Opinionista Robyn Wolfson Vorster 21 December 2020

Dear Minister Zulu, all they want for Christmas is a family

Every year, there are children who spend Christmas in institutions rather than with family. Addressing these challenges and providing family care for children is an ongoing battle. But 2020 has been worse than ever. So should we blame covid, or has the pandemic simply highlighted massive problems with government policy and practice, problems that urgently need to be addressed if we are to act in children’s best interests?

Four-year-old Abigail* stands clutching the bars of the gate at her Child and Youth Care Centre (CYCC) tears pouring down her tiny face as she watches her parents walk away. As the Centre Director picks her up and cuddles her, the tears become a muffled sob. The Director shakes her head imperceptibly.  “It’s the same every week”, she says, “it takes us all day to calm her down after her parents visit, a drive through the suburbs in the car to distract her and then a week of play therapy, and then they come back again, and she is inconsolable for another week.”  

Perhaps it would be better if they could touch each other, but the CYCC houses many children with co-morbidities and covid has it on lockdown, so visits are held through the gate. Abigail can see her parents and hear their voices but there is no physical contact.  

Worse still, it has been six months of unnecessary torture for this little child. Abigail and her sister Tallulah*, now 18 months old were removed from their parents just after Tallulah was born. At the time, they were homeless and fighting drug addiction. They couldn’t take care of the girls properly so the CYCC was the safest place for them. But the shock of their daughters’ removal, coupled with counselling resulted in them changing their lives. A year later, they were employed, had a place to stay and were clean and sober. The girls’ social worker assessed them and agreed that the family should be reunited.  

Abigail and Tallulah’s story should have been the ultimate success story, the system worked. The only thing standing in the way of the family being reunited was a Form 30, confirming that their parents were not on Part B of the National Child Protection Register, a document required for anyone caring for vulnerable children and for adoption, foster care and reunification. But no one at the Department of Social Development (DSD) was issuing Form 30s during lockdown. Without it, the girls had to remain in care, visiting their parents through a locked gate.

The Form 30 problem has undoubtedly become worse over lockdown. Many DSD staff were not at work until Level One and in cases, did not work remotely during their six months away from the office. Since September, DSD staff have rotated the use of their offices. By December, supervisory social workers and management in Gauteng were still only working one day a week.  The same is true of Form 30 staff whose inboxes are clogged with applications.  When questioned, the department admitted to “having a backlog”.

But, although lockdown has clearly exacerbated the problem, it cannot be blamed for the tardy issuing of Form 30s. Difficulties obtaining Form 30s has been responsible for delaying adoptions and other forms of family care since their introduction almost ten years ago.

Sipho* came to the same CYCC as Abigail and Tallulah at six days old, after being abandoned by his mother.  Again, his story should have been a success story. South Africa’s child protection strategy aims to place abandoned children with biological family wherever possible, and social workers managed to track down his maternal grandparents when he was six months old. They were willing to raise Sipho and after being screened, the social worker resolved to place him in their care. But, despite the DSD’s apparent prioritisation of family care for abandoned children, it took 14 months for his grandparent’s Form 30 to be issued. Sipho was left languishing in care for the whole of his first thousand days. He was already two when he finally went home.

Both Sipho and Abigail’s stories have (relatively) happy endings, they are home for Christmas.  But many children due for reunification, foster care and adoptions are not. One CYCC confirmed that it usually places 20-24 children in family care every year. In 2020, they placed three.

Worse, three of its children have approved families waiting for them but they won’t be spending Christmas with them.

Lerato*, a bubbly, vivacious two-year-old is busy riding a scooter in the CYCC’s garden.  She shrieks with delight as she races across the grass.  Like Sipho, she was abandoned and placed into care when she was three days old. And also like Sipho, she has grandparents who want to raise her. They have been screened and approved and are ready for her homecoming. But she won’t be spending Christmas with them this year. Disappointingly, they are still waiting for their Form 30s, so she will celebrate another Christmas in care.

In the sunny playroom, Samuel* sits on his own racing a bright red fire truck around the table. Now three, this sweet little boy with huge sad eyes was removed from his parents due to neglect.  Social workers have approved alternative family care for him, but the family are also still waiting for their Form 30s. He too will spend another Christmas in care.

Across the room, five-year-old Nomsa* is busy carefully colouring in a nativity scene at one of the tables.  Her story is equally heartbreaking.  She was three when she was found wandering around a local park, abandoned and alone. No one was able to find her parents or any members of her family.  But 18 months later, she has been matched to a suitable foster family.  She should have been home for Christmas. Although she will only get a court date to grant the foster care order in 2021, she could have been given a leave of absence in the interim. If it had been granted, she would have spent her first Christmas getting to know her new family and learning their culture and language.  She would also have been able to start the new school they have chosen for her when schools reopen at the end of January.  

But her social worker went on leave and the DSD are closed for Christmas and a long-awaited DSD directive allowing children to go on a leave of absence if approved by the social worker, a letter which should have been issued at the beginning of December when CYCC’s plan to reunite children with family for the holidays was finally sent on 17 December. It came too late for Nomsa to go home.  So, she will spend her second Christmas in care.  Even worse, to the frustration of the staff at her CYCC who were desperate to save this already traumatised child from any more upheaval and avoidable challenges, she will have to start Grade R at the CYCC’s local school and change schools when her leave of absence or foster care order is finally approved, hopefully in February.  

What these stories and many others show painfully is that family reunification, foster care and adoptions have practically ground to a halt.  And equally alarmingly, the Form 30 debacle is even putting children who aren’t yet eligible for family care at risk.  

Care workers at CYCCs also need Form 30s and without up-to-date documentation (the age of these forms is not prescribed in law, but many magistrates expect them to be reissued annually), magistrates will not place children in need of care and protection in the CYCC or renew committal orders.  These expire every two years and are required for children to remain in the CYCC. 

The department is aware that magistrates are reluctant to grant orders without all staff members having up to date Form 30s, and has (apparently) committed to issuing them in 21 calendar days. But despite this, some CYCCs are still waiting for Form 30s that they applied for in 2019. Joburg Child Welfare reportedly has about 150 outstanding.  

The impact on children is appalling. Not only are some CYCCs turning new children away because they cannot get committal orders, but they are also terrified that vulnerable children may have to be removed from their care if they cannot get their orders renewed.

Five-year-old Andile* is one of those children with an uncertain future.  Although he had already celebrated his first birthday when he arrived at the CYCC he calls home, he cannot remember a life before his mother passed away and he was placed in care. As Andile sits patiently on the benches outside the courtroom playing with his toy car, his social worker tells me a bit of his unusual story. What makes him different from many other children at the CYCC is that he has a loving father who would like to raise him but can’t afford to do so.His father works as an ice cream salesman, living hand to mouth selling ice creams from his bicycle at the local park.  He adores Andile and visits him at the home, but is unable to care for him.  So, the CYCC provides Andile with food and shelter and a place where his dad can see him as often as possible.  

His social worker is worried now though. Andile’s two-year care order was due for renewal in October. It should have been a formality, but his CYCC is one of those waiting for up-to-date Form 30s for eight of their staff members (they have received eight to date, four after a nine month wait, and four after a three month wait, so it’s uncertain when the remainder will be issued). In their absence, the magistrate refused to renew the order (according to the magistrate, it wasn’t his problem that the department had not issued the Form 30s).  

Fearful of Andile’s future if he had to be removed from the only home he has ever known and too far away for his dad to visit, the CYCC pleaded for the magistrate to reconsider. The magistrate’s concession was a one-month extension, and then another one and finally an order lasting until February 2021.But if the outstanding Form 30s are not issued before then, it’s unclear if the magistrate will continue to issue extensions, and the CYCC may be forced to move him.

Alarmingly, this isn’t the only danger to children in CYCCs, especially in Gauteng. Daily Maverick reported in July that 59 baby homes and CYCCs were under threat because the DSD’s Acting Chief Director in Gauteng insisted that they obtain a new health certificate before they could get their registration renewed.  

The conflict divided DSD officials, with some actively fighting for the CYCCs, arguing that news health certificates were not required unless the CYCC had made structural changes, built a new building or extended or changed services, and eventually obtaining a ruling from the DSD’s legal department confirming that the Acting Chief Director could not impose new requirements for re-registration once the deadline for registration submission had already passed.  The same officials secured an extension of registration for all CYCCs awaiting re-registration until the 31st December 2020. 

Given these heroic efforts, this story should have ended well. The Acting Chief Director should have signed the registration certificates and ensured that they were processed before the 18th December (her last day at work before Christmas and co-incidentally also the last day of her rotation as Acting Chief Director), and given the CYCCs a happy Christmas knowing that they are registered for the next five years and the children’s futures are secure.  

But instead, she informed her subordinates that 12 CYCCs certificates won’t be signed because the Health Department had not stamped their Food Acceptability permits (another mandatory registration document).  She seemed impervious to arguments that the Health Department had issued the permits, so a stamp was superfluous, and that it was now too late to fix it before everyone closed for the holidays.   The files for a further four organisations went home with the Director when she went on leave.  She hasn’t returned with them.  And the files for 29 of the organisations were signed on the 17th December and sent to the DDG on 18th December after the DSD had officially closed until 4 January 2021. 

The impact of this chapter of errors is that 45 affected centres who care for approximately 1000 children will be operating illegally from the 1st January 2021.   No new children can be taken in. As with the Form 30s, magistrates have refused to renew court orders or issue new ones, and if an accident or incident occurs with one of the children, the centre will not be covered.  

Worse, if the registration cannot be finalised, it could result in the DSD removing affected children and placing them elsewhere.  The implications are dire, emotional trauma for the children who will be separated from caregivers and friends and possibly even siblings (if they need to be split over multiple centres) and forced to change schools resulting in a scramble for new school registrations and uniforms, retrenchment for staff, and closure for homes until it can be reregistered.  

The DSD will only be back at work in January begging the question, what will become of these children in the interim?

Nor is this the only challenge to CYCCs.  Requirements seem more stringent and unmanageable every year. One key example is the directive about qualifications needed by CYCC care workers.  This was originally an NQF level 4, a very expensive one-year qualification offered by a tiny number of service providers.  In November, it was raised to an NQF level 5, not only inaccessible in cost and time, but also unrelated to the work CYCCs do.  Again, organisations have been told that the DSD will not renew their registration if care workers don’t have this certificate.

Given that CYCCs house some of South Africa’s most vulnerable children (often for much longer than is optimal because it is so difficult to get them placed into families), the question is why are CYCCs so embattled?  

One simple answer is that as institutions caring for South Africa’s most vulnerable children, they need to be closely regulated and monitored. But as with many things related to the DSD, it’s hard not to speculate that there’s another agenda at play too, in this case, the planned phasing out of CYCCs. 

It’s a very sympathetic objective.  No one (including those running CYCCs) believes that children should grow up in “orphanages” and it is commendable that South Africa has joined with other nation states to phase out institutional care.  What’s less obvious is what will become of the children currently residing in them and those in need of temporary safe care if institutional care ceases.  

One potential solution is cluster foster care where up to six children are cared for by a foster parent/s.  In some provinces, the DSD appears to be moving from CYCCs to cluster foster care.  On paper, this is a positive move.  Cluster foster care resembles family care more than some CYCCs, and it is certainly cheaper for the government to pay foster care grants than grants to CYCCs.  

But while the goal to provide more individualised care is commendable, there are several downsides. Firstly, the best CYCCs already care for children in family units with house mothers / parents looking after a small number of children. However, while CYCCs are highly supervised, foster care is notorious for limited DSD involvement.  Social workers are only required to provide reports on children in foster care to the court every two years when foster care orders are due for renewal.

CYCCs may convert to a cluster foster care model, but the subsidy will be paid directly to the foster parent rather than the organisation, meaning that a foster parent can take the children in their care and leave at any point. 

Further, and most importantly, the goal of any alternative care should be to get children into permanent family care as soon as possible, and while the best CYCCs try to ensure that their children are reunified, fostered or adopted as soon as possible, some “professional” cluster foster care parents may be less motivated to see their children placed elsewhere.  Moreover, social workers typically have enormous caseloads, and may deem children in cluster foster care to be safe, meaning they are less focused on getting them into permanent care quickly.  The danger is that children will stay stuck in alternative care for their childhood, rather than moving through it to permanent placements. 

In a year where there hasn’t been much joy, this may all seem like doom and gloom, and much of it is.  But, there are always stories to treasure.  In a beautiful Christmas video, the Baby Home in Durban North told the story of Hope, who was placed in their home in September 2018 and this year, two years and two months later, went home to her family.  An emotive photo shared widely shows her dressed in a pink tulle dress, carrying a soft toy and walking hand in hand with her new brother to court to get her adoption order.  

Hope is home for Christmas.  And while it seems unlikely at present, with some changes to the system, rethinking of policies and procedures and a new prioritisation to get children into families quickly and efficiently, many other children could be too.  All these children want this Christmas and in 2021 is family care and permanency. Minister Zulu, are you listening? DM

*names changed to protect their identities

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