Courting plan to reunite families split by drugs

Durban lawyer Megan Gedye will graduate from the UKZN next week, having earned her LLM in Child Care and Protection. Her thesis found that neither addicted parents nor the children removed from their care were being served by current South African law. | SHELLEY KJONSTAD Independent Newspapers

Durban lawyer Megan Gedye will graduate from the UKZN next week, having earned her LLM in Child Care and Protection. Her thesis found that neither addicted parents nor the children removed from their care were being served by current South African law. | SHELLEY KJONSTAD Independent Newspapers

Published May 6, 2024

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Durban — A Durban lawyer has come up with a novel way to change the legal system and assist children who end up in foster care mainly because their parents are drug addicts.

Megan Gedye, formerly an associate in the litigation department at law firm Garlicke & Bousfield, believes the introduction of family drug treatment courts might be the solution.

She has just completed her LLM in Child Care and Protection and hopes the findings of her thesis can be implemented.

Gedye’s thesis is titled “Exploring family drug treatment courts as an intervention for parental substance abuse and the child's best interests”.

“As the research began, I saw that we weren’t just letting the children down, we were letting their parents down as well. So I started looking in other jurisdictions for solutions to the same problem because the link between substance abuse and child neglect is a very clear one.”

She told the Independent on Saturday that the study was inspired by her sister, an occupational therapist working with foster children, many of whom had parents with drug addictions.

“It was hearing the stories from my sister, some of them really heartbreaking and with long-term consequences for these children, that inspired me to look overseas.”

Gedye, who now lectures at Varsity College, said one way of assisting neglected children was to place them in foster care, but the Children’s Act clearly ruled that those children must be reunified with their families.

“The problem is we don’t do anything to help the parents who’ve lost children in this way. We don’t help them get better. So how can you successfully reunify children with parents who still abuse substances?”

To find answers she explored the different approaches of family drug treatment courts in the US and the drug and alcohol courts in the UK which were “therapeutic courts” that adjudicated like the courts in South Africa.

“They make binding orders, but they also seek to heal the situation, to try to encourage parents to walk them through the journey of rehabilitation, take them through the 12 steps, reward them for reaching a certain point and encourage reunification with the children. What we do here is we remove the child to keep them safe, but then we do nothing to reunify, even though we are mandated to do so.”

She said this left overworked, underpaid and sometimes uninformed social workers with a mammoth task and no help.

Gedye’s research also proposed that legal practitioners be roped in to help because currently only magistrates and social workers were making these decisions and that was not enough.

She said there was a simultaneous crisis in the foster care system in which hundreds of thousands of children were trapped because their foster orders were repeatedly renewed with no resolution in sight.

“By this stage these children have made meaningful attachments to their foster parents, but they’re still being fostered. So their parents actually still exercise parental rights and responsibility over that. It’s deeply unstable for everyone concerned, but particularly for the children,” said Gedye.

She said the introduction of the Children’s Amendment Act had no effect because many parents refused to go to rehab but also withheld their permission for children to be adopted.

“My proposal was to try to introduce these family courts into this country. We have a similar standard for the best interests of the child, an internationally First World concept that we’ve adopted into our Constitution. It’s wonderful, it’s very forward thinking but we don’t have anything to put these things in place. Unfortunately, these courts are heavily regulated, as they can be in places like Australia and America, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t try.”

She said the idea of therapeutic jurisprudence was to heal rather than punish. There was no point in putting substance abusers in jail.

“Our new national drug master plan is the first one to acknowledge that substance abuse is a disease. In other words, we must treat it as a health problem and not a penal problem. It’s not part of the justice system but part of the health system, so we should try to make them better and not punish them.”

Gedye said family drug treatment courts used a team of specialists to help rehabilitate and reunify a family and she hoped someone would use the findings of her thesis and implement them.

Another part of her passion was to teach lawyers to be more therapeutic “and to understand that, especially here in South Africa, our African sense of justice seeks more to heal than it does to punish”.

Independent on Saturday

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