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16 Dec 2009 07:19
Johannesburg Central Methodist church Bishop Paul Verryn approached the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Tuesday in a bid to have a curator appointed for minors living at the church.
The curator would be in charge of the 56 children without parents or adult guardians, said the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), which filed papers on behalf of Verryn and the church.
“In essence, it is the protection, promotion and achievement of the best interests of the unaccompanied children, many of whom are refugees who have been living at the church,” LRC attorney Jason Brickhill said in a statement.
The church wanted to appoint Dr Ann Skelton, a children’s rights lawyer from the Centre for Child Law to act as the curator. If the application was successful, Skelton would be involved in all matters pertaining to the children at the church, including their pending relocation to shelters and safe homes.
The application followed ongoing wrangles between the church and the Gauteng government.
The latter had accused Verryn of refusing to cooperate with social workers who wanted to move the children to proper homes and shelters.
Gauteng health department spokesman Simon Zwane said on December 9 that children were supposed to be moved from the church on the 7th, but that social workers were left “frustrated and undermined” after the children ran away and church officials failed to help.
Verryn said at the time that while it had been agreed that social workers would visit the church on Monday December 7, he had given notice that he could not be present due to a scheduling conflict.
“I pleaded with them not to run away ... because in fact it could be the beginning of a good thing for them,” said Verryn.
“The children said they didn’t trust them [the social workers] because they had spoken to them. They said they had run away before and will run away again.”
Verryn said the lack of trust stemmed from the “inappropriate and vindictive” manner in which social workers had spoken to children in earlier meetings.
“Inappropriate because the children were told at least 10 times that they were lying about their age and how they came to the country,” he said.
The Gauteng legislature’s health and social development portfolio committee called for the closure of the church, saying conditions there were a health hazard.
Following a visit there in October, chairwoman Molebatsi Bopape said “children are being exposed to abuse, babies are sleeping on the floor ... the place is so filthy that we couldn’t even breathe”.
Brickhill said: “The application takes place in the context of statements by the government to the media of its intention to remove the children to places of safety. However, precisely which solution or solutions are in the best interests of the children is not clear.
“The position and future of the children raises a number of complex legal and social issues. It has given rise to a series of conflicts between different role-players seeking to protect the children.
“For these reason Bishop Verryn believes that it is essential that someone sufficiently experienced and independent be formally and legally empowered to protect the best interests of the children, to represent their best interests in negotiations with government and investigate the best options available.”
He said Verryn believed he was unable to “adequately safeguard the best interest of the children at the church or if and when they are relocated”.
“In the application ... he notes the fear and trauma experienced by many children, that some have run away from places of safety they have been sent to from the church and the continuing media allegations of abuse of children at the church,” he said.
The matter would be heard next Tuesday.—Sapa
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