The department of social development is on course to once again miss a court-ordered deadline to resolve the strain on the country’s foster care system, which could put more than 84 000 foster care grants in jeopardy.
After an almost decade-long legal battle to get the department to find a “comprehensive legal solution” to the crisis, new legislation in the form of the Children’s Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament last week.
When someone wants to become a foster parent, they need to apply to the department to get an order stating that the child is in their care for a specified period. If an order is not ratified, the person is not a legal foster parent and will not receive assistance from the state.
The department has projected that it may still have 84 715 unprocessed foster care orders by November 26, when it is supposed to have cleared this backlog. This is according to a deadline set by the high court in Pretoria last year. This is the third extension in the eight-year legal battle. If the department misses the deadline, the unratified foster care orders will expire and grants won’t be paid.
Parliament’s social development committee, chaired by Mondli Gungubele, expressed concern over the probable failure by the department to honour the deadline, given the amount of work that still needs to be done.
The committee also expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of progress made in changing the Bill. The 147-clause Bill is meant to introduce a streamlined system for dealing with foster care orders.
At the meeting, Tshidi Maaga, chief director for child protection in the department of social development, said the national and provincial departments had implemented interventions to expedite the processing of foster care cases. But, she said, the Covid-19 pandemic has put a spanner in the works.
“If a case is to be reviewed, a social worker has to go to the family and assess the home circumstances. So, due to Covid, they could not do that. And it has impacted the number as set in the target.”
Maaga said the department had also struggled to get personal protective equipment for social workers.
The foster care system has been under tremendous strain since the early 2000s, when orphan rates began snowballing. The government used the system to provide relief, through monthly foster care grants, to orphans in the care of their relatives.
By 2009 the department could not cope, because the number of children in the system far exceeded the department’s capacity. To get the grant, a child has to be placed in the child protection system. This requires a raft of administrative processes, including ongoing monitoring by social workers.
As a result of the department’s limited capacity, many foster care order’s expired and 120 000 grants were not paid. After court action by the Centre for Child Law, the grants were reinstated while the department tried to develop a solution. But the years went by and the department kept requesting extensions until last November when the last extension was granted.
Last week, the Children’s Institute spokesperson, Paula Proudlock, said the organisation is not surprised by the continued delays to amend the Act. The Children’s Institute has worked alongside the Centre for Child Law on the foster care crisis.
Both organisations urged the department not to introduce the 300-clause Bill in 2019 and to instead focus on the foster care crisis clauses.
“If they had followed that advice then we would have seen the Bill almost a year ago, and it would have just been on the foster care problems. But they took this chance to do a comprehensive review and to deal with all the issues that need amending,” Proudlock said. “It’s got a lot of controversial issues in it, and it is going to take a very long time to pass.”
But, she added, the current version of the Bill has taken into account some of the changes asked for by civil society organisations. For example, section 150 of the Bill has now been amended to clarify that if an orphaned or abandoned child already has a parent, guardian, family member or caregiver who is able and suitable to care for that child, they do not have to be placed in the child protection system to receive a foster care grant. This will take the pressure off the system and relatives who choose to take in children.
The department did not respond to the Mail & Guardian’s request for further comment.