are in broken families, while only one third live with both parents.
40% of South African youths are living with a mother only. 60% of South African youths grow up without fathers. Many don’t even know who their fathers are. Fathers are far less likely to take responsibility for children if their mother dies, than mothers would if the father dies. Without a male role model, boys run wild. Stepfathers or boyfriends come along, and reject the children of the previous husband. They can also be abusive to the children. The mothers allow the abuse to happen, because they are dependent on the men for financial support.
Many mothers (as well as fathers), although committed to their children, are forced to live elsewhere in order to earn money. Although often ill-equipped, grandparents and aunts and uncles step in to provide support structures. Many mothers are completely or partially absent or unavailable because of illness, hospitalisation, depression, or because they are simply too young and immature to mother.
The absence of mothers is a key point, in that the attachment bond developed between a mother and her child is the essence of what establishes a person’s style of relating to others for the rest of their lives. If a mother is avoidant to the child, neglectful or overprotective, the child will develop a dysfunctional relationship style.
The critical stages of development
Without parenting or support, it is almost impossible to succeed, get an education, or pass matric. At the age of 12 children graduate to adult modes of thinking. Abstract thinking comes in; they can start algebra and maths which are critical to higher education. They are more likely to think things through and use reason and logic to explore solutions before acting. Children who are underdeveloped or unsupported may not ever reach this stage in thinking.
Abusive households- worse than no parents
Even when two parental figures are present children in South Africa have a great chance of being exposed to violence in the home. Reports suggest that as many as one in three young school girls in Johannesburg have experienced sexual assault. Rape and childhood abuse are underreported, because women are emotionally and economically dependent on the abuser. Some feel shame, and accept the abuse as normal and a private matter that should not be exposed. Others fear the abuser and lack confidence in the police.
Sexualisation has been learned as the exchange for love by too many girls. In essence, the consequence of exposure to sex as a barter tool means that the individual cannot conceptualise love that is not sexualised.
3. Turning a blind eye is not an option
Effect on the economy
There are serious repercussions for all of us as our unattached children grow up and enter society and the workforce. Our unemployed and angry youth are a powder keg. It is up to us to take charge of the future by taking care of our nation’s motherless children.
Rape, poverty and violence against children are breeding yet another generation of future criminals to perpetuate the destructive cycle. If we don’t do something we can expect to continue to live in ever increasing fear of robbery, crime, strikes, uprisings and even civil war.
Our future workforce is unqualified, unskilled and unprepared to take on the challenge of building the economy.
The rand has plummeted to a 10 year low against the dollar and the pound, due to the international community’s increasingly negative perception of South Africa. Violence makes South Africa a less attractive investment destination, and threatens our much relied on tourism and mining industries. We are already possibly the biggest welfare state in the world, three people to one taxpayer which is not sustainable. Our tiny tax base cannot support our huge unemployed, non-contributing welfare base. We can expect higher taxes to support ever hungry unemployed mouths, as our uneducated youths grow up. Our society is on a precipice, it is up to us to bring change.
What our children really need
Hand outs don’t work; they create a culture of dependency, not one of entrepreneurship and self-help. Instead of hand outs, we need to build up leaders from within, individuals who have triumphed in spite of their circumstances. With support we can assist them to lead and inspire their friends and families to achieve their dreams.
Mothers are key figures for resilience in the face of hardship. A mother’s capacity to bond with her child encourages resilience. They can also buffer the effects of sexual violence, especially when they immediately address the circumstances integral to the molestation, believing what their child tells them and taking charge of the situation. When parents embody resilience, children cope well. Supportive family relationships give youth a sense that they are loved and belong.
Teachers also provide protective mechanisms in the community. Teachers who are fair, encouraging, helpful and caring make insecure or traumatised youths feel stronger. Schools provide a safe space to learn important life skills.
Communities need to provide youths with security and a sense of belonging and purpose in life. Values such as Ubuntu encourage resilience in children. If community leaders are prepared to speak out and provide support, countless children can still be saved. This is the ideal, what communities should be doing.
Behind all the despair and negativity, there are many inspirational individuals facilitating positive, lasting change by going to the root cause of society’s dysfunction and building up community leaders from within the heart of our most damaged communities.
Where do we start to address the issues facing the child protection sector?
Our children are in crisis. Although there are pockets of good, as a country we are failing our children. The needs of the child must be the focus of all our interventions, and should be prioritised. Working within the communities to address the problems is crucial. Now is the time to intervene.