Class of 2017: Candice Fortune - Looking into the foster care crisis and the best interests of the child
The foster-care system is failing South Africa’s children on many levels, as social work practitioner Candice Fortune explored in some detail in her MPhil in Law, obtained from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 2017.
As her thesis explains, by the end of 2017, a vast number - as many as 200 000 - of foster care orders are expected to lapse. Given that those orders are necessary to apply for the country’s Foster Care Grant (FCG), this would deny many children (and caregivers) what is often a financial lifeline.
“Many children have fallen through the cracks and foster care orders have lapsed as social workers are overburdened with high caseloads and cannot always provide the adequate amount of monitoring and supervision,” says Candice, who has previously counselled young victims of sexual abuse in the Court of Sexual Offences in Cape Town, and also works as a part-time lecturer at UWC.
At the end of this year, after a long procession of court extensions, the Department of Social Development is due back in court to present a “comprehensive legal solution” to sort out this crisis.
It’s a situation whose genesis can be traced back to the early 2000s.
Back then, the child protection system dealt with - and apparently coped with - the approximately 50 000 children in need of foster care. But then came the explosion of the AIDS epidemic, and by 2004 the number of maternal orphans (children who had lost their mothers) had jumped to over a million children.
Many of those children were taken in by relatives (it’s estimated that as many of 80% of children in foster care are in kinship foster care), who could then apply for a Child Support Grant (CSG). Worth R380 as from 1 April 2017, the CSG is legally seen as a poverty alleviation tool.
But another option for these families was to formalize the care arrangement and apply for the (Foster Care Grant) FCG. In contrast to the CSG, the FCG is worth R920 as from 1 April, and is considered a child protection mechanism.
Not too surprisingly - given the growing demand for the FCG - the child protection system, and the social workers responsible for keeping it ticking over, were overrun.
It’s partly a question of personnel. According to the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, only around half of the country’s 18 000 registered social workers are employed by government and not-for-profit organizations, and only a portion of these work with children and families.
In part, it’s because the foster care system is - of necessity - cumbersome and bureaucratic.
To qualify for an FCG, an orphaned child has to be placed in the child protection system. This requires not only orders from a Children’s Court, but must be backed up by a blanket of administrative services, including ongoing monitoring and treatment.
As a result of the current crisis, children are not only under threat of losing their grants, but social workers are also unable to offer the necessary support to children in need of protection from abuse and neglect, the primary concern of the foster care system.
Children’s Rights, Best Interests, and Fixing Our Failures
In social work, all work related to children is centered on the best interests of the child. This serves as a benchmark for all decisions made about children, as Candice notes in her MPhil.
It’s a principle recognized in one form or another in everything from South Africa’s Children Act to international agreements like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC).
“But if so many of our children have fallen through the cracks in the current crisis, can we say we have acted in the best interests of those children?” she asks.
In addition, the foster care system is failing children in two regards - the Constitutional rights to family care and shelter.
In the foster care system, children are removed from families - because of suspicions of abuse and neglect - but with the hope of reintegrating the child back into his or her family. That requires, among other things, that social workers investigate the home circumstances of the child. But overburdened social workers rarely have the time to do that.
Similarly, they are constrained for time and resources when it comes to identifying suitable placement for the children - preferably in close proximity to their families. Many children then end up in overcrowded group homes or with relatives with neither space nor other means to provide for them.
Fortunately, a number of options are currently being considered for alleviating the pressure on the foster care system, explains Candice.
One proposal is the introduction of a Kinship Care Grant, which would be made to children who are orphaned and living with relatives. Such a grant would probably be worth more than the Child Support Grant, and would require only an initial assessment of the child’s situation, but none of the intensive supervision required with foster care placement.
“With the introduction of a Kinship Care Grant, less monitoring would need to occur and less court intervention would be required,” Candice explains. “This would lessen the burden placed on social workers - and ideally ensure that the best interests of the children are considered paramount in all decisions made.”
There are still questions hanging over whether the DSD will meet its December deadline. Failure to do so would sadly be another failure of South Africa’s children - and haven’t they been let down enough?