Kids taken from home

2010-05-31 00:00

OVER 100 children were urgently evacuated from the Natal Children’s Home in Pietermaritzburg on Friday night amid serious allegations of neglect, possible abuse, mismanagement and financial irregularities at the home.

The decision to remove the children was taken by the Social Development Department after an investigation by a research team from the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature.

They were relocated to a safe venue while discussions are held on the way forward.

Matters came to a head at the weekend when it was discovered the children were moved out of their beds — and expected to sleep in tents and a garage — in order to make room for about 120 participants in the Comrades Marathon who allegedly hired accommodation for R150 per night per person.

The children, who range in age from babies up to 17 years, are wards of the state. Most of them were removed from their parents for reasons relating to their welfare, while a few are orphans.

A senior researcher in the KZN Legislature, who asked The Witness to withhold her name for official reasons, stressed yesterday that the Comrades Marathon Association and the runners who accepted the offer of accommodation at the home were completely unaware of the fate of the children or that the actions of the management were illegal.

She said her initial investigation on Friday revealed several alleged contraventions of the Children’s Act by the management. It is alleged, for example, that children from the home were kept out of school last week and put to work cleaning, painting, moving furniture and beds, mowing the lawn and performing other tasks in preparation for the arrival of the marathon runners.

“This was not just your normal tidying up of the dormitory. It amounted to [child] labour,” she said.

The researcher said it is unlawful for the home to accommodate total strangers on the property with the children as this has safety implications.

When the research team arrived at the home on Friday morning in response to complaints, the team found that tents had been erected in the grounds and were told that children were staying in the tents and in the garage.

The researcher said that in an interview with the wife of manager Wessel Roets it emerged that none of the staff or members of the board at the home has undergone police screening for previous convictions, as legally required.

She said some of the children interviewed did make allegations of  abuse, which would be investigated further, as would the apparent failure to provide adequate food. "When we got there at 11 am, none of the children was even playing.Everything was filthy.They did have blankets and duvets, but they were dirty and many … looked unwashed.”

She said there were babies aged about 15 months lying in some of the tents, and a small boy of about four seemed to be looking for something. “When one of the researchers asked him what he wanted, he said (in isiZulu) he was looking for food.” An 11-year-old girl kept asking the time and told investigators it was because they are given two slices of bread for breakfast at 6 am and receive another slice at midday.

When the department’s decision to evacuate the children was carried out after 7.30 pm on Friday, the children were traumatised. “Most did not want to leave as they were afraid of where they were being taken and some of the older children were worried about the fact they are writing exams this week.”

The researcher said it is notable that none appeared to have sentimental or personal items they wanted to take along. The Witness was told other aspects of the investigation will focus on alleged financial irregularities — one being that the home reportedly keeps two bank accounts — and the apparent failure of the board to keep minutes and adequate financial statements.

It is illegal for a welfare organisation to keep two bank accounts. This is to ensure that all the money it receives reaches its intended beneficiaries. An independent observer attached to a local NGO concerned with children, who witnessed the events at the home, said yesterday she is “absolutely appalled”.

She added that the public of Pietermaritzburg who “opened their hearts and pockets” to assist the home with donations, financially and in kind, have a right to expect the resources to benefit the children. “We expect children such as these, who are already vulnerable, to be properly cared for and not exploited,” she added.

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