Protecting children begins at home

Much attention is being focused on child trafficking during the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Although it is easy to point fingers at strangers, the real dangers lie in our midst.

Most children are abused by people they know, and widespread poverty feeds a cycle of violence, abuse and neglect. As we mark Child Protection Week, it is clear that more needs to be done to protect children.

The Children’s Act provides for services to promote children’s physical, mental and social wellbeing. This includes prevention and early intervention services to strengthen families’ ability to care for children before problems get out of hand.

Consider, for example, a single mother struggling to put food on the table and starting to take out her frustration on her children. Given current staff shortages, it may take months before a social worker intervenes but there are many other ways to support the mother and protect the children.

Child support grants help to put food on the table; parenting programmes help mothers to cope with stress and find safer ways to discipline children; and crèches and drop-in centres can free parents up to attend classes or seek employment. These interventions are vital to the wellbeing of children and families, and community care workers play a key role in building and sustaining them.

There were more than 65 000 of these foot soldiers, who have played a central role in addressing HIV and TB in the health and social development sectors in 2005/06. But government support has been uncoordinated and has often not assisted those most in need.

A review of the role of community health workers in the soon to be released South African Child Gauge 2009/2010 identifies several systemic problems. A lack of coordination within and between departments has led to the proliferation of different cadres of community workers, many with similar functions, yet there is no standardised training, remuneration or management structure.

Instead of being employed by the government, community health workers rely on stipends from non-profit organisations. As funding is erratic, they often go without pay. This lack of integration with formal health care services also leads to inadequate support and supervision by health care professionals, especially at district level.

The departments of health and social development are currently developing a management framework for community care workers, which is seen as a step in the right direction and should help to standardise and improve conditions of service for community workers.

The proposed framework provides for training, mentoring and support, and advocates a multiskilled community care worker. This should help to avoid duplication and streamline service delivery.

Although the framework provides strong guidance on the management of community care workers, it is less clear on how the different community programmes will provide a comprehensive package of services on the ground. So it is vital that the departments come together to coordinate the planning, funding and implementation of community-based services.

Collaboration at district level is essential to set priorities and strengthen working relationships between community care workers and professionals in health and social services.

Lori Lake is an editor of the South African Child Gauge 2009/2010, which will be released by the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town

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