‘How SA deals with child offenders lacks vision’

2015-05-03 20:22
From left: Nazim Gani (head of Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives), Prof Ann Skelton and  Prof Mbongeni Malaba (chairman of the Alan Paton Centre advisory committee) are pictured at the 22nd Alan Paton Lecture last week.

From left: Nazim Gani (head of Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives), Prof Ann Skelton and Prof Mbongeni Malaba (chairman of the Alan Paton Centre advisory committee) are pictured at the 22nd Alan Paton Lecture last week. PHOTO: supplied

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PROFESSOR Ann Skelton is concerned there is a lack of vision when it comes to dealing with child offenders in South Africa.

The director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria made the comments during the 22nd Alan Paton Lecture, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg campus, last week.

In her talk, titled “Vakasha: Alan Paton and Justice for Child Offenders”, she compared the reforms instituted by Alan Paton, during his time at the Diepkloof Reformatory School, with how child offenders are being treated in South Africa today.

“The Constitution provides important protections and the Child Justice Act, introduced in 2010, is largely proving successful,” said Skelton, who grew up in Pietermaritzburg.

“The number of children in prison has dropped considerably. However, in child and youth care centres [the new name for reform schools] there appears to be lack of vision that is enormously disappointing and worrying.

“At the time the new government came to power, a report to the Mandela cabinet by the Inter-ministerial Committee on Young People at Risk found reform schools to be in a parlous state. This led to legal reform requiring the transfer of such facilities from the Department of Education to the Department of Social Development in 2010. However, this process has not gone smoothly. Delays have led to loss of morale of staff and loss of direction in purpose.”

Describing Paton as a “man before his time”, Skelton said that his experiments with justice and freedom, and his decision to treat each child as an individual, was the same approach advocated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

The convention says that child offenders must be treated in a way that promotes the child’s sense of dignity and worth.

Paton’s reforms were developed around a system where the boys at Diepkloof were encouraged to take personal responsibility, by being granted rewards and “graduated freedom”.

“To a great extent it was a success. The number of abscondments did drop considerably over the years,” said Skelton.

She compared this success with a case last year in which a magistrate brought an ­application to the Eastern Cape High Court to temporarily close the Bhisho secure child and youth care centre.

The judge said many of the children absconded nightly from the facility and that the use of drugs was rampant. Buildings were being vandalised and attempts had been made to set it on fire.

“Something appears to have gone badly wrong,” Skelton said. “There is a lack of vision and a need for a serious re-think about the residential sentencing of children.”

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