Many schools catering for children in conflict with the law are facing a crisis because the state missed a deadline to transform these institutions.
Late last year three convicted teenage girls went on a violent rampage at the Rosenhof school in Bloemfontein. “Teachers and children were assaulted and property vandalised,” said the school’s principal, Albert Moche.
“Even structural damage was caused to our building.”
Rosenhof is an industrial school for children who are in need of care and protection because they have behavioural, psychological and emotional problems. They are referred to the school by the children’s court.
The three girls, however, were supposed to have been sent to a reform school. That category of institution accommodates children sentenced by a criminal court.
There is a third category of children who are sent to juvenile prisons — youths who commit serious crimes such as murder and rape.
Moche said in an affidavit he filed in a recent court action in the Grahamstown High Court, that the three “were wrongly placed at Rosenhof” as they were sentenced to a reform school. “This action caused havoc at the school.”
Placing children convicted of crime in an institution that caters for youngsters referred by a children’s court is what caused problems for Rosenhof. “The interaction of these two categories of children did not succeed. It was not in the best interest of either of the category of child to be placed at the same premises,” Moche said in the affidavit.
Incidents such as those that unfolded at Rosenhof are the result of the government’s failure to transform reform schools and schools of industry in accordance with the Children’s Act.
Experts and teachers blame general disregard for the legislation by government departments for the misfortunes of the institutions. The departments of basic education and social development failed to implement an important requirement of the Children’s Act.
In a process that should have started on April 2010, the departments had until March 31 this year to demarcate their responsibilities in the centres. The basic education department has to continue as a custodian of education in the centres, and transfer duties such as social work, hostel management, therapy and childcare to the social development department.
The departments did not respond to questions sent to them by the Mail & Guardian.
An opportunity missed
The transfer was an important step towards transforming the schools into centres generally able to rehabilitate children in need of care and protection as well as those who have offended, said Ann Skelton, director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria. “An opportunity to transform the schools has been missed. But it is not too late.”
The institutions should have undergone major changes over the past two years. But instead they have experienced crippling problems — ranging from threats to close down the only school of industry in the Eastern Cape to a Gauteng school battling a financial crisis because of underfunding.
A situation playing itself out in an Eastern Cape has led to desperate parents suffering depression and employees of the schools — now officially known as child and youth care centres — face job insecurity because they are in the dark about which department employs them.
The Grahamstown High Court interdicted the Eastern Cape education department two months ago from closing down the Gali Thembani Youth Care Centre, a school of industry in Queenstown.
Attempts to close down Gali Thembani were interpreted as a test for the status of the country’s reform and industrial schools.
Aletta Maria van der Merwe, a social worker who has facilitated the placement of children in the centre, told the M&G this week that efforts to close it down were miscalculated and mind-boggling.
“As it is, we don’t have enough schools of industry here in the Eastern Cape,” she said. “There is no school for girls. We refer girls who need care to Rosenhof.”
Equally mind-boggling was that the education department sought to move children from Gali Thembani to a reform school in Bhisho. In an affidavit, Johan Vorster, a magistrate from a children’s court in Port Elizabeth, described the Bhisho facility as “a high-security correctional facility akin to a maximum prison …not conducive for retention of children in need of care and protection”. Vorster added: “I wish to emphasise that this facility is more suited for children in conflict with the law against whom the community needs protection.”
Although the process of placing 120 children in Gali Thembani is now under way, as per the court’s order, the troubles caused by attempts to close it have yet to be resolved.
Social workers told the M&G they were still trying to secure places for children at the school, some of whom were referred there in November. Some children absconded from Gali Thembani when they heard they were to be moved to a more restrictive facility.
An Eastern Cape mother told the M&G she is suffering from depression as a result of her disruptive child being barred from enrolling at Gali Thembani, despite a court judgment that he must be placed there.
The court ordered that because of his serious behavioural problems, he must be placed in a school of industry where he would be cared for and offered education. But he’s still at home, where his destructive behaviour continues unabated.
In an affidavit she submitted to the Grahamstown High Court in February, the boy’s mother stated she had been diagnosed with depression because of his behaviour. This week she confirmed that the teenager is still not at the centre. “Things are getting out of hand now,” she said. “My depression is getting worse.”
Another mother, whose the court ordered must be placed in a school of industry, said he was still sitting “idly at home and roaming the streets with unsavoury drug users who are older than him”. She said because of her depression she “stands a chance to lose my employment”.
Employees in the centres are in a “constant state of limbo” because of the delay in transferring their jobs, said Cecil Wood, a former consultant in the Child and Youth Care Agency for Development — an organisation that has trained childcare workers in the schools.
A state of nothingness
“This places them in a state of nothingness, which makes them insecure and takes away their motivation.”
The transfer will happen later this year or next year in most provinces, the M&G has learnt. “There were a lot of meetings, but now the provincial social development department says it is not ready,” said a source in North West. “The takeover will happen next year.”
A social worker in an Mpumalanga school of industry said: “We’re still under the education department and we will be moved to the social department in 2013.”
A principal in one school said: “I have worked in the school for 26 years. This year has been the most stressful.” He added that confidence among employees was low. “We have been talking about this transfer for two years now, but nothing has happened. There has not been any planning for it.”
The JW Luckhoff school of industry in Heidelberg, Gauteng, needs to be transferred to the social development department as soon possible to avoid sliding into a new financial crisis. Efforts to transfer the school, together with Emmasdal — a school of industry also located near Heidelberg — to the social development department started in earnest only in recent weeks.
JW Luckhoff’s transfer will help it to secure badly needed funds from the social development department, said Derick Erikson, chairperson of the school’s governing body.
He told the M&G that funds the school received from the Gauteng education department earlier this year were only enough to last it until the end of April, but “we have managed to stretch the money”. The cash has largely been used to settle the school’s debts.
The school had to battle a financial crisis earlier this year. Lawyers at the Centre for Child Law had to step in to compel the Gauteng education department to provide funds.
In a letter of demand sent to the department in September last year, the centre’s Carina du Toit said JW Luckhoff’s debts had grown because of underfunding.
“There seems to be a systemic underfunding of the school. Every year their budget gets smaller and the state does not seem to take responsibility,” Du Toit said.
Lumka Oliphant, a spokesperson at the social development department, said it had “initiated the labour and legal work streams timeously. However, on obtaining legal opinion the process of immediate transfer of staff could not materialise.”
The M&G has established that the legal opinion Oliphant referred to was only obtained from the social development department in February.
Children and youth care system fails to get funds
Reform schools and schools of industry are some of the oldest educational institutions in the country. The British administration established them towards the end of the nineteenth century.
The first reform school, the Porter Reformatory School, was established in 1889 in Cape Town and was closed down in 2000.
The George Hofmeyer industry school for girls, which opened its doors in October 1909, is now the oldest.
The schools were reserved for white children before 1969, with the exception of the Coloured school of industry in Ottery in the Western Cape. The first Indian school of industry was built in Newcastle in 1969.
After the Children’s Protection Act of 1913, the schools of industry and reform schools were transferred to the education and prisons departments, a move that was meant to change their primary objective from detention to education and development.
Change the landscape
Collective efforts led to the Children’s Act of 2005, which experts predicted would change the landscape of the child and youth care system in the country.
The schools would be converted into child and youth care centres, according to a requirement of the Act. They would also be transferred from the education department to the social development department between April 2010 and April 2012.
But the transfer has not happened and the number of children in the schools has dwindled significantly over the years. Emmasdal in Heidelberg, Gauteng, a school that can accommodate more than 100 children, now has only 16.
“We used to have the best rugby and cricket teams,” said Emmasdal principal Willie Swart. “That was because we had depth in the school, but we don’t anymore because now we have fewer students. There are just bottlenecks somewhere, that is why children are not referred anymore.”
Cecil Wood, formerly with the Child and Youth Care Agency for Development, said it was not surprising that schools such as JW Luckhoff, which is also in Heidelberg, were now experiencing financial crises.
They are being funded based on the numbers of children they have, “but they still have buildings that need to maintained,” Wood said.