All posts by Leanne O'Donnell

Leanne is a lawyer, researcher, freelance writer, volunteer tutor and mentor.

Meaningful lives

To be honest, South Africa as a travel destination never interested me. However, in September 2004, I did take up the opportunity to spend four weeks in South Africa (and escape my law firm routine) to see first-hand some of the local projects supported by an Australian aid & development organisation. I was particularly inspired by the passion of two youth-run community based organisations, World Changers Academy and Light Providers, which conduct life skills training to unemployed youth in the townships in and around Durban.

It’s the people I’ve met working for their communities that draw me back to South Africa, this being my fifth visit. After catching up with friends and backpacking along the coast over the Christmas break, I spent January assisting with staff training and mentoring at World Changers Academy and Light Providers.

In December, I accepted an invitation to spend some time with Ulutho, which is a program of the Institute for Youth Development (IYDSA). ‘Ulutho’ translates as “meaningful”. One aspect of Ulutho’s work is supporting people to provide a loving and stable home for orphans and vulnerable children whether that is temporary safe care, foster care or adoption. Ulutho provides ongoing social work services and support to the families who have taken these children into their homes. This support takes the form of professional services provided by doctors, dentists and teachers and others who donate their time at no charge; emotional support, and practical assistance such as food, clothing and nappies.

Ulutho also provides legal advice and assistance to individuals and families who are considering offering a home to a child whether on a temporary basis, as a foster parent or by adopting. The challenges inherent in this work are compounded by the severe shortage of social workers and the growing backlog of civil matters concerning children in the courts. It was reported in January this year that in the Eastern Cape alone, some 83,000 civil applications on behalf of children remain unheard.  I recently attended a meeting with one of Ulutho’s social workers at the local Magistrates’ Court, which hears matters concerning the Children’s Act. It was highlighted that the Court is receiving approximately 150 applications per week from social workers concerning children, but is only hearing 7 matters a day.

To put this issue in context, there were approximately 3.95 million orphans in South Africa in 2008, according to figures cited by the Children’s Institute. This figure includes children without a living biological mother, father or both parents, and is equivalent to 21% of all children in South Africa. The number of children who have lost both a mother and a father has more than doubled since 2002 – from approximately 350,000 to 860,000. At the end of July 2009, caregivers of over 500,000 children were receiving a Foster Care Grant, which is available to foster parents who have a child placed in their care by an order of the court.[i]

Media Monitoring Africa highlights that as HIV/AIDS affects children in a variety of ways, and accordingly the phrase “orphans and vulnerable children” (OVC) was coined.  This phrase is an attempt to recognise that it is not only children orphaned by HIV/AIDS who are vulnerable as a result of the epidemic.[ii] The reality is that many children in South Africa have common experiences as those often associated with orphans such as poverty, living with people other than their biological parents, and their rights to education and health care not being recognised.

In April 2010, a new Children’s Act came into operation in South Africa which properly placed the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration. The Children’s Act has been drafted with an explicit recognition of the specific realities concerning children in South African society. For example, the category of people who can adopt has been drafted broadly to include:

  • a husband and wife
  • the partners in a permanent domestic life-partnership
  • other persons sharing a common household and forming a permanent family unit
  • a widower, divorcee or unmarried person or a widow

If children or those acting on their behalf are not able to access the legal system in a timely manner, the South African government is failing to fulfil its obligations and give effect to the Bill of Rights. The Children’s Act reinforces this duty on the state in providing that all departments and spheres of government “must take reasonable measures to the maximum extent of their available resources to achieve the realisation of the objects of this Act”.

Between March 2003 and January 2010, there were just 14, 559 adoptions in South Africa. In Durban, with a population of some 3.5 million, there are just five social workers who deal with adoptions. One social worker recently noted:

We are trying to implement 2010 legislation via a system that is between 20 and 30 years out of date at best. Our social workers work under totally unacceptable conditions with no administrative support and just one computer and e-mail address between them. This means processing an ever mounting pile of paper manually.”[iii]

Ulutho believes that one way of alleviating these issues will be to establish a Legal Resources Unit.  The Unit will have both a training and advocacy role. An immediate focus of the project is developing training materials for social workers, court officials and to provide legal guidance on alternative care, foster care and adoption.

I have started this process by reviewing and summarising key provisions which are found in three separate legislative documents into one document, which outlines the critical steps involved in placing a child in temporary care, with a foster parent or adoptive parent.  I have also been working on building a partnership with Advocates for International Development so that Ulutho will be able to access ongoing pro bono legal assistance.

Ulutho also recognises the strategic importance of advocating for children’s rights. I’ve worked with Debi Linde, one of Ulutho’s program co-ordinators, to set up a Facebook page and organised an interview with IYDSA’s Managing Director Darren Gough with Radio Atticus, which aired last week (you can download the podcast here).

As highlighted above, there is a need for a significant amount of funding for further resources within both the child welfare sector and the Children’s Court. Analysis by researchers at the Children’s Institute has highlighted this funding gap. In the Eastern Cape, for example, only 30% of the estimated costs of implementing the Children’s Act was allocated in 2009/2010. Even more concerning is the researchers’ finding that “the figures indicate that the gap between services provided and services needed is likely to increase over time.[iv]”  The need for concrete and meaningful action to protect the rights of vulnerable children is urgent.

[i] Statistics on children in South Africa:


[ii] Media Monitoring Africa’s ‘Reporting on Children in the Context of HIV/AIDs’:

[iii] Babies falling victim to the ChildCare Act:

[iv] The Children’s Act has commenced: Are the 2010/11 budgets of the provincial Departments of Social Development adequate to implement it?, Debbie Budlender & Paula Proudlock, Children’s Institute, 5 July 2010: