UCT's Children's Institute, the University of Pretoria's Centre for Child Law, Legal Aid SA and the Black Sash say that the country's foster care system is failing to assist family members caring for orphaned children.
This is not a new problem; it's been occurring since 2002, when the numbers of orphans applying for foster care started to grow rapidly due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Besides failing orphans, the system is also failing abused and neglected children who desperately need the services of the overwhelmed social workers and children's courts, said a recent statement issued by the four organisations.
Black Sash Regional manager Thandiwe Zulu said: "Courts are not the appropriate place for grandparents and siblings caring for orphans. It is a fact that the foster-care system fails these relatives and that overwhelmed social workers are unable to deliver services for many children in real need of protection. We believe that a non-court-based system is long overdue, and must be implemented to provide much-needed, appropriate income support for kinship carers."
These civil society organisations and many others at the coalface, such as Childline and Child Welfare, have been calling for reform for over ten years, as they have witnessed how the system is unable to cope with the demand. Originally designed to accommodate 50 000 children, the foster care system is responsible for the welfare of 500 000 children, explained Children's Institute programme manager Paula Proudlock.
Among other factors, the overwhelming caseloads and overcrowded court rolls created enormous backlogs, resulting in the lapse of over 110 000 foster care orders - cutting financial aid to as many children.
In 2011, after being approach by Childline and Child Welfare for help with the lapsing grants, the Centre for Child Law approached the High Court to avoid the looming crash of the foster care system. A court order was granted that temporarily alleviated the pressure on the foster care system by 'deeming' foster child orders not to have lapsed and placing a temporary moratorium on further lapsing. "This provided time for the department to introduce the necessary reform," added Proudlock.
Research by the Children's Institute shows that there are now over one million orphans living with relatives in poverty; yet in 2011, only 460 000 were receiving the Foster Child Grant (FCG), worth R800 per child per month. The remaining orphans are either getting the much lower Child Support Grant (CSG) of R290 per child per month, or nothing at all, explained Katharine Hall, senior researcher at the Children's Institute.
"It has taken the Department of Social Development over 10 years to reach these 460 000 orphans with an FCG. And there is every sign that the system cannot accommodate more children. Already we have seen that grants are lapsing because the system cannot keep up with the numbers. This leaves the majority of orphans without adequate social assistance," said Hall.
Proudlock added: "In September 2012 the department announced its intention to introduce reform aimed at providing a grant that relatives could access directly via application to SASSA. This would cut out the need for a social worker report and a court inquiry, and ensure all orphans could be reached with a grant quickly.
In November 2012 we attended a consultative workshop with the Department, where they gave further details on the proposal to be implemented as an 'Extended Child Support Grant', which would give relatives caring for orphans a larger CSG than is standard. If this proposal could be finalised and implemented in 2013, we would see great benefits for orphans, child-headed households and abused children."
The question of foster child grants is also receiving attention from the country's courts. On 12 April 2013 the South Gauteng High Court ruled that a Kagiso grandmother qualified to be a foster parent for her three orphaned grandchildren.
"This South Gauteng judgement helps solve one of the challenges that have been preventing access to the foster child grant for grandparents," said Proudlock. "The judgment will bind all magistrates in Gauteng and be of persuasive value to magistrates in other provinces.
"However, the judgment does not provide a solution to the backlogs in the foster care system that are caused by the mismatch between the numbers in need and the capacity of social workers and courts to keep up." Prof Ann Skelton of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria concurs: "Unfortunately the judgment does not solve the systemic problems that still exist, and may in all likelihood add to the pressure on the foster care system, as it opens the doors for more people to be placed on an already stretched system."
Prof Skelton also warns that "another lapsing crisis is imminent, as all foster care orders deemed to have been extended for two years by the original court order of 2011 will expire on 22 June 2013. If these orders lapse, then the South African Social Assistance Agency will discontinue payment of the foster child grants, and we will face the same crisis we did in 2011".
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