The South African government has prioritised of children’s issues and has protected children’s rights in its Constitution and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

In further protection of the children, the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 was promulgated and it came into effect on 1 July 2007 and the remaining parts of the Act came into operation on 1 April 2010. This is an excellent piece of legislation but on a practical level there has been severe challenges in rendering child protection services. There are serious shortcomings in the new legislation as well as by challenges faced by social workers who should apply the Act.

These challenges have far reaching effects on both the social service professionals and the families they aim to assist. We hope that awareness of the issues will lead to dialogue and the development of strategies that will promote effective service delivery through encouragement of a multi-disciplinary approach.

Challenges Identified:

1. Shortage of Social Workers in South Africa

During 2005 a major study was commissioned by the Department of Labour that looked at social work as a scarce and critical skill.  The statistics obtained from the South African Council for Social Services Professions (SACSSP) at the time indicated that only 11,100 social workers wereregistered in South Africa. This statistic caused concern in light of the ever-increasing social challenges faced by individuals, families and communities in South Africa which was aggravated by the high turnover rate for social workers

In recognising the severe shortage of social workers in South Africa the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 replaced some references to social workers with the term “social service professionals”. The aim was to ensure that many of the tasks restricted to social workers can be done by other social service practitioners and to ensure that services are more accessible in poor and rural communities where social workers are scarce.

2. Lack of Supervision

Lack of Supervision has been identified as one of the main problems in the delivery of quality social services to children.  Not enough social service supervisons are available in sufficient numbers to effectively monitor the vast number of practitioners. The current ratio of supervisor to practitioner ranges from 1:10 to 1:13 which leaves a large number of practitioners without supervision.   This also causes office managers to also be social work supervisors who due to time restraints and workloads are unable to render and effective service.

3. High Case Loads

High caseloads have had a severe negative effect and the delivery of quality service which affects both social workers and their supervisors.  Statistics have shown that the ratio of social workers to population in South Africa is estimated at 1:5000. These unrealistic and high caseloads lead to stress and depression, specifically caused by the social worker’s constant exposure to traumatic situations on the field.  And although the need for self-care, debriefing and counselling of practitioners has been highlighted, the practical implementation due to time and resource restraints are lacking.

The high caseloads further cause delays in responding to emergencies. Social Service Professionals end up only responding to crises and neglecting prevention and early intervention services and they render remedial services as opposed to the comprehensive developmental services that are legislated for in the Children’s Act.

A further  challenge is that it is extremely difficult for social workers managing high caseloads to have all documents and attachments to reports for extending orders ready for courts on due dates. It is therefore inevitable for orders to lapse with far reaching consequences to the children affected thereby.

4. Inadequate training of social workers

Social workers do no receive enough training on the Children’s Act and that is why it is very difficult to implement it, because they do not know its provisions and regulations. Insufficient personal development programmes is hampering career progression specialisation is made particularly difficult as a result thereof.  Further issues such as inadequate and poorly resourced offices, lack of vehicles as well as the non-payment of danger and rural allowances – in line with the scarce skill status,  have also been raised.

5. Shortcomings of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005

A major challenge social workers face is the implementation of the Children’s Act. There are a number of loopholes within the Act itself and some terms and concepts in the Children’s Act are unclear and ambiguous. Examples are the transfer of children to alternative placements and problems relating to section 150(1) of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005. The grounds for finding that a child is in need of care and protection, which states that a child is in need of care and protection if the child has been orphaned or abandoned and is without any visible means of support is vague and difficult to quantify. A further challenge is that the legal system is very slow and ineffective.

6. Lack of uniformity among presiding officers

Most presiding officers do not have a standardised way of dealing with matters although there are regulations. Presiding officers decisions are not consistent due the fact that the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 allows presiding officers to use their discretion in dealing with cases. This causes a huge challenge insofar as presiding officers in one magisterial court interpret the Act differently from those in another district. Social workers are frustrated as they have to be conscious of which court they are going to and what the specific procedures of that particular court entail.

7. Presiding officers who are not well versed on the provisions of the Children’s Act

A further challenge social workers face are that they have to deal with presiding officers who are not well versed in the provisions of the Children’s Act and who are not experienced in working with children. Quite often Children’s Court matters are presided over by magistrates who are “borrowed”from other courts and then often rotated, resulting in some of them not being well versed in the provisions of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005.

8. Public perception of social workers

Attorneys, court officials and magistrates sometimes have a lack of respect for social workers and talk to them in a demeaning manner and embarrass them in front of clients.

Furthermore, during the course of proceedings the decisions and recommendations of social workers are often doubted and rejected.

9. Untrained and uncooperative police officers

A major challenge is the lack of corporation and insufficient knowledge among the police officers which causes a huge stumbling block to social workers in the implementation of the Children’s Act. It is often found that police have no clue as to what their responsibilities are as far as implementing the Children’s Act is concerned. Furthermore, police officers are not trained to work with children and as a result they intimidate the children.

Although the challenges seem insurmountable we at TMS Africa believe that by cooperation and creating awareness of these issues we can support social workers and through delivering quality training we can assist them to deliver better results.

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