A broken system cannot fix the broken people

This is what I remember. It was just past eight in the evening and there was an orange glow coming from a candle. There was a damp smell of bodies and the room seemed far bigger than it was. In the corner was an old woman in a bed. I think the blankets that covered her were colourful, but how could I have known in that dim light?

She sat up as I came in, wearing a frilly, long-sleeved nightgown, buttoned to the top and covering her collarbones. The walls were dark around her but I could make out her thin face smiling at me. I hesitated at the door.

“Good evening ma’am,” I said. “I am sorry to bother you so late.”

She greeted me in a flat, earthy tongue and gestured me inside. I introduced myself as the social worker in the area. She looked back at me with apprehension. I told her I was looking for her grandson, JC, that his grandfather had told me he was staying with her for the night. She shook her head and said he was staying with a friend, but she had no idea where the friend lived.

After looking for this boy all evening, I had run out of ideas. He was 10 years old, intelligent, inventive and full of potential. He excelled in school but had dropped out, gone begging and was sleeping on the streets. He could have been anywhere.

I knew why he was missing because I had visited the scene of his crime: his grandfather’s 3m2 corrugated iron shack. There was a filthy two-plate stove placed on a rickety Novilon-covered counter. The grandfather and his partner slept in a makeshift double bed in the corner and the boy and his brother, who was 11, had to sleep on a small, torn-up, plastic-leather couch that was barely big enough for even one of them. Their grandfather drank and beat both boys regularly.

Special care
One morning, JC decided he had to get his own back. He pretended to be asleep, but when the old man came to wake him for school he hit his grandfather in the face with a rock. The bastard walked away with a sore face, but continued his iron-fisted rule.

As with most children, I could not simply remove JC from his home and put him in foster care or even a ­children’s home. For one, our organisation was not legally authorised to do so. Besides, even if I could remove him, he would have nowhere to go. Like so many other children in JC’s shoes, his behaviour had deteriorated to the extent that he could not possibly adapt to an institution. If we placed him with foster parents, he could easily end up like many children I had seen in similar situations: sniffing glue and skipping school. JC needed special care.

But social development policy in South Africa demands the practice of “family preservation”, aiming to keep the family together and encouraging parents to take responsibility for rearing their children. Family preservation could include, among other theoretical methods, counselling, drawing, role-play or pasting magazine cut-outs on a piece of paper to make a poster envisioning a future that would never happen. These methods are offshoots of theories from the developed world that seldom work here. How do you teach a violent drunk to stop beating his grandchildren?

The other alternative was to call the police to lock him up, but he would be out the next day. There are too many of his type around, too many domestic disputes and too few prison cells.

All I could do was to report the case to the social workers responsible for removing children from their homes. I knew they would do ­nothing because they were as overloaded as I was and faced the same problems I did.

JC, like so many other children in his situation, had taken off into the night. These are children, regarded as a menace to society, who usually have nowhere to go. Still, JC must have found himself a place he felt was better than the one he came from. Even if I had managed to find him, I wondered whether I would have the right to remove him.

Working the system
In South Africa, social workers undergo four years of university study and on-the-job training. The fourth year is a compulsory honours degree. Without it you cannot register as a practising social worker. From the first year of study, you start working part-time in welfare organisations, old-age homes and centres for disabled people. You are assigned to an organisation for the year. It is an exhausting course — and not only because of the academic component. It is emotionally draining and the workload, which included much soul-deadening writing of reports and strict deadlines, is tremendous. Despite the rigorous training, however, I felt lost at sea when I left university. Books do not tell you much about real people with real problems.

I worked with street children, but you can find social workers in hospitals, homes for the aged, drug rehabilitation centres and even in the corporate environment. Social workers are supposed to lend a kind ear, assess the problem and then assist the person in trouble to get to the correct help, whether it is a referral to a drug rehabilitation centre, a psychologist, a counsellor, a remedial teacher, a soup kitchen, a skills training programme, employment, or a programme for children who have had a brush with the law. After the referral, the social worker remains responsible for co-ordinating the person’s recovery. You monitor, listen, check up and refer again to another source of assistance if need be.
But all of this is theory. In real life, heavy caseloads can make it impossible to give the necessary attention to people’s lives. They easily become numbers in a file among hundreds of others, growing musty in a filing cabinet.

The vast majority of child welfare work is done by social workers at child and family welfare organisations — non-profit organisations that are focused on child services. They are primarily funded by the department of social development, but the rest of the funds must be raised in the private sector through the organisation’s own efforts. These NGOs do most of the work the government is constitutionally and legally bound to do, namely the implementation of the Children’s Act and, in part, the Child Justice Act — upholding athe right of children to have their basic needs fulfilled, including food, shelter, being free from abuse and neglect, and proper schooling.  

In my fourth year of study I spent two days a week working at such an organisation. That was when I chased JC all over the neighbourhood. His grandfather was equally elusive. When I did get hold of the old man, I was met with an angelic veneer, but I knew when I turned my back he would curse me and go back to his old ways.

JC’s mother was also an alcoholic and unemployed. I would find her, talk to her, ask her if she knew where he was and plead with her to work with me so that we could help him. Each time she would rant about how uncontrollable the boy was, how bad he was and how she did not want him. She insisted that I should take him away. JC was only one case with no ending in sight. There were many, many others.

The girl with the head of flames
I arrived at the house in the afternoon. It was one of my first cases. It was in a rural area, surrounded by trees, bushes and mountains. I walked through the open door and in front of me was a tiny baby in a dirty little dress. She was too small for her age. Everything was in proportion but in miniature. I knew the signs: fetal alcohol syndrome.

There was not much in the room, save the stench of dirty clothes and unwashed bodies and a couch with the sponge peeling out of the cracks. Everything was brown and dirty. The floor looked like a garage in which someone had worked with oil and grime for years.

Then a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and hair that stood up like black flames appeared like a sprite. I introduced myself and asked where her parents were. She was neither defensive nor shy, but displayed a mixture of indifference and something else I could never quite put my finger on, something tough, mean and broken, all at the same time. She shook her head and went to the bedroom, where she folded clean washing on a dirty bed in the room where the whole family slept. 

Being surrounded by mountains, my cellphone was useless. I rushed down into the valley. It felt like forever for me to find a spot with reception. I called my supervisor in a panic and told her that we had to remove these children immediately. She calmly responded: “We cannot do that yet. We have to try and rehabilitate the family first.”

I visited the drunk parents several times. We talked, I set up to-do lists and followed a task-centred model and periodically checked in to see whether the children were still alive.
The next year, after I had left the organisation, I got a call early one morning. It was my old supervisor. During a drunken fight the father had stabbed the mother in her neck. She was dead. I do not know what became of those children.

A house of safety
Once I accompanied my supervisor to a house of safety for women. We were taking a girl there who had been gang-raped by a group of teenage boys. She looked 12, but my supervisor speculated that she was closer to 15. Some children have no birth certificates and will never know when they were born. She looked as if she had been crying for days, but showed no emotion. In fact, she was lifeless. I touched her shoulder in a gesture to comfort her. It was stiff and cold. She did not seem to feel my touch.

Her eyes were swollen because the rapists had punched her in the face. Now that she was to testify against them, they were threatening to kill her. She could not stay with the nuns for long — it was a temporary fix. Besides, we were lucky to find this place; it was buying us a few days to find a longer-term solution. Because places of safety for beaten and raped women are few and far between, this was close to impossible.

I do not know what happened to that girl but, if she is anything like the thousands of rape victims in our country, her plight may have gone unnoticed. Counselling services are either unaffordable or simply not available. Chances are good that she had to return to her community. She may have run into her attackers in a taxi or on her way to school. She would be but another one of many victims.

According to official national police statistics, an average of 18595 rapes a year were reported to the police between December 2007 and June last year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many rapes are not reported. Attackers most often walk free and seldom see anything wrong with their behaviour. While they await trial, the state pays for their board and lodging in prison, as well as for psychological services.

Not so for victims: they are left to deal with the psychological scars and trauma alone and get little or no state assistance. They have to seek counselling at NGOs, which often receive no state funding, or they have to pay for counselling from their own pockets. They have to keep a job and care for themselves like before. If they develop drug or alcohol problems after the attack, which is not uncommon, they pay thousands of rands for their own rehabilitation — if they can afford it.

This girl would have to make do with what she could find.

One keeper and a lunatic
A family of six all lived in a two-bedroom RDP house — the grandmother, grandfather, mother, three boys and one girl. The second-oldest was a 10-year-old boy named Peter. He loved animals, kept several dogs in the yard and helped out at the SPCA. But he had violent fights with other children and was often absent from school. A young girl in the area once told me that she went on a camping trip for neighbourhood children and, in the dark one night, she saw Peter sneak into the girls’ dormitory and climb into the sleeping bag of the girl next to her. She said she pretended to be asleep while she listened to them having sex.

Peter’s older brother, Ethan, was 15, friendly, sneaky, lanky and drank on Friday and Saturday nights. He pretended to go to school but hung around the neighbourhood with friends, smoking dagga and dancing to hip-hop. His grandmother, Sarah, told me that Ethan took it badly when his father left.

I heard a saying once. “In almost every family one sees a keeper, or two or three keepers, and a lunatic.” It was Florence Nightingale. She was right.

Sarah, the grandmother, was the sole keeper in this house, left to deal with the madness around her on her own. She was suffering from high blood pressure and feared for what would happen to the children when she died. Their mother, Johanna, was small, delicately framed and had a timid smile — she was not going to care for them. She would drink with a friend at night, leaving Sarah to look after the children.

I visited the family often and I got to know them well. Or so I thought. We talked as a group and made agreements that things would be different. Every time, Johanna said that she would step up to the plate. Every time, Ethan said he would go back to school. I spent time with the boys. We went on hikes with other neighbourhood kids. I called them to join our afternoon groups.

But I made one big mistake. I do not know whether it was because I lacked experience or because I trusted too easily. I did not realise how much Johanna drank and that, as long as she did, her boys would never come home. Either way, I dismally failed those boys. Just one good memory of that family will always stay with me: despite everything, Peter was saving the animals. As far as I know he still is.

The only thing left to save
It seems odd now, but I remember the animals vividly. Hungry, skeletal animals with parasites, severed or  bleeding legs, scavenging on trash. A lonely dog with mange, protruding bones and very little hair came to me once. It seemed more starved for love than anything else. I wanted to touch it but I knew it was too dangerous; I had been attacked by dogs before. Instead, I passed it by and felt a lifelessness that has never left me.

Once, I found an Alsatian stuck in a chicken-wire fence. It had obviously tried to jump over it, but its hind leg got caught in the mangled metal and it hung upside down, yelping. In some strange way I was almost elated: here was something I could actually do. I stopped and pried its leg loose.

It ran off into the yard without looking back at me.

Heidi Swart is the Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice reporting, sponsored by the Charities Aid Foundation, Southern Africa

Multimedia: A broken home

Heidi Swart
Heidi Swart is an independent investigative journalist. Since starting her reporting career in 2010, she has written for various national publications.
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