Opinionista Robyn Wolfson Vorster 21 February 2018

Ending the silent massacre of children, one life at a time

As the Life Esidimeni hearing drew to an agonising close, child protection activists warned that South Africa is experiencing a silent massacre of children: the ongoing deaths of ones and twos which adds up to horrifying numbers. This is what makes Tumelo’s story of a life saved so significant.

It has been a bad start to the year for child protection advocates, with at least three cases of violent child murder coming to trial in the space of as many weeks. Troublingly, most of these deaths were preventable.

In the appalling “Baby Dylan” case which is already well under way, a case with details of abuse and torture so horrific that even the magistrate had to call a recess after seeing photos of the three-year old’s injuries, doctors flagged the child’s abuse just months before his death. But a social worker allocated to the case apparently investigated and then chose not to take the matter any further. Three months later, Dylan* was dead after his mother’s partner allegedly boasted of having “fucked him up”. While the social worker allocated to the case has not had the opportunity to defend her choice to leave the child in his family home, it is hard not to conclude that Dylan’s life may have been saved had she acted differently.

Dylan’s death is part of what veteran children’s right activist Luke Lamprecht refers to as the “one child at a time” massacre of South African children: the creeping steady deaths of the ones and twos which together add up to numbers far beyond anything we can comprehend. And truthfully, most South African children do not die violently, they die slow and agonising deaths, “Life Esidimeni” style, from callous incompetence and systematic neglect, from underestimating the vulnerability of small children, and a lack of the type of care and service delivery that could have saved their lives. Critically though, the converse is also true, simply caring enough to intervene can save lives. It is what makes Tumelo’s story so important.

We first met Tumelo in June 2017: an undocumented child with cerebral palsy, he was skeletal and rat bitten, slowly starving to death in a tiny shack that he shared with 13 other people. Tumelo represents the most vulnerable children in South Africa: he is poverty stricken, with no known address, and has no birth certificate, meaning that he has no name or nationality, is not entitled to receive a grant, and his access to education and medical care are severely limited. He is one of 1.2-million maternal orphans, and one of the 3.7-million children who live with neither parent. He is also disabled. Before May last year, he was a ghost, and only a handful of people would have known (or cared), if he has died from starvation, disease or abuse, his undoubted fate had he not been found. But disturbingly, even once he was discovered and lovingly nursed back to health, he remained a ghost in the child protection system. It was this status, and the general disregard that seems to be meted out to the least valued members of our society, that once again almost cost him his life.

Written in prose, Tumelo’s story reads like a novel, full of highs and crushing lows, a child cheating death only to be placed once more at terrible risk, before being rescued and given a new life. But there is nothing fictional about his story, and both the heroes and the “villains” are also real. Reading it gives us insight into just how seemingly unimportant children like Tumelo are in our child protection environment.

Tumelo was found in May 2017. Nine at the time, and suffering from cerebral palsy, he weighed a mere 15 kilograms. With only a filthy towel for warmth, he was covered in faeces, had multiple lacerations on his limbs and head (including a torn ear), and his feet had been chewed by rats. The physiotherapist who found him rushed him to a local clinic where he was examined, and then transferred him to a government hospital. But, before he could complete his treatment, his adult cousin, perhaps fearful that further state intervention might expose the family to allegations of abuse, put him back on a taxi and took him home. It was a decision that placed Tumelo in serious peril.

A month later when the same physiotherapist came to bring the family blankets and food, she found Tumelo, now weighing a paltry 13 kilograms, even closer to death. This time she spoke to his granny and persuaded her that if Tumelo died in her care, there would be far bigger problems than if he was admitted to hospital in his current condition. She relented, and the child was rushed back to hospital. He survived, and then began to thrive. He put on weight. Within weeks he started speaking: babbling, and saying basic words like mama, gogo and hello, accompanied by a wave. He began using his arms, and before the end of his stay, he even started walking. Then in September, while still under medical care, he was offered a place at an excellent NGO specialising in mental health care for children. It seemed miraculous, the only thing standing in the way of him being accepted was his lack of a birth certificate. Given that Tumelo’s granny and late mother are South African citizens, it should not have been difficult for him to obtain one, especially when the government social worker assigned to his case was tasked with the job. But the precious birth certificate did not materialise, and Tumelo lost his place at the facility.

In November, he was offered another place at the same facility, but once again, there was no birth certificate (this, despite his granny and cousin also trying to secure it for him). He lost that place too, and in December when he was medically well enough to be discharged from hospital, he was handed over to a new social worker. She and her team made a cursory home visit to the shack where he had been neglected, abused and almost died, the shack without an address, housing 14 people, including his visibly starving siblings. They came to the bewildering conclusion that family reunification would be the best option for him, and broke the “good news” to the family that Tumelo was well and was “coming home”. Just a few days before Christmas, he was discharged and returned home, to the horror of his granny who could neither provide for him, nor obtain a grant for his care because he still did not have a birth certificate. The social workers then (apparently) closed his case file; there have been no subsequent follow up visits or enquiries about his health.

Within weeks, Tumelo had given up. The family were evicted from their shack and their alternative accommodation was worse than before. The new shack was badly constructed, and damage had left it partly open to the elements, so rain poured in through the roof. After two weeks, Tumelo stopped walking, stopped feeding himself and began to lose weight. Eventually, he stopped babbling too. By the time the physiotherapist discovered that he was “home” in late January, she could not entice him to eat or respond. Disturbingly, he now also had burn marks on his body. She got involved again, this time bringing in back-up from child protection activists and the Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum (JCAF), who questioned the care afforded to this child. But, as the DSD dithered over the paperwork involved with helping Tumelo, fears mounted that without urgent intervention, he would die of neglect or abuse. It was at this point that a Senior Legal Officer from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) intervened. Along with the physiotherapist and a social worker, he visited the shack and persuaded Tumelo’s granny to voluntarily place him into the care of a specialist NPO. He then, in turn, persuaded the NPO to accept Tumelo on the SAHRC’s endorsement, despite his undocumented status. It was this mediation that made the difference. They reached agreement the same day, and by early evening Tumelo was taken from the broken shack to his new home where he had a warm meal waiting for him, and a turned down bed, complete with cuddly toys (the first toys he had ever had).

Tumelo’s story is not over, he will not truly have a future unless he obtains a birth certificate. But for now, he is safe and happy. What continued to traumatise those who rescued him though was his siblings, who in many ways were as disadvantaged as he was. Their grandmother had been trying to care for them on her state pension and the grant she received for two of the children (the two with birth certificates), along with a piece job here and there. But the family were starving. Once again, their granny made the selfless decision to place their needs first. All three under-age children (including one of Tumelo’s sisters, who also doesn’t have a birth certificate), were offered a place at a non-profit place of safety. If it is able to provide the care Tumelo requires, the NPO has also undertaken to care for him so he can be close to his family. The oldest child, already a teenager, was heartbroken about not being at home to protect their gogo. But he was finally persuaded that she would do better without having to care for them while she worked to change their life circumstances. His fears allayed, this emaciated 15-year-old boy burst into tears at the thought of sleeping in a bed and regular meals.

It is no coincidence that this story unfolded against the backdrop of the Life Esidimeni hearings. It echoes the neglect and depersonalisation of the poor, the disabled, the marginalised and in this case, children; and the outcome could easily have been the same. The difference is simply that in Tumelo’s case, someone intervened in life rather than in death. Last week, I read the heartbreaking roll call of the some of the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, the poignant description of who each victim was in life and (in some cases), the horror of their death. Had these victims been valued by those tasked to care for them, they may not have died. By contrast, Tumelo’s story is testament to what can happen when someone shows concern. The people who saved him are not after accolades, and they know that there are thousands of others like him. But, like the child massacre which occurs one child at a time, so it ends one child at a time. May Tumelo be the first of many. DM

* Not his real name

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