Court order to end foster care crisis
Pretoria - The Centre for Child Law has obtained an urgent court order to stem a growing crisis which has resulted in the foster care system grinding to a halt.
Judge Roger Claassen granted an order in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on Tuesday.
It gives the minister and provincial social development MECs until the end of 2014 to find solutions to the crisis that has put foster care children at risk of losing their government grants.
A solution could include amendments to the new Children's Act, which became operational in April last year.
Claassen granted an order allowing authorities to deal with the extension of foster care orders under an administrative process followed under previous legislation, notwithstanding the provisions of the Children's Act.
The new Act stipulates that foster care orders may only be extended by order of the Children's Court and does not provide for administrative extension of such orders as in the past.
The court order also reinstated foster care orders that had already lapsed.
The social welfare departments of the nine provinces were ordered to notify child protection organisations of the court order, which must also be published in the Government Gazette.
They must also direct social workers to identify and administratively extend relevant foster care orders and to inform the SA Social Security Agency about such orders.
The old administrative system would remain in place until the end of 2014, or until the Children's Act had been amended to provide for a more comprehensive legal solution.
An attorney of the Centre's Children's Litigation Project, Carina du Toit, said in an affidavit an estimated 123 236 children's foster care orders had lapsed by the end of January this year without being extended and a large number of such orders were due to expire each month.
Although the children affected continued to receive their foster care grants, despite the lapsed orders, the Social Security Agency could not continue with payments in the absence of orders indefinitely, because it was subject to strict auditing provisions.
She said this pattern was likely to continue unless a permanent solution was found. There was no reasonable prospect that the children's court rolls could accommodate such large numbers.
According to a senior Johannesburg social worker, Jackie Loffell, the foster care system had effectively ground to a halt with all the different role players paralysed by the current crisis.
Loffell identified the reasons for the systemic collapse as a combination of backlogs at the various provincial departments, the children's courts and the child protection organisations.
The backlogs were caused by a general shortage of social workers and a lack of capacity to process the extension of orders, as well as the sheer volume of foster care orders that needed to be accommodated in the children's courts.
Du Toit said the foster care crisis also created the problem that child protection organisations and departmental social workers were spending all their resources on resolving the crisis and de-prioritising other essential child protection services.
"This places vulnerable children at immense risk of not receiving necessary protection services.
"It is clear that immediate action is required to address the needs of the children whose foster care orders have already lapsed and to prevent the lapsing of foster care orders and the subsequent loss of the foster care grants.
"What is less clear is the final solution to the systemic crisis... The permanent solution may very well require an amendment to the Children's Act," Du Toit said.