/ 16 November 2012

Juvenile offenders: Youth care centre at risk of closure

When the authorities have finished quibbling over the fate of the Ottery Youth Care Centre
When the authorities have finished quibbling over the fate of the Ottery Youth Care Centre

Along the railway lines in the quiet Cape Town suburb of Ottery, a group of small mint-green buildings stands behind a fence among wild lawns and aged oak trees.

This is the Ottery Youth Care Centre, which houses boys between the ages of 12 and 18 years old who have committed crimes that range from theft and burglary to assault and rape.

Officials in the provincial education department have repeatedly told the centre's manager, Moosa Mahadick, that the organisation is earmarked for closure at the end of December because youth care centres are being relocated from the education department to the social development department.

Read more: Children in Pollsmoor

If it closes, the 40 boys who live and go to school there will either be sent back to mostly troubled and impoverished homes and communities, or to juvenile prison where abuse and gangsterism are rife.

Paddy Attwell, spokesperson for the provincial education department, told the Mail & Guardian that the department "cannot confirm the future of the Ottery facility at this stage" and Melany Kuhn, spokesperson for the provincial social development department, said the two departments were still "in discussion".

Ottery is one of two remaining youth care centres in the Western Cape that fill a gap between mainstream school and prison by providing specialised care and education to boys who have been sentenced under the Child Justice Act. Many of the boys who pass through the Ottery centre progress from being child gangsters, often addicted to several drugs, to wanting a different life.

Budgetary constraints
"At the school we really try to make a difference in the lives of children who have no one to speak for them and who need someone to play the role of advocate for them," said Deon Williams, head of the residential department. "Sometimes boys come in as total drug addicts, seemingly beyond our help, but we walk the road with them."

He said the school's closure would be a short-sighted action, based mostly on budgetary constraints in the department.

"We have 40 boys and 54 staff, but that is because dealing with one boy here is the equivalent of dealing with five boys outside in terms of aggression, emotional issues and barriers to learning."

Abigail Gertse, the centre's social worker, regularly goes on home visits to the boys' communities to see what life is like for them. Here, she often finds a dirt-floor shack in which cooking and sleeping happen in one room. Many boys who arrive at the centre have not attended school for years and cannot read.

"We have to bring them back into the schooling system, but also teach them about things they are not taught at home, such as sexuality and basic decision-making. The boys have been exposed to and been involved in very adult experiences such as rape, violence and armed robbery, but at the end of the day they are still children."

Mahadick, centre manager for the past five years and an employee at the centre since 1987, is passionate about what he calls the "pioneering" way in which the centre is run.

"The education department has abdicated its role in caring for children who find themselves in trouble with the law," he said.

"So we have had to create our own curriculum of care. These kids have experienced rejection and have been pushed out of society. We want them to feel that they fit in."

Mahadick is in the process of setting up a halfway house and has developed a work placement programme for when youngsters leave the school, because the government does not offer any post-release support.

The centre also has an in-house Narcotics Anonymous programme and has opened its doors to numerous non-governmental organisations that run workshops with the boys, such as Young in Prison.

Until a few years ago there were eight youth care centres in the Western Cape. Previously known as schools of industry, the provincial education department has slowly shut down the centres since the beginning of the decade. The department would not provide the reasons for these closures.

Dr Azeem Badroodien, senior lecturer in the faculty of education at the University of Stellenbosch, said: "Current developments in the Western Cape are driven by a logic that the facilities do not serve their core purpose anymore and that the money spent on them is not justified."


'I'm tired of killing people'

"When you grow up in a community of violence, you see your uncle murdering someone in front of you and you get moered [hit] all the time, you have no choice but to dream of becoming a killer," said Jason Michaels (17).

Michaels has been at the Ottery Youth Care Centre for two years.Before that he was in several high-security correctional facilities.

He was 11 when he first stabbed someone and only 12 when he committed his first murder for drug money as part of the Junior Mafia gang.

Talking to Michaels, he hardly seems the same boy that "did all that stuff".

He is soft-spoken, has an intense stare and blushes lightly when he mentions his girlfriend back home in the small farming town where he grew up.

He persistently fiddles with the string on his windcheater.

Facing the world
Michaels considers himself a "player", but has been going steady with his girlfriend for six months.

"I want to be a lawyer," he said, "to defend the boys who are treated like dogs in their communities. And to defend the boys who are raped by the 28s, like my friend's nephew who was nine years old."

After three years at Ottery, Michaels "said to my gang, the Junior Mafia Kings, 'fok julle [fuck you], I'm tired of killing people'."

Michaels is unaware that the school might be shut down.

"I'm a different person now," he said. "I feel like I can fit in with society and face the world."

He plans to get the Junior Mafia Kings tattoo of a devil on his right thigh removed as soon as he can afford it.

"God didn't make people perfect, but I think he's forgiven me for murdering people and hurting people," he said.

"This place has changed me. I have learnt to look forward, not back, and I am going to do something good with my life."

Ilham Rawoot is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.