In a virtual meeting, the Department of Social Development (DSD) briefed the Committee on progress made to meet the North Gauteng High Court deadline of 27 November 2022 to resolve the challenges of the South African foster care system.
The Minister said that in her last report on the foster care situation in February, there had been a projected backlog of 78 000 foster care orders and deviations. However, between March and November, this number had been drastically reduced to 11 000 orders. The extension of a further 12 months would avert the risk of the 11 000 foster care orders lapsing, and would also afford the Department the time to complete the legislative process to provide a comprehensive legal solution to eliminate the challenges of the system.
The DSD reported that the latest extension, which was granted on 8 November, would lapse on 11 November 2023, due to the legislative process not being finalised. It outlined the shortage of office space and social workers, untraceable foster families, abridged birth certificates and other challenges. It had made interventions, such as an escalation of engagements and follow-ups to the judiciary and the Department of Home Affairs.
The provinces also reported on progress with their initiatives to deal with the foster challenges in their areas.
The Committee commented that most of the issues raised had been heard before, such as the recurring requests for an extension, the return of unspent funds to the Treasury, the anticipation of the comprehensive legal solution, the number of unemployed social workers, and the funding for private childcare homes.
Ms Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Social Development, sent her condolences to bereaved Members, and commented that violence against women and children should be prioritised by acting in unison at all levels to resolve the problem. Although the Department was working towards the "16 Days of Activism," it would guarantee that the activism was carried out daily.
In her last report on foster care in February, there had been a projection of 78 000 outstanding foster care orders and deviations. However, between March 2022 and now, this number has been drastically reduced to nearly 11 000 orders, although the objective of the Department was to reduce the number to zero outstanding foster care orders. Thanks to the Committee’s consideration of vulnerable children facing the shortcomings of the foster care system, only the 15 clauses that resolve the foster care challenges had been brought forward to the Children's Amendment Bill.
Minister Zulu informed the Committee that on 8 November, the judge had extended the order of 2017 by another 12 months due to the objective progress that was being made, which would not have happened if the improvement was not visible to the judge. This extension would avert the risk of the 11 000 foster care orders lapsing, and would also afford the Department the time to complete the legislative process that it was engaged in in the quest to implement the comprehensive legal solution required to undo the challenges of the foster care system.
DSD briefing on progress to meet high court deadline
Mr Linton Mchunu, Acting Director-General (ADG), Department of Social Development (DSD), said the national and provincial DSD would report on progress made to meet the North Gauteng High Court deadline of 27 November on the foster care system.
The Centre for Child Law (CCL) approached the court in 2011 seeking relief regarding the foster care backlog challenge in South Africa. The foster care orders were lapsing before being extended by the court due to the backlog, thereby adversely affecting foster care beneficiaries. The DSD approached the court on 26 November 2019, 26 November 2020 and 4 November 2022, seeking extensions of the court orders on foster care. The court had granted the extensions, of which the latest was granted on 8 November, for 12 months. This would lapse on 11 November 2023, due to the legislative process not being finalised.
The 2020 high court order aimed to prevent these foster care orders from lapsing when the order would have lapsed this year. There was a 45 815 projection of foster care orders due to lapse between March and November 2022, as well as 29 964 deviations, amounting to 78 953 that had to be dealt with this year. Since then, the progress made at the end of October indicated that the outstanding foster care orders to be dealt with by the end of November would be reduced to 11 308, including the deviations and projections.
Progress in the provinces
Ms Gloria Bukiwe Fanta, Member of the Executive Council (MEC): Social Development, Eastern Cape, reported on the following interventions:
Some districts had made progress in providing office space, despite budget constraints.
There was significant progress in the procurement of laptops, as some districts had already received their orders while others were awaiting delivery. These laptops would be allocated to all staff, including social workers dedicated to foster care management.
Implementation of strategies, such as the “ilima” approach, and the use of task teams continued.
Adv Tumelo Phahlo, Head of Department (HOD): DSD, Free State, said the following progress had been made to date:
Offices were available but not all were suitable or well-maintained. There were 72 own offices, and the remaining personnel were sharing or were using open-plan offices.
59 vehicles allocated for foster care visits during certain days were available.
40 additional laptops had been procured and allocated to permanent and contract social workers responsible for foster care.
4 000 Z20 file covers and 400 boxes of photocopy paper were procured and distributed to the districts.
Weekly and monthly submission of updated Portfolio of Evidence (POE) and progress reports to the national DSD.
Bilateral discussions were held with members of the task team on supply chain management (SCM), information technology (IT) and infrastructure, to address challenges relating to capital resources.
Provincial foster care monitoring meetings were held with districts, designated child protection officers (DCPOs), the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) and the judiciary.
Inter-sectoral relationships were established with DCPOs, SASSA and the judiciary.
Verification and reconciliation of orders between DSD and SASSA.
271 users created on the system by IT and training were provided to social workers from the DCPO sector, who had also started to capture cases on the web-based monitoring tool.
Ms Yvonne Deonarain, Director: DSD, Gauteng, reported on the following interventions:
Escalation of financial implications in acquiring a police clearance and unabridged birth certificate challenges to the judiciary and the Department of Home Affairs (DHA). The judiciary had resolved the matter and had advised the DSD/child protection office (CPO) to submit proof of application for police clearance and an affidavit for the interim.
Continued implementation of the foster care management plan, and engagement with respective stakeholders
Sharing of DSD resources with the CPO and bidding for more budget while reducing/renegotiating areas of operations.
Scheduling intervention meetings, followed by monitoring of progress and the engagement of different court managers and presiding officers, had been implemented to tackle the challenge of different court dates.
DSD had taken over the services of non-performing child protection organisations
Ms Nelisiwe Vilakazi, HOD: DSD, Kwazulu-Natal, reported on the following interventions:
Unabridged birth certificates had been escalated to the national DSD, while there would be a follow-up with the DHA regarding the delays in the unabridged birth certificates.
There was an approval of Scheme B for the hijacking of state vehicles.
Applying stop payments for untraceable children.
Mr Desmond Mahopo, HOD: DSD, Limpopo, reported on the following interventions:
An advertisement for 15 posts of social work supervisors had been issued. The process of employment would be finalised by November, and foster care district coordinators had already used the SASSA social security pension (SOCPEN) to segregate 2022 projections according to municipalities and service points.
A contractor would be appointed during the 2022/23 financial year to cap the delay in the procurement process. However, an advertisement for cases affected by the North Gauteng high court order and children about to turn 18, was published on 29 July.
Applications for Scheme B have been received. The transport committee and the districts were in the process of finalising the approvals
Ms Zodwa Maseko,Director: Social Welfare Services, DSD, Mpumalanga, reported on the following interventions:
Continuous engagements were taking place between magistrate courts and affected offices over the expiration of cases.
Supervision had been strengthened, and the DSD continued to communicate with clients on the need to inform their managers about their intentions to relocate.
The province was speeding up the process of advertising unknown parents’ cases.
Ms Boitumelo Moiloa, MEC: Social Development, DSD, Northwest, reported on the following interventions:
Motivation of additional social service professionals, and ongoing in-service training.
Maintaining inter-sectoral forums for the inconsistent application of the law based on the principle of autonomy.
Lobby the judiciary for a waiver where possible on the issue of exorbitant advertisement costs as against value for money.
Maintain a working relationship with community-based structures -- for example, home-based carers and community development workers (CDWs).
Liaise with youth development programmes to tap into available resources
Ms Nontobeko Vilakazi, MEC: Social Development, Northern Cape, reported on the following interventions:
In the delay in the issuance of court dates, the districts were engaging with the presiding officer of the relevant court when the need arose, and this would be escalated to the provincial office if not resolved locally.
The DSD was liaising with SASSA on a weekly basis to update the foster report on the delays in capturing court orders by SASSA.
Follow-ups were done with other provinces on weekly basis for the finalisation of cases that were transferred to other provinces.
The cases undergoing investigation were where the presiding officers wanted the reports two weeks or one week before the expiry of the court/extension orders. They required updated and recent information in the reports.
Dr Robert Macdonald. HOD: DSD, Western Cape, reported the following interventions:
The Western Cape (WC) DSD had, since the last report and through its concerted efforts, established a positive working relationship with the DHA, resulting in the recent issuing of 80 of the 250 outstanding birth certificates for children in alternative care.
The WCDSD and DHA now meet quarterly regarding the late birth registration application process for children in the alternative care system.
To strengthen the partnership, it was recommended that the WCDSD be invited to attend Children’s Court case flow meetings of the various children’s courts in the Western Cape, and that the WCDSD and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ&CD) enter into an agreement whereby foster care orders would be issued a month before the expiry date of the order, to mitigate the risk of increasing the backlog. This would allow the WCDSD and SASSA to process orders timeously through the foster care management system.
As of November 2022, SASSA had implemented stop payments of foster child grants, which allowed the tracing of foster children and foster families. The foster parent, as the beneficiary, was given a three-month period to report to the nearest SASSA local office for the reinstatement of the foster child grant, failing which the grant would lapse.
The Chairperson appreciated all the provinces for their presentations, and commended the attendance of all participants in the meeting, considering their busy schedules. She also expressed her disappointment at the absence of some HODs of provinces, considering the convenience that a virtual meeting offered.
She expressed her frustration at the consistent request for extensions, which harmed the Committee and the country at large, and applauded the provinces that had recorded immense progress. This progress was not enough, and a lasting solution needed to be implemented towards completing the backlogs. North-West province had indicated the magistrate challenge, but provinces with similar challenges must report to the national DSD to ensure priority was given to them. KwaZulu-Natal equally shared the responsibility for hijacking vehicles and should strategise on overcoming the challenge.
Ms L van der Merwe (IFP) shared the Chairperson’s concern over the recurrent backlogs and extensions. She also commended the provinces that had made strides in addressing these backlogs.
The highlighted challenges in these presentations were comparable to last year's -- like limited capacities, lack of social workers and tools of trades, vehicles, internet and offices and funding -- so what efforts had been made to deal with them? Which had the most fundamental impact on the backlog? Most provinces, like North West, Northern Cape and Limpopo, had returned funds to the Treasury during the 2021/2022 financial year. Instead, could there have been a reprioritisation of funds? In Gauteng, for instance, why did the province not spend the additional funds allocated to appoint additional social workers on the four-monthly contracts?
Ms van der Merwe inquired about the consequences of the 2023 expiration of the foster care extension. She requested that the provinces should provide, in writing, the projections of the number of foster care orders that would expire each month from 1 December to 31 December 2023, because the current provision was not inclusive of 2023. She also asked if the DG could supply the SASSA database on the number of foster care cases expiring over the next 12 months, with categories of provinces and months.
What was the status of the refinancing of funding for social workers? The shortage of social workers was discussed in one of the meetings, as these funds allocated to provinces for the employment of social workers had been utilised for a different purpose, and the Deputy Minister had indicated that these funds would be ring-fenced in future. She requested a follow-up from the DG on the 2018 Cabinet resolution and the engagements with the Treasury about additional funds to employ social workers. The DG had alluded to the plan that the Minister would be driving with the private sector and other organisations to ensure that funds were received to employ more social workers. She shared her concern that using social workers solely to fasttrack backlog cases could lead to a lack of social workers to address the abuse of the elderly, children, gender-based violence (GBV) and other social ills.
Ms van der Merwe addressed her last question to Gauteng on the issue of children. In the minutes of the DSD Gauteng forum meeting in March 2021, the DSD noted that there would not be new registrations or funding of new child and youth care centres (CYCCs) in the 2021/22 year due to overcapacity. Was it the Gauteng DSD's policy not to fund CYCCs? She asked about the report that stated that these CYCCs were not at full capacity, as it was implied that this report would be in the annual report and website, which was yet to be done.
Ms L Arries (EFF) also agreed that the new report was not different to the previous one. Her concern focused on the new applications, because the elderly people were currently struggling to cater for the young ones whose parents were absent, leading to difficulty in getting a foster care application. Insufficient cars for social workers would result in an increased struggle for optimum job performance. The provinces must offer clear pathways on how to overcome the challenges. What was the plan to increase the funding for private childcare homes?
Ms A Abrahams (DA) questioned the Department on when the Committee would receive the actual comprehensive legal solution, as the courts were also waiting for it. Resources focused on training staff on capturing information would reduce the backlogs, as the slow capturing of cases contributed to the backlog. Provinces who reported capturing must state in clearer terms what had been captured and what was outstanding.
She recommended that the other provinces emulate how the North West province had given a clear indication of the categories of social workers and the funding involved in answering questions. It was important to also know the total number of discharged children -- for instance, the number of aged or untraced children. Should the untraced children moving among provinces be included in the deviation totals? Should there be an additional column to separate the totals? She reiterated the recurring concern over the return of funds to Treasury because of the additional closing of CPOs due to funding, which may eventually be problematic.
The ADG needed to provide information on the interventions he had had with the Minister, especially over police clearance forms that the magistrate requested, and one of the interventions the office had had with the Ministry of Home Affairs over the fast-tracking of birth certificates.
The Free State had highlighted the challenge of slow progress and micro-managing of social workers, which only indicated how unfit or inadequately trained these social workers were. Gauteng province needed to clarify why 102 desktop computers were procured for field social workers, as field workers should have laptops instead. Also, on slide 36, what did the province mean by ‘’having a different interpretation of the Gauteng High court order,’’ as this court order had been issued since 2019?
In Limpopo, why was there a drastic increase within a month in the targets from the previous month to November, from 400 to 1 692? On slide 12, she noted the significantly high foster care orders compared to other provinces, and inquired if they were the deported 830 foster care orders that had been moved from the baseline. Were these children aged out of the system, or untraced? She noted the high court orders in November in comparison to other provinces, and asked how the magistrate or children’s court could have had the capacity to conduct them.
There was a need to consider the skills of social workers, and not just the quantity. Mpumalanga had listed COVID as a challenge for not having regular meetings, which was unacceptable because of the available option of virtual systems. The Northern Cape had referred to the re-establishment of the provincial childcare and protection unit -- was it discontinued or inactive, and how would the re-establishment of this unit address the foster care backlogs?
Finally, Ms Abrahams asked the ADG if the national Department shared the same sentiments as he did on the current termination of foster care orders that would not be included in the reporting, as part of the North Gauteng High Court judgment.
Ms P Marais (EFF) shared her concern about the efficiency and performance of a social worker who was expected to work in each district of the Northern Cape. Why were the 65 contracted social workers working in hotspots affected by migration in the Free State not employed permanently? Parents taking responsibility for their children were reluctant to release them due to the advantage the foster care grant offered.
Ms M Sukers (ACDP) re-emphasised Ms van der Merwe's view on the need to provide clear projections till 2023. She recommended the importance of having a round table with provinces, departments and stakeholders in the child sector to critically examine and address the increase in the number of children on the streets with substance addiction. For example, in the Northern Cape, she had tried to locate a social worker to get a female child living in a broken home for years into care, with no success.
There needed to be adequate oversight of social partners of the DSD on how they dealt with foster care, with the interference in children's adoption applications. In addition, what actions were carried out to keep experienced social workers from leaving the system and support young workers who dealt with backlogs and burnouts? The Northern Cape must supply a brief on the re-establishment of the child protection unit. The Department needs to treat and support non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that invest their resources into caring for vulnerable children on the streets.
Mr D Stock (ANC) expressed concern that the extension may result in minimal work and more backlogs. There should be a financial undertaking from provinces to ensure that these backlogs would be resolved.
Ms Thembeni Mhlongo, HOD: Gauteng DSD, said that in the province, the child protection organisation was yet to be closed as a department, but the highlight was that the Department had taken over the responsibility for the child protection organisation. They shared the plans of the institution's realignment project with all the non-profit organisations (NPOs) currently funded due to a misunderstanding of the purpose. Gauteng appointed social care graduates annually, and the Treasury allocated the funds to enable them to address the service delivery challenges. There would not be registration or funding of new organisations, but the analysis indicated that the Department would provide adequate care and protection for vulnerable children, and there would be a continued association with NGOs.
Funds had been received at the end of November, with a target of appointing 1 000 social workers for ten months. The timing, therefore, had led to the return of the funds as the province had lacked sufficient time to utilise the full funds, regardless of its collaboration with health and social security agency departments. They had also learnt to adopt strategies from other provinces, and the wording of ‘’micro-managing’’ had been used wrongly, and should be used in specific foster care cases instead. Specific numbers about vacancies and other areas would be provided, in line with the service delivery module, to deal with gaps accordingly. She confirmed continual collaboration with all partners, including non-profit organisations.
MEC Vilakazi voiced concerns about the limited budget in KwaZulu Natal province and their inability to employ more social workers to deal with the foster care backlog and carry out the benchmarked duties, as implemented in Gauteng and the Western Cape. The numbers were for children who required professional management and support to avoid drop-outs, and for the visibility of the need for investment by the government. The DG would respond to the mobilisation of resources to employ more workers, as there were more than 2 000 unemployed social worker graduates. The province would like to employ them to support the foster care backlog efforts and placements.
Mr Phahlo confirmed the issue of 65 social workers on contract, and indicated that the Free State province’s policy was to employ social workers regardless of funding. These 65 social workers were contracted for four months from the 92, and were termed ‘’Covid 19 social workers’’ by the national Department. The 65 workers' contracts had been further extended to a year, as the MEC had highlighted the need for them, and the province would employ them permanently if the resources were available. A strategy to spread the available resources had been executed, hence allocating one vehicle.
Mr Mahopo disclosed that the funds returned to the Treasury were due to the late appointment of the service provider to process the applications. Additionally, challenges like budgeting and infrastructure projects to be implemented through information technology (IT) have resulted in the under-utilisation of funds. The meeting in August this year with the magistrate had resulted in recommendations on the issuance of section 186 court orders, which had led to a huge improvement. Subsequently, there would be meetings with presiding officers regarding the challenges in the enhancement of report writing turnaround time. The huge margin was due to the removal of children who had turned 18, based on the Northern Gauteng court order.
MEC Fanta appealed to other provinces and national ministries to take on the 1 147 unemployed social workers to indirectly deal with the rise of crime in the province.
Ms Hendrina Samson, HOD: Northern Cape DSD, confirmed that the returned funds were for the early childhood development (ECD) conditional grant. They ensured that they worked tirelessly due to the increased social ills in the province. Most of the children in foster care had disabilities because of the unhealthy conditions into which they had been born, so the province made an extra effort to maintain a good working relationship with the Department of Education to support skills acquisition. The rural nature of the province contributed to social workers' inability to locate the parents of young people. In addition, there was a lack of judges who did not prioritise foster care. She identified the well-being of children in foster care as one of the province’s priorities. Therefore, ensuring that there were sufficient social workers to deal with the needs of the communities was crucial.
Ms Fezile Luthuli, Chief Director: Social Services, Northern Cape DSD, said they had devised an integrated approach to handle their insufficient resources by allocating a vehicle to the social workers. Also, a social worker managing a district bore the responsibility of supervising four social workers in a district. Due to the poverty levels within the province, there was a likelihood that guardians would not release their wards for adoption, as this would lead to a loss of the SASSA grant. The re-establishment of the child protection forum, which had been non-functional for two years, would assist in addressing the foster care backlog. She shared her concerns over the girl child living in a broken home, and requested further details to enable the Department to act accordingly.
Mr Mchunu said that the extension would address the backlogs and would allow for the legislative process to take its course. The Department planned to ensure that the backlogs were cleared in less than the 12 months of the extension date, and the action plan would be shared in due course.
The underspending of funds had been due to the ECD stimulus package, which had been addressed with the Treasury, and was not necessarily related to foster care. There had been meetings with the DHA to address the challenges with the Department, and a monthly breakdown would be provided as well.
Since the short engagement of social workers was not sustainable, a business case on guidance to move around the provision of additional funding for social workers had been concluded two months ago, and the process was underway. The Department had also introduced creative ways to achieve success in achieving their backlog targets -- for instance, the engagement of new data capturers in the Northern Cape, Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
The details of the comprehensive legal solution would be provided to the Members.
Mr Mchunu also confirmed that the DSD had held several round table engagements in the past with organisations and stakeholders, particularly about children, and they had contributed to a progressive outcome. A few strategies had been put in place to assist social workers in building their capacities at work, which proved useful. In addition, the Department was highly committed to the cause, and a meeting with the HODs would be held on Monday to finalise the plan.
The Chairperson thanked the ADG, and urged the Department to implement the plans.
The meeting was adjourned.
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