Anniken Torset, 16, a Norwegian high school pupil, playing with children from Mohau Children's Centre in Atteridgeville. The writer says we need a clear strategy to ensure simple registration of places of safety for abused and orphaned children. File picture: Herbert Matimba

Hundreds of children’s homes, shelters and places of safety for orphaned and abused children face the risk of closure, says Deirdre Kruger.

South Africa’s childcare system is in crisis mode. Not only do we have an overburdened foster care system with 512 000 children and a dire shortage of social workers with a 77-percent shortfall, but hundreds of child and youth care centres caring for our country’s most vulnerable children will risk closure from April next year, as they are struggling to register with the Department of Social Development.

The Children’s Act provides that child and youth care centres (formerly known as children’s homes, shelters and places of safety) must be registered with the department in order to take children into their care. Facilities that are not registered, operate illegally and face closure. Centres previously registered under the old Child Care Act are given five years by the Children’s Act to renew their registrations. This registration period expires in April.

There are at least 421 such centres across South Africa caring for more than 14 000 children. Of these facilities, only 306 are registered and mostly under the old Child Care Act. The remaining 115 “known” facilities are operating illegally without oversight. The figure of 115 unregistered facilities is but an estimate which does not include facilities in the Northern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, according to an audit done by Unicef and the department. There are therefore possibly many more facilities with children that are unaccounted for.

Ensuring that facilities caring for children are registered is an important measure to protect already vulnerable children and to ensure that they have appropriate care, adequate facilities, programmes and education. It also ensures that they are visible in the child protection system and prevents incidents of illegal adoptions and trafficking. Because of a lack of social work oversight in unregistered facilities, these children are unlikely to ever be placed with families in foster care or made available for adoption.

Registering a child and youth care centre is, however, no simple feat and requires navigating an obscure road with obstacles. Registration is seen as a confusing, time-consuming and expensive process that seems to leave most facilities feeling despondent and frustrated. Though conditional registration is provided for in the Children’s Act to ensure that facilities operate legally pending their compliance for final registration, it is seldom, if ever, used.

The registration requirements for such a centre are in themselves not clear as they differ from municipality to municipality, and further changes depend on the interpretation of each social worker(s) overseeing a registration process.

In essence, registration requires a centre to, among other processes, undergo various health and safety inspections to obtain local authority compliance certificates, submit audited financial statements, daily menus and programmes, obtain certificates from the various departments for staff clearance and ensure that workers are properly qualified.

All of the registration requirements are, at a glance, necessary to ensure the safety and proper care of children in the facility, but compliance with these requirements is costly. For centres with limited means it is at times “a choice between feeding the children in our care or paying for another basin or toilet”, says a manager of an unregistered facility in Gauteng.

The Children’s Act does not provide for financial assistance from the department for complying with the registration requirements.

A further issue is the time that it takes for the Department of Social Development to process the registration. The Children’s Act provides that an application for registration must be processed by the department within six months after the application has been lodged, but some facilities have reportedly not received feedback from the department after three years.

Without a proper strategy and co-operation between facilities, the different government departments and municipalities, unregistered facilities will continue to operate illegally ,and neither registered nor unregistered facilities will be able to meet all the requirements for registration in time for the April deadline.

An urgent solution needs to be developed. This solution calls for a strategy ensuring the prioritisation of registration (even conditional registration) by the department in the light of the deadline; ensuring that clear guidance is available to Department of Social Development social workers overseeing registration of facilities so as to minimise confusion; financial assistance through the waiving of fees for inspections etc by municipalities; and a clear plan to establish the needs of communities to guide the registration process to ensure that only adequate facilities suitable to the needs of communities are registered. This solution needs to further provide for the manner in which children are to be moved when child and youth care centres cannot be kept open, in order to minimise the trauma on children in their care.

Without a clear strategy prioritising the registration of facilities, many centres will operate illegally and face the risk of closure after April, increasing the vulnerability of thousands of children.

* Deirdre Kruger is an attorney at the centre for child law, University of Pretoria.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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