THE dismissal of a claim for about R3 million in damages brought against the Limpopo Department of Basic Education following the drowning of five-year- old Michael Komape in a school pit latrine in 2014 has been greeted with dismay.

The failure to provide any financial relief to Michael’s family may be seen as symptomatic of a wider failure to acknowledge the value of the lives of vulnerable, poor children and protect them accordingly.

About 900 children are murdered in South Africa every year on average, forsaken by the social workers, police and school officials mandated to protect them. According to a 2017 South Africa Survey released by the Institute for Race Relations about 10 000 children had been killed across the country in the previous decade.

Most of the children were killed in their homes, a place where their safety should be taken for granted. Children are also endangered in their schools, another space of so-called safety.

Earlier this month (on March 12), 5-year- old Lumka Mketwa fell into a pit latrine at Luna Primary in  Bizana, in the Eastern Cape, and drowned. Both the school and the Department of Basic Education identified the deceased child wrongly as Viwe Jali, a clear violation of the respect to which children are entitled. Three days after Lumka’s death, another 5-year- old child died at Mutsha Primary School in Thondoni, Limpopo. The Grade R child was walking in the school premises, near the classrooms, when she was electrocuted by a loose electric wire.

The figure of 900 deaths a year represents a conservative estimate of the toll since they exclude abandoned children whose deaths are not calculated as part of the crime statistics. The continuing high murder rate comes as coordination between the police and social workers which is supposed to protect at-risk children from mounting abuse and violence under the 2005 Children’s Act, has almost completely disintegrated.

Social workers and the police officers are failing to report crimes against children to each other despite the requirements of the Act which requires them to furnish such reports within 24 hours of the incident, according to research conducted by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Meanwhile, provincial Department of Social Development (DSD) officials spent much of last year at their desks undertaking extensive paperwork on crèche registrations instead of spending time in the field and collaborating with their partners in the police service.

As a result, children in South Africa continue to die preventable, unnatural deaths, many of them in their own homes, in what has been called a “silent massacre of children”.

At-risk families where abuse of, and violence against, children is most likely to occur are not being properly identified at an early stage so that appropriate action and support can be provided to protect them – with often fatal consequences, according to a Child Death Review (CDR) project being coordinated by the Children’s Institute.

The Department of Social Development executives have failed to live up to their legal responsibilities in this regard because they expect social workers to spend much of their precious time filling in forms and overseeing the cumbersome registration requirements for early childhood development centres (crèches); reviewing proposals and reports from non-profit organisations (NPOs) applying for funding; and, in KwaZulu-Natal, overseeing time-consuming foster-care cases, which entail much paperwork and many hours in court.

In addition, social workers often face crucial equipment shortages: in one area of the Eastern Cape, 40 social workers share one departmental vehicle between them.

Children are being placed at undue risk by a failure of implementation rather than policy. In fact, South African children should be among the safest in the world given the extensive rights granted to them under the Constitution and the government’s ratification of key global and regional treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Accordingly, the Children’s Act encodes the right of protection for children rigorously and in detail, mandating a standard stronger than in many countries in the industrialised North.

The failure is one of implementation, in particular, in the inadequate coordination between the two agencies at the forefront of child protection, whose collaboration is of paramount importance: the South African Police Service (SAPS) and provincial Departments of Social Development.

The Children’s Act mandates interaction between these agencies to ensure joint management of cases and the provision of critical care, protection and law-enforcement services.

However, a 2017 study conducted by the Children’s Institute found that, among the 258 child protection cases sampled in five DSD district offices across the country, only two were worked on jointly by police and DSD. The study further found that some DSD offices were dealing with few, if any, child abuse cases, despite high levels of reported abuse.

For example, in the Eastern Cape, two local DSD offices serving one of the largest townships in the country was found to have handled only one reported case of child abuse over a three-month period, although the local SAPS Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit was dealing with many child abuse cases during this time.

It is a travesty that the public authorities mandated to protect the nation’s most at-risk children have turned their professional social workers into desk-bound bureaucrats instead of releasing them to fulfil their duty of care. Many of the assessments and facility inspections, and much of the report-writing, accreditation administration, contract management and paralegal work and facility that they undertake could be performed by well-trained, experienced mainstream civil servants instead.

At present, the child protection system in South Africa prioritises, perhaps unwittingly, paperwork and bureaucratic processes over vital social work interventions that would save the lives of children. This prioritisation needs to be reversed.

In a well-functioning child protection system, social workers need to be active in the field, not only responding to reports of child abuse and neglect but working to strengthen at-risk families; undertaking community education; and forming critical child protection networks with community leaders, churches, schools and other government and civil society institutions which would help in both preventing and addressing child abuse and neglect.

In this regard, it is therefore heartening to note that the Departments of Social Development in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Western Cape have recognised this challenge and have begun to adopt measures to free their social workers to undertake child protection work. This must become a top priority for every provincial DSD in the country.

Rajendra Chetty is Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of the Western Cape and Adrian Di Lollo is a researcher in the Literacy and Poverty Research Unit at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology

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