89,000 children’s foster care grants at risk
Government promises to meet November deadline, but MPs are sceptical
Members of Parliament have voiced scepticism with the Department of Social Development’s promise that it will resolve over 89,000 foster care court orders by the end of November. This was at the Portfolio Committee on Social Development meeting on Wednesday.
“Are we really going to make this deadline?” asked ANC MP Jane Manganye. “What makes you think that now you can handle a huge number like this? To me, we are playing the same record again,” she said.
Manganye was speaking during a briefing by the department on its plan to resolve a countrywide backlog of foster care orders awaiting court approval. The Pretoria High Court has made the 89,538 outstanding cases valid until 28 November. This will allow payments to continue until then. In the meantime, social workers are still applying to the children’s court to have these and new orders extended beyond the court’s protection period which ends on 28 November.
According to Section 159 of the Children’s Act, foster care grants expire after two years, unless extended by order of a children’s court. Lapsed court orders have been costing tens of thousands of orphaned children their grants since 2010.
The Centre for Child Law has been at loggerheads with the department to have the issue resolved for years. In 2011, it filed an urgent application with the Pretoria High Court against the Minister of Social Development. The court extended existing foster care grants for three years to give the department time to create a “comprehensive legal solution” to solve the crisis in the foster care system.
But when three years had passed, the Centre and the department again found themselves in court in 2014. The minister applied to extend the existing order, keeping the current grants in place. The court ruled that by December of 2017, a comprehensive solution needed to be found.
As the deadline approached in October 2017, with no solution yet, the Centre again went to court. It argued that the minister’s failure to “produce a comprehensive legal solution” was “unconstitutional, unlawful, and invalid”.
In November 2017 the court granted the national and provincial Departments of Social Development as well as the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) a 24 month extension to continue payment and management of over 200,000 foster care orders that were due to lapse. This deadline ends in ten weeks - at the end of November.
On Wednesday, during its progress report to the portfolio committee, Connie Nxumalo, deputy director general for Welfare Services, assured MPs that despite the challenges in several provinces, the department had a plan to deal with lapsed orders and to comply with the court’s ruling.
As part of its comprehensive solution to fix the foster care system, Nxumalo said the department had submitted the Social Assistance Bill to Parliament in March 2018 and the Children’s Amendment Bill was submitted in February 2019. The Bill is expected to be passed by Parliament in November.
“Amongst progress made, some provinces bought cars, computers, some have appointed dedicated social workers and supervisors to foster care cases. It must be noted that no additional budget was allocated to implement the court order,” she said.
Nxumalo said the department was in talks with Home Affairs to waive fees and to expedite foster care cases.
How provinces will deal with the backlog
There are currently more than 416,000 children who benefit from the foster care system in South Africa. Of these, 89,538 orders were needed by the end of August.
There are 93,127 children in the foster care system. Of these, 18,065 lapsed orders need to be extended. The province has dedicated 562 social workers to deal with these orders by 15 November.
The courts have agreed to dedicate days to deal with foster care orders and agreed that all outstanding orders would be extended by 30 September.
There are over 9,900 outstanding cases. The department has promised that each of its 350 social workers will manage five foster care cases per week. In addition, the province has declared Tuesday and Wednesday as Foster Care days to manage the backlog.
The province has over 6,400 cases with just 207 social workers. It has promised to allocate three cases per week to each social worker. It has also met the judiciary who committed to accepting up to 35 cases per week. SASSA has also agreed to assist the department with resources like paper and transport during this period.
The province has over 5,300 cases with 1,482 social workers and 66 supervisors. While most provinces have said they would meet the November deadline, Limpopo admitted that it could only commit to dealing with the outstanding cases by March 2020. The provincial department has dedicated Wednesdays to deal with foster care cases. It has given more resources like laptops, telephones and government cars to staff to make sure that cases are attended to.
The province said its more than 8,600 outstanding cases would be processed by 650 social workers. Each will be given five cases per week to resolve about 3,000 cases per month until the end of November.
The province has over 8,500 outstanding cases with 572 social workers dealing with the cases that need to be extended. The department is in talks with the Departments of Justice and Home Affairs to expedite more complex cases.
Head of the provincial department Robert Macdonald said the biggest challenge was that a number of courts in the Western Cape refused to do the extensions. “The Department of Justice has said that there are courts where there are just not enough magistrates. If we still have outstanding cases in November, it will be due to the shortage of resources in the courts,” he said.
There are more than 1,100 outstanding cases and just 196 social workers to manage them. The province will ensure that all social workers in the district must help with foster care cases.
The province has the least outstanding cases with 929. It has promised that 245 social workers will deal with about 300 cases per month to meet the deadline.
The province currently has the highest number of outstanding orders with over 29,400. The department said 1,582 social workers and an additional 2,000 staff have been assigned to manage the foster care programme.
MPs raise concern with department’s timeline
After the presentation, DA MP Bridget Masango asked: “What is the timeline of your turnaround plan? If the lifespan of the plan is up to November, then how are you going to deal with the expired cases not protected by the court order?”
DA MP Alexandra Abrahams said: “I’m not very optimistic. What is the plan B, should the provinces not meet their targets by the deadline? It was mentioned that no additional budget was given to address the backlog. So will other services within social welfare suffer because of this?”
EFF MP Delisile Ngwenya said, “I’m concerned especially with the budget issue. Yet so many promises were made to meet the deadline. I believe that it might not happen but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Committee chairman Mondli Gungubele (ANC) told Minister Zulu and the MECs that the court emphasised the need for a comprehensive legal solution “which can only come from the implementation of the bill.”
Gungubele said the committee would continue its oversight and asked that the department provide updates every two weeks.
In response, Zulu told MPs that the department was working with the different provinces to ensure they met the deadline and avoided further legal action. “It is about us as a department taking responsibility … It is not right for us to be pushed by courts or institutions in order to do our work. We have written down our strategies and plans and must do the best we can.”
“This isn’t about us, it’s about the children that we are supposed to serve,” she said.
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